P-TECH intern: My interview with IBM executive Nancy Pearson

“One piece of advice that I think helped me, and still continues to help me today, is to know the difference between when you need to sprint and when something is a marathon.” – Nancy Pearson, IBM Cloud CMO

Chigozie Okorie, P-TECH student and intern at the IBM Center for Applied Insights, is conducting a series of executive interviews exploring topics such as the skills necessary for business today and how to prepare students for a very dynamic future. Here are some of the key takeaways from his interview with Nancy Pearson, who leads all aspects of marketing for IBM Cloud.


Technology continues to evolve, improving our lives in ways big and small. One technological advancement that is essential in my life is storage; we’ve progressed down an evolutionary trail of storage devices ranging from the floppy disk to SD card, eventually making it to cloud. I have an accumulation of music, games, comics and writing assignments that take up space in my computer. As a result, I’m a fan of new ways to store data; cloud is that new way of storing data, while doing so much more.  It gives developers space to test and develop together, allows companies to gather data on consumers’ buying patterns, and is a tool for backing up data; these are just some examples of how cloud is improving business.  Cloud was a confusing concept for me until I sat down in my first executive interview with Nancy Pearson and learned about this topic from the IBM Cloud CMO herself. Who better than one of the recently listed 25 Most Influential Women in Cloud in 2015 to learn from? Nancy was affable and vibrant, and very willing to impart advice and overall knowledge on various topics such as cloud and marketing. As a recognized thought leader, Nancy left me with great advice and lessons on the business world that should prepare me further for any career I take on in the future; here are some of my favorite excerpts from my time with Nancy.

PTECH_Lightning Round_Nancy Pearson

Can you describe your role at IBM in just five words?

Five words? Marketing expert, technical expert, leader.

What is one skill set that has proved surprisingly useful in your career?

There are many, but the one that has probably been the most important throughout my career is the ability to “read” people and establish relationships. And curiosity. I actually started as an intern at IBM, and my constant curiosity to explore different areas of the business helped me grow and created opportunities.

Is there a piece of advice that you got from a mentor or manager that stuck with you throughout the years?

I’ve gotten really good guidance from mentors throughout my entire career. At different points, you need different insights from people. But one piece of advice that has always helped me, and continues to help me today, is to know the difference between when you need to sprint and when something is a marathon.

And let me explain what I mean by that. I’m kind of a type A personality; I tend to grab the task or the responsibility and run with it. Early on in my career, when I was in technical education, my management wanted to get all of the professors to do broadcasts about their technology areas to educate others in IBM. Only about 20 percent of the professors were doing these. While most people would try to get to 50 percent and that would be good enough, I was determined to get this to where it really needed to be – like 85 or 90 percent. So that was my goal, kind of a sprint – you take the initiative and run it forward really fast to accomplish the objective.

And so I became a really good sprinter.

That works really well until you hit very broad responsibilities, and then you have to pace yourself and treat it more like a marathon.  The moral of the story: if you’re a high-potential individual in a big company, you’ll run yourself out by just trying to sprint through every role. Some roles require you to take a little bit more time and pace yourself. You can’t just be a sprinter.

If you had to pick one thing that excites you the most about what’s going on in cloud technology right now, what would it be?

It’s the idea of business without boundaries. Today, there are all kinds of partnerships that you can create to unlock innovation. Cloud is the enabler of business transformation in this digital environment.

Without it, there are a lot of things you couldn’t do. You couldn’t fully leverage big data and analytics because you just wouldn’t have the compute capacity to do it. You couldn’t tap into data that Twitter sells and has.

With cloud, you’re putting capabilities together. That’s where the innovation comes in.

 So what are some of the biggest challenges you face when you market cloud?

So the biggest challenge I have is, how do we talk about cloud in a way that is uniquely IBM? Most businesses will eventually have a hybrid cloud environment, and we have the breadth of capabilities to offer clients choice and flexibility in what they want to do. But everybody talks about hybrid. Even if they don’t have all of the capabilities, they still talk about it. So it’s confusing for clients – if everybody’s talking about it, does that mean everybody has the same capabilities? Sometimes it’s difficult for them to discern whether that’s true or not.

So, before I really got to know what cloud was and all, I had a lot of misconceptions. What are some of the biggest misconceptions you’ve come across?

Well, people are still curious about it, like, what is cloud really? Is it a thing?

It’s actually multiple things. There’s infrastructure capability. There’s platform as a service, which is how you develop your applications. And then there’s a whole bunch of what we call Software as a Service (SaaS). So, cloud is not one thing. It’s a spectrum. And depending on what problems a client has, you would offer different strategies. But, you know, right now the challenge is that everybody talks about it all as the same thing, so clients and people in general are confused about what cloud is.

Because technology now plays such a big part in almost any job, what are some important technical skills that everyone should have regardless of industry?

Digital and analytic skills are probably the most important new skills in the field of marketing.  My advice for people coming out of college is – and I say this to my kids, too – whatever your field of study also understand the analytics component to it. Because the future of most areas, whether you’re in finance or whether you’re in marketing, is understanding the impact of big data and analytics on what you do, period.

What non-technical skills are required to thrive in the technology industry? Which can be taught in the classroom and which cannot? And how can young people today acquire the skills that cannot be taught in school?

You can learn the basics in the classroom. But really the learning comes from being in a business environment. Like, you’ll learn how to speak. And I don’t mean just stand up and speak. I mean be able to conduct a meeting – how to get your point across. You’ll learn by observing the way people communicate, the way people treat each other and the way people get buy-in for a proposal.

I just had this conversation with some of my interns and my daughter, who is actually interning in the Watson Group this summer.  I always encourage others, and my kids in particular, to do multiple internships, because you’ll learn what you like and don’t like. You’ll learn all the stuff that supports the basics you learned in college.

In school, you learn individual segments of marketing, but what you learn in the real world is how you pull them all together.

A lot of leadership capabilities you only learn by doing, by having the experience of putting together an event, coupled with an advertising campaign and then a digital and social strategy. You can learn all those things separately in high school or college, but you’re not going to learn how it impacts the business until you get into that environment.                                                                                   

What do you think are the most critical skills for people who want to work in marketing?

I think that you need to be creative, results driven, outcome driven. You need to maniacally understand the client and want to understand clients. And you need to understand digital, social and mobile and how they have fundamentally changed the role of marketing.


About Nancy Pearson

Nancy Pearson is the IBM Cloud Chief Marketing Officer. She leads all aspects of global marketing for this unit, including marketing strategy, social, digital, demand generation, and content marketing. In addition to Nancy’s leadership positions in IBM Corporate Marketing, she has worked across multiple IBM business units:  software, services and systems, business consulting, technical education and sales. She has also been recognized as one of the Most Influential Women in Cloud 2015, in Working Mother’s Hall of Fame, and in a dedicated chapter of Karen L. Rancourt’s book Empowered professionals: Making a Difference. Nancy is also Vice President on the Board of Directors for the non-profit, Careers for People with Disabilities.

About the IBM Center for Applied Insights

The IBM Center for Applied Insights introduces new ways of thinking, working and leading. Through evidence-based research, the Center arms leaders with pragmatic guidance and the case for change.

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