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IBM’s First Female CEO on Why Bob Dylan Is Talking to a Computer

The following is a condensed and edited interview with Ginni Rometty, CEO, IBM.

You joined IBM 35 years ago. What was the company like back then?
What struck me was the seriousness of the kind of things we did. We were building complex back-office banking systems. We were rolling out ATMs. That, to me, is true to this day about IBM. It lives at this intersection of inventing great technology but, more importantly, applying it.

I’ll tell you a funny story: When I went for my interview, I didn’t have a blue suit. In my mind, I needed one—so I went out and bought one. I had a great interview, and when I came home and took my jacket off, I realized the price and size were still on it. I thought, That was gracious. No one told me.

Did you always know you wanted to be an engineer?
What I knew was I liked math and science, and I never wanted to memorize everything. I wanted to understand where it came from. I’m the kid that tried to take Latin in school, because I felt if I could understand the root of everything, then I could understand why it worked. That was what took me into engineering. And the reason I stayed is, engineering teaches you to solve problems. It teaches you to think.

IBM almost went away in the early 1990s. What happened?
We stayed too long in one era and had to reinvent ourselves, which, by the way, wasn’t the first time. We’re the only tech company that is 105 years old, the only one that has transformed multiple times. IBM existed a good 50 years before mainframes—we started with scales. To this day, mainframes are still here. They’ve been reinvented, and they’re still 10 percent of our business. They run airline systems. They settle currency exchanges.

How does that reinvention compare to the current one?
Typically, when there’s been a transition time in our industry, it’s been driven by one big change. This time there were multiple changes—data, cloud, mobility—all happening at once, and that accelerated the change both for us and our customers.

On my first official day, at 7 a.m., I went to our primary research lab in Yorktown Heights [N.Y.] and broadcast to all of IBM from there. We are still the largest commercial research organization in the world. There are 12 labs around the world, more than 3,000 researchers. Last I checked, we take 10 percent of the world’s Ph.D.s in math. I said there will be a new way of computing, and it’s going to be driven by this huge amount of data. It’s going to transform industries, and it will change the way the IBMer works.

IBM’s revenue has declined for the past 17 quarters. Does that bother you?
It doesn’t bother me. If you go back for a decade, revenue has been...