In 1994, IBM sponsored the Winter Olympics and held exclusive rights to telecast the games. But Dave Grossman – an engineer at IBM – discovered Sun Microsystems had stolen the live feed and was posting the results on its website. This sparked the creation of a team of innovators that not only convinced IBM’s top brass to pay attention to the Internet but influenced a seismic change in everything about IBM as an organization.
In the first episode of season 3, host Gabriela Cowperthwaite takes us through the story of how the newly-assembled team built a website from scratch in time for the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. And how their efforts didn’t just prevent IBM from further embarrassment but transformed the entire company, going from one that almost missed the Internet to becoming a pioneer of its innovations, creating a website that would influence how we shop, work, and live online today. Along with Dave Grossman, the computer engineer who left IBM as a senior manager, we hear from John Patrick, IBM’s former vice president of internet technology, and Jane Harper, former director of collaborative innovation programs at IBM.
Teamistry is an original podcast from Atlassian.
Do you remember where you were in February of 1994, while the Winter Games were being played in Lillehammer, Norway? Dave Grossman does.
So at home at night, I'd watch my skiing and stuff, and I'd see these ads, these IBM ads. And I'm like, oh, that's pretty cool. I work for IBM
At the time, Dave was a computer engineer for IBM, who weren’t just one of the Olympics’ main sponsors. IBM had worked for two years to build the computer infrastructure necessary to collect and process event results. And while Dave watched the games at home on TV, at work, he had access to something really brand new: the World Wide Web. But when he looked up Olympic results, they were being posted not by IBM but by one of their main competitors, Sun Microsystems.
I remember I was just like, "What in the world is going on here?"
What was going on was that IBM’s Olympic results were being posted on Sun’s web page.
And then I guess I got kind of pissed, to be honest. Because it dawned on me, I worked out that they were stealing.
But here’s the thing: even though IBM was the world’s biggest computer company, they couldn’t do much about Sun Microsystems because, believe it or not, in February of 94, IBM didn’t have a website. They didn’t think the internet mattered for their business, as long-time IBMer John Patrick points out.
I remember that the head of marketing at IBM didn't allow people to put their email address on a business card.
IBM bosses thought an email address would make your business card look cluttered. But Dave knew that this mentality needed to change. He knew the internet was the future. It was time to poke the giant and get this huge, legacy company to change. Another long-time IBMer, Jane Harper, remembers it well.
It was a pivotal moment when Dave walked in and said, "We have got to do something," ... He was actually very angry about the fact that Sun was stealing our stuff. When somebody is that passionate and angry and said, "We've got to do this. We have got to change," it wakes people up.
And they had to wake up because the next games, in Atlanta, were only two years away. This team wanted to not only get IBM online for those games, but to build the biggest website the world had ever seen. A website that could eventually change how we all shop, work and live online. If they didn’t, if the company didn’t embrace the internet, Dave, John and Jane knew, it could be the beginning of the end for IBM.
"We've got to change." It's like, “Innovate or die.”
I’m Gabriela Cowperthwaite and this is Teamistry — an original podcast from Atlassian, makers of teamwork software like Jira, Confluence and Trello. This show is all about the chemistry of teams – and in season three we take a look at how some teams can change entire organizations and even whole industries with new ideas and unconventional ways of working.
my name is John Patrick. I was VP of Internet Technology at IBM
Before we get back to Dave and the Olympic games, we need to understand IBM in the early 90s. And that starts with John Patrick’s story.
Yeah, well, I think it's fair to say that I have some kind of a technology gene somewhere in my genome, and I have had it all my life. As far back as I can remember I was tinkering with various things.
When John was a kid, back in the late 50s, his love of technology led him to build his own gadgets, like a ham radio transmitter.
which I still remember that very fondly. It had 1,600 parts. And when I finished building it and connected it to a ham radio antenna in the backyard and was able to talk to somebody in Canada or Europe or other parts of the United States, that was a real thrill
John ended up working at IBM, starting in 1967. And he was working with cutting edge technology, for the time: he was selling... punch card machines.
the idea of using a keypunch to create a transaction by punching holes into a card and then putting those cards in these various mechanical devices
Yeah, not exactly what we think of as high tech. But that’s just so you understand where John was coming from. As basic as the tech seemed at the time, he was always looking to the future. Which all came together at a tech conference, twenty years later, while he was a Vice President of Marketing at IBM.
A gentleman from Sun Microsystems gave a demonstration and he showed the web, and he showed a live picture of a children's classroom in Japan, and that just blew me away. I got so enthusiastic about that and curious, like, how does that work? And when I got back to the office I started poking around to find if there's anybody at IBM know about this web? And I found out that there were some people in IBM research who knew a lot about it, but they didn't have anybody to talk to about it because it was so new and so different, and in many ways quite controversial.
Ok, there’s all sorts of controversy about what people post on the web today, but what John is saying is that in the early 90s, the very concept of the web was controversial, not only at IBM, but in most of the business world.
I remember being at a conference in Paris where I was the second speaker of the day. The first speaker was Bill Gates, and he said, "You know, this World Wide Web thing, it's very interesting, but I can tell you it has no place in business. It's slow, it's insecure, it's unreliable, and it's basically something for people to play around with, but it has no place in business."
Most of IBM’s top brass, except for John, felt the same way. As he mentioned, employees weren’t even allowed to put their email addresses on their business cards, even if they had email.
Of course I ignored that guidance and all the people that I knew I said, "Get an email address, put it on your business card, and that's how you communicate. You don't write letters to people, you send emails." So I became the, I guess you might say the mouthpiece for this very small group of technical experts who understood the internet.
This was a key turning point that would lay the groundwork for their future challenges and successes. John harnessed the energy that was bubbling away beneath the surface at IBM and created a virtual team of fellow internet enthusiasts.
We were on a mission to learn and experiment and innovate internet technology. It was 100% internet. We called it Getco, G-E-T-C-O, Getco, short for get connected.
And this is important. It wasn't just a regular team. It was a sort of special-ops group working outside of the normal system of IBM. That’s what was going to be needed to bring the Internet to the company in a real way. One of the folks who joined that team was Dave Grossman.
I worked for IBM for, I don't know, 20 odd years. I was extremely interested in the limits of human performance, and that led me into exercise physiology at the University of Michigan. And while that was underway, I got sidetracked in the labs with computers and data, and writing little programs to gather data, store data, and I ended up more interested on the tech side.
So that explains both why Dave was so interested in the Winter Games, but also incensed when he realized that Sun Microsystems was using the data IBM had collected. That results data was public, after all, but it still seemed wrong to Dave that it was not being posted by IBM.
And the people that were doing all the work, building the systems and all that kind of stuff, the results systems, and had done some really good technology work, were the people that I thought mattered, there wasn't any credit, I guess. So yeah, it just didn't add up for me.
And Dave said, "The Summer Games in Atlanta are coming up in 1996, and what we need to do is we need to build a website and we need to do what Sun Microsystems had done. I got very enthusiastic about it, and I said, "Well, how do we do it?" Dave said, "Well, I don't know but we'll figure it out."
IBM was set to once again be a major sponsor in 96, but again, without a website. Part of the problem was that higher ups at IBM didn’t use the web.
And IBM needs to wake up because this is where it's going. And the days of me being in a machine room or an army of me’s in the machine room selling companies big boxes, those days. That stuff's going to change.
So the GetCo team decided it was time to get the sleeping giant’s attention. And they were going to do it with a web page about Dave’s six year old son.
It’s spring of 1994, two years until the next Olympics, the deadline Dave and John had given Team GetCo to put IBM online. They’ve decided they’re going to do it by going right to the top. They’ve set up a meeting with Lou Gerstner, IBM’s CEO, to demonstrate the disruptive power of the internet.
So what we did was, we showed this webpage that I had built of our little kid at the time. There's a picture on top. It's got a six year old kid. The next page is Lou Gerstner saying, "Welcome to IBM". And for me... It's level. You could be a little kid, you could be a bazillion dollar corporation and you have the same global reach. So for me, that was huge. That's what IBM needed to, what I thought John was telling the senior managers of IBM is, "Hey, we got to wake up here."
And wake up, IBM does. Well, sort of. As much as Gerstner is impressed and agrees the company needs to rethink the web, the GetCo team will still have to go it alone, without a formal Olympic web development department. But they want it that way. You see, at the time, IBM is a heavily structured company, very top down, with little room for new approaches. That’s not what Dave and John want for GetCo.
The actual planning was from day-to-day, it was really experimenting. There was no blueprint. As we got more and more things underway, it became clear that we needed to have some structure. And so my assistant at the time was Jane Harper...
My name is Jane Harper, and as a kid, I was not fascinated in technology at all. I was fascinated in sports. I was fascinated in teams. I just loved team sports, and I always knew that what I really wanted to do was be a coach and be out there on the field and teaching kids and bringing teams together.
Jane joined IBM in 1980.
I didn't know anything about the company. Again, it was just not on my radar screen to go into business, and so I just by happenstance happened to fall in love with a young woman who was going to art school in New York. And I couldn't get a job teaching there, so I got a job at the lowest level position at IBM that I could.
She was a real morale booster. She was always enthusiastic, ...That's her nature... and she knew how to get things done. Things that I either didn't know how to do, or didn't want to do, no problem. She was, "Get out of my way, I'll fix it."
This was a key moment of leadership from John, focusing on what the team needed: Put a morale boosting, non-micromanager in charge and get out of the way. John asked Jane to head up this new team, to not only manage it, but to help expand it.
And so she was an evangelist that went around the company, talking to people, basically talking up the organization and keeping the bureaucrats away from us.
In the very beginning, it was just like, get a team of people together that know about this stuff and that are on the fringe. We always wanted to get people that were a little edgy, on the fringe, and not your standard. This is not your father's IBM kind of people.
The team-building strategy at work here was to gather like-minded people around the company who weren’t tied to “the way things usually work.” And then give them a clear and ambitious goal. But, at IBM at the time, that just didn’t exist: instead, there was a strict and rigid structure.
And having an organizational structure is supposed to be so many people report to this person. And then that person has so many people and reports to the next level. And we didn't do any of that. Jane would convince people in the company that what we were doing was unique. Don't tie their hands, they're innovating and they're creating great things.
So the first part of the strategy involved removing the team from the normal bureaucracy. But then, they also had to protect the team from the bureaucracy that might still come knocking.
Provide the air support so that these innovators don't have to be worrying about rules and budgets. They can focus on the innovation.
And over the next year, Jane, John and Dave work to develop all the infrastructure that would be needed for the 96 Olympics. Never sure if any of it would work out.
What we were doing was risky because when we turned on this website, we didn't know what was going to happen. It could turn out to be a real black eye for IBM.
It’s July, 1996, and the Summer Games in Atlanta are about to kick off. For almost two years, the vanguard team from around IBM have been working to do something that’s never been done before at the company: take the Olympics online. It begins with a major undertaking and a major risk, even before the start of the games.
One of the guys came up with the idea of what he called at the time, a ticket server. And the word server wasn't even really that common a name back then. And a ticket server, nobody knew what that was. You could go to a webpage and you could buy tickets for the Atlanta Summer Games. Well, outwardly, I was as enthusiastic as I could be and as supportive as I could be, but inside, I knew that we were taking a big risk.
We take for granted, today, the idea of buying all sorts of stuff online. But remember, this is a full year before Amazon started selling just books online.
And when the Olympic director in Atlanta saw it, he put out a press release telling people about it. Then we went, "Oh, geez. We got to make sure this thing works." And it was running on a little server under this guy's desk in a computer science lab. There was no technical support. There was no structure to it. It was an experiment
Incredibly, the experiment… works.
And it turned out that that ticket server sold $5 million worth of tickets, Olympic tickets. And at the time that was the largest e-commerce site in the world.
This is a huge success for the team. But as the games are ramping up to start, they are facing an even bigger challenge. The IBM Olympic coverage website.
Yeah, we felt like there was a lot at stake, because of course we were being watched by so many people. We had painted a picture that this was going to be something different that nobody's ever seen before and so it was a lot of sleepless nights.
The GetCo team had launched a basic version of the website in April of 1995, so they could slowly ramp up to the games, adding more and more information and resources as time went on. In the spring of 1996, Jane realizes they need a team headquarters, so she sets up an office in Southbury, Connecticut. A space that becomes part computer lab, part command center.
So you walk in the main lab where all the desks were, I'm going to say it was maybe 40 feet long by 20 feet wide. But all the desks were open to one another, so everybody was able to shout across the room. We had these mega TVs everywhere so that we were always watching what was going on externally and then an adjacent room right behind it had all these servers in it. These are the servers that we begged, borrowed, and stealed from places to get. That was the back room crunching of the computing power.
As the games kick off, there are fifty four people crammed into these rooms.
We lived, literally lived there for days. I mean, some of the guys would sleep on cots all night, and we had TVs all in our labs. So we were watching the games and watching what was going on at the same time as running the website for it. It was cool
The way it works is as basic as it sounds. The team spends all day watching the Olympics and as soon as an event ends, a race is won, they enter that result into their backend so it appears on the website immediately. Sort of like hand-crafted web building.
I was always in the middle of the room kind of walking around, checking out over people's shoulders, not looking over their shoulders telling them what to do or anything by any stretch because they were way smarter than me. But what I was doing was finding out what people needed, finding out what the obstacles were. What are the roadblocks? Who do we need to get help from?
This is when, Jane says, the GetCo group learned an important lesson.
You've got to bring together teams that everybody's got something to offer to the game here. Again, this is where I come in, in a way, because that team sport orientation is like, you're not going to get a first baseman to play catcher. You've got to have different people with different skills at different times and bring them together to work together, and that's what was going on in that room.
And in that room is a team with a vast array of skills, including graphic designers, web architects and webmasters, system and network administrators, computer engineers and security experts.
We just were always learning from each other. We taught the engineers and computer scientists that you're going to sit right next to. There's going to be an MBA on your team, and they're going to learn about technology, and you're going to learn about the business, because, guess what, you can create technology all day long. But if you don't know how to sell it, you don't know how to package it, you don't know how to convince somebody why it's important, it's useless.
Not only did GetCo bring together people with a vast array of skills, it allowed and encouraged them to show up as themselves.
I mean, I was an out lesbian at the time, and that wasn't done in the late '90s. And so I'm who I am, and this guy's the crazy guy with the long ponytail, and these guys are all wearing shorts and Tevas to work. And people are just themselves. And when people can work in an environment that they get to be themselves, creativity flows like water. Innovation is happening all the time, and people aren't afraid to fail.
Atlanta dot olympic dot org comes to life on July 19, 1996 as the largest website in the world. It is full of images, info and, most important, live Olympic results. As the Baltimore Sun reports at the time:
For the first time, you can have instant access to constantly updated results, breaking news, athlete profiles and the most obscure facts about the most obscure Olympic sports. Available 24 hours a day. Right at your fingertips. "We want this to be the most accessible Olympics ever," said Ronda Rattray, the content coordinator for the Atlanta Centennial Olympic Games page, which went live in April 1995 and averaged about 10,000 hits per week, Rattray said. Now, it can expect to receive up to 800,000 hits each day. "It will be accessible to everyone, it's there 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
IBM’s public image is on the line with this massive website. At a time when IBM is losing billions of dollars because of their failure to move from making mainframes to making personal computers. The site needs to be a success.
It’s August 1st and the men’s 200 meter race is about to start. Just three days earlier, in his trademark gold coloured cleats, American Michael Johnson had won the men’s 400 meter with an Olympic record time. Could he win the gold again? Could he break another record? The entire team in Southbury gathers around a large TV to watch. The screen is filled with a close up on Johnson’s face: serious, determined. A cheer goes up around the stadium as Michael Johnson’s name is announced. The runners crouch into their starting positions on the blocks. Silence falls over the massive crowd, including the GetCo team. The starter’s pistol rings out and the runners burst from the blocks. As they come around the corner, Johnson already has a huge, impossible lead. The noise in the stadium is thunderous as Johnson crosses the finish line and begins jumping and waving his arms at the crowd. He’s broken the Olympic and World records and won another gold medal. The GetCo team’s celebrations are cut short, of course, as they all rush back to their work stations to input the numbers and get the result online for the tens of thousands of people looking to their website to find out what happened.
They would just be shouting instructions to each other, not in a harsh way, but like we've got to get this thing done fast.
And they do. For the duration of the Atlanta Games, fans and visitors from around the world can see sights and sounds from the games, including some super low-res video, live results and learn about the athletes, even play online Olympics-style games.
We had really, or the team, had just created a miracle. They created something that if you'd gone back to 1992 or three and said, "This is what we're going to do," most experts would say, "You can't do that. It can't be done." But we believed it. We had a vision that with the right technology and the right people, we could create this huge presence on the web that would make the information available to the world in a way they've never seen before.
The Atlanta Games wrapped up on August 4, 1996. And almost immediately, the brass at IBM contacted John. He had a group of folks who didn’t technically report to him and equipment on loan. Now that the games were over, was it time to give it all back and disband GetCo?
And I said, "Absolutely not. We've got a jewel here. Nothing could be better than what we've got. And now we have the opportunity to really focus on how to use it for things other than the Olympic Games.” I said, "My proposal is that we maintain the site, we maintain the equipment, we maintain the team, we call it WebAhead. And we get busy working on projects that could be beneficial to IBM."
The success of the Olympic website couldn't be ignored. And so the IBM top brass agreed with John. And WebAhead’s impact started almost immediately. Remember that ticket server they built for the games? It became the basis of clothier LL Bean’s first ecommerce site, and the future of IBM’s web tech offerings. That was only the start, says Jane.
That's where we built IBM.com and the first IBM intranet, which we called W3.IBM.com, and that's where we started working on all the internal applications like, we didn't have a directory where you could find people, so we came up. And I actually named it BluePages. And then instant messaging. We didn't have a way to communicate with each other, so we developed the first instant messaging servers that just took over everything in IBM. Before that it was a phone call.
But perhaps just as significant were the changes the WebAhead group brought to IBM as a whole. The 96 Olympic games website started a new wave of thinking at IBM, a torch that they passed on to departments around the country.
So I think we influenced the rest of the company because then it became part of the strategy is, we did it, now we're going to help you do it. That's when the shift of IBM from being just a maker, you always thought of IBM as, yeah, they make mainframes, and then they make PCs. But then we became a services business, and we were going to help them become e-businesses. That was all about service.
Until the mid-90s, IBM had been primarily a hardware company, selling mainframe computers. But that market was volatile. Thanks to the GetCo team, the company began to move more and more into global services, which, by the end of that decade, had almost as much revenue as hardware.
And it was a special ops-like team that created this change. With GetCo, IBM put a leader in charge who gathered like-minded people together, with different skill sets, and didn’t micromanage them. A team that rallied behind an ambitious, common goal. And they weren’t afraid to go against the typical bureaucracy that surrounded them. In fact, they worked outside of that bureaucracy altogether. And, crucially, they showed up as themselves.