By June C. Hussey –
40+ Years of Innovation in the ‘Silicon Desert’
Arizona was but two years old, Congress Street was being paved for the first time and an industrious young businessman named Thomas Watson Sr. had just been appointed manager of a New York enterprise called Computing – Tabulating – Recording Company. The year was 1914 and the world, though entering a war of a previously unknown scale, was buying up the newfangled meat slicers and coffee grinders being distributed by his innovative Manhattan-based company.
It would be several decades before this growing company would set up shop in Arizona – but when it did, it was here to stay. Driven by global ambition and post-war economy, Watson had by then renamed the company International Business Machines. Known throughout the world today simply as IBM, the cognitive and cloud platform company is ranked by Forbes as the 17th most valuable brand in the world.
With more than 350,000 employees in 170 countries, IBM has come a long way from selling tabulating machines. From electric typewriters to mainframes, floppy disks, PCs, magnetic stripes, UPC barcodes and cognitive systems like the aptly named “Watson,” IBM has brought forth a parade of products that have revolutionized the way people live and work, no doubt exceeding Watson’s wildest dreams. In the meantime, IBM’s impact on Tucson’s economy over the past 40 years is no less impressive.
IBM’s Tucson Roots
Tucson’s love affair with IBM commenced in 1978 when the company set up shop in its brand new, state-of-the-art facility at 9000 S. Rita Road. Forty-one years later, Tucson’s population is double in size and IBM’s Rita Road site is part of the business complex known as UA Tech Park at Rita Road, home to approximately 40 tenant companies. IBM’s presence here clearly helped set the stage for Tucson’s rise as a high-tech corridor – or as IBMers like Calline Sanchez affectionately call it – “the Silicon Desert.”
Last year, IBM celebrated its first 40 years in Tucson with a room full of public officials from both sides of the border, media members, current and former employees and other special guests. Site Leader Sanchez – IBM VP, Worldwide Systems Lab Services and Technical Universities, Tucson Site & New Mexico State Executive – and her colleagues offered enlightening and often humorous insights about their work then and now. IBM scientists and engineers were on hand afterward to give guests an up-close glimpse at various high-tech gadgets used in data storage and retrieval, cloud computing, cyber security and artificial intelligence.
Partnering with a Top-Tier University
IBM and the University of Arizona partner closely for obvious reasons. According to Stephen Fleming, VP of UA research, discovery and innovation, the university does a lot beyond graduating talented students. It conducts joint research, sponsors spinoff companies and offers mid-career training for the development of the region’s workforce.
IBM is constantly seeking to attract and retain top scientists and engineers to create its breakthrough technologies. Fleming points out that the UA research enterprise alone creates a $1.2 billion annual impact – the economic impact equivalent of two Super Bowls per year every year. Overall, Fleming said, UA generates an estimated $8 billion annually in regional economic impact.
In his remarks at the event, Fleming emphasized how all of Tucson benefits from IBM’s presence here. When it came in 1978, Tucson was hardly the blooming metropolis that it is today. So why did such a world leader in information technology select the Old Pueblo?
Fleming offered a brief lesson in history and economics: During the 19th century, industries were drawn to river towns for the manufacture and shipment of products. Before the invention of railroads and highways, a desert town like Tucson could not compete. However, as transportation systems evolved in the 20th century, brain power eventually eclipsed water power as a primary industry magnet. A source of brain power like the UA drew IBM to this dry desert town in the 1970s like a thirsty camel to a desert spring.
Generating New-Collar Jobs
Today, IBM not only employs UA grads, it also partners with nearby schools – including top-ranked Vail School District – to generate interest and enthusiasm for “new collar” jobs. New-collar jobs are abundant in fast-growing fields like cybersecurity, cloud computing, cognitive business and digital design – and they do not always require a four-year college degree. Skills needed to excel in such jobs can be acquired through 21st century vocational training, innovative public education programs like P-TECH (which IBM pioneered), apprenticeships, coding camps, professional certification programs and more. IBM is working to make the technology industry more inclusive by emphasizing the opportunity that new-collar jobs provide in communities such as Tucson.
Sanchez, who has three degrees herself, was a young child when IBM opened on Rita Road. Her predecessors may have had a tough time getting scientists and engineers to relocate to Tucson – yet once here, they were reluctant to leave. Tucson has that effect on people. Its magnetic allure grabs onto one’s soul like jumping cholla sticks to a tennis shoe.
At IBM Tucson’s 40-year celebration, Tony Penn, executive director of the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona, called IBM “a great corporate citizen.” Sanchez agreed. “Our people care about where we live and work,” she said.
This year alone, Penn said, more than 4,000 volunteers – many of whom were IBM employees – collaborated on 200 community projects throughout Southern Arizona during United Way’s Days of Caring. IBMers actually were the ones who first proposed the idea to the United Way 17 years ago. Since 2005, Penn said, IBM has contributed nearly $7 million directly to the Southern Arizona community – $2 million in the past five years alone – making a world of difference for kids, families and seniors who need, as the adage goes, “a hand up, not a hand-out.”
Rock Stars of Data
IBM is a world leader in the field of information technology and Tucson is one of IBM’s major innovation centers. In 2017 alone, Southern Arizona inventors accounted for 481 of IBM’s 9,043 patents, making this the company’s 25th consecutive year of U.S. patent leadership. According to Sanchez, local scientists and engineers have contributed to IBM’s status as a top patent innovation company in the U.S. for 25 years in a row.
One of IBM’s many local patent holders, Ric Bradshaw, attended the anniversary event at Rita Road. Sanchez told the audience that she was personally star-struck when she first read about Bradshaw while she was a teenager living in Florida – and remains so today.
She remembered being fascinated with Bradshaw’s vital role in discovering important details on how the NASA space shuttle Challenger went down in 1986 after tragically exploding 73 seconds after launching over the Atlantic Ocean. It was a devastating event witnessed in real time on television by millions of Americans, including students who were celebrating the first civilian passenger on a space shuttle, teacher Christa McAuliffe.
Standing 6 feet, 4 inches in cowboy boots, with a full beard and ponytail reaching halfway down his back, Bradshaw shook off the rock star label Sanchez gave him as he joined her on stage. If one were to apply stereotypes, Bradshaw looks more like an aging lead singer from an ’80s hair band than a Ph.D. polymer chemist – that is, until Sanchez got him talking shop. As he led the audience through the process he and his IBM colleagues went through to famously help solve the mystery of the Challenger disaster, it was hard for a lay person to keep up, yet impossible to tune out.
“We knew more about tape than anyone,” Bradshaw began. He then launched into a detailed description of how his team used a specially concocted lubricant – along with feats of creative engineering – to retrieve the shuttle’s voice and data recordings. Despite having survived the disaster, the tapes had been submerged nine feet under the sea for six weeks. The significance of the assignment – plus the omnipresence of armed federal agents keeping watch over the evidence – made deciphering the tapes a bit stressful, Bradshaw said. Yet he and his colleagues at IBM rose to the challenge. After 10 hours of “invention on the fly,” Bradshaw said, “we basically took a piece of clay and turned it into a readable tape.”
That’s how the nation learned the truth. As Bradshaw described it, the Challenger did not simply explode. “A rocket booster went sideways at 25,000 miles per hour and it disintegrated from stress,” he said. Sadly, he added, the evidence suggested that passengers may very well have been alive when their vessel made violent impact with the ocean’s surface off Florida’s Atlantic coast. The tape’s evidence, resurrected from the salty sea by IBMers, solved the mystery behind a tragic day for America.
Digital Trade Matters
Data has become the lifeblood of the worldwide digital economy. IBM has long advocated for policies to protect and preserve the cross-border movement of data. “Doing so is essential for harnessing the full potential of data and technology to drive economic growth, expand prosperity and create good jobs,” Sanchez said.
While IBM is a global company with a 100-year history of investing and hiring in the United States, Sanchez and her colleagues also know that digital trade can expand economic opportunity worldwide. “Our ability to work and collaborate across our global footprint is essential to powering the kinds of innovation we deliver from places like Tucson – and that’s an important theme we drive home with government officials from around the world,” she said.
Protecting Data Privacy
Enterprises worldwide have trusted IBM as a responsible steward of their most valuable data for more than a century, Sanchez said. While she emphasized the company’s commitment to preserving that trust through robust data security and privacy practices, she cautioned against a one-size-fits-all approach.
Unlike the recent General Data Protection Regulation enacted by the European Union, Sanchez and her IBM colleagues are strong advocates for localized solutions that are aligned with each country’s unique social and business culture. In the U.S., for example, IBM has recommended a collaborative public-private approach, led by industry together with government, to develop a framework of data privacy standards tailored to America’s needs.
A similar effort has already produced cybersecurity standards that are widely accepted, including by the U.S. government. “We feel this model is both practical and has a proven record of success,” Sanchez said, adding that IBM has a long-held belief in “world peace through world trade.”
The Next 40 Years
With all the advancements over the past 40 years at IBM Enterprise Storage and IBM Systems in Tucson, it is practically unfathomable to imagine what the next 40 years will bring. Yet one thing is certain, Sanchez asserted – IBM’s force in Arizona will continue to lead the way.