Why I left IBM

Three months ago I left IBM for greener pastures. My departure from IBM surprised most all of my coworkers (except for one person who said both “I’m surprised it took this long” and “take me with you”). One person in IBM requested that I let them know why it was leaving so “we can learn from [it]” and this is what I wrote up and sent to them.

I guess it came as a shock to most people because I was not disgruntled — I didn’t sat around bitching to coworkers about some imaginary wrong done to me by IBM. They were probably also a bit surprised because I was on a rather fast-paced track upwards and getting good visibility. I don’t expect anyone to be surprised at why I left however.

First, lets remove any doubt as to the non-reasons why I left. That is, these things played no part in my choosing to leave

  • The workload. I love to stay busy. Sometimes between juggling customer issues, testing products, doing exploratory testing, and documenting findings I’d end up working long days or weeks. During one customer critsit I recall never leaving my desk for 4 days over a weekend until we got the issue resolved. For that same customer I worked on-site 4th of July weekend. But my direct manager and management team were always on top of me to take compensation time or be flexible about my normal schedule.
  • The team. Far from being a reason to leave, this was a big reason to stay. Everyone on both my immediate and extended team were complete professionals and have been nothing but a pleasure to work with. That doesn’t mean that there were no disagreements or heated discussions, but those rare instances were examples of how passionate folks cared about their work – not disrespect for their peers. (And trust me when I say that I’m sure I came across as an ass when advocating for my defects in bug scrubs!)
  • My direct management team. My direct management team was the best. Every first-line manager I had at IBM was phenomenal and raised the bar for their successor. Woody, my last first-line, is no exception and left some very big shoes to fill. He and the rest of my team gave me the flexibility to define my own job and the right level of running interference when I needed a buffer.

So lets cut to the chase and talk about the reasons I left:

  • The global development model. IBM is a global company and has development teams all over the world. That makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is to have a single team spread all over the world. What makes even less sense is to have a single agile team spread across the world. Scrum meetings over conference calls aren’t scrum meetings. In order to make cohesive teams it’s important for folks to get some face time yet IBM has no provisions for ever making this possible.
  • The lack of team support. Money to do anything team-related is nonexistent. For several years managers have been taking their teams out to lunch and other small team-building exercises with their own money. This is true of at least Tivoli and Information Management as I have manager friends in both areas.
  • The compensation. Let me preface this section by saying that I didn’t leave IBM because I thought I didn’t got paid enough. In fact, I took a pay cut moving to Isilon — and that’s not even accounting for the higher cost of living in Seattle. Instead this is about recognizing those who IBM purports to be “top contributors”. In 2010 I got a 1 — in a long string of 1s really except for years after I got a promotion. After 10 years, that’s not bad. My total raise in 2010: 4%. I got the feeling that this was a pretty high percentage compared to the rest of the organization. Except I didn’t get one at all in 2009 after being a new band 9. So that 4% over two years is more like 2% a year. And that’s for top contributors!? Compare this to the report that this year Google is giving a 10% pay increase across the board to their employees — not just their top contributors. At this rate I don’t see how IBM can stay competitive.
  • The spending constraints. I almost titled this section “The stupid”. It’s no surprise that IBM has been encouraging people to do more with less. Part of that mantra resulted in the order that there was to be no travel of any kind that wasn’t customer related without an exception. Getting an exception requires an Act of God yet sometimes people must still travel (see aforementioned item about the importance of team building) so management wastes time hunting around for any customer that they can place the traveling employee with for 30 minutes so they can check a box to get the expense approved. During my last 2-week trip to RTP, whose entire purpose was to engage with the team developing a new product, I paid for the entire trip. I saved money by staying with a good friend and paid for my own airfare. The only thing I asked IBM to do was to pony up money for a rental car for the two weeks. Total estimated cost: $500. Management wasted 3 or more weeks trying to find some customer for me to see while I was there to get reimbursed for it. How much employee time was wasted just to find some customer so I could get reimbursed $500. That’s just stupid. (They didn’t find me a customer by the time I left Denver so I canceled the rental car and borrowed my friend’s car for the 2 weeks. After I was there they found a customer for me to, literally, meet in a hotel lobby for 30 minutes talking about what tools we use in our lab to claim that I “met with a customer”. When the bean counters have forced managers to come up with such farce, and outright lies, to get travel compensation, it’s time to go elsewhere. I never did file that expense report. While I appreciate the effort my management team went through to get there, it was a little too late. More importantly, I couldn’t in good conscious be a part of such an outright lie.)
  • The recognition. Early in 2010 IBM got rid of their Thanks! awards in an attempt to further reduce expenses. This piddly little program was replaced with crappy eCards and a promise that a different compensation program was forthcoming. The new program was suppose to be more team-based and yet months after having been introduced I never heard of any team getting it. The Thanks! award program isn’t the problem, it’s just a symptom of how IBM is no longer recognizing the effort of their employees.
  • The remote allowances. Initially IBM provided internet access and phone service via VOIP to their work-from-home employees. Then they nuked the internet access. Then they changed the VOIP to a $40/month max compensation for some other phone service. Now they’ve reduced the phone cap to $25/month. Given how much money IBM must save when an employee works from home compared to in an IBM facility (electricity? furniture? lease on office space?) this is, again, crazy. Soon I expect IBM employees to pay for the privilege of working from home.

In short: IBM is reducing the quality of their employees’ working environment and compensation to increase the stock price. As a shareholder I like it. As an employee it was intolerable any longer.

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I'm a gay geek living in Seattle, WA.

2 thoughts on “Why I left IBM”

  1. Thanx for taking the time to spell it out. It comes to no surprise to me. I find it very impressive that given workload+mgmt+coworkers where pluses, that you would see beyond it and sacrifice $$+position/accomplishments.
    To further elaborate… I would think that the positives would be the most important aspects of the job, while the negatives you mentioned are somewhat secondary. If coworkers like and respect you, mgmt is above par, pay is good, and what you do day to day is something you enjoy… it seems like that would be more than enough to stay put. I would think that especially in your case, given the fast track and visibility that it would be pretty darn impossible to part with it.
    I guess we all have our set of priorities, and our buttons. For me it would be very tough to take a paycut, I would rationalize it somehow. However, dont get me wrong, I strongly admire your stance and confidence. It is easy to quit and go somewhere else if you feel you are going nowhere, but what you did takes some serious cojones!
    As far as IBM and the future, yea..at some point the wave we are riding will reach shore…and we’ll have to go to plan B. (note to self: sell stock before starting plan B)


    1. I guess it all boiled down to “do I think IBM valued me as an employee” and the answer came up a very firm: no. I don’t think they’re doing a good job of valuing any of their employees — oh, excuse me — resources. I decided I didn’t want to work for an employer that nickel-and-dimed me to death to increase their stock price. A friend who works in the IBM San Jose lab is unable to get post-it notes. That isn’t insane cost control?

      Sure leaving was taking a risk, but if I was a rockstar at IBM, would I be any less a rockstar anywhere else? :D

      So yes, I upped and moved to a different town working for a different company for a cut in salary, but with a massive increase in my day-to-day quality of life from my job.


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