IBM Alumni: Jerry Holl Shares Lessons Learned from 3,634 Mile Bike Journey

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Jerry Holl, IBM Alum and adventure seeker

IBM Alum: Jerry Holl

IBM Tenure: 12 years

Jerry Holl is a sales professional with over 30 years of experience in business, including sales & sales management positions for IBM, Moore Corporation and Piper Jaffray, Inc. From his extensive cross-industry experience, he’s gained a wealth of information on businesses, business models and best practices. Jerry has a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering and an MBA – both from the University of Minnesota.

Jerry recently completed a 3,634 mile solo bicycle journey from Alaska to Mexico. Details of the journey and access to his daily blog written during the journey, a raw unedited stream of consciousness often written laying in a tent at night after a 100 mile day.

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When did you join IBM; how long were you an IBMer?

I joined IBM right out of graduate school and was with the business for just under 12 years. I had studied geological engineering in undergrad and then got my MBA. I did some work as an economic analyst for a large oil company, but quickly knew it wasn’t for me.

I wanted a career that would let me engage with people and the greater world.  I just knew a sales role best matched my personal characteristics.  So, I approached and was hired by IBM as they are the prominent ‘Harvard’ of sales organizations.  They also embody the values and practices that are important to me.  IBM products and services made a huge impact for the customers in the mid-size businesses where I sold, and were transformative to those businesses.  I liked the big ticket (for those customers) big impact aspect of selling into those businesses.

What were some of your roles and duties with the company and what did you find most satisfying?

I worked in field sales and marketing, first as as salesperson, then a marketing manager, and finally as a branch marketing executive serving as an IBM branch leader.  IBM was a great match for me. I was there during a high period of growth for mid-range systems …so I was able to deal with all aspects of customers’ business problems and opportunities across all industries. Due to the cross-industry selling, I was able learn about their business models in a high level and fundamental way. It was tremendously educational.

Every day in sales felt like a field-trip.  I needed to really understand their business and problems to find solutions that would work.  And I got to work very closely and collaboratively with customers to come to the right solutions. This took a certain kind of attitude and curiosity.  Customers can tell when you truly have their interests in mind. They will open up and want to do business with you when you are more concerned with solving their problems and capturing their opportunities as opposed to just making a sale.

I was successful in my roles and I attribute that to a combination of putting client first and holding high professionalism standards — doing things on the up and up.  It’s essential to follow through and do what you say you will do.  I also had a real personal hunger to succeed and a love of the job.

I credit IBM with providing my best foundational business experience.  In regards to my career, it was a time of my highest learning and highest growth.  Ultimately, I left IBM because I grew as much as I could in the local branch and was committed to staying in Minnesota.

Did you have any mentors? Are you still connected with your former IBM colleagues? 

IBM attracted very high quality individualsMany of them remain great friends today.  You couldn’t help but grow and develop strong business practices just being around those individuals.  As a sales manager, I was constantly mentoring my team.  My style was very hands-on: teaching, developing, getting in the trenches and getting involved in their deals where necessary.  Part of mentoring and training is to show people how to advance the ball, not just tell them.

I gained many insights specifically from a couple Branch Managers. When you have a great leader you learn through osmosis as you see how they professionally handle situations.  And, I also learned what not to do from less effective managers.

Being so large, IBM had a lot of important structure to maintain standards and control to make things work. But sometimes those structures were too cumbersome and weren’t right for certain customers.  That’s when you need to take some risks and push for change.  With so much structure, you have to be adaptable and break structure where appropriate to put the client first.

Conversely, in my roles outside of IBM, I experienced what it was like without structure.  It was often chaos. I took what I learned from IBM to create the mechanisms and practices that help improve productivity and quality, building structure for a bunch of cowboys.

You want “wild ducks,” but not adverse wild ducks; you want those who use strong judgement to bridge the gap between customer and your own business interests, creating a win-win for all parties.  There is never a need or reason to leave a wake of problems in any of your dealings.

What did you want to do after your IBM career? What are you doing today?

I continued to work in sales and sales leadership, then in financial services sales.  But after I paid off my house, my kids’ education, and all my major commitments. I needed new ‘explosive’ growth.

I wanted to do something off the wall, something completely different, something where I couldn’t help but grow.  As one friend called it to be big, hairy and audacious.  And I wanted it to be constructive, healthy, and to test the limits of my capabilities. I wanted it to be remote, solo, physically grueling, and drop-dead gorgeous scenery.  So, I decided to take a solo bike journey from Alaska to Mexico.

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Jerry in Oregon on his biking adventure.

I conceived of the trip and left in about a 3 week period.  Why wait; why over-plan?  I hadn’t specifically trained for this journey.  I didn’t even think that much about it.  I was just confident I could do it. And, if I wasn’t in biking shape, I’d have plenty of time to ride myself into shape!  My experience at IBM had given me confidence in my ability to deal with situations that came my way.  I used the same ability in this circumstance.

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Biking trip pit stop at Big Sur.

There was  risk, but it is what I wanted.  And, it would require me to persevere even when I might not want to.  I encountered challenging terrain, 20 bears, other wild animals, traffic, brutal headwinds and changing weather.  I also re-discovered that people are really-really good!  Everybody along the way who saw my exposure and effort went out of their way to try to help in some little way, whether it was giving a candy bar, filling a water bottle, or providing information and directions.

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Jerry on the San Fransisco Bridge on his bike adventure.

Prior to this journey, I had never ridden my bike for more than 25 miles.  And, had never ridden a loaded bike with all my gear.  I just had to dig in …and it was very rewarding.  Sometimes I ran short on resources, simple things like like food or water, but I always found a way; discomfort is not danger.

When I left on the trip, I was ‘mechanically disadvantaged.” I never took the time to learn the basic mechanics of my bike.  Embarrassingly, I didn’t even remember (from childhood) how to change a tire, patch a tube, and had no idea how to fix a broken chain.  I broke my bike chain in the middle of nowhere in Alaska and just by blind luck, a female biker rode up who had a manual.  She was a godsend as we both figured out how to reconnect my chain with a spare link and repair my bike.  I dislike mechanical repairs and figured that during the trip I would just have to figure out the ‘mechanical’ problems as they occurred.

To me, the mechanical issues were discrete problems with known ‘how-tos.’  Although I didn’t (and still don’t) have the mechanical skills that was not a reason to not go.  More interesting to me were the mental situations and decision points without discrete how-tos, such as how to read my mental condition, physical condition, strange encounters, road and traffic hazards, frontier bandits, and wild animals, which required constant situational decision-making.  In a funny way, all of my IBM experiences contributed greatly to dealing with these mental situations.  I couldn’t realistically prepare for most of them. I  just had to make judgements as I encountered them, but, I just felt confident and capable of figuring them out as I went.

I kept a daily blog about the trip, and have subsequently written a manuscript which I intend to eventually publish as a book.  Basically, I want to encourage people to not let their life just happen to them, but to take control and actively build your own path and future.  Although there was occasional real danger, mostly it was exhilarating joy with occasional blissful hardship and discomfort (which is not danger – know the difference).  Don’t be afraid and frozen with the prospect of failure, rather, turn it on its ear and look at the tremendous reward if/when you’re successful.  It’s intoxicating.

Most people have more skill than they think they do.  So, in addition to writing about my adventure, I’ve also written a sales training program. It’s a practical and pragmatic step by step approach on how to conduct complicated large ticket, long sell cycle sales based upon all the lessons I’ve learned in my professional career.  My unique training describes  the steps of the sales process and the ‘art’ of what the salesperson needs to perform in each step.   It organizes the methods for a salesperson to take their intrinsic baseline skills and trains them how to effectively advance the ball and make the sale.  All with the customer’s interests at heart.

The bottom line:  Don’t fear the unknown. Take your skills and run with them.  Don’t over-think and over-plan. Get in the game and adjust.  You’re better and more capable than you think you are and, if you never get on your bicycle you will never know if you can do it.

Do you have key advice for those still advancing their careers?

  1.  Find where your heart is.  There is money in every profession if you are the best …but you won’t be the best if you don’t love it.  Be honest with yourself.   Ask yourself if you can get excited about this?
  2. Get in the game. Go.  Don’t over think, over-plan, or worry about others being better. You will always need to get better …and you will.
  3. Don’t think about specific jobs. Think about what skill-sets you’re developing in your role and how they apply to your passions and future – both personally and professionally.

I’m really passionate about sharing what I’ve learned with others. In addition to sharing my insights via the bog and my sales training, I’ve also started a business to help people who are looking to change careers.

I can help advise anyone who is contemplating or making a career change.  I have an advisory service to help individuals shine and differentiate themselves in an interview. I am also available to speak to groups about leadership lessons learned on my solo bicycle journey from Alaska to Mexico.

Finally, I have developed and delivered a very practical and pragmatic sales training program focusing on the interpersonal aspect of persuasion and influence in the sales process …in my view this is the toughest and most rewarding part of the sales process.

You can contact me if you have interest in any of my stories or work via LinkedIn.

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Related:

- By Jessica Benjamin, IBM Brand System and Workforce Enablement, CHQ

IBM Fellow Irene Greif Retires – A Pioneer in Building a Workplace that Works

Irene Greif, IBM Fellow and Chief Scientist for Social Business (Photo Credit:  Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology)

Irene Greif, IBM Fellow and Chief Scientist for Social Business (Photo Credit: Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology)

IBM Fellow Irene Greif is retiring after more than 25 years with Lotus Development Corporation (where she was head of Research) and IBM. At IBM, she went on to create the Center for Social Business, a global research effort on reinventing the way people work. Along the way, these teams built the foundations of Lotus Sametime and IBM Connections, and revamped email to be the social tool it is today.

Irene began her journey into the workplace of the future while at MIT. Trained as a computer scientist, she was attracted to challenges of communication and collaboration – regardless of underlying technologies. In the 1980s, questions raised by Doug Engelbart’s 1968 Mother of All Demos, such as why some inventions (the mouse) took off, and others (video conferencing and shared screens) were still being reinvented in research labs, led her to study the opportunities – and limits – for office automation solutions. She founded the field of Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) in 1984 to help computer scientists and social scientists join forces to understand “how collaborative activities and their coordination can be supported by means of computer systems.”

Irene’s pioneering work changed how technology helps us work, and work together. She reflects on the inspiration to make these tools – and inspiring others to do the same.

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What were the workplace tools like when you started your career?

When I was on the faculty at MIT in the late 1970s and early 80s, office automation was the big thing. But the most interesting technologies being used beyond email were still stuck in research labs. At work, the personal computer – loaded with spreadsheet software, usually Lotus 1-2-3 at the time – was cropping up all over the place, outside IT control. And the question of which word processor to adopt was the next big issue.

Local areas networks were just being installed and slowly replacing “sneakernet” for transferring files. So, there was a lot of opportunity for change. What’s more, since researchers who were inventing new tools for collaboration were looking for realistic test beds outside their labs, it was a great time for a researcher to move into a business setting – that’s where the action was going to be.

How has CSCW evolved since the 1980s?

I started the research field of CSCW before joining IBM, but it fit right into what Lotus (and later IBM) was doing with group support systems. I’ve had the chance to keep reinventing workplace solutions – and recreating CSCW teams – ever since.

In the 1980s, group support systems such as online forms and formal networked processes (to pass information around without printing it or carry floppy disks in our pockets) were still new. Also new were anthropologists studying office life and culture. They found that office work was rarely done according to formal written processes. So, when companies built formal processes into online systems, informal actions, such as just knowing who else was in an approval chain when a manager was on vacation, were ignored.

Working with anthropologists helped us look beyond the technology, and brought social science and computer science together on the team.

How has CSCW impacted design? 

This “observe first” approach led us to reinventing email. We discovered that people hacked together ways to manage their lives around their email. It wasn’t just for messages; they used it for reminders and calendar appointments – well before these functions were built into any email platform.

We set out to design an email system that reflected what people were actually trying to do with it. We used our research to make subtle adjustments, integrating new features into Lotus Notes and providing the rich context that now integrates presence, threading, calendars, and instant messaging.

How else were new ideas by designers and developers meshed with what was being observed?

We also kept an eye on the consumer space to ask “would any of those tools be useful in business communications?” For example, chat apps were popular with kids in the 1990s, and that initially made it a challenge to pitch as a business opportunity. So, we used design through storytelling to prove that it could be useful. Our storyboard showed how customer support could “chat” with experts to help solve a technical issue – while staying on the phone with the customer and providing answers seamlessly. This was the origin of Sametime, the ubiquitous tool that IBMers rely on today.

We’ve been fortunate to work with an extremely open and creative corporate IT department that supports experimentation inside IBM. As a result, we can deploy and observe prototypes inside our really large company. And in some cases, the most important inventions were by the crowd – our users – and not our teams.

We’ve taken a similar approach outside IBM on the internet with projects such as Many Eyes. Launched in 2007, we wanted to know how people would use a visual analytics tool. It’s been active for years and in fact, the users pushed us from numerical to text visualizations that were invented and installed on the site. Many Eyes technology has since been transferred to a product team. Version two was released this year.

What’s next in workplace collaboration technology?

What’s next, in my opinion, is less about technology, and more about design. In fact, at this year’s CSCW conference, the new “Lasting Impact” award will be given to a 1988 paper about why group systems fail. The insight still proves true today: the cost-benefit balance of a tool is often wrong, or not accounted for, in the design phase. If you’re building a new workplace app, some people are likely to benefit more than others. You need to take that into account – either increase benefits to all, or make it particularly appealing for the “helpers” to participate.

Every one of my teams has had computer scientists, social scientists, developers and designers. And we have tried to apply this benefit thought in our designs. The simplest way is to try to assure there is personal value to each participant, even before they realize any benefit from sharing. This approach helped us get buy-in, for example, to add IBM Connections’ shared bookmarks feature. It gets everyone’s bookmarks out of a browser, and into a community of people who will also find them useful.

Since I’m betting on a better design – more user-centered and culturally aware design – as the most important ingredient, I’d like to say just how thrilled I am to see IBM’s renewed focus in design. Their design thinking is close to my heart, based on rich stories and deep understanding of not just how something is used, but why it would be used in the first place.

What has it meant to you to be a “trailblazing” woman in technology?

I sometimes envy the women who came up the technical career ranks after me because they had other women to talk to, and share stories with – something I didn’t have when I was a graduate student. It’s important for me, and others who were “firsts” in their fields, to participate in communities like the Anita Borg Institute. Today, as we see more and more women blazing trails, I remind them to look around and talk to other women while they are in the process.

Regarding mentoring, while having a formal mentor is important, don’t discount your second and third degree connections, who can offer you what I often call meaningful “mentoring moments.” Some of the colleagues I’ve sought out for advice never knew in the moment that their opinions played a role in something that amounted to a critical decision for me.

This kind of interaction is supported in social networking theory: it’s not the people you talk to everyday, but it’s those you reach out to who will have new, and maybe the best, insights.

What are some of your plans after retirement?

The great thing is that I don’t have to have a plan. I never really had a plan for my career, but rather let it evolve and I expect to do the same now. I would like to spend more time on STEM education, mentoring and volunteering, and working with organizations such as the National Academy of Engineering.

And I’ll continue to knit, though maybe now I’ll find time to organize the mess of yarn I’ve collected over the years.

(Video credit: IBM Social Business)

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Related:

- Posted by Julie Yamamoto, Program Manager The Greater IBM Connection via Chris Nay, IBM Research Communications

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty Wins Global Leadership Award

IBM Chairman and CEO Ginni Rometty (center) is presented with the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS) 19th Annual Global Leadership Award (Photo Credit:  Feature Photo Service)

IBM Chairman and CEO Ginni Rometty (center) is presented with the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS) 19th Annual Global Leadership Award (Photo Credit: Feature Photo Service)

IBM Chairman and CEO Ginni Rometty (center) is presented with the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS) 19th Annual Global Leadership Award by Institute board member Morris Offit (right) and president Jackson Janes (left) at the organization’s annual dinner at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City on November 11, 2013. The award recognizes business leaders who have helped strengthen the close partnership between Germany and the United States.

To learn more:

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Related:

- Posted by Julie Yamamoto, Program Manager, The Greater IBM Connection

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty Story Roundup

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty (Photo Credit:  IBM)

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty (Photo Credit: IBM)

Here’s a roundup of the stories on IBM CEO Ginni Rometty that we’ve run, in case you missed them.

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Related:

- Posted by Julie Yamamoto, Program Manager, The Greater IBM Connection

IBM Computer Creativity: 3 Things You Never Knew – Movies, Cooking, Books

Image Credit:  Lord of the Rings movie trilogy

Image Credit: Lord of the Rings movie trilogy

This is Part 2 of the IBM Creativity Series – Part 1 covered 3 Things You Never Knew About IBM Creativity – Games, Art, and Music. This post will cover 3 things you never knew about IBM computer creativity.

In addition to IBM driving innovation and creativity for 102 years, as IBM CEO Ginni Rometty recently shared, IBM computers have also long been used to help spur the creative process.  Here are few of the more notable examples of how IBM computers and technology played a critical part in the creative process.

Category 1 (Movies):  

Lord of The Rings Trilogy:  IBM supplied digital effects facility Weta Digital, Ltd., with 150 IBM® IntelliStation® workstations, running Linux®, for the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. Weta created effects, from digital horses to Gollum, a character in the series.  Weta and its sister company, Weta Workshop, won two Oscars for their digital effects work on the first “Lord of The Rings” trilogy.  To learn more:

Image Credit:  IMDb

Image Credit: IMDb

Despicable Me:  IBM provided an iDataPlex system to Illumination Entertainment to help it meet the massive production requirements involved in creating the computer-animated 3-D feature film, “Despicable Me”, released in 2010.  The animation process to produce the film generated 142 terabytes of data — an amount roughly equivalent to the traffic generated by over 118 million active MySpace users or 250,000 streams of 25 million songs.  The iDataPlex solution also included a water-cooled door that allows the system to run with no air conditioning required, saving up to 40% of the power used in typical server configurations for this type of production process.  To learn more:

Image Credit:  Fast Company (Italian grilled lobster, with a complex set of pairings including salt, pepper, saffron, green olives, tomato, pumpkin, mint, oregano, white wine, water, macaroni, orange juice, orange, bacon, and oil. )

Image Credit: Fast Company (Italian grilled lobster, with a complex set of pairings including salt, pepper, saffron, green olives, tomato, pumpkin, mint, oregano, white wine, water, macaroni, orange juice, orange, bacon, and oil. )

Category 2 (Cooking):  When you think of the creative things that humans do, cooking comes to mind as one creative outlet that appeals to many.  After winning at chess and Jeopardy, taking on large databases of information to cook up something creative for dinner seems like a logical step.  After all, while most chefs may only consider pairings of hundreds of different ingredients for the evening meal, there are probably unlimited possibilities of pairings that might taste good.  So, the IBM flavorbot is looking to put together underrated highly flavorful ingredients, unusual but tasty flavor pairings, and bring them all together into whole recipes.  To generate leads, the flavorbot looks at three databases of information – recipe index, hedonic psychophysics (quantification of what flavors people like at the molecular level), and chemoinformatics (connecting what foods the molecular flavor is actually in).  To learn more, see the links below:

Category 3 (Books):  Ever heard of “Abechamycin”?  It’s not a new antibiotic….but it may be one day.  At Pfizer in 1956, an IBM 702 helped create a 198-page, 42,000 word book of potential chemical names as a way of spurring and accelerating the naming process for the many new drugs the firm introduced on an annual basis.  Learn more.

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Related:

- By Julie Yamamoto, Program Manager, The Greater IBM Connection, and Paul Lasewicz, IBM Corporate Archivist

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The October 2013 theme for The Greater IBM Connection is ”creativity and innovation”, and The Greater IBM Connection will be sharing various tips, tools, and resources on this topic.

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty Shares Her Approach To Innovation

Photo Credit:  Fortune

Photo Credit: Fortune

At Fortune’s recent Most Powerful Women summit, it was clear that many of the executives of the world’s most admired companies are making innovation a priority, as they talked about their willingness to embrace change as part of their strategies for staying ahead.  During the conference, IBM CEO, Ginni Rometty, shared her approach to innovation.  She spoke about IBM’s 102 year history of transition, starting in the business of cheese slicers and time clocks, which is very different from today, where the business is 80% software and services.  She said,

“When I think of IBM, I don’t define it by a product – and I think that’s one of the reasons that it’s 102 years old. If you think of yourself as a product, you’ll miss the trends, you’ll miss the shifts. And you’ll miss dangerous ones, like business models.”

When asked how a company can continue to stay innovative and ‘look around the curves’, Ginni shared the following five avenues that a company of any size, as well as an individual, can leverage to help them look ahead and stay innovative:

  1. Original research
  2. Working with universities around the world
  3. Talking with clients to get their ideas
  4. Venture capital community
  5. Social within the enterprise (internal ideation)

Read the full story and watch the interview below:

(Fortune, 2013) – Ginni Rometty on Research, Social and Watson

(Video Credit:  Fortune)

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Related:

- Posted by Julie Yamamoto, Program Manager, The Greater IBM Connection

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The October 2013 theme for The Greater IBM Connection is ”creativity and innovation”, and The Greater IBM Connection will be sharing various tips, tools, and resources on this topic.

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty #1 on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women for 2nd Year in a Row

Photo:  IBM

Photo: IBM

IBM President and CEO, Ginni Rometty, ranks #1 on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women list for the 2nd year in a row.   The Most Powerful Women in Business list is compiled by FORTUNE editors, who consider four criteria: the size and importance of the woman’s business in the global economy, the health and direction of the business, the arc of the woman’s career (resume and runway ahead), and social and cultural influence.  This is the second year in a row that Ginni has ranked #1.  In 2011, she was ranked #7.

See the full list below:

You may want to also read the earlier post about Ginni sharing her leadership philosophy at the 2012 Most Powerful Women Summit here if you missed it.

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Related:

- Posted by Julie Yamamoto, Program Manager, The Greater IBM Connection