Why IBM is hiring 1,000 software designers

Think design isn't important for enterprise software? IBM disagrees, and is hiring 1,000 designers to prove it.

IBM is one of the latest traditional technology behemoths to see design as a key differentiator in enterprise software. In a session at last week's Cultivate Conference (co-located with the influential open-source OSCON event in Portland), IBM's General Manager of Design (apparently a real position) Phil Gilbert told attendees about Big Blue's attempt to create a "culture of design" at the 130-year-old company.

Beyond "Big Blue"

"We want to bring design to everything we do," Gilbert said, which means changing the people, practices, and places involved in creating software. To help make that happen, he added, the company is committed to hiring 1,000 formally trained designers in the next six years, two-thirds of whom will be recent college graduates.

To help those new hires apply design thinking in order to "generate much better outcomes for our customers," the company has instituted a regular "design camp" in its 50,000sf Austin, Texas, design studio, as well as shorter sessions in other studios around the world. Just as importantly, it has created a career path for designers within the company, elevating design as a craft, similar to software development, with titles like "distinguished designer" and IBM Fellow (though no designers have yet achieved that status).

With the increasing pressure from newer consumer-oriented, Software-as-a-Service alternatives to traditional IT products, it's little surprise that design is gaining importance in companies like IBM, where design hasn't always been a priority. "No one wants to deliver a crappy user experience," Gilbert said. But real improvement takes a conscious decision to "no longer ship products that don't delight users.

See also: SAP offers more proof consumer software is the new enterprise standard

Some might say it's an attempt to shed a conservative design reputation built over decades of white-shirts-and-ties conformity at the venerable institution. And indeed, Gilbert notes IBM is looking for unity, not uniformity. The effort, he said, is "blending of the old and the new." The challenge is "can you get to the new before the old atrophies?"

You can see some of the progress at IBM's design site. But while Gilbert claimed "there is massive evidence that what we're doing is good and having a massive impact," he also acknowledged that the changes will take a few more years to really stick. 

The strategy, he said, has been to first get people who want to change, get some quick wins, and then use those to get more people who want to change. The ultimate goal? To "align the entire company toward the human-centric needs of all our clients."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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