Thursday, June 10, 2010

So long, and thanks for all the big blue fish!

Today I am announcing my departure from IBM, to take a job as Chief Scientist of Mimecast, a much smaller company based in London.  I'm very excited about the move, even though being a Distinguished Engneer at IBM is in many ways one of the best jobs in the software/Internet industry.

I want to share a few thoughts about IBM as I depart that institution.  IBM is a truly amazing place.  I have been fortunate enough to work, study, or live in some of the most intellectually stimuating communities on the planet, including

  • Deep Springs College,
  • Grinnell College,
  • the  CS Department at Carnegie Mellon,
  • University of Michigan,
  • Bell Communications Research,
  • and cutting edge startups, First Virtual and
Yet nowhere have I found such a concentration of brilliant people as IBM has on staff.  Leaving the job aside, IBM was a truly unparalleled place to meet and get to know smart, stimulating people.  The job itself was diverse and stimulating as well.  So why would I leave?

Simply put, I grew progressively more dissatisfied during my time at IBM because it seems to be too big for one person -- well, for me, at least -- to have the kind of large-scale effect, on a short time frame, to which I have grown accustomed in the rest of my career. 

I don't consider myself a loner.  I have always done my best work as part of a team, in which each person's strengths compensate for another's weaknesses, and vice versa.  But 400,000 people is an awfully big team, and I have to confess to being impatient -- once I think I've seen a good idea or an answer to a problem, I want to get it done.  At IBM, more than once, I threw up my hands in frustration on a given topic, only to see the company finally take action on it a year or so later.  I'm possibly just too impatient for a company the size and tempo of IBM.  I consider that at least as much a personal character flaw as a problem of IBM's.

I don't expect to have that particular problem at Mimecast.  Mimecast is a rapidly growing company, but still has fewer than 200 employees, a size which should prove more conducive to rapid impact and progress.  To put it in perspective:  at IBM, the title "Distinguished Engineer" made me, on paper, one of the 600 or so most influential technical people in the company.   In contrast, *every* employee of Mimecast is one of the most influential 200.  As Chief Scientist I can reasonably hope to make a bigger impact in a month or two than I made in seven years at IBM.

Worse, at IBM, I have had to fight a perpetual tendency to see myself as a failure, just because it's so hard to have an impact on a scale I find meaningful.  Perhaps my real failing is an inability to be content as a small cog in a big machine.  At any rate, I now expect to begin again to emphasize what I see as my strengths -- finding creative solutions to technical and business problems, and helping to build an organization that implements those solutions.

My three decades in the Internet industry have been very rewarding, but I'm not ready to rest on my laurels.  There is too much left undone, and there are too many genuine threats to the open, human-centered Internet that so many of us have worked to build.

At Mimecast, I'll be working to help realize the dream of "cloud computing" without sacrificing the values of freedom and privacy that once seemed fundamental to the Internet, but are increasingly under threat.  Cloud computing could, if we let it, become the final nail in the coffin of privacy, but that doesn't need to happen.  There's no reason cloud computing can't be based on the principle of giving information owners complete control over the use and disposition of their data.  It's a worthy goal and an exciting challenge, and I feel ready to fight the good fight.  Wish me luck!


  1. As always the best of Luck in all your aspirations and endeavors, Old Friend.
    - Rick

  2. Good story, Nathaniel, and good to finally see you writing for the public again.

  3. Best wishes for you and your family!

    I can say that there are worse things than a London-based gig(!).

    You're leaving for the best of reasons--to do something new. Have a great time!

  4. Hurray for you, Nathaniel! We look forward to reading about your further adventures.

  5. Best of luck...we will miss you at Big Blue :-)