Professor Jeffrey R. Yost at the Wilson Lecture Series - ECE Fall 2021 Colloquium

Fields of Dream Machines and Processing a Paradoxical Past: IBM Systems Engineering, Gender, and the Irony of Big Blue’s Solutions

IBM has a larger historical literature than any corporation globally. With iconic IBM objects, actors, facilities, and moments as inputs, innovation narratives result as outputs. Even IBM’s early 1990s crisis set up CEO Lou Gerstner to “innovate” a new services’ focus, and with wizardry make the “elephant dance.” In demystifying Big Blue, I argue IBM was always in major part a services company. In embracing irony and inclusion, I offer a wholly different history of IBM, one braiding maintenance, the field, and Systems Engineering (SE). By valuing labor activity, and not just profit centers, field services women—IBM’s System Services Women’s Corps (SSWC)—come to the fore. As “hidden figures” providing maintenance, custom programming, and systems know-how, the SSWC became a model for IBM Systems Engineering in 1960. IBM SEs set it apart and defined a solutions company long before solutions (albeit whitewashing women’s roles) became central to IBM’s marketing.

Bio of professor Jeffrey R. Yost

Jeffrey R. Yost is Director of the Charles Babbage Institute and Research Professor in HSTM, UMN. He is a specialist in computing history and has published six books—most recently, Making IT Work (MIT Press)—and dozens of articles on the social, business, and scientific history of our digital world. Currently, he has three book projects he is completing under contract on computing cultures, cybersecurity, and inequality. He is a past EIC of IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, founding Co-Editor of Interfaces, and Co-Editor of the Computing and Culture book series for Johns Hopkins Univ. Press. He is among the most awarded PIs in the history of science in the nation (NSF, ACM, IEEE, DOE, Sloan, IBM, etc.).

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Start date
Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, 4 p.m.
End date
Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, 5 p.m.