Rodney C. Adkins oversees 50,000 employees and is responsible for $18 billion in revenue as senior vice president and group executive for systems and technology at IBM, one of the world's largest and most durable technology companies. Adkins, 52, also is one of the most powerful African-Americans in high tech.
Until Adkins succeeded his boss, Robert Moffat, after his arrest in relation to the 2009 Galleon insider trading case, most people had never heard of him. The IBM-lifer got the job on an interim basis, with the promotion made permanent less than two weeks later. Adkins is considered one of three candidates to succeed Chief Executive Samuel J. Palmisano, 60, when he retires.
Growing up in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, Adkins was 10 years old when the area erupted in riots during the 1968 Republican National Convention. After leaving his hometown to study physics at Rollins College near Orlando, he was one of 25 African-Americans among a student body of 1,200. He joined IBM upon graduation and has left the company only once, to complete a master's degree in electrical engineering at Georgia Tech.
In his 30 years at IBM, Adkins has occupied 19 different positions spanning almost all aspects of the company's various business areas including hardware, software, UNIX servers, PCs and mobile computing. The division he currently heads generated revenue of $4.7 billion in IBM's second quarter, up 17% from the same period last year. Adkins' group also helped develop the underlying server system for the Watson computer, which gained notoriety for beating human competitors on the Jeopardy! game show.
FINS spoke with Adkins about the importance of mentorship, getting work experience outside of your comfort zone, and what can be done to boost the number of minorities in engineering.
Joseph Walker: What did you want to be when you were younger?
RA: I always had a fascination with technology, even to the point of when I was a kid, I would dismantle many of our home appliances just to figure out how they worked. For the most part, I was successful in putting them back together.
My parents harnessed that curiosity. I always wanted to be an engineer, which led into my focus on subjects like math and science, which is a foundation for engineering and computer science today. That's how it all started.
In what I call my night job here at IBM, I work with various constituencies as a strong supporter of what we call STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] disciplines. I'm convinced that when you look at the opportunities particularly for US competitiveness, we need to develop a strong pipeline of talent for the jobs of the 21st century.
JW: How is the US doing in keeping the pipeline for tech talent filled?
RA: We have work to do because if you look at the stats from the Department of Labor, 5% of US workers employed today are in STEM, but when you look at the sustained economic expansion, 50% comes from these types of jobs. The percentages of students studying math and science has decreased from 21% in 1980 to about 16% today according to the National Science Foundation. We have our work cut our for us in terms of stimulating and getting people more excited about the STEM disciplines.
JW: You've climbed to a very senior position at IBM. What was your first big break?
Rodney Adkins: I started at IBM as a hardware engineer, which is my foundational field. So a big break was taking jobs outside of hardware engineering that allowed me to develop skills outside of product development. I've had experience in business operations, experience in software, experience in project management, I even worked briefly in Japan, working with engineers at our Yamato Lab on our first mobile PC called the p70.
The other break, first and foremost because we're tested on results, is getting tested on tough jobs. I have had a couple of really tough jobs, desktop PCs, our UNIX business, and now all of our hardware business.
JW: You were at IBM when the company decided to sell the PC arm to Lenovo in 2004. What did it teach you?
RA: When you look at IBM's heritage, we've always been a company that's been focused on continued innovation. We went into the PC market and became a market leader in the early 1980s. As we saw the world changing and intelligence got embedded in everything we know, our point of view turned to Smarter Planet. Many different types of devices are becoming intelligent connected devices and PCs aren't the only model to have connectivity to the information technology infrastructure.
We took the step to focus our investment in other areas like service and software and research projects like Watson, the next generation of analytics- type platforms.
The decision around PCs was, as we look back, we re-focused on optimized systems, middleware integration of software with our hardware and PCs didn't make as much sense for our overall portfolio.
Leadership is a risky business. And you can characterize risk. There are things called prudent risk when you look at the market opportunity and our financial model, and where we felt the opportunities were going, our point of view was focus our investment on the growth sectors of the market.
To be a leader in our market, you have to be willing to make those types of portfolio changes and execute and deliver the results.
JW: What role did mentors play in your career?
RA: There was one point in my career when I was about 35 years old, where I was very interested in becoming a leader of one of the sales groups in IBM. But from a discussion I had with a mentor [retired IBM executive vice president, Nick Donofrio], it was determined based on where I was in my career I would have a better impact and more than likely produce better results if I pursued a different path, one in product branding and development. I became general manager of PC Desktop Computing, then UNIX Server, followed by Pervasive Computing Software. Frankly, that was probably the best advice I ever received, and it came at a very critical point in my career.
I was redirected in my career path, and frankly that path has resulted in where I landed today in terms of being responsible for a very significant portion of IBM.
Mentoring has been extremely instrumental in my career, to the point where I'm a very active mentor. I have probably well over 100 mentoring relationships within IBM and also some with different professional organization externally like the National Society of Black Engineering. I'm very active as a board member for the NACME (National Action Council for Minorities In Engineering).
JW: You started your engineering career in the early 1980s. What were the challenges you faced as an African-American in a predominantly white field?
I found it to be a very challenging, but at the same time, a rewarding experience. I went to Rollins College and majored in physics. It was a very small school of 1,200 students, about 25 African-Americans on campus.
My focus was on my commitment to my work and the results from my work. My view was I could compete on any stage by being committed to producing positive results, and that logic works in high school, college and even in the workplace. It's the same thing here at IBM. I always tell people that you're only as good as your last quarter. The reason I tell them that is because everything is about consistent performance, your work and the results of your work.
JW: African-Americans account for 12.6% of the population, but received only 4.7% of the bachelor's degrees in engineering in the 2008-2009 school year, according to the National Society of Black Engineers. What do you think accounts for that discrepancy?
RA: It has had several names. One name that has been popular is the digital divide, and what it talks about is the access to technology.
For kids who show an early aptitude toward math and science, are we doing the right things to make sure that kids maintain that interest? There's a lot of systematic things that discourage kids who have a high aptitude toward science and math in the public school system.
Sometimes it's the skill level of the teacher; sometimes it's the economic or environmental conditions the kids are living in. But at some point they get discouraged at pursuing the fields that will lead to jobs in engineering, math and science.
IBM is doing some interesting things where some of our more mature employees, when they get to the point of retirement, they go back to the school system to teach in some of these critical areas. Just to make the point that we have to keep kids interested and we have to make sure we have the talent to teach these critical foundational topics.
JW: Why are you so passionate about underrepresented minorities within technology?
I was fortunate because I had people along the way who gave me great advice and encouragement, so I think I'm at a point in life where its my responsibility to do the same.
I grew up in a very challenged part of Miami, in an area where many of the kids I grew up with didn't get out of the neighborhood, where they ended up victims of their environment. I have to tell you, based on my curiosity and the support system I had from my parents when I tinkered and tore up things--they did not discourage that, they harnessed that. And I had great support from math and science teachers. I often think back on those foundations in becoming interested in physics and engineering and eventually working for one of the world's largest technology companies.
JW: IBM was one of the first companies to affirm its commitment to equal opportunity hiring with Thomas Watson Jr.'s 1953 Equal Opportunity Letter. What does IBM do today that is different from other companies to promote racial diversity?
RA: I think IBM promotes diversity on all dimensions, because it's just good for business. Quite often we like to think about racial or ethnic diversity, but diversity happens on all dimensions. There's a geographic dimension. IBM is a global company and we have operations in 170 different countries. The reason we do that is because people in those countries want to do business with people who look like them.
IBM has always been a leader in sourcing people with the best skills, in all different geographic areas. It's allowed us to be a company that has been able to innovate for 100 years, because we do value the capabilities of our people and we look for the best talent independent of their orientation.
JW: IBM is still a very successful company, but there are younger, some would say sexier, technology companies around today like Google and Facebook. How do you compete for talent?
RA: This company's foundation is investing in innovation. When people look at us, we've been consistent for 100 years. When you look at the top 25 industrial corporations in 1900, only two of those remained in the top 25 in the 1960s [IBM was one]. When you look at the 1960s, there's only six that remain today. The question is, can a company continue to deliver leadership time after time? That's what distinguishes IBM.
When you look at things like Watson, I can't think of any other company in our industry with the know-how to deliver what is the next generation of systems.
You can argue that over the last 100 years of computing, the first was tabulating, this era is computing, the next era is learning for smart systems, i.e. products like Watson.
JW: You've spent your entire career at IBM, ascending from doing quality assurance for printers to senior vice president. For many young engineers today, that career arc seems untenable. What would your advice be to young engineers who want to attain a similar position as you? Become a lifer, or jump around?
RA: Given the size of our company and that we have capabilities across software, hardware and services, IBM's model is many companies within a company. You can explore different opportunities within IBM and you can work in different geographic locations around the world.
I would say at the macro level, you should explore different opportunities. People may decide that a company like IBM isn't what they're looking for in terms of experience, and that's okay if they make that decision. In that regard I'd encourage people to develop a broad set of capabilities. I've developed experience in sales and marketing and software and operations.
Whatever you do, make sure you know what you're strong at and know what you're not strong at. if you're weak and challenged in a certain area make sure you develop strong professional and social networks so you can leverage input and insight from others.
Write to Joseph Walker