In April 1964, IBM announced the System /360, an entirely new line of mainframes. It was a complete replacement for their existing hardware and all mainframe users were expected to move to the new platform. To ease the transition, they implemented various emulators but it was still a massive undertaking for both IBM and their customers.
Over the next few years they rolled out various models and various software to run on the new equipment. Like anything new, there were bugs and delays, manufacturing issues to be resolved, quality control to be enforced and hundreds of thousands of lines of code to be written and debugged. There were major problems with both hardware and software, but eventually they got their act together and things quieted down.
After the dust had settled and the problems were at least under control and tolerable, if not completely eliminated, IBM asked itself what had gone so wrong with their expectations and plans. How could they have so badly misjudged the work involved and what could they do to avoid similar problems in the future? They commissioned a group of experts – consultants, academics, retired corporate executives – to figure out what had gone wrong.
After about a year of investigating, the experts issued their report. Basically, it said that IBM had no way to prejudge the scope of the project, no way to predict how complicated and massive the effort would be. It was the largest undertaking of private enterprise ever done. It dwarfed the Manhattan Project and was only exceeded by full national mobilization for war.
What they couldn’t figure out was how IBM had survived. They said any company under that much stress and difficulty should have gone belly-up. “We spent the last six months trying to understand why you didn’t just collapse. It was the people. Where do you find them? How do you train them? How do you motivate them?”
From 1963-1968 I was one of those people, and hundreds of IBMers like myself worked horrendous hours to keep the ship afloat. During one 6-month period, I worked 140-hour weeks (that’s 4 hours off a day, for those mathematically challenged. It wasn’t always a 20-hour day; sometimes I had 8 hours off and sometimes I worked around the clock). In that 6 months, I had two days off. (The building was shut down for Thanksgiving and New Years Day – but I worked Christmas).
How did they find us? They recruited at colleges – like many large corporations – and they hired walk-ins like me. (Over 2+ years, IBM doubled in size). How did they train us? Some formal classes but mostly it was like tossing a kid into the river – sink or swim – and we figured out what needed to be done and how to do it. And we got support upstream when we asked. How did they motivate us? We felt the work we were doing was important. And we didn’t do it for IBM; we did it for the customers. We felt it was important enough to put our private lives on hold long enough to make sure the banks’ systems worked, the airlines kept flying, manufacturers operating.
From 1974-1998, I worked for SIAC. In 1978, my wife was hit by a car and spent months in hospitals over the next few years, with multiple surgeries. I took time off to take care of her and the kids. SIAC was fully supportive. When SIAC needed a piece of errant software working by Monday, I worked from 6am Thursday morning to 3pm Sunday afternoon to make it happen. We both did the Right Thing and nobody kept score.
Motivation? Respect people and treat them well. Give them something important to do with their lives. Not a bad approach to life in general, is it?