What IBM’s Cloud Issues Can Tell Us About Project Management

IBM has survived for more than 110 years by adapting to the latest technological trends, from mainframes to desktop PCs and laptops to artificial intelligence (A.I.). However, it’s been slow to catch up in the cloud space, and a new Protocol article gives some crucial insights into why. 

In contrast to Amazon and Microsoft, both of which spent the past decade rushing to build out their cloud infrastructure, IBM was slow to recognize the cloud’s growing prevalence, according to the article, which is based on multiple interviews. IBM relied heavily on its SoftLayer acquisition to handle clients’ cloud needs, but SoftLayer lacked some crucial features, and its products weren’t powerful enough to handle larger application deployments (a critical need of larger clients).  

When IBM finally realized that it needed to build out its own robust cloud infrastructure, it made the critical mistake of pursuing multiple projects in parallel: “For almost two years, two teams inside IBM Cloud worked on two completely different cloud infrastructure designs, which led to turf fights, resource constraints and internal confusion over the direction of the division.”

The company didn’t decommission one of these paths until this year, according to one anonymous source. While IBM’s new CEO seems devoted to single-track cloud infrastructure design, all that wasted time means the company has fallen well behind competitors such as Azure and AWS.

To be fair, it’s certainly possible for a tech company to build a successful product by running two separate development tracks. Apple did that very thing under Steve Jobs, who had two teams compete to create alternate versions of the iPhone’s operating system—but that was an expedited process, with the weaker project killed as soon as possible. Parallel tracks can quickly lead to turf wars and time-consuming budget battles unless a strong manager (and whatever you might think about Jobs, he was a strong manager) keeps everyone in their lane. 

According to the latest edition of Stack Overflow’s Developer Survey, some 54.22 percent of technologists said they used AWS the most out of all the cloud platforms, followed by Google’s Cloud Platform (31.05 percent) and Azure (30.77 percent). IBM sat in sixth place with 2.55 percent, which the company would probably defend by saying it’s currently focused on “specialty clouds” for demanding industries such as financial services (i.e., big revenue, but not overwhelming market-share).

On an epic scale, the IBM cloud situation demonstrates (yet again) the importance of effective project management. Scoping out requirements ahead of time—especially the client’s needs—is key, along with ending processes that clearly aren’t working. Constant communication to stakeholders over what’s actually possible is likewise crucial. If you take Protocol’s reporting at face value, IBM’s engineers clearly did everything they could, but the company as a whole may have made some critical mistakes in approaching the cloud.