Stephen Gold, MSIA ’84, took a storied path through Silicon Valley before arriving at IBM Watson, where he’s raised awareness of this revolutionary technology far beyond when it won Jeopardy!

As IBM Watson’s Chief Marketing Officer and Vice President for Business Development, Stephen Gold has had a hand in putting Watson, renowned for its ability to reason like a human, to use in more than 20 industries. It’s assisting doctors to make sound diagnoses and talking to children via educational toys.

Deeply entrenched in Silicon Valley’s tech startup world, Gold did not feel he belonged at a large company a decade ago, when Oracle acquired a venture he’d been a part of. Today, however, he finds that his entrepreneurial mindset couples well with IBM’s vast resources and talent to produce innovations quickly and effectively.

Carnegie Mellon University

My undergraduate degree was in engineering, so when I came to the Tepper School of Business I had little appreciation for other aspects of the business. I didn’t understand finance or marketing. The Tepper School gave me a more diverse view of what a business is made up of and grounded me in some basic principles. It wasn’t until I took the writing course at Carnegie Mellon that I realized I didn’t know how to construct a thought, let alone a sentence. It provided a fundamental set of skills that are part of my daily regimen.

The best skill I learned from Carnegie Mellon was entrepreneurship. One of my most influential professors was Jack Thorne, who has since passed away. He came from industry, and that allowed him to relate his teaching to the practical world. He could provide that bridge from what he was asking for to why it was important for our careers. So after I left Carnegie Mellon I took an atypical route and started my own business.

Starting Out

After I graduated in 1984, two classmates and I started a business called Computer Renaissance that sold used computers. Technology was progressing quickly, and what one person deemed obsolete was another person’s gem, so we rehabilitated systems and sold them to small businesses and home users. We sold that business in the late 1980s. 

I had colleagues who had gone to work for startups in Silicon Valley, and they told me they felt like they were changing the world. A friend asked me to join the software startup he worked for in 1996. A company called Agile bought that business, and Oracle quickly acquired Agile. In the Valley there was no allure to working for a big company like Oracle, so I joined another startup, Azerity [a pricing management software company], as chief executive officer. At Azerity I learned the importance of attracting top talent. A great idea with a mediocre team will never be a great business. An average idea with an exceptional team will do wonders. A great team will learn and adapt. 

I always remember something my father said to me when I graduated: Your word is the only thing you will take with you through life; never allow it to be compromised.

After I sold Azerity, the leaders of a Boston-based research firm, the Aberdeen Group, asked me to join them as president to help them turn around and sell the business. I found the idea of doing a turn-around intriguing so I joined the business and successfully reinstated growth. It was like renovating a house: The basic structure of the business was in good shape, and we needed to fix things up. We sold it to a publicly held strategic buyer about a year after I came on.

Years later a client of Aberdeen, SPSS, approached me for a role as its chief marketing officer. It was a bit of an enigma in that publicly traded, 40-year-old, $300 million software companies just didn’t exist. But it had an exceptional technology whose time had come — predictive analytics. The opportunity to help grow a market space was compelling and the timing was right, so much so that IBM acquired the business in 2009. 

Working for Watson

At IBM I help people understand a new era in computing. Everything we have known about computing is based on systems governed by common logic and rules, but Watson provides context and reasoning like humans would. These systems learn and adapt so we don’t have to reprogram them, and they operate in natural language so you can literally talk to them. 

The work we have undertaken with Watson and in the healthcare industry will change our lives. Oncologists at the best hospitals told us they were overwhelmed with decisions they had to make and needed an avenue like Watson to assist them. Just last month the University of Tokyo attributed the first-ever saving of a life by artificial intelligence to Watson. The Watson technology is found in over 20 industries and more than 45 countries. 

The Difference Between a Startup and an Established Company

Earlier in my career I had the mindset of an entrepreneur — move quickly and fail fast, all toward building and growing a business. My impression of large companies like IBM was that they lacked innovation, speed and agility and only served big businesses. I’ve come to realize that’s a faulty impression. I have seen amazing innovation at IBM, in part because it can internally fund research and development, business resources, and people. It’s similar to what you would experience in a startup but at scale. They have not just one idea but hundreds of ideas, and they can bring together fantastic talent. At a startup you’re limited by budget and the quality of folks you can attract. At IBM I have colleagues who hold hundreds of patents. Innovation and creativity are supported by an incredible depth of talent. 

I started my first business repainting cars and doing body work in my parents’ driveway as a junior in high school. 

The other two differences are found in the process of implementing an idea. At a startup you might pitch your idea to venture capitalists, but at an established company projects are internally funded so you pitch to various committees instead. And a startup has very little process because it’s a small, nimble staff devoted to one idea. At IBM things could go awry without a process to get things done because it has more than 380,000 employees. That does slow development a bit, but it also forces you to think through an idea from planning to market adoption. That discipline is very useful.

Leadership

While I was working for Aberdeen, a service business that was outside my core competencies and prior experiences, I came to appreciate the universal nature of general management skills, but what transfers best is leadership. It is a universal trait that you can apply to all roles.

Often leadership and management are confused. That started to surface for me in the master’s program. A simulation we did helped me realize that management involves coordinating with others and getting things done, but leadership is all about inspiration, vision and direction. I have been fortunate to experience that in small and large businesses.


Stephen Gold, MSIA ’84
Chief Marketing Officer and Vice President for Business Development
IBM Watson