The Visionary

Irving Wladawsky-Berger’s long road from Cuban émigré to Internet pioneer



Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part series based on an interview with Irving Wladawsky-Berger, former vice president of IBM, chairman emeritus of the IBM Academy of Technology, and visiting lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Wladawsky-Berger, born in Cuba, is widely credited with helping to lead IBM’s successful foray into Internet computing, and continues to provide business technology thought leadership to organizations.

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call.

In 1995, another event took place that made our world even smaller: the first Web-based video telecast, between two sets of audiences – one at the IBM offices in New York City and the other in San Diego. I had the privilege of being on hand for the event in New York and witnessed the jerky-motion images, accompanied by audio that was tinny and echoing.

But still, the link was made, and so was history. Up to that point, the internet was little more than a network of static Web pages and messaging protocols. Suddenly, it was blooming into a global multimedia communications channel, unlimited in scale and scope.

Leading the charge into this new reality was a band of visionaries within IBM who recognized that the burgeoning internet represented not only the future of the company, but also of computing itself, and, ultimately, global communications. Dr. Irving Wladawsky-Berger, who coordinated and moderated the San Diego panel on that groundbreaking day, was one of these new thinkers, having already led the rebuilding and rebranding of IBM’s supercomputing line, in which he artfully re-purposed existing company assets to build what were at the time some of the world’s fastest and most powerful machines.

Recently, I caught up with Wladawsky-Berger, who retired from IBM as a vice president in 2007, and still has the ear of the company’s upper echelon as a thought leader and visionary. He also works with Citigroup to help identify new opportunities in mobile commerce and digital money. And, he is a visiting lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Engineering Systems Division, and adjunct professor at the Imperial College Business School in London.

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