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January 10, 2019

A reflection on IBM's new HQ building (from 20 years ago)

Here's a reflection I recently published on another site in response to a question, "What are the headquarters like at IBM?" Not perhaps the most meaningful question, but it sparked a recollection that I remember fondly from my years with the company.
I can tell you what it was like when it first opened, but I’ve not been back to it since then (the Lou Gerstner days). This recollection is from 1998, give or take s year, so forgive me if I’ve not remembered everything correctly.
The new HQ building replaced a much older building, also in Armonk, NY. The new one was, to me at least, surprisingly small and sort of tucked away. It was unlike other IBM very impressive complexes of the era, such as Somers, NY. I was told at the time that the small(ish) size was meant to be a statement of sorts.
Inside, everyone up to the director level worked in a cubicle. That was a new policy for IBM at the time. They were finished with especially nice wood veneer, and separated from each other with panes of glass. One of the people who worked there told me they tended to magnify sounds - conversations, phone rings - to such a degree that white noise generators were installed.
The executive area was behind a set of glass doors and I never went inside.
Scattered throughout the more public areas of the building were pedestals displaying IBM relics, such as adding machines and Selectric typewriters, all in new condition.
One morning I had a meeting with a visiting executive that began at 7:00 a.m. I drove down to Armonk from my home in Danbury, and arrived about 15 minutes early. I popped into the men’s room off the lobby. It was a nice, marble clad room, but relatively small. As I left I walked past a bank of elevators just as a door opened with a soft ding. IBM CEO Lou Gerstner walked out. I recognized him immediately and was shocked, but I kept my cool and just gave him a quick nod and “good morning.” Gerstner’s eyes swiveled toward me but broke contact almost immediately. He gave a grunt and disappeared through the glass doors into the secretive executive area.
I went to my meeting and met my executive - a divisional VP of marketing who was using a small visitor’s office.
After greeting him i said, “Hey, I just saw Lou Gerstner getting off the elevator,” I said. “He grunted at me.”
The exec’s eyebrows rose and he said, “that’s unusual. I’ve seen him walk into a room and not even acknowledge one of his own direct reports. You should feel special.”
And that’s my story about the IBM HQ. Hope it’s helpful.

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