Getting fired for buying IBMGetting fired for buying IBM

It’s an axiom that has helped make corporate computing boring for many years: “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.” After IBM hardware lost relevance in the ’80s the claim has been applied to software of all kinds from Microsoft, and lately, bandied about in defense of establishment programming technologies.

As Joel “good writer” on Software put it:

… you can risk Ruby on your two-person dormroom startup or your senior project, not for enterprisy stuff where Someone is Going to Get Fired.

While some have criticized this as hypocritical fear mongering, I’m going after its fancy inverted cliché. People don’t really “get fired” in big corporations. The larger the business, the more convoluted and limp-wristed the procedures are for termination of incompetent employees. It can take up to six months.

I have a little insight here because, for three years in two different organizations, I worked for friggin’ IBM. If there’s anywhere that the “buy IBM” mentality dominates, it’s there. And yet I never witnessed people fretting about getting the axe for bold purchasing decisions. (Not even the ultra-slow, touchy-feely axe.) Which isn’t to say that people took risks. As you might expect, they were very conservative. What outsiders (and too-kind insiders) get wrong are their motivations.

Cubicle dwellers in general are lazy, and in IT it’s particularly easy to slack off: the complexity of computer technology provides the perfect cover. When it’s time to choose which operating systems to permit, IT guys stick to the one they grew up with: Windows. They don’t want to learn how to fix Linux or Mac desktops, so they ban ’em.

Same goes for corporate programmers learning new languages and interfaces—they expect to be told to learn something, and be paid for it. Otherwise, their opinion (now supported by Joel on Doing as I Say) is that technology X lacks a certain je ne sais quoi… proven enterprise robustness!

Corporate IT jobs do not attract the kind of people who master Apple computers or learn upstart Web toolkits for fun. But when those people find themselves lost in the corporate machine, they quickly learn that pushing for anything new and different will turn their comfortable colleagues against them. Maybe a charismatic Techie Appleseed could get changes approved, but then he’d have to hold hands in “training” everyone, and still do most of the work himself. It’s a lot easier to just find another job.

This leaves most corporations with a pretty sad bunch in the IT department, and they know it. They’ve rotated through contractors, they’ve hired expensive consultants, and then they discovered international outsourcing. If they’re going to pay a bunch of disconnected and ineffective computer people to produce tardy, buggy software products, they may as well pay them less. (And not see them in the cafeteria.)

An estimated 204,587 U.S. IT jobs have been lost to offshoring since the year 2000. (On the books, I was one of those laid-off schmucks in 2003. In reality, I offshored myself to teach English in France for a year.) The jobs, projects, and entire departments that have been sent overseas are the ultimate cost of laziness and a lack of creative ambition in corporate computing.

It’s like they say: nobody (but 204,587 people) ever got fired for buying IBM.

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