Thursday, June 24, 2010

IBM, the Holocaust, and Me

A couple of years ago, in an act of subversion that makes her papa proud, my youngest daughter gave me an unusual Chanukah present:  IBM and the Holocaust by Edwin Black:

My first reaction was to wince uncomfortably, probably not the reaction she was hoping for.  At the time, I was employed by IBM and trying to maintain the most positive attitude possible.  This book didn't promise to make that any easier.

Like any large company, IBM does lots of good things and some bad things as well.  At IBM's size, both the good and the bad can be pretty dramatic.  But implicated in the Holocaust?  I just didn't want to think about it.  By the time the holiday was over, I told my daughter that this would be the first book I opened whenever I eventually submitted my resignation to IBM.

I kept my word, and devoured the book promptly upon my recent job change.  Delaying reading the book was probably a  good career move, but eventually proved a bad one for my self-respect as a moral person.  Had I read it while at IBM, I might have taken actions distinctly unhelpful to my career progress.  But I don't think I would have regretted them.

I can't possibly condense, in a blog entry, a work that took years for the author and a small army of reviewers and fact checkers to put together.  It's a work of stunning and meticulous scholarship, derived from tiny bits of evidence scattered all over the world.  But a few disturbing facts are inescapable to anyone who reads the book fairly:

1.  IBM profited handsomely selling technology to both sides throughout World War II.

2.  IBM technology and technicians were indispensable to the logistics of the Holocaust.  Every concentration camp had at least one IBM punch card machine, while some had dozens.  IBM technicians regularly serviced these machines, and trained others to do so. 

3.  IBM'ers provided the technical, statistical, and theoretical knowledge to efficiently identify and target the victims of Hitler's Final Solution.  When the Nazis entered a town and promptly rounded up anyone with even one Jewish grandparent, they could do so because IBM had helped them convert volumes of local and church records, documenting births, marriages, and conversions, into tidy stacks of IBM punch cards.

4,  IBM's technologies also created the efficiencies by which the Nazis could enter a town and demand, say, 75 Jews for transport to the camps.  IBM punch cards ran the railroads, and told the Nazis when they could schedule transports to the death camps, how many rail cars were available, and how long the lines were at the gas chambers.  Whole trainloads were thus efficiently murdered within minutes of their arrival.

5.  All of these efforts depended on a steady flow of millions of punch cards,  which only IBM could manufacture with sufficient precision for the finicky machines.  That flow never ceased; there were plenty of cards left for the Allied liberators.

Mr. Black studiously avoided making any conclusions or inferences he couldn't support from his research.  (He claims to be able to produce documentation for every sentence in the book.)  But I'm under no such constraint.  The impression I got, from this book, is that the Germans would have been hard pressed to exterminate half as many people without IBM's help.   (This might even be an understatement.  In France, where IBM was weak, punch card technology was rare, and a few brave technologists sabotaged the census cards, most Jews survived.  In Holland, relatively speaking a high-tech mecca and IBM stronghold, most perished despite the legendary efforts of good Dutch Christians.)

But was this perhaps just IBM's German subsidiary, acting under the constraints of one of the most brutal and tyrannical regimes in history?  Not a chance.  IBM kept close tabs on its operations in enemy countries, through IBM's office in neutral Geneva.  And Thomas Watson, IBM's legendary president, worked tirelessly and openly to keep his business going in Nazi Germany until America's entry into the war, for which efforts Hitler awarded him the Eagle and Star, the highest honor the Nazis gave to non-Germans.  IBM'ers have since done their best to erase history, but a few pictures survive:

That's Hitler and Watson on the left.  Watson eventually returned the medal under intense pressure from the US government and others, but only after Hitler had overrun half of Europe and was trying to bomb London into submission.

I think that's all pretty bad.

But the war has been over for 65 years.  Nearly everyone involved in IBM's shameful activities is dead, of course.  Why should we care today?  What does it have to do with today's IBM?

It must still have some relevance, because IBM is still stonewalling.  Mr. Black dug through archives and libraries throughout the world,  but over a hundred requests for information from IBM were denied.  Typical responses claimed that IBM has no information relevant to that era -- this from a company with legendary archives and full time archivists on staff!  I can only conclude that today's IBM is actively hiding something -- something even worse than what I've summarized above.

For better or worse, American law says that corporations are people.  This has all sorts of negative effects, which I hope to write about in future blog entries.  But in this case, one has to ask:  if a person stands accused of this level of complicity in the largest documented act of mass murder in human history, why has he (it) not been called to account?  There's no statute of limitation on genocide.  If we can prosecute a sick 89 year old man for crimes committed when he was a 23-year old Nazi guard, why do we not hold accountable one of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world?

The answer, of course, is obvious:  It's one of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world.  If it doesn't want to be held accountable, what politician is brave enough to try to do so?

I think IBM should hold itself accountable.  If I were still at IBM, after reading this, I think I'd feel honor-bound to work, quietly and internally, towards a change of policy.  Today's IBM'ers are good people, and none of them are complicit as individuals in the horrors of the Nazi era.  Most of them, I am sure, are completely unaware of the depth of IBM's complicity in mass murder.  But they should be.  I should have been.

Here are three things I think IBM should do to show that today's company is, in fact, a completely different kind of company than the one that profited by automating the Nazi genocide machine:

1.  Open the archives.  Whatever's in there, get it out.  It may reflect badly on those who came before you, but it will reflect well on you.  Your predecessors may be villains in future textbooks on business ethics, but it's not too late for you to be a hero.

2.  Start a discussion, internally and externally.  IBM has often set the standard for business ethics; it has been a pioneer in civil rights, diversity management, environmental responsibility, and many other areas.  Today there's an opportunity to set the standard for a corporation squarely facing its past and analyzing its mistakes and wrongdoings.  You could teach the whole world how a corporation -- a "person" that can live forever -- can come to terms with bad actions a lifetime ago.

3.  Make amends.  No, you can't bring back millions of murdered human beings, but you can and should do something, make some kind of gesture that acknowledges your unrepayable debt.  I don't think the monetary reparations that Germany sent Israel after the war are the right model for what you should do today.  Instead, IBM can afford to create or sponsor entire institutions dedicated to genocide prevention and/or business ethics, which might actually help prevent such horrors in the future.

Do I expect something like this to happen?  Well, actually, yes -- I really do, eventually.  The IBM I know is an amazing, wonderful company, which takes its current social responsibilities as seriously as any company I know.  Eventually, it will have to remove its blinders and face up to its past.  That time is long overdue, but I think highly enough of IBM to be sure it will happen some day.   Today would be good. 

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!