A lot of experts agree: Company culture can have a huge impact on not only financial performance, but on how employees deliver innovation for clients.
Forbes defined culture as “the set of behaviors, values, artifacts, reward systems and rituals that make up your organization.” Additionally, company culture “is often evident in people’s behavior, enthusiasm and the space itself.”
A New Culture Within IBM
In February, I attended IBM InterConnect in Las Vegas. There I got to meet several IBMers focused on endpoint security, including a lot of folks from IBM BigFix. Something interesting stood out for me about this group. Sure, like most IBMers they were smart, capable and motivated — but they were also having a whole heck of a lot of fun doing their jobs.
I think that combination of working smart and having fun is a winning culture for everyone involved. It’s in that kind of atmosphere where innovation thrives, because it’s that environment that inspires us to be engaged and bring our best ideas to the table (even if we’re wrong on occasion).
So when I got home from InterConnect, I packed up my briefcase and headed across the San Francisco Bay to Emeryville, California, to pay a visit to some of my new friends from BigFix: Lisa Towles, Dex Liu and Eric Chan. I went to find out what exactly was so big about the culture at IBM BigFix.
A Day at IBM BigFix
Question: How long have you guys worked for BigFix?
Lisa Towles: I came here in 2008. Before that I was at Google.
Dex Liu: I started in 2009. I was finishing off my degree at UC Berkeley before that.
Eric Chan: I’m the new guy! I’ve been here almost two years. Before that I was in college.
What is your role here?
Lisa: My focus is documentation and licensing, but in general, my team builds content that helps improve the customer’s experience using BigFix — everything from documentation to short videos to infographics. Our goal is to get to know the customer holistically: to understand what they need and create it for them.
Dex: I’m an application architect and work across the teams to help determine what we should and shouldn’t be doing with the product. I like that, and also like that I get to spend my time doing a lot of mentoring, as well.
Eric: I work with Dex on the Web UI. Basically I try to make the product easier for humans to work with.
When we were in Las Vegas, each of you told me a little bit about your backgrounds and where you’re from. Tell me more about your history.
Lisa: I’ll go first. I actually studied music in undergrad, and I have a B.A. in it. I minored in behavioral science, which is kind of like user interface. Then I did some grad work in psychology and right now I’m working on an MBA in IT management. My day job is here, but I’m also a musician and a published mystery novelist. The arts are my passion — my love for technology didn’t come until later.
Dex: When I was at Berkeley, I played around with computers a bit. My actual major is in electrical engineering, and I don’t use anything I learned in my undergrad. I got involved in the student-run systems administration program in college, which really helped me define where I wanted my career to go. We got to work on some really cool projects, including piloting BigFix for patch management. In fact, I got so wrapped up in my work there I kind of ignored my academic stuff and it took me an extra year to graduate!
Eric: I majored in computer science at the University of Victoria. I guess I’m more like Lisa because when I entered college, I had no idea what computer science was before I went to school.
Lisa’s passions aren’t just the arts and technology — yoga holds a place in her heart, too.
Question to Eric: So how did you end up with that major?
Eric: Well, I happened to be talking to some friends who were majoring in computer science and they pointed out that my first major, biology, wasn’t really going that well for me. So I thought I’d try computer science. I stuck with it, and it clicked! Would I change my major if I could go back now? No way!
Well, you guys sure seem to have a lot of fun around here. I mean, you’re all laughing together during this interview, your offices are decorated in pretty creative ways, you all talk and joke around — I even saw Eric riding a scooter around the office earlier today.
Eric: Yeah everyone here is open and energetic. We pass the scooter around and everyone uses it when we have to go long distances inside the office.
Long distances inside the office? You mean like the next aisle over?
Eric: Yeah, totally! It’s one of those things that seems small but helps make it a fun place to be. And I really like being here — there’s always something fun happening in the office in addition to work that I really like.
Dex: It is fun. I’m a legacy BigFix guy, and one of the things we retained after the acquisition is this philosophy of doing the right thing for our company and the product. It’s still a big part of who we are even though we’re embedded in a much larger company.
Lisa: Right! I’m also legacy BigFix. When I look at other offices in the tech industry, I feel like we look and act very much like a startup. It has the feel of a young, dynamic think tank, but we’re part of IBM — our mother ship that gives us a lot of stability. It’s like having the best of both worlds.
Eric and Dex in front of a wall of colorful Post-its. It might look confusing, but it’s a colorful way they track their work.
Between the three of you, you have almost two decades of experience with BigFix. I bet you have some interesting tales to tell about your time here. What are some of your favorite moments?
Lisa: Well, I don’t know if this qualifies as a favorite moment, but I want to tell you about one of my favorite parts here. Dex touched on it earlier, and that’s this idea of mentorship. I’ve had some really amazing teachers here — people who have taken the time to help me stay focused on what’s important not only to the company, but to me personally. And for me, that’s my passion for storytelling.
In technology, we are storytellers. When we talk to a group of people, we’re telling our BigFix story and we want the audience to be engaged, whether it’s a sales presentation or a technical document we’re working on. Mentors have helped me see that and helped me see the connections between my strength as a published author and what I do here.
Dex: Yeah, that’s true, there’s a lot of that kind of connecting happening here. Mine is kind of funny compared to Lisa’s, but it’s one of my favorite BigFix stories. A few years back, a bunch of us trained for the Tough Mudder race, where we had to go through a lot of obstacles, and I was super nervous because there was water on the course and I didn’t know how to swim. One of the obstacles we had to conquer was scaling this 30-foot wall and jumping into an icy cold river.
That’s where I would have bailed! What did you do?
Dex: I almost did! One of the guys here, Ben, said he’d do the obstacle just before me and jump in, then wave back to let me know it was okay and I wasn’t going to sink to the bottom. Well, I got so into it I didn’t even look for him, so once he jumped, I just jumped in right after him. I tried swimming in this river and it was the coldest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life, but then Ben grabbed me by the hand and fished me out. Now he likes to brag that he saved my life, but I totally know I could have made it on my own. But it’s not every day you have co-workers who are willing to reach in an icy river and fish you out, or brag about saving your life afterward.
Wow, now that I’ve gotten started, there are a lot of stories like that!
Lisa: Tell them!
Dex: We also have a history of pranking people in the office, especially when they go on vacation. Their cubes become fair targets if they’re out of town. Once we filled one co-worker’s cube with four feet of balloons then sealed it off so she had to wade through them to get back into her space.
Eric: Yeah, that happened to me, too! So, they all tease me about being Canadian here. One week I went to New York for vacation, and I came home and my entire cube was covered in red, white and blue streamers. Someone drew an American flag on my whiteboard, and there were dozens of little tiny American flags sticking out of everything in my cube.
Another time they captured all the stuffed animals I collect in my cube and made a fake prison for them on one of the shelves in my office. It was awesome!
It seems like you guys are all really close, so I’m gonna make you answer probably the toughest question in the interview. If you had to use one word to describe what it’s like to be part of IBM BigFix, what would it be? Remember, you only get one!
Lisa: That’s easy: enlightening. I feel like I’m surrounded by the smartest people I’ve ever had the chance to work with, and I’m always learning and evolving. I feel like that’s my job — not just as part of BigFix, but as a human. Evolving, learning, growing and becoming better. I can do that here, both with personal and professional growth.
Eric: I like that one, I agree! My word is also easy: amazing! I tell all my friends how great it is to work here and they’re all jealous. Like Lisa, I feel like I’ve found everything I could have wanted here — it’s a great culture, the projects are interesting, the product is cool. I’m never bored. All the different personalities mesh together so well, so it’s a fun time almost every day. It’s like a big, organized playground where we do serious work but get to play in the process.
Dex: Those were two really good answers, so now mine is hard! I’ll say bold. I say that because I feel like this is an environment that encourages us to be bold. I know I like to be bold, to interject throughout the day in whatever context and speak up for what’s right. And fortune favors the bold! Bold describes what we’re like and what we’re doing here at BigFix.
The IBM BigFix team.
At the End of the Day
So that’s a snapshot into my day at IBM BigFix.
Enlightening? Yes, I’ll be the first to admit I left enlightened.
Amazing? Yeah, that one applies too — these guys seem to have an amazing amount of fun and at the same time put together a pretty amazing product.
Bold? I have to hand them this one, as well. IBM is a huge company, and the ability to hang onto a unique startup culture where people can speak up is a pretty bold move.
Maybe one of the best things I left with was a standing invite for lunch. This group is pretty fun to be with, so I think I’m going to take them up on that offer, too. Heck, maybe next time I’ll even ride the scooter.