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Who Is IBM's IM-ing CEO?

IBM CEO Sam Palmisano
Source: IBM

Upper management is often ridiculed by underlings and in "Dilbert" strips for being clueless. Not IBM's current CEO, Sam Palmisano. The executive helped dispel any notions that C-level means "clueless" by appearing in Second Life as himself.

The event took place in November 2006, when Palmisano appeared, complete with buttoned-down suit, in a model of China's Forbidden City to announce a $100 million investment in 10 different projects, one of which would be 3D worlds like Second Life's virtual world.

Palmisano boasted "I have an avatar" to BusinessWeek twice. Actually, he had two, one suited up for work, the other a more casual self that could roam Second Life in peace. His employees thought it was great. Other CEOs thought he was crazy.

"He said afterwards, when he would meet other CEOs, they kept asking 'why did you do that?' That's not the kind of thing they do. But that was a way for Sam to signal how much he supported this kind of disruptive innovation," said Irving Wladawsky-Berger, Chairman Emeritus of the IBM Academy of Technology and a visiting professor of Engineering Systems at MIT.

Did he do it to buy some street cred for IBM? Those who know Palmisano say he did it because of how he understands technology and its implications. "Prior to [Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM], people were studying things instead of executing things," said John Patrick, a retired vice president and 38-year veteran of IBM. "Lou turned the ship but Sam put it into high gear."

Wladawsky-Berger said that's what separates Palmisano from other high-level executives. "In IBM, people will tell you they get instant messages from Sam all the time, asking how things are going. Sam is extremely hands-on," he said. (Palmisano declined comment for this article.)

Straight to IBM

Sam Palmisano joined IBM in 1973, fresh out of Johns Hopkins University, where he'd been a stand-out football player in addition to earning a BA in History. He had a chance to go pro but decided for something a little less rough and tumble.

Palmisano would spend the next 20 years working in various IBM divisions, including services. Over the years, he played a key role in growing services into a sizable portion of IBM's revenues. Today, global services generates over half of IBM's revenues.

Another one of Palmisano's projects that helped pave his road to the executive suite was the launch of the AS/400 operating system in 1988.

On his own initiative, Palmisano took the AS/400's specifications to software firms and persuaded them to write programs for it before the computer was ready to market, something unheard of in the days of big iron.

When the AS/400 launched, it had more than 1,000 applications ready to go. This made Palmisano a rising star at IBM.

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