My small place in a large design company called IBM

“I work at IBM Design here in Austin.” For many people outside the program, that statement doesn’t do much to explain what I do, what IBM Design is and what it’s trying to do. Even after I explain what I do exactly, I still get puzzled looks.

This is understandable. After six months, IBM is still an enigma to me (it’s a Fortune 25 company that employs four-hundred thousand people), but I’m learning. A lot of people I talk to think the company still makes Thinkpads and that I’m required to wear a suit to work every day. Neither of these things is true and haven’t been for some time.

This morning, the New York Times published a well-rounded article on the IBM Design program in Austin. The piece provides a full overview, from humble beginnings to a group that is tasked with helping IBM do what it has done time-and-time again: Evolve. A major theme to the story, and where my own comes into play, is that for IBM to evolve with the times we have to hire designers at an incredible scale.

IBM has hired several hundred designers, about two-thirds of them freshly minted college graduates and a third experienced designers. By the end of this year, IBM plans to have 1,100 designers working throughout the company, on the way to a target total of 1,500. They are embedded in IBM product teams and work alongside customers in the field or at one of 24 design studios around the world.

The recruiting pitch made by Mr. Gilbert and his colleagues has been essentially twofold: First, you can make a difference in socially important fields because IBM’s technology plays a crucial role in health care, energy, transportation, water and even agriculture. Second, you can be part of a groundbreaking effort to apply design thinking in business.

The wonderful part of my job is that I get to work with the new hires in their first three months and lead them through a six-week-long project that has a direct impact on a product or line of business. To date, I have led six teams of six-to-seven designers and front-end developers—forty people total. And that’s just my teams, there are several others.

We have created everything from re-envisioned service designs to prototypes for brand new mobile experiences. The work is real, not theoretical. The teams are tasked with a tremendous amount of research, prototyping, and user testing all the while learning how to interact with IBM executives and presenting their work for discussion and critique.

This is the type of work that would make the average new employee fold, give up, but not these young men and women. Oh, if I could share their portfolios with you! I’ll just say that the recruiting department does an amazing job finding and hiring a lot of very intelligent, smart, and gifted designers to the program. And it is my pleasure to be a part of their first projects at the forefront of their career.

Tomorrow begins the last week of the current cohort. On Thursday, my three teams will present the culmination of their work to executives. It’s nerve-racking and exhilarating. Come Friday, “my” designers will move on to their assigned business unit, the 7th floor will go quiet, and I will begin preparing for the next waves of new designers in 2016.

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