I Live To Tell The Tale: The IBM Maelstrom Experience

A month before the conclusion of my senior year in college, I got a call from Devin O’Bryan, my eventual internship director, mentor, and friend. From the second I answered his call and experienced his genuine excitement and eccentricity, I knew that I wanted to be a part of whatever he was doing.

This was the start of my journey into the Maelstrom.

Maelstrom is IBM’s premiere design internship. Over 2000 people applied for a position, and 15 were chosen — I was lucky enough to be one of them. We came from all around the World and across all disciplines: visual designers, UX designers, user researchers, front end developers, and offering managers (my role, basically product manager). I didn’t quite know what to expect going into the internship, but I quickly learned that it was going to be challenging yet oh so rewarding from start to finish.

This internship was designed to live up to it’s name, Maelstrom, to be chaotic and unyielding to help us grow in our disciplines. Each stage of the program kept me on my toes, and there was never a moment of complacency. I discovered new parts of myself, actualized my professional identity, and proved that I deserved to be there.

The beginning of Maelstrom was the most difficult, but through it I discovered the importance of collaboration and mutual respect in the design space. When we started our first project,

it was like the Hunger Games: Corporate Edition

because we all wanted to establish ourselves as capable people. Initially, I approached this project like it was a competition, and thought entirely too much about how to be strategic with who I talked to, what I did, and how I did it. I quickly learned that treating the project like a competition was not the way to go — being competitive with other people just created more tension, and obstructed our productivity. After discovering this, I changed my behavior, and tried to collaborate instead of compete. It was substantial how much change happened when I listened and worked with others’ ideas instead of shutting them down. Not only this, but my ideas and opinions were more likely to be listened to when my co-workers knew I’d do the same.

This was a lesson I carried with me the rest of Maelstrom.

The remainder of Maelstrom was all about settling into my professional identity as an offering manager, working with my teammates, and helping prove we all deserved to be there. You see, a few weeks into Maelstrom, I was assigned to an incubator group, and I had the opportunity to closely work with 4 talented individuals across several disciplines for the remainder of the internship, our group name was T-Squad. I took ownership over market viability, and connecting the user needs with the design of the product. It was a fantastic opportunity, but

the most valuable experience was sharing the product design process with my teammates.

I had the opportunity to discuss (and often debate) design choices with the very talented aspiring UX designer Andrew Lee, who helpedme understand how to bridge the gap between design and research. I worked with the social and enduring visual designer Mitchell Bernstein, who taught me the importance of approaching hard work and long days with a positive attitude. I collaborated with the godlike developer Sam Rose, the best FED I’ve ever met, and someone with a pure love for routine (and corgis). And I shared many experiences with the thoughtful and passionate user research/designer Kwaku Ayesu, who always challenged me to take a risk. Really, it was a pleasure working with these guys, and through our collaborative efforts, we produced a badass product that wouldn’t have been possible without them and their hard work. This showed in T-Squad’s executive playback and handoff of our product.

They say you can tell a lot about a person when they’re put under extreme pressure, and when T-Squad experienced this in the final weeks of Maelstrom, we learned just how vulnerable we were. The final weeks were shaky at best — we didn’t know if our product was up to par, to be honest, we all felt skeptical that it was going to be anywhere close to being done; with the stress, came disagreement and contention — the last few weeks we vehemently argued over the final designs and presentation decisions. In our stress, there was something Devin said early in Maelstrom that made all the difference —

“it doesn’t matter if you’re moving forward, backward, or sideways in your progress, as long as you’re moving somewhere.”

I held onto the quote as we argued and pushed forward, and despite the pressure and stress, T-Squad came together, pulled through, and ended up doing quite well.

We still kept it tight though

In the final days leading up to our presentation, we probably got 4 to 5 hours of sleep every day, but we put the work in to complete what we’d worked so hard on. In that final push, everything seemed to sync up beautifully. It’s as if we were too tired to argue,and through that lowered threshold, we just agreed on everything and flowed forward. Our final mockups and designs were finished by Andrew and Mitchell, and I drafted our presentation and Mitchell made it look spectacular. We finished our final versions of everything the night before our presentation, and spent quite a few hours just rehearsing, and WOW did it pay off.

The final presentations of Maelstrom all happened in the same room, and it was packed — designers from all around the studio and remotely from others were in attendance. It was kind of a big deal — we felt nervous about everything, but we felt confident because of the sheer amount of time and effort put into our project. I was the person who started my team’s presentation, and out of all our countless rehearsals, the executive presentation was by far the best. From start to finish,

I couldn’t help but feel emotional and proud of all the work we did, and I didn’t want to let that go to waste

— so I gave it my all, as did Mitchell and Sam in their portion of the presentation. While I thought our presentation was good, I wasn’t expecting it to get praised as it did.

Our executive stakeholder literally said

“this is making me lose my ship* … what y’all created is years ahead of the competition, and I have no doubts we’ll be moving a lot of this to production AS-IS.”

Hearing something like that from an executive stakeholder is every designer’s dream, and we did it. Another man, a senior information designer with IBM, said

“I manage multi-million dollar presentations, and what you all just did is comparable in quality — special shoutout to the guy in the blue [me] for your public speaking skills, not once did you talk to the screen and you had the audience’s attention captured the entire time — KUDOS.”

Both of these were too much to expect, and to top it off, one of IBM’s distinguished designers told us that our presentation was

“one of, if not the best demo I’ve seen in Maelstrom’s history. Good job guys.”

I can’t begin to describe how emotional I got hearing such positive congratulations for our hard work, and T-Squad all shared this together. Really, all the teams in Maelstrom exceeded their expectations, and it was stupendous to witness the “products” of our labor. With the completion of our presentations and our handoffs of everything, Maelstrom neared its end.

Sums T-Squad up pretty well, minus Franklin the Corgi

In the final days of Maelstrom, we realized that it wasn’t just coming to an end for us, but also for our director, Devin.

Devin guided us throughout the experience, but also gave us copious amounts of room to grow — he was crucial to the experience.

He taught us to be genuinely thoughtful of people, and to bring energy and passion into our projects. Unfortunately, this was his last Maelstrom after 13 iterations. Devin was so impactful to us, and combining his emotions and ours made the ending experience so genuine and heartfelt. The end of Maelstrom made me realize how much we’d all done from start to finish. We entered Maelstrom with curious minds and a willingness to learn, and we accomplished so many things because of that.

Everyone grew into their professional identities, and I can’t think of a single person who didn’t work their asses off to bring value to their friends and their projects.

I saw shy people open up and take accountability and ownership in their roles, I saw confident people step down and make room for their other teammates, and above all, I saw everybody develop an empathetic design mindset that we will all carry with us the remainder of our days. I felt sad that the experience was over, but an overwhelming sense of hope that we’d each take what we learned in Maelstrom everywhere we’d all go. Maelstrom is an experience that comes once in a lifetime, and I’m so thankful for the experience. Devin, T-Squad, my mentors, and the rest of Maelstrom were so genuinely impactful, and I’m so excited to see where we all go.

We entered the Maelstrom, survived, and live to tell the tale.

80’s inspirational freeze-frame ending

Design at IBM

Stories from the practice of design at IBM

Josh Montgomery

Written by

A frontend developer with a passion for UX and open resources.

Design at IBM

Stories from the practice of design at IBM