Image created by Eunice Chung and Robyn Hammond

Listen to the wild ducks: How IBM adopted Slack

Today Slack announced its long-awaited Enterprise product: Slack Enterprise Grid. During the announcement, IBM’s CIO Jeff Smith (my boss’s boss) talked about IBM’s use of Slack. During his interview, he mentioned that IBM’s adoption of Slack wasn’t driven by any sort of top-down decision making, but rather as a result of grassroots momentum combined with a supportive leadership team.

My team at IBM started, and continues to drive, the deployment of Slack at IBM, and on the occasion of the announcement of Slack Enterprise Grid, I’d like to share the origin story in a bit more detail …


A few years ago, an IBM executive named Phil Gilbert started an ambitious design program that aimed to fundamentally alter IBM’s approach to product and service development [1]. Possibly the most critical component of this effort was the talent program that aimed to hire thousands of designers, both to balance the ratio of designers and engineers as well as to bring new ideas into IBM.

Phil and team saw that there were often cultural and practical gulfs between the designers and engineers, so he expanded his talent program to also hire talented front-end developers (or “FEDs”) who had strong expertise in the disciplines of modern web and mobile development, and often expertise in visual design. These FEDs helped bridge the worlds of design and traditional engineering.

These FEDs also brought a passion for using recent, innovative tools to do their work. They also brought—in my opinion—a healthy disregard for “the rules.” In late 2014, Kevin Suttle—an innovative and outspoken senior FED from our Cloud division—created a free Slack team called ibm-front-end and started inviting his fellow FEDs into this Slack team to share their knowledge of front-end development as well as simply getting to know other FEDs, both professionally, and personally. As examples there was soon both a #performance channel where FEDs shared techniques for shaving milliseconds off of page load times, as well as a #movies channel where FEDs talked about (surprise) movie-related topics. While the FED community was careful to not discuss confidential topics in this non-sanctioned Slack team, many more traditional IBMers worried about the risks of using an unsanctioned tool for work.

In mid-2014, IBM hired Jeff (Smith, see first paragraph) as our new Chief Information Officer (CIO) with the challenge to help IBM adopt a more agile culture and supporting practices, on the strength of his success driving a similar transformation at SunCorp in Australia. At the time, I had gained a reputation as a senior technical leader whose teams had successfully adopted “Agile and DevOps” culture, and soon Jeff and I had connected and were discussing how I might use my experience to support Jeff’s mission. I proposed an ambitious project to create a modern toolchain for the company, so that any IBM team could easily and cheaply adopt a pre-integrated set of tools that supported modern practices like continuous delivery. Jeff liked this idea and over the course of several months we chartered a new project that we called “Whitewater” to do this.

I don’t recall exactly how it happened, but at some point in late 2014, I came to know a few of the key leaders from the FED community who were pushing on the adoption of innovative tools. I don’t remember if I found them or if they found me. Specifically I began talking with Kevin Suttle—creator of the ibm-front-end Slack team—and Sam Richard, a senior FED who was doing UI architecture in our Watson division. Kevin and Sam were both senior industry hires through the IBM Design-run FED talent program, and were frustrated by their inability to more broadly promote tools that they felt were vital to both productivity and employee happiness. I scheduled a call to see if I could somehow help them via my Whitewater project.

I’ve worked at IBM for 16 years now, and I’ve been on literally thousands of work-related phone calls, but I think that initial discussion with Kevin and Sam was the most memorable call of my career. On a call for which the explicit goal was to help advance their priorities, they were incredibly belligerent and condescending! But at the same time, their ideas were exciting and insightful. At least three times during the call I had to take a deep breath and say “Guys, please remember that the reason that I’m talking to you is because I think you have good ideas and I’m trying to help you. (another deep breath.) Help me help you!” After going around and around in circles for 90 minutes, I shouted “Just tell me one thing I can do to help you, so I can hang up and work on it!” to which Sam replied “Make Slack an officially supported tool tomorrow!” I told Sam that ‘tomorrow’ was unrealistic, but I’d work on making Slack an officially-sanctioned tool for IBMers.

A few months later, when we staffed the Whitewater project and really got it rolling, Slack was one of the first three tools we slated for roll-out and soon we’d made it safe to use for real work. Soon groups like our Cloud and Watson divisions were using it to support their day-to-day work, and in the fullness of time this helped contribute to a partnership between Watson and Slack to make Slack bots “smarter” using Watson Conversational capabilities [3]. More recently, we’ve worked closer and closer with Slack on what a company the size and breadth of IBM, informing the design of Slack Enterprise Grid.


IBM has a saying: “treasure wild ducks.” The catalyst for IBM adopting Slack, which has been transformative, was because a couple of wild ducks, representing a vibrant community of practitioners, showed initiative and then gained the support of leaders like Jeff, Phil, and myself to champion their idea. In hindsight, along with being a great idea, the fact that the young Whitewater project embraced Slack and other innovative tools led to the FED community strongly supporting our project, leading to a virtuous circle of adoption and promotion. These days, I have an intentional network of these wild ducks inside IBM with whom I frequently consult as a source of both inspiration and new ideas, and to avoid the trap of slipping into dogma.

Footnotes

[1] The New York Times ran a profile on IBM Design that does a great job more fully telling this story.
[2] Jeff gave a good talk on his Agile change mission and progress last year at our IBM CIO Leadership Exchange.
[3] This discussion between IBM Watson SVP David Kenny and Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield is pure gold in terms of providing a glimpse of the future of conversational interfaces.

Bill Higgins is a Distinguished Engineer at IBM based in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.