Is it so hard to work with IBM?

via James Governors feed, I read a pretty disappointing blog post on Don MacAskill CEO and Chief Geek of SmugMugs, SmugBlog.

Reading some of his past posts it’s easy to accuse Don of being a bit of a Sun fanboy. He recently ran a server bake-off to get some new servers for SmugMug, and decided to go with Sun, fair enough. I can’t dispute that Sun have a good offering in the web space, and being based out on the West Coast, get a lot of face time and word of mouth endorsements with many of the startups, especially in the web 2.0 space.

I know how important this can be. Back in 2000, I hung out a lot at the Silicon Valley World Internet Center and then, late in 2005, early 2006 worked out of the IBM office in Palo Alto with a number of key virtualization partners to get some direction and development work started.

What troubled me was not the Don had chosen Sun for his servers, but his comment “One of the attendees, who spends obscene, ungodly amounts of money with IBM, can’t even get engineering staff on the phone. Apparently, IBM has a big sales force who’s trained to buffer customers away from the engineers.”

“shurley shome mishtake”? My whole career before I joined IBM, was littered with experiences with sage and helpful IBM engineers. Either through the numerous user groups, or best of all, when the products broke, and after talking to level-1 and level-2, you’d get through to the level-3 folks. I remember to this day having a discussion with someone called, I think, Linda Iannella, who worked up in Kingston in the mid-1980’s. She knew code like no one I’d ever spoken to, when I asked how she was so sage, she replied, “I work on this code 10-hours a day, every day”. Adrian Walmsley, a former IBM UK employee was probably the most influential, and I’m delighted to have worked with him later on.

Have things changed so much that you can’t get in touch with the technical team at IBM anymore, or was Don’s experience atypical? Is it a west coast versus east coast thing, or just becuase IBM is so big these days?

I have to admit, getting things actually done these days can be difficult at times if you approach a novice IBMer, but we have an excellent kStart team out in the valley working with some startups, and most of the blue coud work is being done in Almaden and SVL.

Let me know what your experience has been. Can I help ??

6 Responses to “Is it so hard to work with IBM?”

  1. 1 Don MacAskill December 15, 2007 at 10:51 pm

    Hey Mark,

    I think some people inside of Sun might disagree that I’m a fanboy. 🙂

    I’ve written up plenty of negative reviews of their products which just don’t live up to expecations (like the T1000 and the StorEdge 3320) – but I also give them props when they do, like the X2200 M2. I went from being a Sun hater (for years I told anyone who’d listen that Sun was headed to the grave) to being a Sun hopeful. And it’s because they’ve earned it by building a great server platform and listening to my feedback.

    Honestly, I have no idea how easy or hard it is to get ahold of an IBM engineer because I couldn’t get any IBM sales people to give us the time of day. They literally didn’t even try to answer our questions when we asked them if we could buy their servers.

    But the source I mentioned has a massively huge budget and was adamant that they have a fantastic sales team, but just can’t speak to anyone who actually wrote the software or designed the hardware, no matter what. I was shocked, so I grilled them pretty thoroughly, but they insisted it was true.

    Thanks for reading and continuing the discussion!

  2. 2 cathcam December 16, 2007 at 1:32 am

    Don, I’ve been in a position where the “account team” want to provide “value” and try and “help” by doing stuff themselves. However, mostly, we have technical liasons, from labs, to, or actually working at most of our large customers. Hence my surprise.

    My bit of IBM, Power Systems development, AIX and Linux on Power, has a Technical Collaboration Council that meets at least 3x per year and is made up of many of our customers. We also place developers out at customers on assignment for special projects, and “crit sits”. So generally it’s pretty easy to reach us.

    If you are still in touch with your “source”. Could you have him drop me an email, it would be interesting to track this one back and see where the blockage was.

    Hey, I only just did a google on sun and the comments seemed pretty positive, but I did see the call for help and am pleased they responded.

  3. 3 Ewan December 16, 2007 at 4:31 am

    After working for a few small and medium IBM customers in the UK, I’ve never really had a problem getting in touch with IBM engineers who know their stuff, without going through the account manager and trying to skip any levels.

    Possibly we’re just lucky in the UK, I’m sure with a company IBM’s size, each area is completely different in their performance.

  4. 4 Don MacAskill December 16, 2007 at 11:01 am

    Hey Mark,

    I’ve done three reviews of Sun hardware so far. Two of them were negative:

    And one was positive:

    So I *think* I’m fairly balanced, but who knows, maybe I’m being brainwashed and just can’t see it. 🙂

    I’ll see if the source is interested in following up. Thanks!

  5. 5 cabbey December 16, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    Mark, your key words:

    “However, mostly, we have technical liasons, from labs, to, or actually working at most of our large customers”

    “We also place developers out at customers on assignment for special projects, and “crit sits”.”

    SmugMug maybe the biggest photosharing site on the internet, but they’re NOT a big customer. The size of the deal Don was looking at in that shootout was WAY below the point that anyone in Technical Sales in the Linux on P world wanted to even touch. The three I talked to on trying to get a better IBM response to Don’s bake off all blew it off with a pointer to the website and comments along the lines of “on order that small you can do online.” To say that this utterly misses the point of the type of customer engagement Don’s looking for falls short of the mark by a wide margin. And that was even trying to upsell it to pSeries hardware! The Intel guys in RTP weren’t even interested in trying to answer a question about a confusing detail on the website… I ended up pricing out a xSeries server for Don on the website, it was the best I could come up with at the last minute. (As Don mentioned in the writeup, I didn’t learn about the shootout until very late in the process, and couldn’t muster any kind of response other than “go use the web and don’t bug me for small sales.”)

    My friend Dave Shields takes pride in his IBM Badge. There are days I do too… that wasn’t one of them. Technical Sales folks I had known and worked with for years in the pSeries land took one sniff of the size of the sale and didn’t even give me the time of day. Maybe Sun is desperate enough that they’ll throw the same kind of person to person sales effort behind every customer that we throw at only the big ones… but the economy of scale says that at some point, if we keep leaving customer’s Don’s size at the table for Sun and HP and Dell, we too will become that desperate.

  6. 6 Brandon Werner January 6, 2008 at 10:05 pm

    I can say that I have had problems contacting IBM support, but that was usually only when using new products such as Websphere Process Server and other new software and we’ve had to be elevated to higher tiers.

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About & Contact

I'm Mark Cathcart, formally a Senior Distinguished Engineer, in Dells Software Group; before that Director of Systems Engineering in the Enterprise Solutions Group at Dell. Prior to that, I was IBM Distinguished Engineer and member of the IBM Academy of Technology. I am a Fellow of the British Computer Society ( I'm an information technology optimist.

I was a member of the Linux Foundation Core Infrastructure Initiative Steering committee. Read more about it here.

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