The Watson Data Lab.
And the fight against COVID-19.
In early March, Tory Johnson—the head of IBM Rochester, the career employee who has taken his share of important phone calls—got a message from the U.S. National Laboratories and IBM’s New York office.
The United States Department of Energy was requesting—in the firmest of terms—that the Rochester location, among others, shift their supercomputer support team to "high alert."
Because, 800 miles away at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Summit—the world’s fastest supercomputer, developed and delivered and supported in large part in Rochester—was being pressed into action to fight the pandemic of COVID-19.
The Department of Energy was reaching out to a worldwide consortium—including NASA, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and others—to help Summit find a cure.
Johnson contacted IBM Rochester’s Lab Services Team to make Summit support a top priority. He met with the Global Supply Chain Team to prepare for shipment of integral replacement parts.
Summit, which is capable of 200 million billion calculations a second, was being reconfigured to analyze 8,000 chemical compounds that could help stop the deadly virus.
‘We have reinvented ourselves many, many times.’
On Tory Johnson’s first day on the job—as a fresh-out-of-the-U-of-M engineer—he remembers thinking, "I want to be CEO of IBM."
That was 1982. IBM’s Rochester footprint covered nearly 3 million square feet on 600 acres and housed an estimated 7,000 employees. Just a few months earlier, the company had released its 5120 personal computing system, which boasted 64 KB of memory. And cost $13,500.
Today, in late January, Johnson (the Senior Location Executive and the Senior State Executive for IBM in Minnesota—for story’s sake, we’ll just call him the CEO of the Rochester location) is standing in the Watson Lab, a 3,000-square foot space in the basement of IBM.
The room is hot. Hotter than normal, right now, because many of the racks and racks of black Power9 servers are categorizing and classifying thousands of CT scans and X-rays per day, part of a new cancer research project with Mayo Clinic. Other servers grind away at projects from dozens of companies from across the world that tap into this giant bank of computing power and storage space.
The computers can reach temps of 120 degrees or so, and the large air handlers in the room constantly chill the air and recirculate it at 90 degrees.
"When some of these computers get going, it sounds like an aircraft taking off," says Gary Reed, a 27-year IBMer and Software Engineer on IBM Watson’s Health Infrastructure Team who works directly with the servers.
"A lot has changed here since I first started," says Johnson. "This location has been here since the 1950s. And we have reinvented ourselves many, many times. And for us to be around—not just around, but still thriving as a company and be a major player—says something about the new IBM."
The new IBM now covers roughly 1 million square feet; they sold the entire 34-building property to Los Angeles-based Industrial Realty Group in 2018 and secured a 12-year-leaseback for eight buildings on the east side of the campus.
Today’s IBM Rochester workforce number is a guesstimate, based on things like Occupational Safety and Health Administration records and word of mouth from on-site employees. It’s a number that corporate has not made public since 2008.
We’ll rely on longtime IBM watcher and PB business reporter Jeff Kiger’s most conservative guess: 2,650?
Johnson just smiles.
"All I can tell you is we still have a large presence in Rochester," he says. "And for us to sell the site and really consolidate into the space we need, for the business we do today, was the right thing. It was good for our employees, and it’s good for the community, because IRG buys properties like this and they fill them up. So this can bring new jobs to this city, and I care a lot about this campus. It’s iconic."
The campus, then and now
"IBM To Erect Huge Plant Here," read the headline of the 1956 Post Bulletin. "1,500 To Be Employed by 1958."
After an extensive search for a Midwest manufacturing facility, IBM chose Rochester.
"The chief reason we selected Rochester was the all-embracing question of a community’s character," according to the search team report. "We were impressed by Rochester’s signs of strength in this regard. The Mayo Clinic, the Mayo Civic Auditorium, plans for the new high school [John Marshall, 1958], the Art Center, Rochester Civic Theatre organization, the fine musical groups. All in all we found no warmer, more intelligent community than Rochester."
And IBM president Thomas J. Watson Jr. wanted a modern design to highlight this new IBM hub. In 1956, he hired famed architect Eero Saarinen, who had already made his mark as the winner of 1947’s Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Contest with his design for the St. Louis Gateway Arch. His tulip chair—the hypermodern design described as "a flower atop a stemmed wineglass"—would become the crew’s go-to seats on the set of "Star Trek."
Saarinen’s IBM Rochester design has been called "the first corporate mixed-use campus—it combined manufacturing, distribution, basic research, engineering, and design." Those blue glass panels, designed to represent the Minnesota sky (and IBM’s "Big Blue" nickname), created a membrane considered to be the world’s then-thinnest exterior wall for an industrial complex. The eventual mile-long building was built with expandability in mind.
Johnson has, over the past few years, been revitalizing the building’s drab, sterile interiors and compartmentalized workspaces into the next generation of colorful, open-air employee collaboration.
Each of the company’s now-eight buildings feature a different Minnesota theme, like Minnesota Purple or Honeycrisp or Blueberry Muffin. We pass through a hallway decorated with outdoorsy murals and conference rooms with names like Forest. This is the Norway Pine building.
Though the long-timers still call it 0-253.
Johnson is one of those long-timers.
"I remember one day early in my career, and I was coming to work and I got halfway here, and I had forgotten my tie," says Johnson. "So I was like, ‘Do I go back home and get my tie or do I keep going?’ And I kept going and I regretted it."
Today, there is not a white, short sleeve button-down and black tie in sight.
And not just the clothes have changed.
‘Primarily a cloud and AI company’
"When I started, we were primarily a hardware company," says Johnson. "We did mainframes, which we still do. But we also made typewriters, PCs, and check out machines, and we built hard drives and everything that went into a computer. Ninety percent of our revenue came from hardware."
Now, an estimated 10 percent of IBM’s nearly $80 billion worldwide revenue comes from hardware.
"For us, hardware systems are still an integral part of our strategy, and we’re still supporting the hardware business," says Johnson. "But we’re also a cloud and A.I. company now," says Johnson. "That’s our fastest growing segment. This site represents what IBM is today."
Today, the IBM Rochester site includes a cloud team working on IBM Cloud Paks, described as "enterprise-ready, containerized software solutions that give clients an open, faster and more secure way to move core business applications to any cloud."
Their Watson Health Team works with various medical businesses, including a partnership with Mayo Clinic.
They develop computer chips for IBM mainframes.
The IBM Rochester site is closely involved with the support of Summit and Sierra, currently rated as the world’s top two supercomputers in a competition that still carries a lot of weight in the computer communities. Summit has the power of 200 petaflops.
"Imagine if everyone on earth made one calculation at the same time, every second for an entire year," says Johnson. "That’s what Summit can do in one second."
Built for the United States Department of Energy for civilian scientific research, the $325 million Summit was designed and delivered—and is now supported—by teams in Rochester.
And they’re working on quantum computers, the so-called "giant leap forward in supercomputing which harnesses some of the almost-mystical phenomena of quantum mechanics." IBM’s quantum processors—which use superconductivity to create and maintain a quantum state—are stored in dilution refrigerators in IBM’s New York headquarters at roughly 450 degrees below zero, colder than the vacuum of space.
"It’s really exciting where quantum computing is going over the next five or ten years, and we’ve got a team right here that’s very involved in that," says Johnson. "This computer could change the future of computers."
For decades, IBM Rochester has been a national leader when it comes to changing the future of computers and just about anything else you can imagine.
The now-legendary AS/400 server. Supercomputers from Blue Gene to Deep Blue. Nintendo Wii’s wireless remote movement detection system, the "Wiimote." Microsoft’s X-Box.
Of the 726 Rochester-based patents issued in 2019, 527 went to IBM, the ninth straight year the location has received 500 or more patents.
Ping pong tables and free fruit
We’re walking through newly-painted, colorful halls and past community ping-pong tables and lunchrooms stocked with free cereal and coffee and pop. The company goes through 550 total pounds of free apples, bananas, and oranges per week.
"One of the things that we’ve been doing is investing in our work spaces," says Johnson. "These buildings are 50 years old, and they need updating. We’re investing every year in new meeting room technologies, new furniture, new break areas, new collaboration spaces. We invested $5 million on new work spaces for our cloud and finance teams."
Those finance teams now occupy a big space, the IBM-Rochester Finance Center, which opened about 12 years ago. Again, Johnson isn’t giving up any hard numbers.
"This team’s presence here has grown to where we are one of the major financial centers for IBM now," he says. "That’s another way that Rochester is providing value to all of IBM. And those financial analysts are supporting business units and groups all around the world."
That "all around the world" mantra certainly applies to Johnson.
In addition to his top roles at IBM in Minnesota, Johnson serves as vice president of supply chain engineering, a title he’s held since 2013. He leads a global team that supports IBM’s worldwide supply chain.
"This morning I had a meeting with our Singapore team," he says. "I did that from home."
One team was having issues shipping some cabling components. Another was running into certification problems, and needed to get compliance in certain countries in order to ship to Mexico.
‘I’m so lucky to have gotten to stay here’
For all his worldwide oversight, Johnson—and this is a compliment—still seems as Midwestern as it gets. Which makes sense for the kid helped out in his dad’s old-school Brooklyn Center drugstore, where they made malts and ran the soda fountain.
"I never really appreciated how hard my parents worked," says Johnson. "My dad wasn’t just a pharmacist, he had to run a business and do accounting and all that. My dad taught me to maintain that work-life balance in my job. But his style of really caring about other people, I think that’s part of my nature, too. And I think what makes me an effective leader—and I say that humbly—is I don’t have an ego thing. I care more about the team."
As a kid, Johnson’s family made regular trips from Brooklyn Center to visit relatives in Rochester.
"In the 1960s, when I was a kid, we would drive down to Rochester and I’d see the big blue IBM building and knew we were getting close to Rochester, but weren’t quite there yet. And it fascinated me even back then. I interviewed here right after I graduated."
The self-proclaimed "bowling geek" met his wife, Julie, in a bowling alley—he was cleaning the women’s bathroom—and they have two sons (including one who works at IBM in Rochester).
Johnson, in fact, just bowled his highest-ever three-game series, an 805, at Colonial Lanes. They gave him a shirt and a jacket with his name on it.
"I’m so lucky to have gotten to stay here my whole career," he says. "I’m so lucky to have gotten to be part of the Rochester community."
‘We don’t want to be a mystery.’
Johnson, for nearly 40 years, has seen IBM’s changes firsthand. He understands the community’s perception. Hears from the long-gone old-timers who long for the good old days.
"We’re working on more openness, and think that’s really important," he says. "I’m out all the time, trying to tell our story and how we’ve transformed. We don’t want to be Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, where no one knows what happens in here. We don’t want to be a mystery. Sure, some things we’re not allowed to divulge. But we’re doing great things here, and we want people to see that."
And Johnson understands IBM’s ups and downs. He’s lived it for nearly four decades.
He celebrated the introduction of the AS400 server, from its first shipment in 1988 to its 400,000th shipment (in 1996, presented in Rochester to Greg LeMond, the three-time winner of the Tour de France bicycle race and a small business entrepreneur) and beyond.
Cheered when IBM supercomputer Deep Blue beat former world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997 in one of history’s most famous chess tournaments.
Probably wondered if he’d keep his job in 1993, when IBM announced its first layoffs in the 37 years at the Rochester location (and again when they made cuts from 2008-2016 or so).
Rooted for Watson when it beat Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on "Jeopardy" in 2011.
Today, Johnson is sitting in a meeting room next to his office, and the view from the large windows is one of those 1950’s cutting-edge courtyards surrounded by those blue glass-membraned walls of the Eero Saarinen-designed building.
On that January morning, he just held a welcome meeting for 50 new hires. That night, it’s another teleconference with an overseas group.
Then, the following day, it’s a meeting with, among many others, that quantum computer team.
Two months later, in late March, he’ll be checking in with IBM’s Summit team on the progress of that COVID-19 research, just hoping they’ve had the kind of breakthrough that can lead to something—anything—to help fight a global pandemic.
"Right now, we’re doing some groundbreaking things right here in Rochester," he says. "We always have been."