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 ***


“Walker, your treads are
the path and nothing more;
walker, there is no path,
the path is made when walking.”

Seven years ago, I had little idea of what life would hold for me or my professional future. Back then, I was self-assured 19 year-old Computer Whiz working as a Systems Administrator and taking vocational training in C programming and Oracle database administration. I thought that I knew everything about computers, and I planned to begin a degree program in Computer Engineering in anticipation of moving on to bigger and better things.

I discovered how surprising life can be when IBM offered me the chance to take a quick three-week boot camp in something completely new: the IBM System z Mainframe. At that point, I really didn’t know anything about mainframes, but like any good technology geek, I couldn’t pass up the chance to learn something new. During the first week, I intensively studied Job Control Language (JCL) and started to learn about topics like batch processing.  During the second week, I began to learn about various critical aspects of z/OS systems, including storage, operations, ISPF, SDSF, and JES2.  During the third week…

Well, I didn’t actually get a third week, as three of the trainees in the bootcamp were then pulled aside and selected to interview with IBM for employment as a Computer Operator.

Two were selected (I was one of them ).

On my first day as an IBMer, I learned that I had a choice between two open positions. One position would allow me to learn batch and the systems administration of UNIX systems, and the other would allow me to focus on administering z/OS systems among large mainframe clients, which were mostly banks.

It’s not very difficult to discover what my choice was.

Despite the fact that I had only just begun my IT education, IBM gave me a great opportunity to enter in the vast and incredible environment of the Mainframes.

Over the next months, I was definitely the newbie on the mainframe team, but I gradually learned the various components of the System z mainframe while picking up the mainframe mentality. Despite previously having minimal knowledge about mainframes, I discovered many of amazing attributes of IBM System z, including:

  • The mainframe’s traditional ISPF interface (“Intuitive and Simple Panel Facility”).
  • The orders, operations and monitors (such as SDSF) that allowed me to easily track the progress of processes and control the actions of the system.
  • The clear messages in the mainframe’s JOBLOG & SYSLOG and good documentation that helped me understand what was going on.  I actually continue to think that IBM has the best documentation of any IT vendor.

These experiences led me to realize that I really wanted to become a Mainframe Systems Programmer and resulted in where I am today.

If I had to offer advice to a young IT student thinking about mainframes, I would suggest the following:

  • Read the free IBM Redbook Intro to the New Mainframe: z/OS Basics where you can learn the core concepts of mainframes and Enterprise Computing.
  • Enroll the Master the Mainframe Contest where you can get hands-on experience working in a mainframe environment.  Although this program started in the United States, it is now expanding to Europe, India, China, Brazil, and many other countries.
  • Follow the IBM Academic Initiative, which is working hard to promote mainframe education worldwide.

There are way more opportunities available to learn the mainframe now than when I took my IBM Mainframe boot camp seven years ago, but I think that, like me, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you learn. Who knows?  Maybe this could turn into your “big break” like it did with me.  

I hope you enjoyed my insights as a young Millennial Mainframer and don’t miss my next article!  If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to comment below. You can follow me on Twitter at @Guirix and join my ongoing discussion on Cloud Computing on the Mainframe at Cloud Mainframe Computing!

About the Author 

Álvaro Guirao López.

MBA Entrepreneurship (In Progress), Innovation & Entrepreneurship Business School
B.S in Computer Engineering, King Juan Carlos University.

Álvaro entered the Mainframe world when he starting working as a System z Computer Operator at only 19 years old. Over his career, he has learned the great capacities of mainframe hardware and software while promoting up the mainframe systems programming ranks in the banking sector. Álvaro currently runs a consultancy dedicated to helping various clients throughout Spain in the areas of mainframe technologies and systems programming

One of the more unique aspects of being a Millennial Mainframer is working on teams with coworkers far older than ourselves.  While this generational gap impacts day-to-day life in a mainframe shop in meaningful and significant ways, our older coworkers, contrary to popular belief, were at one time themselves young IT professionals learning the mainframe platform.  I was reminded of this fact during IBM’s Pulse Conference when one of the speakers saw a group of Millennial Mainframers sitting together and commented that he felt “like he was back at an IT shop in the 1970s.”  In that light, it is quite useful for us to consider our elders’ experiences as young mainframers and perspective regarding the evolution of the mainframe platform.  Of course, many of the Baby Boomers grew up with the maxim “never trust anyone over 30,” meaning that we need to need to take their thoughts and advice with a healthy dose of youthful skepticism.

In 1964 (the very same year that Jack Weinberger penned the aforementioned Boomer maxim in the San Francisco Chronicle), a Italian-American college student studying Electrical Engineering in New York state began to get nagged by his mother.  While this student dreamed about moving west (out californee way), his mother wanted him to think about something more practical, like an IBM co-op program in the Hudson Valley.  After much gnashing of teeth, this student relented, which gave him the opportunity to work on the ferrite cores of the System 360 (the original predecessor to the System z mainframe).  Rather than experience the Haight or the counter-culture of the 1960s, this “magna summa cum nada” student (named Nick Donofrio) began a 44 year IBM career that brought him into “the primordial ooze” of mainframe computing.

In the following 40 minute talk to younger IBMers during the announcement of the zEnterprise, Nick Donofrio recounts his views of the past, present, and future of mainframe computing.  Despite having a length longer than the 30 second attention span of the average Millennial, this speech is worth a listen, as it is the best message I have ever heard for communicating the unique value of mainframe computing.  So fasten your seatbelts and hit play.  Heck, as a millennial, you’re a master multi-tasker anyways, so feel free to fire up DrawSomething on your favorite iOS or Android Device while devoting your ears to Nick Donofrio.

What are your thoughts?  Do you feel blessed?  Did Nick inspire you?  Do you want five honorary doctorate degrees?  Do you agree with his thoughts on the mainframe?  How do you plan to build on the mainframe’s legacy?  Let’s hear you in the comments!

Posted in IBM.