Business disruption and employment history

Industry experience provides the insight that helps convert a disruptive idea into a compelling business

Zack blogged that someone working at a large incumbent vendor is less likely to disrupt a business. He writes:

And one thing I've noticed is that the more time someone has spent working for one of the "incumbent" large players in an industry, the less likely they will be able to disrupt that business. At least in the open source world, it seems that the most successful products and companies have come from people with little exposure to the traditional way of operating.

[ Also on InfoWorld: "What does it take to create business disruption?" | Keep up with the latest open source news with InfoWorld's open source newsletter and topic center. ]

And in referring to Linux and Linus Torvalds, Zack notes:

Heck, IBM couldn't figure out how to compete with Microsoft, yet a university kid out of Helsinki created the fastest-growing server platform ever.

I have to disagree with Zack.

The operating system that kid from Helsinki developed would be nowhere close to where it is today if not for industry veterans at IBM, HP, Dell, Intel, and other companies also deciding to disrupt the industry. At IBM, the decision to get behind Linux was supported by many seasoned executives. One of those executives, Robert LeBlanc, had something like 20 years at IBM when he headed IBM's Linux play in the early days.

I wasn't there, but I can only imagine the heated discussions that took place when Robert and team suggested IBM disrupt the market and itself by getting behind a competitor to IBM AIX. And here we are a decade later with IBM's Linux and AIX revenues doing quite well and very likely better than if we hadn't supported Linux.

I recall the situation when we were trying to make the business case to buy Gluecode and add an open source-based application server to the IBM WebSphere family. Considering we had the market-share-leading application server product at the time, this was a disruptive move. And yet, the initial idea and final decision came from within IBM's walls.

To be fair, some folks questioned the acquisition case. But every executive we needed to get approval from understood why this disruption was necessary. Today, we have WebSphere growing at a very healthy rate, even in this economy.

But why look at IBM alone? Check out the folks behind Alfresco, most of whom were leaders at Documentum, Business Objects, and other ECM vendors. How about the folks leading Red Hat and JBoss today, many of whom worked at IBM, Dell, HP, Sun, and Oracle? Or consider SpringSource management, whose resumes read like a laundry list of middleware vendors.

Far from "exposure to the traditional way of operating" hindering one's ability to disrupt an industry, this history provides the insight that helps convert a disruptive idea into a compelling business.

I do agree with Zack on the following point:

Maybe you need to have different wiring to disrupt a business

Yes, you need different wiring. But that has nothing to do with your employment history.

Follow me on Twitter at: SavioRodrigues.

p.s.: I should state: "The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies, or opinions."