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Oct 31, 2011Business
Analysis: Rometty and Whitman evolve the tech industry beyond gender

It’s official -- two of the most powerful people in tech are women. Perhaps more interestingly, they’re also bitter rivals. As of January 1, 2012, Ginni Rometty will be CEO of International Business Machines (IBM). Her adversary? Meg Whitman, former California Gubernatorial candidate and current President and CEO of Hewlett-Packard. In the world of tech, a CEO is more than just a number cruncher or paper-jockey-in-chief. As Steve Jobs and Bill Gates (rivals themselves) both show, tech CEOs are intimately tied with brand image. They also act as master buiders of the company, driving and shaping the focus -- and success -- of the company.

 

Behind the Rivalry

 

Once upon a time, IBM meant one thing: The world’s best computers. Nowadays, however, fewer people buy IBM computers, instead buying generic PC-compatible computers. As a result, in 2004, IBM threw in the towel, conceding the market to third-party manufacturers and taking a minority stake in a Chinese hardware manufacturer. IBM relegated itself to the growing server field. Meanwhile, HP has been the leader in personal computer manufacturing since 2007, a fact that no doubt leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of execs at Big Blue.

 

Whitman’s Foresight

 

Meg Whitman is a woman whose business acumen and foresight cannot be overstated. Upon joining eBay in March 1998, the company had 30 employees and estimated revenues of $4 million. On her watch as CEO, the company ballooned to 15,000 employees and $8 billion in revenues by the end of her tenure in 2008. Few remember, but eBay was once a black-and-white web page with nothing more than courier font. After the site crashed on her first day, Whitman built the site anew from the ground up. Whitman also had the foresight to purchase such Internet titans as PayPal and Skype.

 

Rometty Saves Big Blue

 

It’s hard to conceive of, but IBM had a branding identity crisis in the mid-aughts that nearly brought the company to its knees. Stripped of its hand in computer manufacturing, the company didn’t know what its new role was. It was Rometty who moved the company into cloud computing and data analytics, two fields that define the company and the future of computing in 2011. Rometty has also overseen the development of Watson (the computer that famously beat Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings on Jeopardy!) for commercial use.

 

Contrasting Styles and Backgrounds

 

Rometty and Whitman represent two competing trends in tech: geeks vs. suits. Rometty got her start at IBM as a systems engineer in Detroit, armed with nothing more than a B.S. in electrical engineering and computer science. Whitman, on the other hand, comes from a business pedigree. This is more than a mere academic consideration. Rometty succeeded as a result of her technical innovation and foresight, whereas Whitman’s genius lies in business organization.

 

One place where the women have a great deal of similarity however, is their path to success. In speaking of Rometty’s promotion, current (and soon-to-be-former) IBM President and CEO Samuel Palmisano stated, "Ginni got it because she deserved it... It’s got zero to do with progressive social policies." The statement could easily apply to both women. Both have blazed trails less as women and more as innovators in their field. Anyone who sees the story here as being about “powerful women” suffers from a critical lack of imagination. Welcome to the new, genderless field of tech.

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