Macs@IBM: An interview with IBM CIO Fletcher Previn

I spoke with Previn to discuss IBM’s adoption of Apple’s platforms, and to get some insight into how to run a successful choice program.

Apple, Mac, macOS, OS X, IBM, Fletcher Previn, Enterprise

IBM CIO Fletcher Previn appeared at the Jamf Nation User Conference to announce that the Mac@IBM enrolment solution will be released to the open source community.

I spoke with Previn to discuss IBM’s adoption of Apple’s platforms, and to get some insight into how to run a successful choice program.

IBM’s big Mac story

“There had always been people at IBM who wanted to use the Mac, but we were not set up to properly support it,” Previn told me.

IBM began to deploy Macs in 2015, when 30,000 employees chose to use them. Three years later, and 135,000 IBM employees use Macs

IBM was already thinking deeply about designing best-in-class experiences for clients, and this led it to think about its own internal processes.

“There was an attitude shift which said, ‘Actually, we recognize that some of the things we have, some of our internal processes aren't working quite as well as we want…. We can actually become more efficient and more productive simply by introducing simplicity,” Previn explained.

The move also reflected a reality in which the expectations of IBM's internal and external customers had changed.

Living like The Jetsons

“When did it become OK to live like the Jetsons at home and the Flintstones at work?” asked Previn.

“If people are rejecting something because they think it’s too complicated, they’re telling us something,” he said.

“New people coming into work, their view is informed by what they see in their consumer life and so there is less forgiveness for something not being good just because it happens to be used by the company.”

“If you were assembling an orchestra of talented musicians, and you hired a person who has spent the last 19 years learning how to play the piano, and when they showed up, you said, ‘Hey, while you're here, do you mind playing the clarinet?’ I think that they would probably tell you actually I mind very much and I'm going to go somewhere else."

Every enterprise is defined by its employees.

Engaged, happy employees are productive, deliver better end results, and make clients happier as they do.

“You have to create an environment in which great people want to work,” says Previn. “If you build a good culture of engagement and problem solving, then while the business problems you’re working on may change, you’ll be successful because you have a culture of breaking big problems down into small ones.”


The move to adopt Apple products across IBM wasn’t trivial.

“When we started the Mac at IBM program, we broke the friction points down into 10 key areas.

"They were things around device provisioning, sharing of files, meetings and the various technical components of day to day work. We wanted this to feel transformative, as opposed to inserting another device into an existing way of working.”

Previn explained that while developing the choice program IBM also looked deeply at its existing technologies, not least to ensure both new and old systems worked together with as little friction as possible. It also completely changed its support desk environment, the way it provisions devices.

“To have a successful choice scheme in a large complex enterprise it’s more than just the device, right? It’s also about transforming the support experience; understanding and managing the application portfolio; getting the provisioning of those devices automated dynamically over the cloud, taking all the friction and labour out of the experience.

By focusing on user experience, accessibility, and solving the complex challenges around heterogenous enterprise setups: “I think we’ve embedded design into our definition of agile and how we build software and how we build solutions,” Previn explained.

“The philosophy is that if we spend enough time on engineering up-front so we have fewer problems coming into the environment, we can then afford to staff more qualified people as we don’t need so many of them. Then, when you call the help desk, they are totally driven and focused on delivering a great user experience to you.”

On open source

Mac@IBM is the result of thousands of hours of research and development across tens of thousands of machines.

“It has all been carefully thought through and then tested across a global population of hundreds of thousands of people,” Previn said.

IBM’s decision to make its solution open source makes all that expertise across multiple disciplines available to enterprises worldwide.

“We have a long history of commitment to open source and I was thrilled we could make that happen,” said Previn.

In the old days, enterprises typically had warehouses full of computers each of which needed to be provisioned and set up manually.  This took time, limited choice, and meant that people’s new computers already felt second-hand.

These days, Mac@IBM means “everything kind of magically happens”.

An employee receives their brand new shrink-wrapped Mac, switches it on and all the apps they need are there. If they need help, tech support are knowledgeable and aim to solve the problem on first contact. IBM’s support even helps people with their personal tech -- where else do you get that?

The brightest and the best

IBM launched its choice program because it wanted to foster a “highly engaged, high performance workforce,” motivating talented people to do their best work.

Developing an infrastructure to support choice in a complex enterprise environment is challenging.

“Part of the way I do this is to lead with design and drive simplicity in all areas of the portfolio,” said Previn.

IBM isn’t unique.

Every business in the world is going through some form of ‘digital transformation’.

Traditionally, enterprise software has been complex and cumbersome to use. This leads companies to spend valuable cash and IT resources solving problems created as a result of using complex and cumbersome software.

“Software that’s hard to use is a big red flag,” Previn says. “I’d much rather focus resources on identifying the root cause of a problem than throwing money at triage.

While the significance of this is different for different businesses, CIO’s should think of it as a cultural statement.

Previn puts it this way: “I'm looking to hire people who are passionate about their craft and believe in IBM’s purpose and if we surround ourselves with those kinds of teammates, we will be successful.

"If you believe a philosophy that says the state of IT is a reflection of what the company thinks and feels about its people, then it's not trivial, the quality of the IT services that you are delivering are core to your strategy.”

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Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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