What It's Like to Work at IBM

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job interview I spent 25 years working at IBM, most of it in fairly technical programming jobs, but the rewards (and the frustrations) are much the same regardless of your particular job assignment. In many ways, IBM is still an excellent place to work. Their benefits are very generous, although the pension no longer is, and for the most part employees are treated very well.

Some years ago, all employees under a certain age were switched from defined benefit to defined contribution pension plans. Fortunately, I missed that cut-off by a year or two (because of age/seniority) and was able to keep my original pension plan. Younger workers had their pension investments subject to the vicissitudes of the stock market, and many lost half their value in the 2008 crash. This also happened to everyone's 401(k)s, reducing them to "201(k)s."

Great benefits

Vacations at IBM start at two weeks and over time go up to five weeks. The six-week vacation was killed off some years ago. However, you cannot carry over unused vacation time to the next year, which sometimes bites you when a year-end work emergency keeps you from taking that vacation. In that case, it depends on your manager. In addition, employees get 12 holidays every year, usually eight national holidays and four "floating holidays."

IBM does not have a sick day policy. Instead, you are expected to stay home if you are sick and return when you are well. In extreme cases you may need to provide a doctor's note indicating that you are well enough to return to work.

Benefits at IBM have always been good, but like most other employers, the cost to the employee has skyrocketed with the cost of medical care. IBM does offer both dental and vision care as an add-on to your benefit package, and the price is quite reasonable.

A variety of assignments

The technical work to be done at IBM is very interesting and there is a great deal of variety in most jobs, so you aren't stuck repeating the same tasks over and over again. In the years I spent at the company, I worked in the (now defunct) scientific instrument division,then in a marketing division supporting higher education and finally (for the last 19 years) at IBM Research, considered one of the strongest industrial research organizations in the world.

The nature of the work in the Research Division oscillated over the years from long-term, blue-sky assignments to very short three- to six-month projects supporting customers and other divisions.

The best part of working at IBM has always been the people. You can walk down the hall and get advice from any number of very intelligent people on whatever project you are working on, and sometimes you can provide your expertise to them as well.

When I joined IBM, one of its main tenets was "respect for the individual." This meant that you had some freedom and flexibility and that they respected your views and approaches as well as you as a person. Sadly, many employees feel that these principles are no longer stressed after IBM began instituting layoffs for the first time in 1993. More layoffs are likely to continue into 2011 according to informed sources.

While IBM is still a major global force, it has reduced its U.S. work force from 133,000 in 2005 to 105,000 in 2009, according to the nascent employees union, Alliance@IBM. Many of the missing jobs are now being done overseas, leading to a company-wide fear of substantial job "offshoring."

IBM does not have any unionized facilities or groups of workers and does everything it can to keep unions from forming. While this is primarily accomplished by providing good salaries and benefits, there is a real executive paranoia about labor unions, one that probably is not justified. It is only since layoffs became common at IBM that talk of unions became significant.

A formal culture

The formality of the dress culture at IBM has loosened over the years. Sales and marketing people have always dressed in fairly formal business attire, but starting with the Lou Gerstner regime (1993-2002), the powers that be no longer required that your dress shirt be white. About 20 years ago, I was working with an educational marketing group in Milford, Conn., and decided to go down to the cafeteria and count how many others were wearing colored dress shirts, as I was. I was the only one. Nowadays you will see a bit more color than that.

From time to time, I would go on sales calls with sales and marketing people. They would always be wearing suits, ties and white shirts. I was usually wearing more casual shirts and wash pants, because I would often have to crawl around connecting up machines and making things work. After the call was over we would meet for dinner. I'd usually change my shirt and slip on a sports jacket, while I found it amusing that the marketing people would "dress down" since they were now off duty.

Working with the salespeople and with customers was always a rewarding part of my job, because I always learned something new. And watching salespeople at work was fascinating. They may not have had the deep technical knowledge of the products that I did, but their ability to form relationships with the customers was unsurpassed and was the key to successful sales.

A sliding scale

Each IBM division ranks its employees annually and uses those rankings to determine merit pay and salary increases. Employees are ranked as 1, 2, 2.5 or 3 with "1" as superior and "3" as needing improvement. Receiving two or more 3s is likely a death knell for your job; it is a way to ease people out. Needless to say, this can be and is manipulated from time to time.

In February 2009, IBM laid off about 10 percent of the workers in the Research Division, along with a number of other employees. Faced with that eventuality, I chose to retire at the bottom of the market with my "201(k)." While the official statistics seemed to show a wide age range being affected, there seemed to be a fair amount of feeling that older, more expensive employees were being targeted.

My career at Big Blue was a really good run, and I enjoyed most of the time I spent there carrying out one challenging assignment after another. But the last year or so were not pleasant, and it was time to go.

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