David Morriss spent over 31 years in IBM starting at the bottom and becoming a board member of IBM UK. He saw it change from the dominant computer company with a unique culture and set of policies to one focused on IT services. He planned the change to a services company for its European, Middle East and African sector and then executed the plan in the UK. This turned IBM UK round from a loss-making operation to a profit generator. He applied the mantra that computers were there to solve problems in the private and public sectors, not there for the sake of technology.
Today he spent time with Richard Sharpe at the WCIT Hall in the City of London talking about his life and career.
Early Life and Education
David Morriss was born in 1942 in Walthamstow in London. His father worked in the administrative side of the electrical supply industry and his mother worked for Abbey National. He had one elder sister and a twin brother. His parents were encouraging and placed a huge value on education.
David went to his local primary school first in Walthamstow, and then when the family moved, in Woodford Green. David, and his twin brother Peter, sat and passed the Eleven Plus and then gained scholarships to Bancroft’s School in Woodford. David enjoyed school. He liked rugby and joined the Combined Cadet Force where after the initial two-year basic section, he opted for the Army section and ended up as a cadet under-officer.
After finishing school David went to the University of Manchester, (UMIST) to study for a BSc in Electrical Engineering. He says: “It was a straightforward engineering course. In those days you did a bit of mechanical engineering as well in the early years and then, gradually specialised more and more.” David found himself looking more towards the heavy electrical engineering side as his specialism.
On leaving university he was offered two roles; one at the Central Electricity Generating Board power group, commissioning power stations, the other in the department of the mechanical and electrical engineering for London Transport. He accepted the London Transport role and returned to London on a training scheme for postgraduate engineers.
David spent two years at London Transport where he moved around the different business areas learning different roles from the ground up to ensure that as a potential manager, he would understand the different functions.
He says: “That stood me in good stead later on in life. It was then that I was working on the Victoria Line, pre-Victoria Line, doing interesting projects associated with that. … I also did a project which got me into computers. A group of us were analysing the economic aspects of a new urban railway and that resulted in a paper that was presented to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. I had a job analysing the data and I used the LEO bureau as a user to help in the task of data analysis. That was my first brush with computers as a user.” David wrote his own programme, he adds: “It was very simple analysis really. It was a sort of high-level interface program. … I was never a brilliant programmer; I will confess that now.” The machine used punch cards which David submitted and then received the printouts remotely. He says: “I didn’t see the thing, but I used it, in a sense. It was only when I became an IBM systems engineer that I got my hands on one.”
IBM - Systems Engineer
Trainee Systems Engineer
In 1966, David decided it was time to move on. He says: “I saw an advert in the paper for a company. I didn’t know who they were but it talked about the sort of backgrounds they were looking for; you had to be 25, you had to have four years’ industrial experience etc, I met none of the criteria, so as you do, I applied, and they gave me a job. I was there for 31 years after that.” The company was IBM and David was employed as a trainee systems engineer.
David was posted to one of the branch offices in Birmingham which dealt with four major segmentation manufacturing accounts; Rolls Royce, Tube Investments Group, GKN Group, and the National Coal Board,
David says: “I worked on the group with GKN originally, who were a string of smaller specialist companies that had been aggregated over the years, and they were computerising them progressively in the different fields.” The role saw David going out on the road visiting the companies and doing surveys which he’d had experience of at London Transport. He adds: “At the end of it, you had to estimate the size of computer they would need, the amount of storage they would need, et cetera et cetera, the sort of systems, the processes they would need to go through. It really fitted very well to what I had done up to then.”
David was provided with computer training by IBM, he says: “The training was amazing. It was a great strength of IBM. You never stopped training; it didn’t matter what level you were.”
As a trainee systems engineer, David was put through a series of courses interspersed with fieldwork. He says: “It was very similar to the military model. There was a technical stream, the programming languages, and you’d be taught how to estimate all the parameters of a system such as; how to calculate the storage requirements, estimate the speed of a computer program, therefore what sort of compute power you might need, storage. You would then work with the salesman who would cost it up and write the proposal with you, but he was responsible.” David says that while there few female salespeople, there were numerous female systems engineers, he adds: “Women were involved at that level in IBM very early on.”
The training included understanding the processes of the industries served by IBM. David explains: “You didn’t only learn about the computer, there was industry specialisation as well, and that made a huge difference to the ability to talk to your potential customer. They quickly found out that you had some idea what it was about, rather than just coming in and saying, ‘This is the way you do it.’”
Training took fifteen months with a final six-week residential school which required employees to pass out and be able to speak in a range of subjects including their industry module. It was also preparation for IBM’s working culture, David says: “It was cunning psychology to get you used to the fact that your contract wasn’t nine to five. You did the job when you had to do it. There was a lot of night work. In those days, to test programs you often had to do them at night because it was the only time you could get on a machine.”
IBM’s culture was laid out by the founder Tom Watson. It was ethically based. David says: “The ethic side, the behavioural side, was stressed right from day one. … The company had a Christian background and I felt at home working for a company with ethics like that.”
Associate Systems Engineer
Upon completing his training, David became an associate systems engineer and in 1969 moved from Birmingham to work in the aerospace industry unit in Welwyn. The unit had two areas: one based in Welwyn and the other in Bristol.
After three months David was appointed team leader despite the fact that he was not the most senior person in the team. This role saw him working very closely with the salesmen and the manager of the unit, David Livermore. He was then promoted to national account manager for British Aircraft Corporation with responsibility for all the sites across the country.
As the technology developed, IBM met with growing competition in the marketplace from other companies entering the space, including Fujitsu. The company had developed a high-end mainframe which was plug compatible to IBM. David says that while it was a challenge, the point of difference was IBM’s service ethos: “People respected the service. There was an old saying that went around, ‘you never get fired for buying IBM’. It wasn’t the machine. It was the fact that the customer always came first. I think that customers who were very highly dependent on their machines commercially, made the decision that the alleged saving wasn’t worth it.”
In 1970 IBM started selling unbundled hardware and software, prior to this time, it had just leased the machines. David says: “This was quite an interesting thing, because it changed the way you worked with a customer because now you were working even closer with users.”
In 1971 IBM launched the 3270 display which became the workhorse of interactive computing, for commercial, for scientific, for manufacturing sectors.
It used software called CICS, which is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. This was followed in 1974 by the launch of systems network arch
IBM - Management
In 1974, David moved to be IBM’s branch manager for two of the London clearing banks. He says: “A complete change of industry base, from manufacturing and aerospace, into London. I had Lloyds and Barclays worldwide, because they were both overseas and we were expanding overseas at the time, which was interesting.”. He adds: “All the banks were going through an engineering revolution because that’s when we went to nationwide banking. There was a huge explosion in the number of clients, therefore an explosion in cheque volume and so we had very heavy equipment doing cheque sorting for example.”
David reported into Tony Cleaver who helped to develop the cash machine; he jokes; “he helped the development. I got stuck with the installation challenges.” He goes on to say: “Tony was very supportive. We always got on very well together and our careers were interlocked from that time, for the rest of the time in IBM for both of us.”
Assistant to the Director-General
After acting as branch manager for two and half years, in 1976 David was selected to interview for the role of assistant to the director-general, Kap Cassani, based in Paris.
He says: “He was a very, very, interesting guy. Brilliant. Working with him for two and half years was probably better than any business school. He had a very incisive mind and you knew where you were with him at any time.”
UK Regional Manager; Data Processing Division
In 1979 David returned to the UK as a regional manager in the Data Processing Division with responsibility for eight branches. In that year IBM launched the System/38 which featured an integrated relational database, the 4300 mainframe range, a mid-size machine and opened retail outlets called IBM Product Centres, in London.
IBM - Director
Director of Business Plans
In 1982, David became Director of Business Plans, which he did for three years.
He explains: “Business Plans was mirrored in ICI, when they were a big group, but it was an unusual thing really. You had the finance function with its role, then the marketing and services piece and someone had to be planning for all this. The planning departments integrated these various ideas into the annual operating plan which is basically the budget all of which tied in with the five-year strategic plan. We worked closely with the other units in pulling this together, but it would have to be based partly on assumptions of new products and whatever, which of course were not in the hands of the marketeers at that point in time. We also did the manpower planning element, and in so far as it affected the UK operating marketing of services company, the capital planning. It went right up the company; there was a vice-president business plans in IBM Europe, up to a vice-president business plans in the States. It was, really, really, interesting role.”
In this role David saw the products as they were developed. He says: “We had the PC, which was a big piece of the company plan, but that was a new fenced function in itself, because it was dealerships. But we had to integrate that plan and that was interesting, because, predicting growth rates of 30 or 40 per cent, looked bold, but we were quite successful at that in that time.”
In 1981, IBM UK’s turnover was £747 million which grew to one billion, seven hundred and thirty-one million by 1983 and hit two billion in 1985, the last year that David was Director of the Planning Department and the year that Tony Cleaver had become head of the company.
In the restructure created by Tony, David was made General Manager of the Central Northern Region with his own personnel, legal, finance, teams. He also had customer engineering, and the GSD manager. He describes it as “a subset of the British company operations.”
Group Director, Solution Development
In 1989, David returned to Paris as Group Director, Solution Development. He says: “My main role there was plotting the return to a major services business, strategically.” This change saw IBM break its full employment policy. David adds: “That was a major outcome which was really unpleasant obviously. Part of what we were trying to do was to move people into potential fee-earning roles in services and enter new lines of service and because I had had this strategic background in client and IBM planning, that’s what I was really doing.”
David adds: “I started from where we were; I did a segment model of the whole service industry and we looked at each one from the point of view of IBM’s strengths, weakness and opportunity; looked at what we might need to do. The areas that opened up, given our skillset with redistribution, were very much things like systems integration, so we ended up as a competitor, now often a partner. It didn’t take long to be partnering with people like Logica and so on. It really changed the relationships of IBM with that part of the industry over time, it wasn’t instantaneous. The strategy was to try to redeploy the people who had the skills and were re-trainable into these jobs. Then we went out and hired consultants because we had to start that from nothing. We made the education business more out-facing, with a broader set of courses, the online bureau, which would now be called cloud computing, was extant and running, and we found we could expand that. We pushed on our areas of strength.” Nick Temple was the UK Chairman at the time and David says of him: “Nick made some very brave decisions; he grasped the nettle; I have to give him credit for that. It was very tough.”
Director of Staffs and Services.
Having done the strategic planning work on the way forward for IBM, David was then made Director of Staffs and Services to implement the plan. He says: “It often happened, you did the planning and then you’re stuck in to implement.”
In 1993, with IBM continuing to suffer loses, Louis Gerstner took over as Chairman of the board.
Director EMEA public sector
In 1994 David was asked to head up the EMEA public sector piece; his last role in IBM which lasted until 1997. At this point, David says: “We were developing, or moving solutions, from a point of expertise and making them more publicly available. It was right back, in a sense, to where we started, we were a solutions company.”
Speaking about the public sectors difficulties with tech implementation David says some of the problems stem from people not feeling able to tell their boss the truth, he says: “They tell them what they want to hear. Although a lot of them are very clever, really clever people, they don’t have their feet on the grounds of reality in terms of what really happens when you try and change things, et cetera.” He harks back to his days with the British Aircraft Corporation where he was told: “The computer is only a third of the problem that you are solving; the rest is the people.”
By 1997 when David left, he says that IBM was on the up again having turned the corner. It was a £4.7 billion company which was making profits of £210 million, he says: “Financially, we were a healthy growing services business in the UK. The consultancy grew very well, systems integration was growing well.”
Since leaving IBM, David has been chairman, managing director and vice-chairman of various companies including: Concurrent Thinking. He has also acted as a consultant to clients such as: Silicon Graphics Europe, Hogg Robinson Travel, Manpower International and the UK Office of Government Commerce.
David says of his charity work; “I work with charities, small companies and so on, because you can add a huge amount of value for them, and it’s enjoyable. You get much faster feedback, in terms of outcomes. It’s an area, especially the charity world, which desperately needs serious management for all sorts of obvious scandals, but it’s inherently undermanaged. Most people are very dedicated to the outcomes without understanding the means of delivering them. That sounds a bit harsh, but it happens over and over again.”
David has also played a role in the IT’s professional bodies including the WCIT, being Master in 2008, and BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT where he served as vice-president and was president in 2005.
Interviewed by: Richard Sharpe on the 26th March 2019 at the WCIT Hall
Transcribed by: Susan Hutton
Abstracted by: Lynda Feeley