Ginni Rometty's journey in cognitive computing and inclusion
Virginia M. Rometty, or Ginni Rometty, joined IBM in 1981 as a systems engineer after a short stint at General Motors Institute. Armed with a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from Northwestern University, Rometty's earliest achievement was the successful integration of PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting into the Big Blue in 2002.
Rometty took over the Chief Executive position in 2012 to steer the company across new ventures, such as cloud computing and artificial intelligence. She was known to be one of the most prominent female business leaders in the United States ‒ and, most notably, in the male-dominated tech industry, no less.
"For much of my career, I did not want to be recognised as a woman CEO ‒ just a CEO. However, you cannot be what you cannot see, and eventually, I realised that I had an obligation to help and inspire others," she said.
On top of her roles at IBM, she also serves on the Board of Directors of JPMorgan Chase, as the Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees of Northwestern University, on the Board of Trustees of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre, on the Board of Trustees of the Brookings Institute, and on the Council of Foreign Relations.
The IBM journey
Rometty led IBM into multiple high-value segment investments in the IT market. These bold steps included the acquisition of Red Hat in 2019, the largest acquisition in the company's history at US$34bn, as well as 64 other companies. The purchases drastically changed more than 50% of the company's portfolio.
"Our continued strong performance in spite of a difficult global economic environment is the result of disciplined execution by more than 400,000 IBMers and continued leadership in innovation," she said in 2012. "We have steadily realigned our business, with two goals in mind: 1. To lead in a new era of computing; and, 2. To enable our clients to benefit from the new capabilities that this era is creating."
She then fully realised her words by building a US$21bn hybrid cloud business. Known as one of the leaders who popularised the term "cognitive computing", Rometty established IBM's strong position in AI, quantum computing, and blockchain. Two years after its launch in 2011, Rometty was primarily focused on Watson, aiming to commercialise the AI solution.
"Over the last 60 years, there have only been two times when technology allowed businesses to improve on an exponential curve instead of just a linear one," said Rometty in 2018. "The first was called Moore's Law. It said that chips and processing would double every 18 months. That led to the automation of everything as we know it, the back offices of the world.
"Then there was Metcalfe's Law, which says the value of a network is equal to the square of the nodes on the network. That is what gave rise to the platform companies, be it Facebook or Google.
"So, maybe this one will one day be called Watson's Law ‒ after IBM's name for our artificial intelligence ‒ and it will help people outlearn."
After pursuing many approaches, including medical diagnosis capabilities, Watson is now focusing its function as a set of tools to build A.I.-based applications, such as those utilised for accounting, payments, technology operations, marketing and customer service.
Rometty announced a slight increase in IBM's revenue in 2020, after a long period of struggle since 2014, and retired from her President and Chief Executive Officer roles at the Big Blue on April 6, 2020, yet remained as Executive Chairman of the Board until December 31, 2020. She was replaced by Arvind Krishna, previously IBM's Senior Vice President for Cloud and Cognitive Software.
"For years, others have tried to define us, from our competitors to analysts to the media. But none of them have the power to write IBM's story. Only you can do that. IBMers define who we are. We are the hybrid cloud and AI company," Rometty said in her farewell. "IBM is becoming a growth company, and IBMers need to continue getting comfortable being uncomfortable, learning new skills and practising new ways of working."
Leading in diversity and inclusion
Rometty endorsed diversity and aimed to reinvent education worldwide, such as with the six-year Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools, or P‑TECHs, that now helps more than 240 schools in 28 countries. She is also a member of the Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management Advisory Board, the Singapore Economic Development Board International Advisory Council, and the BDT Capital Advisory Board.
Rometty emphasised the importance of pioneering new models that can create an inclusive environment just as society started to raise the question of whether the existence of AI would disrupt the workforce. IBM, according to Rometty, recognised the need to go beyond the technology and work to understand and address its societal impact.
"We've coined the term ‘New Collar’ to describe someone who may not have a four-year degree yet," she said. "They're not blue-collar, not white-collar. We're working on new models of education that deliver the right skills at scale and have a big impact in making this a truly inclusive era."
During her tenure, she led IBM to create thousands of ‘New Collar’ jobs that enable people of diverse backgrounds and education levels from disadvantaged populations to join the company.
"My experience hiring workers without four-year degrees has helped confirm for me that a lack of credentials is in no way the same as a lack of aptitude or skill. Instead, it's an opportunity to help people see themselves in a position to thrive with the right support," she said. "In this way, my career became a calling, and I've dedicated myself to fostering inclusion in the workplace for all genders, races and creeds."
Rometty plans to continue her mission of enhancing inclusion in the workspace in her role as co-chair of the OneTen coalition, which is committed to "creating one million jobs for Black Americans in the next 10 years by changing the way the world's biggest employers identify, train, and hire talent".