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What’s in a name? Buffalo’s link to IBM Supercomputer, Watson

Reclaiming our role in Marketing, Technology, Innovation, and Revolution

What truly drives innovation?

Most folk are aware of IBM’s Watson, the deep-thinking supercomputer that won jeopardy and launched an artificial intelligence bonanza. Watson is not the fastest supercomputer in the world, nor is it the largest or most powerful; but it is considered the smartest computer ever built. So much computing power devoted to simply understanding and responding to everyday human speech. Watson has pushed the envelope of how we are able to interact with software, and is truly a paramount achievement of human innovation; but do you know for whom this marvel is named? Most people don’t.

Originally, I never gave this much thought, I assumed it was named after Dr. John Watson – Sherlock Holmes’ trusty if not underwhelming sidekick, or perhaps Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant and the first person to answer a telephone – Thomas A Watson.  In fact, the worlds smartest computer is named after a failed Buffalo butcher – Thomas J Watson. After his butcher shop failed he became a sales rep for NCR here in Buffalo and was a top producer before becoming a GM and later president of a tabulating company which he renamed International Business Machines.

Watson was not an engineer or an accountant, he was a salesman and he instituted revolutionary sales strategies and trainings at IBM.  So much so, that when he died in 1956 he was called “The World’s Greatest Salesman”. The smartest computer in the world isn’t named for an engineer or a developer, it’s named for the salesman who made the innovation possible.

IBM President Thomas J. Watson, @1920s, from IBM Corporate Archives

I love this story because I’m passionate about sales and I’m passionate about Buffalo, so this hits all the right spots for me. It also helps make my point that innovation is led by sales and marketing, especially in a world of almost immediate commoditization.

I was fortunate enough to have gone through sales training during my time at Xerox, which has a long tradition of being among the best training grounds in the world. When it launched, every company in the world, every company, wanted a copier and Xerox was the only place to get one. They were, and remain so ingrained in the psyche that they’ve been verbalized – “let me Xerox this for you”.  Yet Xerox invested more than anyone in their sales methodology. They built the National Conference Center in Leesburg, VA, and although Xerox doesn’t use it exclusively anymore it still functions  as a training and development campus for sales reps from around the world to come together and learn the latest strategies and techniques to position their products and increase revenue. SPIN sales, customer-centric, and challenger all were pioneered at the NCC. Despite having a revolutionary product that everyone needed, Xerox recognized that the only way they were going to stay relevant and differentiate themselves in the market, was to have the best sales organization in the world and that’s what they built.

The world’s largest digital print showroom is on the Xerox campus in Webster, NY – The Gil Center. Gil Hatch was a group president at Xerox, and my favorite quote attributed to him is: “There are only two roles at Xerox, sales and sales support.” Whether an employee was a janitor, an accountant, or the VP of human resources, they should have the mindset that they are sales support. Again, innovation is dependent on sales, and the most successful organizations in the world keep that reality deeply rooted in their psyche.

The past few years have seen tremendous upheaval in the world of sales and marketing, and there are some winners and many losers resulting from this. I’ve been on the front-lines of global sales and marketing organizations for several years and it’s led me around the world (virtually in some cases) working with teams in India, Europe, Toronto, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, NY, and LA. What I’ve found in these places is a movement led by like-minded leaders who care deeply about their communities. I’ve long considered myself in the sales & marketing community, and the tech community, and the startup community I never considered the geography of my community. The vast majority of my connections and peers are in SF, Toronto, or Boston. I recently asked myself why is there no community in Buffalo? When I attend a TechTO event there may be 200 people in attendance, all excitedly sharing their experience and networking. If I attend a conference it’s invariably in SF (SaaStr, Martech, Flip My Funnel, Dreamforce, Revenue Summit) or the few in Vegas (Sirius Decisions) or Boston (Inbound). In San Francisco, we know the other leaders within our space and their movement etc. When the CMO leaves their company for another everyone is talking about it the next week, it’s a strange little clique.

I plan to write a column every week to share news, developments, and insight from the world of sales and marketing, with a slant toward the technology that is reshaping the way we communicate with audiences and sell better. My hope is that other Buffalonians will join the conversation and we can share our experiences and knowledge together.

I firmly believe that building a strong community of smart, knowledgeable, and experienced marketers is Buffalo’s best path toward growth and regaining its position as a hotbed of innovation.

Written by Sean Cahill

Sean Cahill

Sean was born in Houston, TX and has lived in Boston, Brooklyn, Cleveland, and Corpus Christi but chooses to call Buffalo his home. Sean has worked in sales his entire career, and co-founded MarTeking in 2017 to bring cutting edge technology and process to startups around the world. He has built more than 100 go-to-market strategies for organizations of all sizes. More recently, Sean has been focused on developing a community of sales and marketing technologists here in his beloved Buffalo.

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