Dr. Nick Bowen Discusses IBM’s Evolution to a Standing-Room Only Crowd


Distinguished Lecture - Dr. Nick Bowen
Dr. Nick Bowen, IBM’s Vice President of Software Appliances, spoke at Boston University as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series on February 16.

As IBM approaches its Centennial – a rare milestone for an information technology company – one might assume that the employees behind it have a knack for predicting future technology trends.

But Dr. Nick Bowen, IBM’s Vice President of Software Appliances, said that in reality, technology moves very slowly but is still hard to predict.

“IBM has remained successful because we’re quite good at transforming ourselves over and over again,” Bowen told a Boston University standing-room only crowd on February 16.

That doesn’t mean IBM has been immune to the shifts in the marketplace. In 1992, the company saw $5 billion losses – the highest in American corporate history at the time – after it was unable to keep up with the world’s fastest changing industry and adapt to technology disruptions – innovations that improve a product in ways the market may not have expected.

“It wasn’t that we didn’t see technology disruptions like CMOS. The problem was that we didn’t react fast enough to what we were seeing,” said Bowen, who has worked for IBM for over 25 years.

Bowen was on campus as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series, which brings prominent engineers to the university. He spoke on the topic, “Technology Disruptions and Trends: The Next Decade.”

Today, IBM has come a long way since the dark days of the early ’90s. The company paves the way in areas like business analytics, cloud computing, and Smart Planet solutions. And its artificial intelligence computer system, Watson, recently made international headlines when it crushed its human opponents on Jeopardy.

But how did IBM get out of its crisis?

Bowen said that there were many factors including new leadership whose mission was to “never be surprised by a technology disruption again.” He also pointed to the company’s push toward a culture of innovation, citing IBM’S Global Innovation Outlook – an effort to see how the company could impact areas like healthcare, energy, and economic development on a global scale – as one example.

“Today there is a deep culture in IBM to never go back to 1992,” said Bowen.

When asked if he had any advice to offer engineering students, Bowen said that it’s important to find a place to work that demands more and strives for innovation.

“Possessing broad knowledge is also important in engineering today,” offered Bowen. “Today, it helps to possess a diversity of skills.”

The final Distinguished Lecture of the spring will take place Wednesday, March 2, and feature Professor Mark J. T. Smith, Dean of the Graduate School at Purdue University. He will speak on the topic, “Improved Models for Accent Detection and Voice Synthesis” at 4 p.m. in room 211 of 8 Saint Mary’s St.

-Rachel Harrington (rachelah@bu.edu)