Scott Strubberg
Aug 6 · 6 min read

How I scaled the design toolchain across IBM

Some d-bag, sitting atop a throne of Apple Thunderbolt Display boxes.

I’m part of a 366,000-person, Fortune 500, 108-year-old tech company and I think I just figured out how to scale design tools to our entire organization.

Let me rewind a bit.

Tooling Renaissance

Back in 2015, our productivity toolchain had become extremely outdated and it was getting increasingly difficult to collaborate with other IBMers. Our Chief Information Office (CIO) at the time knocked down a bunch of walls for IBMers and over a very short span of time, we all started using a more modern toolchain like Github, Slack, Mural, and many other new tools as part of our everyday work flow. And now, IBMers benefit from access to these tools on a global scale.

A fairly comprehensive list of third-party tooling the modern IBMer has instant access to.

You can read all about how IBM began to view tools as a part of culture change from my good friend Bill Higgins.

Destination saturation

It truly was transformational and I thank the internet gods everyday that I no longer have to use outdated, function-bloated tools. While this was a glorious time for the modern IBMer, unfortunately it didn’t solve the problem for IBMers within specific disciplines. In this case, I’m talking about tooling for designers.

Nondescript humanoid designer gettin’ work done whilst being frustrated, no doubt by the fact that they are sitting on a blimp. — Credit unknown (Let me know who you are so I can credit you!)

The world of design tooling is growing more and more everyday. Last I checked, there are about twelve different tools in the prototyping space… twelve. And that’s just the prototyping arena. Let’s not forget there are tools to manage design systems, build UIs, create digital imagery, handle versioning, design in motion, and handle code handoffs. And that’s just some of the tool categories that cover the world of UX and visual design. I haven’t even started to address design research or front-end development tools.

Grains of sand

Let’s call a spade a spade. It’s a wonderful time to be in design. We have a plethora of tools to choose from and it’s never been easier to find an organization with a need for design. Our population at IBM is constantly in flux. For the sake of this article, let’s say we have 2,500 formally-trained designers.

I made the blue slice larger so you could actually see it.

All of the aforementioned tools that modernized the IBMer toolchain involved purchasing licenses for tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of IBMers. The design population is a grain of sand, nay, a fraction of a fraction of a grain of sand compared to the IBM population at large. The office of the CIO have big fish to fry to support the network infrastructure, tooling, and other productivity experiences for hundreds of thousands of employees globally. Bringing in tools for a niche discipline within a massive organization isn’t top of mind for them, nor does it need to be.

Organic growth

Design communities within large organizations need a way to empower their designers to use the best and latest tools in order to effectively create the outcomes that are needed to drive the business. These tools need to be brought into an organization following the same security, legal, and procurement processes done by the office of the CIO, but without a centralized owner. The relationships must be maintained by a network of tooling champions. Not every tool will survive this process, depending on their maturity, but we must give them an environment to thrive.

You can do it little guy!

But that’s just half the problem, we also have a mountain of tech debt.

It’s complicated

IBM is one of the largest tech behemoths, with multiple business units in virtually every country on the planet. With the complexity of a global enterprise, there are several ways to purchase a license depending on what organization the employee is in or where they are located geographically. Needless to say, buying anything is not nearly as easy as throwing it on a credit card and your subscription just magically starts working, issuing month-to-month payments.

Summoning a demon should not be necessary to get Adobe freakin’ Creative Cloud.

Navigating these processes can be a feat in and of itself. Providing guidance for our design population so that unnecessary blockers are removed is crucial so people can actually do the work they were hired to do.

So I made a thing

At IBM, I created the Design Toolbox. It’s a community for empowering IBMers across business units to discover, procure, and use approved best-in-class design tools. Here’s what it can do for IBM:

  • Cost clarity to better forecast spending
  • Battle-tested business justification for those who haven’t gotten the memo on the value of design
  • Growing communities that share discovery of new tools and best practices for using your favorite tools
  • Tracking progress of new tools being on-boarded in the company through Zenhub
  • Coaching on how to interact with our partners in legal, procurement, license management, IT risk management, and the vendor to onboard new tools at IBM
Prepare to drink from the fountain of tooling knowledge…

The new digital experience of the IBM Design Toolbox is done using docsify, a wonderful site documentation generator. All of the content is generated through markdown, which means anyone can make changes to the site. As an admin of the repo, all I need to do is approve changes.

Whole lotta love hurts

So far, the IBM Design Toolbox has been an unmitigated success. We see an average of 80ish IBMers viewing the site daily and we’ve had a few people making pull requests to help build out content. I even have a few people I’m partnering with to bring in additional tools into our ecosystem, effectively offloading my domain knowledge to other IBMers that want to learn from my experiences.

Diane, UX Designer at IBM, sharing some love for the Design Toolbox.

Having said all that, it’s not all peaches and cream. Working with IT risk management, legal, procurement and the license management team is death by a thousand cuts. These stakeholders are vital to the success of adopting and using tools, but their worlds are incredibly complex and filled with their own unique set of jargon. I’ve found that the best way to survive is to ask a million questions and hold people accountable to following through on their commitments.

Onward and upward

The explosion of tooling in the software design discipline is directly connected to just how exciting and new this space is. Organizations that want top-tier design experiences will need to equip their talent with top-tier design tooling to create those experiences. Organizations that choose not to embrace this, will at best, create mediocre experiences for their users, and at worse, lose talent to their competitors that are willing to invest in their people.

I sure hope Maslow had a sense of humor…

Adopting SaaS tooling in the enterprise space is hard. We still have a long way to go in bringing the ease of consumer-like experiences to massive organizations like IBM; but by taking steps to create a community of practitioners across business units and geographies, all unified in their goal to discover, procure, and use approved best-in-class design tools, I think we’re on the right track.

If you’re an IBMer reading this and want to check out the new IBM Design Toolbox, head to ibm.biz/designtoolbox. Sorry external audience, this one is behind the firewall 🔥

If you’re not an IBMer and feeling left out, check out ibm.com/design to learn about everything going on at IBM Design.


Scott Strubberg is a Front-end Developer and pretty handy with Design Operations at scale. He is based out of Austin, TX. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Design at IBM

Stories from the practice of design at IBM

Thanks to Allison Biesboer, Emily Kim, Eunice, and micfbush

Scott Strubberg

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Design at IBM

Stories from the practice of design at IBM

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