How Inhi Cho Suh Embodies What the Future of IBM Will Hopefully Be

Don Tennant
Slide Show

5 Essential Skills for the IT Leader

Remember back in the day, when people used to spend their entire careers working at a single company? A lot of us who are old enough can picture the quintessential example of that — a white guy in a gray suit and fedora who was hired by IBM straight out of college, and who retired from IBM two or three decades later. And then there’s Inhi Cho Suh.

With the exception of the year and a bit she spent working at Duke University following her graduation from that institution in 1997, Suh has spent her entire 18-year career at IBM. Beyond that, there’s not too much of a parallel that can be drawn between Suh and that guy in the fedora. A Korean-American whose family emigrated to the United States when she was five years old, Suh embodies what is, one would like to think, the future of IBM.

As general manager of collaboration solutions at IBM, a role she assumed in February following stints that included VP of analytics strategy and business development, and VP and GM of big data, integration, and governance, Suh is focused on infusing cognitive computing and analytics into workplace applications. In an interview last week, I opened the conversation by noting how surprising one might find it that Suh had graduated from Duke with a double major in biology and history, and a minor in women’s studies. When I asked her if she had any particular affinity for or interest in technology at that time, she laughed. “None,” she said:

It was really serendipitous. At the time, I actually imagined myself pursuing a career in medicine. I knew I wanted to make an impact in the world, and I thought that was going to be through medicine. But when it was time for me to actually go to med school, I realized that I didn’t really want to go. I didn’t know what my calling was at the time. I could see that I had a natural interest beyond the sciences — I helped co-chair and co-create the Women of Diversity Council at Duke University, as a student. So I knew there was something in me that was essentially driving me toward other things; I just didn’t know that it would come about with the opportunity to work at IBM.

So given that the barriers to entry in the technology field are so much higher for women than they are for men, how does a woman without any academic background in technology whatsoever land a job at IBM? Suh said she had an advocate: another woman:

I was totally unqualified at the time for the job I applied for. One of the things that helped at the time was I had a woman friend who was four years older than me, and who worked at IBM. She’s the one who recommended me, and I think this is such an important point — the need for women to network with, promote, sponsor, and proactively team with other women is an incredibly important element in ensuring better representation of women in the business. I do think men as our allies and colleagues are very important, but I also think there’s a level of candid dialog you can have with your women peers. I see this pattern at IBM, and among my peers outside of IBM in other companies and industries, where women pull other women along.

If you find Suh’s undergraduate background surprising, you might find it at least as surprising that about a year after joining IBM, she entered law school, and got her J.D. Why a law degree, I asked her, and not something like, say, a master’s in computer or information science?

My management at the time asked me if I’d thought about getting an MBA, and said IBM could help sponsor it. My response was twofold: First, I said, ‘Everyone on the team has either an engineering degree or an MBA, is that correct?’ People nodded their heads and said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘So I’m essentially going to go train to think and look at the problem the same way everyone on the team already looks at it.’ They looked at me kind of strangely, and I said, ‘I guess my value-add so far has been the different perspective I have in looking at the same problem, and I think law would be an interesting addition to this perspective.’

Second, I was already very much interested not only in the business side, but also in the public policy side. So I felt that law would give me opportunities further along in the future to do advocacy and volunteer work, and other types of work that would complement whatever my professional career was going to be.

I asked Suh if she’s ever felt handicapped by not having an academic foundation in technology. She said there have been moments when she has thought about being able to roll back the clock to when she was really young:

I was naturally very, very strong in math and logic. Even at an early stage, pre-calculus and calculus were very easy and intuitive. I didn’t know that there was a career path there, because I was so maniacally focused on medicine. So I never really did the research. When I thought of getting a math degree, I was thinking more of a professional path to become a teacher, or a professor, or a researcher — not so much in terms of actually being in business. So I think if I could go back in time, there’s a part of me that would have preferred going straight into computer science, or maybe the social or behavioral sciences.

But she said she doesn’t feel handicapped in any way:

One of the fundamental beliefs that I have is that as humans, we have an unbelievable capacity to learn. We have an incredible mind that enables us not only to see and live in reality, but actually imagine what the future could be, and then kind of move toward that future. My fundamental premise has always been that change is inevitable, so at any stage in my career, even now, I can learn a new discipline. I can go and take classes, whether it’s online or physically in a school. So with that natural curiosity, and the prevalence of educational opportunities that are available, it’s possible for anyone to have any kind of career that they want.

I couldn’t help but wonder whether Suh thought she ever received any special treatment by virtue of being a female of Asian descent, stemming from IBM’s interest in promoting inclusion and diversity. So I asked. Her response:

I would say I got some benefits, for sure. That has to do with a couple of things. One is, I think IBM does an unbelievably amazing job at leadership development. Leadership development means different things to different people, because finding your own, personal, true North — whatever that may entail — is never going to be a direct path. What’s amazing at IBM is that lens of, ‘You as an individual have tremendous potential; we also recognize that [our employees] come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, so we want to make sure the things that make you uniquely you [are fostered] in a strong way.’ I would say some of that is because of the proactive, HR-type leadership programs that IBM has.

Suh said a lot also has to do with every individual having a unique background that shapes who he or she is:

For me, on a very personal level, being a Korean-American immigrant moving from Seoul to Spartanburg, S.C., at the age of five, I went from a city with a population of 19 million people to a city of 200,000 people. Growing up in South Carolina has shaped me into who I am as an adult. Quite frankly, I would say the challenges that I experienced as a child were great preparation for learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable.

I learned to thrive at that intersection of diverse and conflicting values and ideas. So at an early age, I would say most of the overt biases I experienced were because of race. But as I progressed in the professional world, it has shifted to a bias because of gender. Finding my own personal point of view about developing business skills, a lot of that is shaped by the diversity of culture that I experienced, but also by the nurturing environment that IBM has around leadership development at different stages.

In a forthcoming post, I’ll cover the rest of what Suh shared in the interview, including her response to my question about whether she can see herself one day as CEO of IBM. (Spoiler alert: She can.)

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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