IBM Exec: ‘There’s Never Been A Better Time To Be’ A Partner

Announcements at IBM Think 2021 include a new competency framework for partners, message acceleration workshops to help partners with marketing and expansion of Cloud Engagement Funds for multiple partner types.


Five months after IBM said it would spend $1 billion on its partner ecosystem, Big Blue on Tuesday unveiled a host of changes to its partner program, including new partner competencies and benefits.

“There’s never been a better time to be in IBM’s ecosystem,” David La Rose, general manager of IBM’s partner ecosystem, told CRN. “There’s $1 billion that is in the market today, and that is only going to help them (partners) to get to revenue faster and sooner.”

Ahead of the virtual IBM Think conference, happening Tuesday and Wednesday, focused on the tech giant’s hybrid cloud and artificial intelligence offerings, two executives, including La Rose, spoke with CRN on recent and upcoming changes to channel partner competencies and benefits.

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La Rose (pictured above) and Evaristus Mainsah, general manager of IBM’s hybrid cloud and edge ecosystem, answered seven questions from CRN on the channel partner announcements at Think and what partners need to know.

Big Blue announced a new competency framework for partners to show technical expertise and success in areas such as hybrid cloud infrastructure, automation and security.

Along with the new framework, new partner benefits include co-creation client centers and proof-of-concept incentives. IBM has unveiled eight-hourlong messaging acceleration workshops to help partner organizations develop custom messaging plans focused on buyers. And IBM is giving partners access to training technology to include IBM training in partners’ learning management systems.

The Armonk, N.Y.-based company has also expanded its Cloud Engagement Fund for technical resources and cloud credits to help partners migrate customer workloads to hybrid cloud environments to all partner types, whether they build on, service, sell or resell IBM goods and services.

Here’s what you need to know.

CRN: What’s the story so far on IBM’s $1 billion investment in its partner ecosystem?

David La Rose (DLR): It started when we declared our strategy to be hybrid cloud and AI. We went all in on that strategy with the acquisition of Red Hat. And since then, we’ve been really retooling our portfolio to integrate OpenShift across that portfolio.

A really good example of this is our Cloud Paks, which are scaling well.

And then October last year when [IBM CEO Arvind Krishna] announced the spin-off of our managed infrastructure services business, now known as Kyndryl — this was really important because it levels the playing field for all of our partners.

In January, we announced a new simplified go-to-market model, which we took to all of our partners, and that really put them right in the center of IBM’s growth strategy. That’s kind of the story so far.

The $1 billion investment … we’re sort of five months into this execution. How do IBM partners feel the $1 billion dollars? There are really three elements. The first one is increased technical support. The second one is what I call an increased toolkit of competencies. And then the third one is really a very focused set of benefits and funding tools to really help them win and land the hybrid platform with their customers a lot faster, so moving them to revenue at a faster pace.

We shifted more than 300 employees into what we call the technical partner architect roles at the beginning of the year. And they really specialized in different elements of our portfolio. That could be our analytics portfolio, our security portfolio, automation, or it could be our systems portfolio power systems and storage.

These are in every market and exclusively available for our partners to go and work with to help them win deals. Also building on top of that is our hybrid cloud build team. This is all about helping partners to migrate workloads, build proofs of concept, build solutions on our hybrid cloud platform.

And right now we’ve got more than 100 active engagements — projects or initiatives to accelerate customers’ hybrid cloud adoption — across the world with partners with this hybrid cloud build team. So those two elements of this, these technical planners, architects and our hybrid cloud build team really unlocks the first deep piece of our investments which is around increased technical support and availability for our partners to access those.

The second element which I talked about was additional competencies. Competencies are all about creating value for our partners. And then in turn creating mutual value for our customers. we’ve invested in developing a competency framework, which is based on what the market is asking, and it’s designed around differentiating their (channel partners’) specialization.

The exciting news at Think is that we are announcing a new competency framework. It’s really going to help demonstrate our partner’s expertise, it’s going to allow them to be technically validated by IBM. It’s going to really bring them some additional expertise around helping them win in the marketplace. What we find is that partners that participate in one or more competencies drive on average 25 times the IBM revenue of partners that have not achieved a competency.

We’re announcing new competencies. There’s 10 new competencies.

The third element of the billion-dollar investment is all around what we call benefits. Benefits come in three forms.

Some of them are free, some of them are paid and some of them are earned. But they’re all designed to really accelerate innovation and provide flexibility and choice to all of our partners. We’ve actually opened up our IBM Client Centers to help our partners co-create and showcase some of their solutions.

And we’ve got partners from around the world that are engaging already in co-creation, design thinking, build sessions and creating demonstrations that they can then showcase as part of our Client Centers. We’ve got 15 new benefits, which are centered around co-creation and our Customer Centers.

Proof of concept incentives — really important for our partners to kind of get to revenue quickly. And then, what we call ‘messaging acceleration workshops,’ we’ve been experimenting with this here in the United States. It’s proving to be very successful. The partners that have engaged in these acceleration workshops, it’s really helping them harness their go-to-market branding and messaging to the marketplace. Fifteen new benefits all centered around the three pillars of ‘build,’ ‘sell’ and ‘service’ tracks.

Many of our partners are already working with us and leveraging these Cloud Engagement Funds. They’re funds that help partners deploy Cloud Paks, move workloads to our hybrid cloud platform, modernize applications with OpenShift. When we see partners engaging with them, we really see them doubling their win rates and accelerating their speed to revenue.

We’ve got about 30 percent of those Cloud Engagement Funds consumed. These 9funds are there to help them (partners) close deals. And then the last piece of the benefits is what we call partner packages. Partner Packages have proven to be very successful for us. We’ve got more than 4,000 in use today helping partners to develop and scale their solutions and capabilities. We’re announcing at Think a free Software Access Catalog for [new] partners. That’s going to be available for the balance of the year. We are encouraging our partners to go and try that — develop their products using our hybrid cloud and AI offerings, and really accelerate their learnings around Cloud Paks and some of the competencies that they can access.

CRN: And what do global system integrators (GSIs) need to know?

Evaristus Mainsah (EM): We’re going to expand the availability of those (Cloud Engagement) Funds so that they are available to all of our partner types. One of the announcements that we made earlier has been to think of partners in terms of the things they want to do. Do they want to buy and resell software? Do they want to buy it and use it? Or do they want to build solutions around it and provide that to customers? And when we started the Cloud Engagement Fund, it wasn’t available to all partner types. Now it’s available to all partners. This has been hugely successful. It enables us to invest in technical resources and cloud credits to help customers who are looking to migrate.

Nearly all of our customers like having some sort of a hybrid cloud environment, maybe they’re looking to move from some platform onto Red Hat OpenShift so they can then run the application wherever they want, maybe they want to run them on-prem now and move them in the future. Maybe they’re looking to replatform their software completely or they want to move to the IBM public cloud. Maybe they want to move to Cloud Financial Services.

You may have heard an announcement that we made recently with Siemens. What they’re going to do is prove some funding and support that engagement. They’re going to basically apply the IBM hybrid cloud approach to their (internet of things-as-a-service) software, which is called MindSphere, which will then allow them to provide this to be a broad ecosystem.

And so you can see the ecosystem value of this because once you get MindSphere onto Red Hat OpenShift, then it also helps them to run it in a range of different environments.

The other thing that we are announcing, this includes what we’re calling the IBM Automation Foundation. And this is part of the IBM Cloud Pak for Automation. It’s a set of common AI and automation components that basically underpin all of the IBM Automation Cloud Paks. So it provides you with a rich integration among all of them, so customers can build something once and reuse it in any one of the Cloud Paks. You can use it for machine learning, to give you insights, you can use RPA (robotic process automation). It takes you from top to bottom, whether you’re trying to manage processes, you’re trying to manage work, you’re trying to provide greater visibility within your stack.

All of this is available, which is going to help a lot of our partners, whether they’re ISVs (independent software vendors), whether they’re GSIs (global system integrators), whether they are in any of the other categories that are interested in building on IBM’s platform to then carry out all forms of automation. We make the announcement, we are going to have more than 20 partners that are already building on it. This includes partners like Confluent, like HCL. Intel is one of our ecosystem partners and TCS (Tata Consultancy Services).

We hear clients, we’re hearing customers, we’re hearing partners saying show me how it works rather than tell me.

Then of course there was a Red Hat Marketplace, which we announced already, so think of that again in providing a one-stop shop for partners to sell OpenShift-certified software.

And then the work that they do on the industry-specific clouds — these are designed to provide you with an environment to work in a public cloud with all the security and all the controls that are required, whether it’s financial services or telco. That’s hugely valuable.

If you’re a cloud for financial services for example, and you’re trying to go to business with JP Morgan or Bank of America or with Barclays Bank, that’s a huge process that you have to go through, a compliance process and controls process to get into their data center that can take you up to a year. Imagine if you can work that process and run it in the Cloud for Financial Services, which has already got all of the controls that those banks need. It means that once you’ve gone through that process, you can be consumed by any number of those banks, without you having to go through your one-year process. You can cut that period from a year to a few months. We’ve got 90-plus partners on that cloud.

And Cloud for Telecommunications, we have 40-plus partners, about half of those partners are already on Red Hat OpenShift. We have plans to working with others to get them onto Red Hat OpenShift. We see it as really driving the modernization of telco networks, but also helping with new services like 5G and edge (computing) with our ecosystem partners — with many of our clients becoming ecosystem partners as well.

We’re announcing adding Cloud Satellite, which brings all of these unified cloud services that allow you to access your services in the IBM Cloud. But you can also access services in any other cloud from the same pane of glass. We announce Cloud Satellite with 65-plus ecosystem partners. More and more partners come to join us here. A really powerful ecosystem story here.

Hybrid cloud — a few years ago everybody was saying, ‘You’ve just got to pick your one cloud and go to it. And decide carefully because it’s going to be the one.’ Partners and clients are among six and eight and maybe even more clouds. You’ve got edge (computing) that is coming in. The heterogeneity in the marketplace, the complexity is only getting bigger. And therefore, having a platform that allows you to go from edge to data center to any cloud in doing things the same way — that value proposition will just get stronger and stronger. That’s where IBM is, and no one is better than IBM.

CRN: What investments should channel partners make to get the most out of all that IBM is offering?

DLR: We really spent a lot of time on this last year, which was to give our partners clarity on exactly how to engage with IBM. We see it in three categories. They’re selling something from IBM, a technology or service, therefore, we come in through the ‘sales’ track. Their building with or on our platform, which means they come into the ‘build’ area. Or they’re building a practice around the Cloud platform, which is building ‘service.’ We’ve tried to be very clear with them around sales, building, service. That then gives them the entry point, and then we take them through the framework of competencies that will allow them to best leverage their solutions and specialize and differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

They would make some investments in the competencies around their specialty, whether it be sell, build or service, that gives them a clear framework of what that looks like. We also recognize there are different partners then different levels of maturity and business size. Our partners that have been with us for many years, understand our portfolio, are very familiar with our programs and benefits — they would typically say that we’re a very lucrative vendor to work with but they know how to leverage that.

New partners coming in is where we’re really over indexing, to help them get started with us. That’s a lot around Cloud credits. These Partner Packages, which can get them started from let’s say, a $1,000-type investment all the way up to a $100,000-type investment, which gives them access to Cloud credits and skills and technology, etc. We’ve tried to address this from the spectrum of new partners, partners that are with us today and have been with us for a long time that are now moving into different types of areas with us — that they may have been a sales partner with our with our systems business for many, many years but are now moving into software and managed services.

And so they typically want to look at something to build with or on, and so they can expand their relationship into a build or service track. And partners right at the top end, which are working with IBM on leveraging our technology into their client base, which would be the systems integrators.

CRN: Do partners need to demonstrate a certain revenue base or client pool to access these resources?

DLR: We want everybody. You could have a bunch of developers that are building on a small application that they’re trying to get accepted in a particular industry that probably haven’t ever worked with us before coming to PartnerWorld.

We’ve got something for them all the way up to partners that are specialized in the security industry, whether they’re specialized in automation or analytics, that may not have familiarity with the IBM portfolio coming to PartnerWorld. We’ve got something for our existing partners that we’ve already got in place and they’re leveraging a new set of skills. We really do want to open up ourselves to the ecosystem, which we acknowledge is changing at a very rapid rate. The ultimate thing that we’re looking for is how do we drive growth for them. How do we provide value to them? We know that if we do that, that it’s going to provide value to our clients and ourselves. A win for our partners, a win for our clients, obviously means a win for IBM.

Are we seeing the channel partner programs of IBM and Red Hat come closer together?

DLR: The worlds come together, but they come together at our value added distributors. Tech Data, Arrow, Ingram (Micro Services) have integrated their IBM and Red Hat organizations. From a programmer‘s perspective, they’re still very much separate and focused. For the foreseeable future, I don’t see that changing yet. But this all integrates where it needs to, which is in front of a client in the field.

EM: For the service partners, I see many of them really committed to setting up and many of them have Red Hat practices already. Red Hat skillsets are really important. Many clients look into re-platforming, many clients are looking to write applications and many of them also have their own solutions that they sell and they want to be able to make it available in a range of different platforms. So, definitely Red Hat skills are important. Also the IBM Cloud Paks, these are all built on Red Hat OpenShift. So any of our partners that any of our software partners benefit enormously from having a deep skillset in Red Hat OpenShift.

How close are you to reaching the $1 billion ecosystem investment mark?

DLR: It’s $1 billion over three years. If I come back to the three elements of this — increased technical support. So that goes back to the 300 resources that we’ve put in place, plus the Hybrid Cloud team. That’s in place today. A big portion of that’s already in the field. And then expanded toolkits and on competencies, some of that is rolled out with Think. And you’re going to see us continue to expand that over the course of the next 24 months. And then this third element of benefits and funding tools around the Cloud Engagement Fund. You’re going to see that continue to expand going forward.