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2021 Most Influential Executive Arvind Krishna: ‘I Bleed Blue’

The progress Arvind Krishna has made in transforming IBM into a hybrid cloud-AI powerhouse with a renewed focus on partners, innovation and growth has made him the No. 1 Most Influential Executive on CRN’s 2021 Top 100 Executives list.

Arvind Krishna could not believe his good fortune when as a young graduate student completing his doctorate in electrical and computer engineering he first walked through the doors of IBM’s iconic Thomas J. Watson Research Center. “It was just so energizing,” he said, recalling those heady days when the internet and wireless networking were still on the horizon.

Krishna was bursting with ideas on how to play his part in the research organization responsible for the earth-shattering advances in semiconductors and computer architecture that moved the entire information technology industry into one new era after another.

“In the first three months, I was applying coding theory,” said Krishna. “I was applying packet networking. I was applying all the things I learned about, including eventually what was called the internet. In those days, it was just called the TCP/IP network.”

Thirty-one years later, Krishna—who is now the chairman and CEO of IBM—is pushing the company at which he started his career to break beyond the “enduring platforms” it created in mainframe, services and middleware into what he calls the “fourth” IBM platform: hybrid cloud.

To make that happen, Krishna has IBM moving at lightning speed to become the leader in hybrid cloud and artificial intelligence. In just 16 months at the helm, Krishna has made 14 acquisitions, set in motion the spin-off of IBM’s $19 billion Global Technology Services managed infrastructure unit and put in place the biggest change in IBM’s go-to-market model in the last three decades. All of this is in pursuit of his ambitious goal to make the storied computer company he loves so dearly the undisputed winner of the architectural battle in the cloud.

[RELATED: The 25 Most Influential Executives Of 2021]

Krishna said it is a privilege to be “a custodian” of the rich IBM legacy. “I bleed blue,” he said. “It’s the people. It’s the technology. It’s the clients and all IBM has done.”

The progress Krishna has made in transforming IBM into a hybrid cloud-AI powerhouse with a renewed focus on partners, innovation and growth has made him the No. 1 Most Influential Executive on CRN’s 2021 Top 100 Executives list. Krishna’s $1 billion investment in elevating the IBM partner ecosystem and a simplified account engagement model that relies more heavily on partners has forever changed the channel landscape. Under Krishna’s new simplified account model, several hundred top global accounts are served direct. Everything else—segment two—is now the domain of IBM ecosystem partners.

Mark Wyllie, CEO of Flagship Solutions Group, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based IBM partner that recently merged with Data Storage Corp. to tackle the growing IBM hybrid cloud-AI opportunity, said Krishna is the most “partner-focused” CEO he has seen in his 23 years teaming with IBM.

“The sky is the limit with this new go-to-market model,” said Wyllie. “We are seeing more and more qualified opportunities working with IBM sales reps than we ever have in the past. Every week we get more activity from more sales reps that we haven’t worked with before. IBM is pulling partners into deals, and we are seeing less conflict between the channel and IBM direct. We have seen a pretty substantial change in the field. IBM reps have gotten the message in segment two that they don’t get paid unless it goes through a partner.”

Krishna is making the big bold moves necessary to have IBM recognized as a cloud leader, said Wyllie. “Hybrid cloud is the right approach for customers—the reality is there are some things that lend themselves to on-prem and others that lend themselves to cloud,” he said. “What IBM is doing is having those two worlds co-exist and interoperate. That is the future.”

Krishna, an engineer at heart, has brought the technical acumen to make hybrid cloud-AI a reality for customers, said Wyllie. Part of that involves putting IBM technical reps in the field to help craft game-changing solutions with partners. “Arvind’s technical background is making a big difference,” he said.

Chris Kotte, senior vice president of sales at Chattanooga Tenn.-based InfoSystems, a longtime IBM partner that has transformed itself into a Red Hat hybrid cloud standout, said Krishna’s bet on Red Hat has opened up new strategic cloud business opportunities with large enterprise customers. “What Arvind has done for us with Red Hat and IBM cloud has opened up our addressable market space significantly,” he said. “With our Red Hat focus we are now talking to multibillion-dollar companies that we were never involved with before.”

The Red Hat sales pipeline is growing via deep strategic business discussions with customers anxious to make the cloud journey, said Kotte. The IBM hybrid cloud focus has also opened up new security services opportunities, he said. “We’ve got a significant cybersecurity practice that has benefited from our OpenShift, Ansible and hybrid cloud discussions,” he said. “We have got more and more customers that are focused on trying to get their arms around specific areas of their business as it relates to ransomware, making sure they are protected in more ways than they ever have been before.”

Kotte credits Krishna with bringing a deeper focus on partners to IBM. “It’s great to have a chairman and CEO at the top that is focused on his Business Partners with a clearly defined strategy on Red Hat and IBM cloud,” he said. “That is huge. IBM is really sending a good message to the Business Partner community. You go back several years ago and we were getting some mixed messages in our community as far as whether we were supported or not.”

Rich Hume, CEO of Tech Data, the Clearwater, Fla.-based distributor that is teaming with IBM to build a robust on-ramp for partners to IBM’s hybrid cloud-AI portfolio, said Krishna’s strategy is “taking root” and “gaining momentum.”

In fact, he said, Tech Data partners are already seeing the impact of IBM’s channel investments and simplified go-to-market model. “IBM made it very clear that the segment two in their coverage model was going to be realigned and very partner-oriented,” said Hume. “They are moving very quickly in getting that realignment done, and certainly we are seeing the beginning benefits of that. I think it is going to become more and more material over time. That coverage model is well under way.”

Krishna said his goal is to more than double the revenue with partners over the next three to five years by “fundamentally growing” the channel business—but not at the cost of other parts of the IBM business. “This is a win-win-win,” he said. “It’s a win for our clients. It’s a win for our partners and hence it is a win for us. It is in that order. I think being able to work together really brings a lot more value. I fundamentally hold the belief that IBM should never get more than 10 [percent]to 20 percent of that value. A big amount goes to the client and a big amount goes to the partner.”

Krishna is urging partners to specialize in application and mainframe modernization with a focus on hybrid cloud. “The rallying cry has to be: ‘Let’s go get our clients on a hybrid cloud journey,’” he said.

The speed at which Krishna has IBM moving has led to a more entrepreneurial spirit inside the company. Krishna is encouraging more risk-taking with his credo that “perfection is the enemy of good.” At the same time he is pushing IBM to move faster, he is determined to make it easier for customers and partners to do business with IBM.

Krishna said the IBM transformation does not have an end point, but rather is a journey with ever more rapid technology innovation. “You never stop,” he said. “Today we’re talking about hybrid cloud and artificial intelligence. Five years from now we’ll be talking about quantum computing. Five years from then it could be something else that we need to add to our repertoire. The point is you are always learning.”

That focus on “always learning” harkens back to one of the lessons Krishna absorbed early on at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center: Always “look around the corner” into the future. Once you see what’s coming next, Krishna said, you need to work on breakthroughs that have long-lasting “value” for customers. That has over the years translated into one IBM innovation after another from the early days of computing with punch cards to the invention of mainframe computers, the universal bar code, RISC architecture and even helping put a man on the moon through the use of IBM systems.

In fact, Krishna said, the passion for delivering technology advances for customers that was stoked in his early days working in the renowned IBM research organization has never left him. “That is what created so much energy in me that it continues on into today,” he said.

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