IBM’s local leader harnesses the adaptability of the filipino
As a student in Seattle, transplanted Davaoeño Luisito Pineda went through the rite of passage most young people in the US are wont to – he did odd jobs. The current president and country general manager of IBM Philippines loaded cargo onto 18-wheeler trucks for logistics giant UPS and washed dishes and brought out the garbage for hotels. But it was while spraying down “a really heavy, greasy kitchen doormat” when he decided he would never again be caught in such tedious work.
“That’s what gave me the motivation once I got to college to excel grade-wise,” Pineda remembers. Smart but not particularly driven, this son of bankers Levi and Nedy Pineda, who met in a PCI bank in Davao, did apply himself academically. It took two courses, pre-med (a year) and pre-dentistry (four months) before he settled for electrical engineering where the math and phyisics work ignited a flame that has never been extinguished since. “I had some interesting projects and got to experience what it was like to build things.”
A destiny in computers
When IBM came to the University of Washington to recruit for their internship program, Pineda was interviewed and accepted. They flew him to their Kingston laboratory in upstate New York. Testing his skills, he and another intern were tasked to write an error detection software for a program that designed aircraft. He and his friend ended up writing most of the program, dubbed IBM Graphics Resource Monitor, which Boeing continues to use .
The world of computer science had opened up, and an ambitious young man had found his destiny.
IBM, of course, kept Pineda on their radar, offering him attractive slots in their Colorado and Silicon Valley enclaves. He gravitated toward the “sexier” Silicon Valley prospect, at the IBM Santa Teresa Labs (now IBM Silicon Valley Lab) in San Jose. There he spent six highly prolific years in which he developed three significant products, including the “Repository Manager Work Bench,” which proved not only innovative, but financially rewarding for IBM.
Looking back on those halcyon years in the heart of the tech bubble, Pineda recalls the nurturing he received from his superiors. “They liked my ideas, which they thought were amazing so they allowed me to recruit anyone I wanted in the organization for my team. I was 23.”
Together with like minded individuals, all roughly in their early 20s, Pineda naively promised to bring out the Repository Manager Work Bench in six months. He did not realize that product development usually took a year. Once he committed, there was no turning back. Failure was just not an option.
Pineda recounts: “It turned out to be really fun despite a lot of work and sleepless nights. But I was confident we could do it because it was all in my mind how it operated.” The kids crawled into their office sleeping bags when exhaustion overtook them.
“Plus there was the excitement of creating something you truly believed in and were passionate about. That’s great fuel that lets you see the possibilities.”
Inspiration, Pineda observes, can come from divergent sources. There are existing innovations one can improve upon, and there is the team interaction, which was largely responsible for many of his exceptional successes and swift climb up the corporate ladder. “Our goal at IBM has always been to develop tools or apps to help people do their jobs better, quicker and more efficiently. Can we make boring work more creative?”
For Pineda, a father to three youngsters, the journey from conceptualization to realization has always been about engagement with his colleagues. “We were a group of different personalities that somehow jelled through all that bouncing off of ideas. I was the team leader, but there were days when I didn’t feel like working because I was so tired – then someone would come up with an idea, and that would spark me up. We’d be at it again at the white board, debating and finally coming up with something that we thought was great. Our bosses really encouraged those creative juices.”
Pineda cites Frank Norris as one of his memorable mentors because of the older fellow’s outstanding people skills. When Pineda asked him why he exerted vast amounts of time chewing the fat with each team member, Norris riposted: “Luis, if I can’t talk to you about fun and the easy things like baseball, then it would be difficult to have a conversation with you about the hard things. Like having to work late nights or discussing problems in your projects.”
This meaningful detail, Pineda tries to adhere to even when he no longer heads a small development group, but oversees a local plantilla that is said “to be half IBM’s regional workforce.” He says: “Though I run a huge organization and there are many people that I don’t even see because it’s so large I still manage to get direct reports on people. I want to know how they think as well as the way they’re motivated and feel about the company.
“That’s a very important job.”
In July, IBM Philippines will mark its 80th year in the country, no doubt another notch on the mult-awarded belt of a 106-year-old IT company that evolves constantly. True to its mantra of “being essential” as decreed by founder Thomas J. Watson, IBM still holds the world record for invention patents, racking up in 2016 a record 8,088 patents, with Samsung a far second with 5,000 and Google even further down the rungs with 3,000.
Another brainchild of Pineda was the software services franchise – culled from his MacDonald’s experience as a working student – that he designed and set up in talent-rich countries such as China, Belarus, Latvia, Egypt and India to provide for clients requiring software development and solution building programs. Then in the mid-1990s, IBM had no real international competitors in those destinations. Given US$2 million by an IBM marketing team, wanting to break into China – just then taking tentative but determined steps toward a capitalist explosion – Pineda set up a joint venture with renowned computer expert Professor Ling of Tsing Hua University. At first, the software products that came out of the partnership “were terrible,” according to Pineda. But training and guidance from IBM specialists quickly improved the output.
Exploratory moves at around the same time to set up a similar outpost in Manila did not prosper. “We just might have chosen the wrong company to partner with in 1999,” Pineda reasons.From building software components (OpenDoc and JavaBeans), these centers progressed to building complex solutions for a global clientele that needed growth catalysts such as Internet Banking, Clinical Information Systems, e-Commerce Solutions and more.
He supervised and directed IBM’s franchise business for six years.
Pinoys to the rescue
The Philippines, meanwhile, has more than made up for that previous lapse of confidence in its operational skills. “We have big things going on now,” Pineda beams unabashedly. “Hundreds and hundreds of people here provide important tech support system for North America.
“Imagine, they’re dealing with Fortune 500 companies in crisis, diagnosing deep technical problems.”
Pineda credits the Filipinos’ innate talent for adapting, which marks them as professionals perfectly suited for the computer field. “We are just as smart as anyone else. We just need to be given opportunities.”
In the past, Pineda’s engineers used to ring him frequently to help them through seemingly daunting issues. These days, the SOS calls have lessened considerably. “They adapted and learned.” In terms of superior technical capability in the region, it’s usually a toss up between India and the Philippines, according to industry analysts.
Triathlons, flying and bonsai
Considering sleep does not exist in the virtual world, Pineda could very well yield to a toxic lifestyle. But the demands of family are just as consuming, if not more fun, with the presence of Hans, 9, Ethan 7 and Katrina, just two. He met his wife Patricia, a registered pediatric nurse, while on holiday in Miami 14 years ago.
The couple are avid triathlon participants, with Pineda coaching his wife.
Returning to active workouts is an activity Pineda is focusing on with a vengeance. His other loves include piloting small aircraft like the Cessna 172, Piper Arrow and Cirrus SR22 among others and biking, having owned a Honda CBR 600 F2 until his mother put her foot down and banned him from using it. However, the lure of the open road has proven too difficult to resist, and last year, he bought a bright red Vespa, which strangely won his mom’s approval “because she thinks it’s cute.” With other members of the Vespa Club of the Philippines, Pineda recently joined a safari across northern Luzon.
The two bonsai specimens, adorning his tidy desk and coffee table in his sunny BGC office, are signs of hobby, which he makes time for during the day. At home, he and his boys bond over the snipping and shearing. “They just like to spend time with me,” says their doting papa.
Surely, Pineda has met the supernovas of our cyber world – Bill (Gates), Steve (Jobs) and the other Steve (Ballmer). A resident of Redmond, Seattle, Pineda would often bump into his famous neighbors – usually in the supermarket queue. “There was Bill in front of me and Steve (Balmer) behind me. I met Steve Jobs, too.
“Bill was impressive…always full of ideas…his passion for what he was doing was infectious. But this being America, nobody made a fuss over them, and they certainly didn’t want a fuss made over them. You said ‘hi’, had a little chat, then went on your way.”
What Bill and the two Steves may have failed to realize, was that in conversing with Luisito Pineda of the Philippines, they were engaged with just as bright a star.
BY MARGIE T. LOGARTA AND PHOTOS BY HARVEY TAPAN