IBM CEO Ginni Rometty looks more like glamor girl than a geek. She’s definitely one of the best-dressed CEOs in the tech world, with killer clothes, polished make-up, hair typically neatly contained in a school-girl headband that she somehow makes look sophisticated.
She looks like she came from the sales and marketing world. And she did, sort of.
She made her mark as a senior VP in IBM’s consulting unit, Global Business Services, responsible for integrating PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting after IBM bought it in 2002. It was one of Lou Gerstner’s final turnaround moves, when he converted IBM from a floundering hardware company, to a hardware, software and consulting giant.
Prior to the CEO job, she led IBM sales and marketing, which also makes her seem like a salesperson.
But she actually started her career at IBM as a systems engineer. She earned her bachelors degree in computer science and electrical engineering from Northwestern University.
And when she talks about some of the new technology IBM is working on, particularly IBM’s thinking/learning/talking computer Watson, her inner geek comes out, reports the Financial Times’ Gillian Tett, from a rare one-on-one interview with Rometty. Tett reports:
Suddenly we are talking not as chief executive and journalist but as two curious, intense geeks. “Watson augments human decision-making because it isn’t governed by human boundaries. It draws together all this information and forms hypotheses, millions of them, and then tests them with all the data it can find. It learns over time what data is reliable, and that’s part of its learning process,” Rometty told Tett.
Rometty revealed a number of other surprising things about her background, in that interview, too.
- She grew up in “a very middle class, average background” in Chicago until she was 15 when her parents got divorced.
- She is the oldest of four kids.
- Until the divorce, Her mum was a stay-at-home mum, but was then forced to work multiple jobs to support her family.
- Her mum also went to college at night. Rometty spent a lot of time watching her siblings.
- Rometty’s mum was clearly her role model. “She sacrificed everything. She went to school in the day and worked nights, too, and got her degree. She never complained,” Rometty told Tett. “She set out and made it all OK for us, and from that I saw that there’s no problem that can’t be solved.”
- Rometty attended Northwestern via a scholarship from General Motors.
- She worked at GM for two years, long enough to meet her husband, Mark Anthony Rometty, and then got a job at IBM in 1981 in Detroit, Michigan. She’s been at IBM ever since.
- She credits her husband Mark for supporting her career as she rose the top, even with the housework. “He has always done his fair share of everything — I don’t think I’ve ever done his laundry or ironed his shirts,” she told Tett. (Facebook COO and feminist Sheryl Sandberg would probably point out that if Rometty was a man, she wouldn’t have been asked if the wife supported a successful career, helped with the housework or wanted him to iron her clothes. Just sayin’.)
- Mark avoids the spotlight. No one knows much about him besides his early job at GM and that he’s an an investor in an oil company. Rometty has said that he gets really annoyed that the world tends to mispronounce his name. It’s “rah-MET-ty”, emphasis on the second syllable, not the first.
- She loves Starbucks but doesn’t drink coffee. She’s into tea.
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