IBM's Robert LeBlanc has his head in the cloud

IBM’s new man in charge of the cloud business is moving fast.

“What I’m focusing on is speed,” said Robert LeBlanc, the new senior vice president for IBM Cloud. “Because the market continues to change, we have to get things to market quickly and then iterate.”

LeBlanc is in a key spot at IBM: the company’s cloud-related technologies enjoyed a whopping 60 percent growth to $7 billion in 2014. The growth came much sooner than expected, and that’s critical in the midst of the company’s ongoing struggle to shift focus from low-margin hardware to the new paradigm of cloud computing.

That struggle was evident in IBM’s financial results for 2014. The fourth quarter brought yet another decline in sales—it was the 11th consecutive quarter to do so—and profit targets for 2015 were down as well.

“The market opportunity is there,” said LeBlanc. “We want to continue to grow and to accelerate the transformation that IBM is undergoing.”

It’s a tall order, to be sure, but LeBlanc—who assumed the helm of IBM’s cloud efforts in January—would seem well-suited to the task. With a long history both in the industry in general and at IBM in particular, LeBlanc is no stranger to the cloud. Most recently, he served as senior vice president of the company’s Software and Cloud Solutions Group.

LeBlanc joined IBM in 1981 in Canada as a systems programmer trainee in the Toronto Laboratory. Since then, he’s held technical, strategy and sales leadership positions throughout the company’s Software, Services and Systems groups. Now 56 years old, LeBlanc also chairs IBM’s Technology Team and reports directly to CEO Virginia Rometty. He holds a BASc in computer science and an MBA from the University of Toronto.

LeBlanc’s tenure has offered “tangible education in virtually every facet of the company’s business,” said Charles King, a principal analyst with Pund-IT. That includes hands-on experience in building products and working with developers as well as the opportunity to engage closely with core IBM customers and partners and collaborate on key strategic efforts. The career path has provided optimal preparation for his new role, King said.

Having already been on the job for about two months, LeBlanc has a clear vision for the upcoming year.

The DevOps model will be a key focus for the company in the months ahead, he said, with the goal of helping to extend the transformation many startups are already enjoying into the enterprise world as well.

Other items on LeBlanc’s agenda include continuing the buildout of SoftLayer “pods” for data-center infrastructure-as-a-service that IBM began last year. Under that scenario, each data-center facility features one or more pods; each pod can support up to 5,000 servers.

“We added 15 [pods] in 2014, and we’ll be adding more in 2015,” he said. With overriding goals including data locality, sovereignty and security, “every time we open a new pod, we see workload naturally move to that cloud pod in that country.”

Also in the works is the ongoing expansion of Bluemix, IBM’s cloud-based app platform.

“We started with about 20 services, and now we’re up to more than 80,” LeBlanc said. “We want to continue to accelerate that with more—some from IBM and some from our partners.”

Developers are “the engine for innovation,” he added. “We want to give them the best possible platform for the next generation of cloud apps.”

Mobile strategy in general will be part of LeBlanc’s focus as well. “We see mobile and cloud as interchangeable,” he explained. “Which is driving which? Both are driving each other.”

Related to that, IBM has already forged a partnership with Apple; this year, more such alliances will follow, LeBlanc said.

IBM will also make more acquisitions this year, LeBlanc said, as well as hiring in several key roles, drawing both from IBM insiders and outsiders.

In general, IBM’s strategy has been to take seemingly diverse parts of the organization and put them together.

“We now have one cloud salesforce that can say to clients, ‘what problem are you trying to solve?’” LeBlanc explained. “Being one organization with ‘one throat to choke,’ so to speak, makes it easier to put solutions in front of the client quickly.”

The pivot to cloud services is one of the biggest IBM has ever made, said technology analyst Rob Enderle.

“In a way, it is at least a partial return to the services-based model that initially drove IBM to dominate the technology market through the mid-1980s,” Enderle explained. “One of IBM’s biggest mistakes was to move off that model, because it made their revenue—which had worked more like an annuity and had been nearly immune to economic changes—far more volatile.”

The shift back to more of a subscription-services model is “likely to be just as difficult, and it is happening far faster,” he said. At the end of the move, though, “Robert should be the most powerful and important executive in IBM.”

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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