Visible personal branding and the big company

I’m keeping busy at Dell, currently working on designs for both our 12g and 13g servers. My current motto is less is more, I’m trying to see what I can cut out to simplify things, as well as what can be automated. In my blog catch-up this morning I came across this excellent post, The psychology of social media: Can a visible brand ruin your life?

No, it is not another warning about posting compromising pictures on facebook, or blogging about doing outside work while telling your boss you are off sick. It talks about some of the issues and values of creating your own “brand” through social media tools. Now, back when Nigel Dessau and I worked together at IBM UK in the mid-1990’s, Nigel was quick off the mark creating content for, and getting involved with IBM UK and IBM Europes first web sites. I had the chance to work with him on some of the content and low and behold, the first Cathcarts Corner was published almost 13-years ago. Over the years, it moved, grew and contracted, and now is just this blog.

One thing I learned though was indeed the value of the perosnal brand. When reading Jennifer Leggios’ blog posting a few things rang true. One, it is worth thinking through before you launch into “just blogging”. It’s not sufficient to work out what you want to talk about and how you say it, but who your audience are, how you will reach them, your style and much more. Secondly, at many IBM Acadamey of Technology annual meetings, and often at other events, we were told by the business executives how IBM wanted the company to be more recognised for its innovation, for its technical leadership, and yes, they promised action. However despite the multi-million dollar marketing campaigns, there are and have never been almost any household names of technical leaders at IBM, or for that matter any major publically qouted company like Oracle, HP in the tech business, but also in other traditional NYSE style big companies GE, General Motors etc. Have there ?

In the second section of her blog post, entitled Workplace Impact, Jennifer talks how the corporation handles the rising, and visible brand that is a key spokesperson. I also worked with one of the tech industries most visible brands, Simon Phipps of Sun, now Oracle. It will be interesting to see where his “brand” goes once things get sorted out at Oracle. While Simon and I worked together at IBM, I was the Linux/Open Source guy, Simon was the Java guy, but he has done a much better job of communicating, and putting the case for open source than I ever could, and in the process created a brand through his blog, twitter and other contributions. I can’t see he’d have had the same success at IBM.

The point that Jennifer makes is it’s how the company reacts that makes the difference. My IBM UK managers where always very supportive of my personal brand, they definately empowered me. However, at a corporate level, unlike Simons’ experience at Sun, it’s my view that most companies practise what Jennifer describes as “talking out both sides of their mouth”. That is they realise that an engineer or technician that creates a personal brand is both getting distracted from their “day” job through their activities, and secondly, is a risk to the company if their exposure gets them unwanted attraction from competitors, start-ups and analyst companies who might offer them a better deal in order to capture the value from their brand.

I’d never thought about it that way, but it certainly puts into perspective the legions of corporate Vice Presidents who march through the PR sausage machine and come out the other other side talking tech, only to disappear 18-months later when they move on to their next assignment and are replaced by the next [insert name here] VP. The only really famous technical person I can recall from IBM, from a public perspective is Gene Amdahl, and thats more legend than fact. Sure, I’ve known many others, but none outside their narrow specialist area and through personal contact rather than through their notoriety, promotion or brand. Can you name anyone ?

Jennifers article is a long, but worthwhile read on the subject of personal brands, and certianly made me reconsider some of my long held views.

5 Responses to “Visible personal branding and the big company”

  1. 1 Kati Walcott July 21, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    What about Irving Wladawsky-Berger?

    • 2 cathcam July 21, 2009 at 2:24 pm

      Kati, neither IWB and Nick Donofrio made it through technology. While I have great respect for both, they made their names by being highly focused, successful executives.

      • 3 Peter A July 21, 2009 at 6:47 pm

        What’s the difference between a technologist and an executive at senior levels in a company? Is it possible (indeed, necessary) to be both, and for that to characterise someone’s personal brand? Is it good, bad, or indifferent for the public to associate a technical or non-technical person as a personal brand connected to a publicly-quoted company… Steve Jobs at Apple, Bill Gates at Microsoft, Jack Welch at GE, Rupert Murdoch at News Corp, James Dyson at (er) Dyson. And do the public today really know Gene Amdahl, more than (say) Grady Booch? Or do they recognise Amdahl’s self-named company after leaving IBM, much as one recognises Dyson? I was pondering where this left Richard Branson… does his personal brand equate to Virgin and the several hundred associated companies, even those he no longer owns?

  2. 4 Peter A July 22, 2009 at 6:43 am

    I found an IBM tech guru who’s a household name. Literally — he has a tweeting house 🙂 Andy Stanford-Clark is featured in NYT:

  3. 5 cathcam July 22, 2009 at 7:55 am

    Booch may indeed qualify, I admit I may well have overlooked him. I’d guess the line is drawn based on longevity and specialisation.

    Using the examples you quote, Murdoch, Welch, Dyson, Jobs, Branson etc. are almost synonymous with the company and thats exactly the problem that I think Jennifer was referring to. My point, and I wasn’t specifically leveling any criticism at IBM, but since I worked there so long, it serves as my reference model. But the comparison across companies seems to hold. IBM in the case of the exec, has corporate governance rules that stopped Gerstner from becoming a Murdoch/Welch/Dyson/Jobs and Sams time to move on will come in another 3-years.

    I think for example, my point of comparison between the exec and the technologist rings home when you look at a specific technology area. For example, pretty much the same senior IBM/HP/Sun/Dell technologist(Fellow) who could actually tell you how you could stripe bits across a disk to make a RAID config 10-years ago, will more than likely be the same person who can explain technically the longevity of data stored on SDRAM today. It’s their job, career, life. The exec pushing disks 10-years ago won’t even be in the picture today in a big company.

    So again, in your example, the brands of Murdoch, Welch, Dyson, Jobs, Branson were not built like that, well except for maybe Dyson. But then he featured in all the TV commercials which effectively made his personal brand, otherwise Dyson was just a better Hoover, and wasn’t Hoover the head of the FBI 😉

    @ANDYSC will be a good benchmark, lets see if he is still the de facto micro-messaging and smart planet technical thought leader in 5-years, or will have be sidelined by the machine.

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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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