The Watson Dynasty:  10th anniversary on a IBM Historical Account


I read The Watson Dynasty, by Richard S. Tedlow back in 2003 when it was first published.   Ten years later I’m re-reading this IBM Classic account and re-introducing myself to the mindset and philosophies of IBM’s founding father and son, T.J. Watson Sr. and T.J. Watson Jr.

The book is interesting from the point of view of adventures in business and rags to riches empire building.  While the book certainly talks about and touches on the great innovations and technology that IBM created, the purpose of the book is to account the history of how IBM grew into the powerhouse its knows for by the Watson father and son leadership.

Thomas J. Watson Senior

Starting with Thomas J. Watson Senior’s life and character you get a sense right off the introduction that this is not your typical business leader.  The opening example of taking what would be a crippling train accident with hundreds of his employees during IBM Day at the second New York World’s Fair in 1940, and turning it into an flourishing opportunity.

I found T.J. Watson’s life a fascinating and relentless battle.   Here’s an excerpt at age twenty-one:

‘The only place for him to rest his head at night was a pile of sponges in the basement of a store.  Watson went from rags to riches, but he did not begin life in rags.  He worked his way down before he worked his way up.’

What’s interesting is learning how at the roots of IBM’s history was computation devices such as scales and cash registers.  It was through a series of lucky opportunities and hard work and love of selling that allowed T.J. Watson  Sr. at the beginning of his career to found International Business Machines and turn it into a market leader.  In fact he was so successful and so cut throat to the competition he was faced under devastating anti-trust lawsuit in a former company he headed the sales with before founding IBM.

T.J. Watson Sr. is also certainly known for his famous quote,

“Would you like me to give you a formula for… success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure.”

This philosophy is captured by Tedlow as he touches on some other gems I found interesting about Senior.

‘Senior was a big tipper…His son asked why.

     “I do this for two reason, Tom.  First, that fellow…I feel sorry for him.  The second reason is that there is a whole class of people in the world who are in position to poor-mouth you unless you are sensitive to  them…They see you in an intimate fashion and can really knock off your reputation.”

Junior (aka “Terrible Tommy Watson”)

After  getting a sense of T.J Watson Sr. as the “Man of Men”, the book begins to account the life and character of Junior.  Described by college presidents and administration people as a “predetermined failure”.  It’s difficult not to feel sorry for “Terrible Tommy” overshadowed by his father’s legacy and depending on his father’s influence to get him into Brown University.

The bickering between father and son only intensifies as Junior followed in his father’s footsteps working and leading IBM on.

“Terrible Tommy failed at most of the things he tired.”

It interesting to see how “Terrible Tommy” despite other people’s expectations and the battles between him and his father how he later saves IBM from “The Old Man” as the dawn of electronic computers arrived and later the pushing force behind mainframes.

Intangible vs. The Punch Card in Hand

It’s half way in the book, Chapter 17, before electronic computers are introduced.  Before that IBM was running a sophisticated business with sophisticated technology running gears to compute and calculate  the numbers for businesses.  This way of doing the job obviously takes a drastic change once World War II introduced a “computer revolution”.

The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (or ENIAC) project, funded by the Army Ballistic Research Laboratory  at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Engineering, proved to out perform IBM’s fastest punch card machines in 5000 additions per second to 4!

While ENIAC at the time was acres of vacuum tubes that attracted moths (hence the term “debugging”) the “electronic brain” was born!

It’s interesting obviously in hindsight as the first computers were being engineered and IBM trying to convince customers the validity and utility of this new technology.  Senior had the customer’s interest in mind with having a tangible IBM punch card with the information that could be held in the hand, while Junior represented the new generation and influence where information was moving on to magnetic tapes becoming an intangible solution to storage woes of some of IBM’s biggest customers.  One of the them described they had 3 floors of typists on punch cards.


The true arch in the story, and what will interest many Millennial Mainframers, is the intense gamble IBM took creating System/360.  It was without a doubt a HUGE undertaking.  Tedlow quite boldly states:

‘The System/360 was one of the two greatest new product introductions in the twentieth-century American business history.  The other was the Model T Ford.’

It goes into detail explaining how System/360 took $5 billion over a period of four years and close to 2000 programmers.  The name 360 was in reference to all points of the compass.

Internal conflict and shaky belief that System/360 would ever succeed threatened the entire project as it slowly progressed forward.   When it was finally revealed the earliest customers were Bank of America and NASA proving to be a compelling and superior product that it brought about another antitrust lawsuit against IBM.


I liked the book.  Although be warned its a historical account of IBM and the Watson Dynasty, thus the hardcore nerdy technological details are missing and broadly covered.  Tedlow however does a fantastic job covering the historic business of IBM.

Probably the most interesting aspects of this book is that despite IBM being a huge empire making big moves and influencing the business world, at the center of it all was some family drama.

My favorite part obviously is the struggle and calculated risk IBM took pushing System/360 into the world.  System/360 was the predecessor of the now famous z/OS mainframe operating system still used extensively today.

I recommend checking this book out!

(Read more about The Watson Dynasty here:  The Watsons: IBM’s Troubled Legacy )

*** full disclosure: some of the Amazon links have affiliate links to support Sean McBride’s efforts with ***


Specialty Engines


Many of my colleagues know that in the last several years I have become a big Apple-holic. Back in 2007, I bought my first Macbook.  I now have ejected all Microsoft Windows-based hardware from my household, and we have/had a couple of Macbooks, a couple of iPads, iPhones, a Apple TV and a few other misc. items.  I’m pretty impressed by Apple’s hardware and how they integrate the hardware and software to create a system that performs well and provides high value to the user.

This should sound familiar, as it’s the same proposition we have with System z.  Over the last 8-10 years, IBM has made great strides towards improving System z’s usability, performance, and cost of ownership.  One key way we have done that is by introducing the “Specialty Processor” or “Specialty Engines“.

Now for years, System z has offloaded a lot of different functions from the main central processing “engines” and improved system performance and reliability.  For example, the System Assist Processor (SAP) is an engine in System z that is dedicated to I/O processing.  It allows offloading of I/O functions and frees the general-purpose processors to execute user programs.  We also introduced other specialty processors such as the zAAP (z Application Assist Processor), zIIP (z Integrated Information Processor), and a few others such as the on-chip Crypto Coprocessor.

But what does this have to do with the new iPhone?

When I was reading the various press pieces on the iPhone 5S announce, I ran across this article from Computerworld.  It pointed out a new function that I had completely missed in the announcement – the M7 “Motion Coprocessor”.

Now “co-processing” is not exactly new in the small systems world – PCs have been using discrete graphics processors for a long time now, which, like IBM’s System z Specialty Engines, offloads functionality to free up resources on the main processor.  On the iPhone and iPad, Apple uses ARM architecture chips, most recently the A6 on the iPhone 5 and new 5C, and now the A7 on the 5s, for “general processing” of applications.    The latest iPads use an A6X processor that has offloaded graphics to a 4-core graphics processor.  And now the M7 chip will offload functions such as accelerometer, gyroscope and compass processing.

So why is this a big deal?

Mobile computing is often thought of as applications and functions we carry around on our phones and tablet computers.  But it’s much more than that.  It’s wearable devices…Google Glass is but one example of this…it also includes those monitor devices that track your heartbeat, your temperature and other functions while you exercise. It’s medical devices and equipment that can measure your vital signs.  It’s on-board computers in cars.  It’s tiny computing devices in shipping containers or cartons.

Just about any kind of computing device that moves or transmits data we often refer to as “The Internet of Things“.   I’ll note that IBM actually envisioned all of this many years ago.  Most recently we referred to it as “Pervasive Computing“.  The kinds of information that iPhone’s M7 processor can handle is but one category of “pervasive” technology/data that will increase the demands of processing data and continue to drive the “Big Data” strategy of companies around the world.

So now Apple has discovered what IBM System z did – using specialty engines helps your computing platform deliver higher performance and better value by moving specialized computing functions to other offload processors so the main computing cores can work on the important tasks of processing the user’s applications.  I think that’s pretty cool.

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Greetings fellow Mainframers! My name is Dontrell Harris, a Senior Information Technology Major at NC A&T State University in Greensboro, NC and successful applicant of the Master the Mainframe contest.  I first would like to thank both old and new visitors for visiting the blog, and would like to extend a special thanks to Sean McBride for inviting me to participate in blogging with such an exclusive group of individuals. It is more than an honor to be able to share my experience, ideas, and opinions with you all.


For those unfamiliar with “Master the Mainframe”, it is an annual contest hosted by IBM Academic Initiative System z.  It comprises of 3 separate parts, Easy, Medium, and Hard if you will, with each part consisting of challenges that gain in difficulty and complexity as you progress.  It is typically scheduled to run from early October to late December. The contest is intended to provide students, high school and college, the opportunity to work with mainframes, an opportunity that many are not able to experience. The contest is designed for participants who are both familiar with mainframe technologies and also for those who have never seen or heard about a mainframe at all. This is where my story begins.

My Story

In the Fall of 2012, I began my junior year at North Carolina A&T State University with a goal of obtaining my first internship after starting my collegiate career very shaky. I had GPA issues that I knew I could not and WOULD NOT let define my true character and knowledge level.

That semester, I enrolled into the Intro to Mainframe Operations course, a newly offered course to the program. The course was being offered for only the second time when I took it. My school is very fortunate to have a mainframe, System z9 to be exact, on campus, which was supposed to host much of the curriculum for the course. Unfortunately, the coursework did not start because of network complications until the middle of October, a couple of weeks after I started my “Quest” with the Master the Mainframe (MtM) contest.

On October 1, 2012, IBM opened the contest up to the 4700+ registrants, including myself, and I was immediately HOOKED! 

Part 1 gave the participants an initial walk-through of how to navigate through the mainframe and the ISPF panels with the use of a terminal emulator client. It was all so new to me, but I thought it was extremely COOL from the start.

Part 1 was given the completion time of 1 hour… I did it in 15 minutes. From that point, I spent countless hours working on the contest, despite how difficult some parts were. There were some nights where I would stay up to 5:00 am in the clubhouse of my apartment (I had no internet in my apartment) just to complete as many challenges as possible.

When I arrived to Part 3, most of my sleepless nights were result of me trying to overcome just one individual challenge. By the way, Part 3 of the contest is equivalent to a Real World experience that someone with an actual career would face. There was a particular challenge in Part 3 that had me stumped for over 5 days. Needless to say though, I defeated that pesky challenge. As matter of fact, after all those sleepless nights and countless hours of working on the contest, I finished the contest in its entirety in exactly One Month and a Day (November 2, 2012).

Finishing the contest helped me establish a confidence within myself and abilities that was never there before. I felt proud of my accomplishments, but did not understand the importance or significance of achievement.

Of the 4700+ participants in the contest, I was only 1 of 28 to complete the contest in the entire Nation, and the ONLY and FIRST participant in North Carolina to complete the contest as well.

Those accomplishments helped me grasp my career choices and also began to open major doors for me.  Since then, I have had the opportunity to intern with IBM in RTP, NC as part of the z/OS Communications Server team as a software/network tester and also become a recipient of a System z scholarship.  Though I was not a Top 5 winner this year in the contest, I truly feel that I am still a winner with all of the available opportunities and awards that have been presented to me. It has truly changed my life in many aspects.

Master the Mainframe Tips

Even though no Mainframe experience is necessary for the Master the Mainframe contest, some skills will be needed in order to complete the contest in its entirety.  You will have to have some programming knowledge and maybe even a few networking skills, but nothing too major.

The biggest tip that I can offer is just to have the willingness to DOPatience, and that “DON’T QUIT” attitude! There were plenty of times where I felt that I just could not go on in the contest because something became very hard, but I just kept pushing myself and working towards solving whatever problem it was that I was facing, and surely I defeated the obstacle.

Just like with any problem, there is a solution… you just have to figure it out!

Seize the Opportunity…

 MtM Contest is the perfect opportunity for students who are still searching for their “niche” or just someone who loves technology, but just unsure what direction they want to go with it.  I truly believe that it is more than worthwhile for college students to learn this technology.  The demand for students with mainframe-related knowledge has never been higher and the opportunities for challenging and fulfilling careers have not either.  The beauty of it all, in my opinion, is that no matter what technology based skill-set one may possess, it can be utilized within the mainframe environment.

For those students who love programming or building databases, guess what… There is a Career for YOU within the Mainframe environment!

I personally aspire to one day become a Technical Consultant, particularly in mainframe technologies.  I am fascinated with the endless solutions that the technology is able to provide to business clients…a lot solutions that clients will never realize that they need. I am just grateful that with Master the Mainframe, I am able to NOW have career aspiration to work towards.

(*** Please follow me at mainframemindedaggie ****)
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