If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes: Nick Donofrio and Michael DeMarco

Today on Author Hour, we’re discussing the book If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes. The Nick Donofrio Story with author Nick Donofrio and Michael DeMarco. Here’s a brief description for you. If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes is a powerful testimony to our ability as human beings to drive transformation not just within the realm of technology, but across generations with both heart and candor, Donofrio explains how he led IBM’s global technical team to embrace a market-centric focus, redefining innovation and sparking worldwide collaboration for a new big blue. This one-of-a-kind Autobiography will change everything you think, you know about what it means to forge the cutting edge of technology. Let’s jump into my conversation with Nick Donofrio and Michael DeMarco.

Welcome to The Author Hour. I’m your host, Benji Block. Today I am honored to be joined by Nick Donofrio and Michael DeMarco, who have together just come out with a new book titled, If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes: The Nick Donofrio Story. Guys, welcome to Author Hour. Glad to have you here with us.

Nick Donofrio: Hey, Benji. Thanks for having us. 

Michael DeMarco: Thank you, Benji.

Benji Block:  Nick, I’ll start with you, because this is the documentation of your story. 57 years as an engineer, 44 years at IBM, a lifetime. You led as the Executive Vice President of Innovation and technology. First I would say congratulations on an incredible career. Tell me what prompted work on this project, writing this book and maybe what brought the two of you together?

Nick Donofrio: Thanks, Benji. I have to simply go back to basics. I’m an engineer at heart, a business person by necessity. I always believed that we were better off telling our own story, Benji. As I got older, I thought through that and said, “You know what? Maybe people will talk about me when I’m gone, but I’d rather talk about myself as well.” I became a bit obsessed. As Mike knows, with this issue of self-documentation. I don’t think enough people do it. I’d rather you hear it from me, Benji, than hear from someone else. You can hear it from someone else, but that’s what got into my head, and I couldn’t get that thought out. 

Mike and I had a partnership for several years. We wrote my mother’s book together and then my mother-in-law’s book together, following the same lines, of self-documentation. Then once we got through it that, we paused then looked at each other and say, “Now what, Nick?” I said, “Okay, Mike, let’s give it 40 whacks.” It gets frightening Benji, to think about this because now you’re going to say things and you’re going to put them down and they’re going to pick a life of their own.

Mike and I had some ground rules. We started with two books. We merged them into one and then transformation, talk about, If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes. I mean, that’s the way our book evolved. Our book kept changing. We finished one section. Then what about this, Nick? What about that? So I think it’s meant to be Benji, just the way it worked out, if that makes sense to you.

Benji Block:  It does make sense to me. I know, Mike, you probably have an interesting perspective on this as well. Not your first rodeo. I think I saw a 13th book, but talk a little bit about, maybe, what made this one specifically unique and the relationship with Nick? [And] how that added to getting to work on this project together?

Writing Together

Michael DeMarco:  Yes, well, that’s right. Not my first rodeo, but certainly perhaps my most special one to date and began for me unknowingly, years and years ago. I was working for IBM and was attending an internal conference in which I had a chance to hear Nick speak. He was talking to a largely a technical audience, which I was not a member of. I was a consultant, but I was there giving a smaller presentation of my own. When I listened to Nick tell his story, his uniquely Italian immigrant story of his parents and grandparents. My name being DeMarco, I could relate to it at many different levels. Again, it wasn’t until many years later that we began the work that Nick just mentioned, his mother and mother-in-law’s books.

Again, I guess, as he said, it was meant to be. What was amazing in terms of the process itself is that we ultimately brought 36 other voices into it, in addition to Nick’s, and that really just layers and layers of depth to the project. Of course, brought out a lot of interesting color in terms of everything Nick experienced in his career. For me, for my role was just fascinating to try to fit all of those voices together and keep the storyline progressing the way we wanted it to. I think as Nick said, it wasn’t all necessarily, but by design from the beginning, but I think we ended up with the project that we needed to end up with.

Benji Block: Okay. Let me ask one more behind-the-scenes question because I love that unique nature of this and all these interviews and putting all these different voices in there. How do you go about facilitating that, just on a practical level with so many different voices? I’m assuming you had to chop a lot out of the conversation and put it in contextually. So what does that look like to take that on?

Nick Donofrio: Let me start, Benji. Mike is the operator here. I mean, he actually did the mechanics and the work that you’re looking for. When we decided to put one story together instead of two stories, a personal story and a business story. It’s when we decided to do that that we also decided we would need more voices. It’s not a lot of fun to simply listen to me speak about all of the important points that I went through life, learning or adhering to. It’s better to hear it from other people. We then agreed that that would be right. Mike would be the point person to do these interviews. So we would come up with thoughts, and then he’d say, “Who you got in mind, Nick?

Then I’d give him a list of names. Then we set out to interview them, and we’re blessed, like Mike said, there’s over three dozen people in the book. They were everything we could have hoped for in terms of giving a valid point of view on a specific topic, Benji. That’s how the idea got started, but the mechanics, the hard work, the tradecraft, that’s all Mike. Mike, over to you. 

Michael DeMarco: I guess that’s my cue. Indeed, one thing I can certainly say is with these three dozen individuals, it was not hard to find willingness on the part of them to speak about Nick and to want to be part of this project. So that was gratifying, of course, it made my life a lot easier. But really the thing I would point out is the logistics of it for me, perhaps for a tricky from time to time, but really, these were three dozen people whose lives had intertwined with Nick’s for as you said, at the beginning, 44 or 57 years or whatever the exact period of time. 

Some of them were in his life or his professional life for two or three or four years. Others have been in his professional life for decades. So it was fascinating to hear each of those voices and talking about specific points in time and being able to, in a sense, feel Nick’s life and career evolve through those different voices and just each of them having their own unique recollections of the trials and tribulations and victories and losses that they went through. For me, it was just a pleasure to be able to sit and help facilitate it all and bring it together in what you now have in your hands.

Benji Block:  Fantastic. Well, I want to dive into some of the content here, and to do that thought we might as well just or hit the rewind button in a massive way. Let’s go back to your early life, Nick. You speak a lot in the beginning on your father and the teacher he was to you and someone who saw something in you was would always push you. In fact, you say that as you grew rather than let up, he got harder on you. He thought that if he pushed you harder, he would get more out of you and be more of a help in preparing you for life and that you then actually found yourself stepping up to these challenges. What is that unique relationship like that was developed throughout your adolescence with your father?

Nick Donofrio: Benji, like Mike said, I’m the grandson of poor Italian immigrants. He was the son of poor Italian immigrants. He led a very tough life, very hard life as you probably read. He never finished high school for a myriad of reasons. Smart guy. Never that as an issue, but always preoccupied with doing something else. Trying to help family meant everything at the time. Still does. He was a hard guy, Benji. We call him a tough and hard guy, made his living mechanically or as a guard, so he had to be a tough guy. I mean, he was a hard man to understand. 

I had an older brother or two younger sisters. They always had challenges with him. We all did. But as I alluded to in the book, I somehow figured him out. I somehow saw something there. Instead of fighting him, I started to listen more to him. He was trying to say something. He was trying to make you better. He was trying to prepare you for the world, but he was doing it in his own way. What you did with that was up to you. I came to that realization. No more complicated than that. All of a sudden, it started to make sense to me. He pushed me harder here. I respond there. He pushed me harder there. I’d respond there. I try to get ahead of the power curve, so to speak. I wasn’t thinking that way then, but I tried to get ahead of him. 

He was the power curve. Okay, what are you going to expect of me? Can I do this faster? Can I do this better, until we get to a point where we’re actually working side by side? He’s starting to show me his appreciation for what I did and for how much I carried for the project. That famous story we talk about in one of the local retailers in Beacon, New York, where we had to lay a floor in this retail shop. It wasn’t easy. We had to work almost all night. It didn’t actually go exactly the way we wanted, but we got it done. Then at the end, he gives me more money than he keeps for himself, which is his funny way of saying, “Well done, son.”

Very hard with the comments, quick with his hands, so you have to remember, this is old-world Italian child-rearing, very quick with his hands. I got all that. I somehow had the right context, Benji, if that makes sense? I moved differently. I played my strengths into his needs and his wants. My father and I built a very – when he passed away, I wrote his epitaph and it was different than what anybody expected.

I mean, they knew him, one way I knew him another. He was a more complicated person than what he would let you see. Maybe that was part of his defense mechanisms in life, too. I’m not trying to psychoanalyze my father or anything that, Benji, but you ask a tough question, and I guess I’d have to end by simply saying you had to have been there to have understood a lot of this and yet to see it develop. I was fortunate. I was. I did.

Early Days at IBM

Benji Block:  Well, let’s go to your early days then, and how you end up at IBM, because I love what you said at the beginning, actually, of our conversation. You said you’re an engineer at heart, business out of necessity. Maybe I’ll put some percentages on that Nick. What’s the percentage of your heart that’s an engineer? Then that business side that’s okay, I guess this is part of me, too.

Nick Donofrio: By the time I finished banking, it was probably 75% business person, 25% engineer, but when I started, there was 75% engineer or 25% business person. Always going to be that engineering base it’s always going to be there. I mean, it’s just who I am, how I think about things, how I solve problems. We talk a lot about that in the book. I try to do things in an orderly fashion. Yeah, I’m Italian, I’m emotional, I cry a lot, I laugh a lot. That’s always going to be there. In order to get through the tough problems to get through the real challenging situations, I try to hold myself back and think like an engineer, like let’s start with the problem, work our way backward. That worked incredibly well at IBM right from the beginning. They recognize that. I have to say, given the career I’ve had rewarded me for that.

Benji Block:  By 1970, you’re coming into a management position and you share how you’re actually waking up to this reality. That your upbringing aligned with what IBM believed in, the values aligned with IBM’s values. Was there a specific situation that wakes you up to that gives you that realization, or was it just you look around one day you go, “Oh, wow, this is just a good match, a good marriage”?

Nick Donofrio: No, it’s a cathartic moment and you figured it out, Benji. I almost lost my job. I mean, I go to Vermont from the Mid-Hudson Valley in New York where we transferring the mission, the work I’m doing. I’m responsible now not for the team that I’m working with, I am responsible for them as their manager. I’m not working with them anymore, but they all work in theory for me, right? So there’s that for with thought, except I forgot that, right? I mean, I thought I was still working with them. I was still doing all that work and at IBM back then, the opinion survey was a very critically important device mechanism for the company to understand and get feedback from its employees. My morale survey, first time as a manager period, was horrible.

Benji Block:  Yeah. Not particularly high, if I recall, correctly.

Nick Donofrio: No. I mean, I thought, I remember going home to tell my wife, I could lose my job. I’m that bad. It’s very possible that I will be asked to either leave or go do something else. I’m struggling with — and these are my friends. These are people I worked with. We worked side by side. We did some amazing early semiconductor chip development work. So these aren’t foreigners to me. These aren’t newbies to me. These are people I know, but they’re just afraid to tell me what a jerk I am. Afraid to tell me how bad I am. They’re afraid to tell me that I’m not doing what I’m supposed to do. I’m doing what they’re doing. That’s what I was doing. I was just overlaying them. 

They’d show me that circuit. I’d show them another one. They show me they want to design this. I’d say, “Let’s design that.” I remember going into that meeting, it was a very cathartic moment where I said to them, “You know what? If IBM allows me to stay, that’s completely up to IBM, I’m going to be a different person. I’m not going to do your job anymore. I’m going to do my job. I will become your enabler. I will find out what you need. I will find out how you’re doing. It will be my job to help you do better, to do more. It will be my job to be the enabler for your success.” Of course they love that and history was made. I mean, I switched, Benji, to this kind of a leader and IBM was good enough to allow me to continue.

Benji Block:  Yeah. Those words “enabler”, “better”, “more”, that’s the mark of a leader. We all have those moments in our life. If you’ve been a leader of any kind where you have that switch flip for you and boy did it flip it and man, we’re all better for it. So I want to quote — because there’s a theme that’s going to come up. If anybody looks you up in the book, I mean, I listen to some of your talks as I was preparing for this, and just I mean, “innovation” is going to be the word that comes up over and over and over again. 

Mark Papermaster, actually a former IBM executive, said this about you. He said, “Nick was always very supportive of innovation. When he saw bright people who had different ways of doing things, he got behind them. Over the course of his career, you can find any number of examples where he personally supported an innovator who in the normal processes,” —  I loved this part, “Where managers are worried about tomorrow and not necessarily next month, next year or even next decade might have been overlooked. Nick always has been the supporter and the champion of innovation.” So it’s really borne out of that moment, right? Or what did you specifically start to really see in other people and begin to call out there, Nick?

Nick Donofrio: It became obvious to me on two fronts. Number one, they were smarter than me and they were practicing their tradecraft and doing their own expansion in a technical sense, much faster and better than I could. It also became obvious to me that that 25/75 was shifting and that I was being held and held more accountable to the business side. I owe it not only to IBM, but I owed it to them to be more of that a person, the business advocate for them. Then underneath it all, I had this very strong view that innovation was always best done when started with the problem. 

I mean, I’m an inventor. I share the good graces of a lot of other people who worked with me. We had seven patents to our name, but we worked openly, collaboratively. We understood the problem. There were two so many problems in the beginning, Benji, because nothing existed. I know it’s hard for you to think about that given the technology world we live in, but we started when there was very little of anything, very little. It was exciting, was just everything was wide open in front of you. Just let your mind go free, find the problem, solve it. That’s what was at the core of what Mark is talking about. 

It was that, you had the ability Mark Papermaster, to make a difference when he worked for me at IBM. Then as you know in the book, I have the good fortune of working with Mark again when he’s at AMD as a board member at AMD. I’m the guy who brought Mark to AMD. Sadly, he left IBM after I graduated from IBM. I recruited him, brought him to AMD right along with Lisa Su. I knew what they had. I knew who they were. I knew the character of these people and I knew the problem that AMD was facing. I understood that. 

That’s where to your point, Benji, still having an engineering instinct even as a business person now, having an engineering instinct that says there’s something here, we can do this, and then bringing Mark from a distance from a separate, not IBM anymore. He’s in another company and said, “Mark, I’ll stay here for you, buddy. I’ll enable you. I’ll do what we need to do, but I think there is something here, buddy. I think together we can figure out how to make this company rock.” Of course, history says we did.

Innovator Mentality

Benji Block:  It’s interesting, because the challenge, I would say, more broadly from this book or one that I’m taking away, one of the themes is around this. You actually later go on to say that if you want to not only survive, but thrive in the years to come, you got to drive innovation and a willingness to change into your world, whether it’s office, community or home. You say, write it down, say it over and over, whatever it takes. Talk about that a little bit. The innovator mentality more broadly than just the way you’ve applied that, but if you were challenging our audience today, Nick. What’s the challenge there for us to go to this innovator mentality?

Nick Donofrio: It starts with my father, Benji. That’s where that phrase comes from as you know.  I didn’t create if nothing changes, nothing changes. He did. That’s the way he spoke. He was actually giving to me the best gift he could have given to me, which was that advice, which is, “Son it’s going to change anyway. You better change, ride along with it and you better be the change, because if it doesn’t change you, you’re going to end up getting exactly what you’ve been getting while you’re hoping for something different.” That was my father’s simple-minded advice. It burned itself into me and having experienced so much change in my life at IBM. Technological change, watching markets come and go, the technologies come and go, became self-evident to me, Benji. He was right. 

I happened to be in a business where changes is the way of life, changes what’s life is going to be all about. Let’s go. Let’s figure out how we can harness the fact that everything’s changing to solve better, bigger, faster problems. How can we do that? How can we do that? Along the way, innovation will be our guiding principle. So we’ll do it, in an enabled environment that is collaborative, open, multi-disciplined, global in its thinking. We will start with the problem, not the answer. I mean, all of those things fell in place. They all came together, Benji, around the thesis of If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes. Why do you keep doing what you’ve been doing? Because all you’re going to get is what you’ve been getting. Simple. Simple. Profoundly correct, though.

Benji Block:  Now, profoundly correct. Yeah, that’s right. Michael, I wonder, just as you’re helping compile this thing, did you – how you heard this sentiment over and over again and how it’s impacted you, because you’re helping Nick in writing this story, but you’re also hearing this, I’m sure, over and over again. It’s getting drilled into you as well.

Nick Donofrio: Well, I think that’s absolutely true. Would want to offer here that perhaps Nick will be too humble, too, is what comes out in the book as well and was said by many people in particular, Sam Palmisano who was ultimately IBM’s CEO and great collaborator and teammate of Nick’s through many years, particularly late in their careers when they were essentially running the firm, was Nick’s ability to see the world both as engineer and technologist and as a business person.

Sam points out throughout the book and several places that not everybody has that ability as well, honed as Nick did, to see both sides of the coin, so to speak. This ability of his to start with the problem, as he just mentioned, was actually a problem at IBM and many other organizations at the time. You had these brilliant minds who were creating things, inventing things, but they weren’t necessarily solving problems that society needed solved at the time. So, therefore, weren’t going to be improving IBM’s bottom line. 

Nick had that ability to drive a different mindset into the technological organization and say “No, we’re going to be innovating. We’re going to be innovating by starting with the problem, starting with the problem that our clients have, and bringing to market things that will solve those problems.” Of course, that’s a concept that we can perhaps grasp pretty quickly as individuals here, but when you’re trying to drive that mindset across several hundred thousand people distributed all around the world, it was a major change effort that Sam and Nick and many others went through in this important part of the innovation story, I think.

Nick Donofrio: It’s a great point, Mike. I would just, Benji, punctuate that with I made my case that said if there was no value created, no matter how good the invention or the creation, there was no innovation. Of course, that grinds against people that grind against the technical community. I said, come on, it’s logical. Part of the whole thing about me is being logical, being the great simplifier. Taking complex things and helping people understand them, appreciate them, not demeaning things by diluting it, but by simplifying it, so that everyone can understand it and everyone can then comment on it.

I think that’s what we need more of, Benji. I think we hide behind a lot of facades through complicated you can understand. I remember very early on in my career, I don’t know that this made the book, but God bless Mr. Kerry, a former CEO. We had a complicated problem up in Burlington, Vermont. He comes up to visit us, and I’m working day and night trying to solve this problem. We get into a meeting and he wants to hear from me, wants to hear me talk about the problem. The lab director says, “Well, Nick’s going to talk to you about this, but Frank the problem is called,” and he gives me the name of the problem. It’s working one multiple read. He says, “It’s very complicated, Frank.”

Then Frank, stopped him, and says, “Hey, Art, why don’t we let Nick talk to me about walking one multiple reed? I think I’d to understand what that problem really is.” I had to get up and explain this incredibly complicated test pattern that we were failing, but I’ll never forget it, where he just simply stops everybody and says, “You know what? I think I can’t understand it.” If somebody just speaks real English to me, I think I can’t understand it. That stuck with me. I don’t think we do enough of that. We have a lot of other issues, too, that we don’t necessarily bring out in the book about the fidelity and the provenance of data and truth, but it’s all there, Benji. Everything I talk about in the book, everything we talk about in the book, it’s all about being honest, being the great clarifier and not being afraid, to tell the truth, and not being afraid of change.

Benji Block:  Well, I wonder, Nick, when someone picks up the book, they complete it, they read it, and they’re sitting with some of the themes like what do you hope their main take away is from the stories that you’ve shared and the themes that you wanted to get across to the reader?

Nick Donofrio: I think the biggest theme of all is, understand who you are, understand what the right side of history is, and understand whether or not you’re on it. It’s no more complicated than that because that’s how you’re going to be remembered in the end. We started this interview off with, “Why did you do it, Nick, to self-document yourself?” That’s how you want to be remembered. Do you know what the right side of history is? Are you on it? If you’re not, then you better change, because if nothing changes, nothing changes. It’s no more complicated than that.

Benji Block:  I love it. Well, congratulations to the both of you on this project. I know there will be many that will really enjoy this book, and it’s a big undertaking to do a project like this. It’s been some significant time for the two of you to get to this point. So we were joking before we started recording that this is the finish line and the starting line, and it truly is. I counted and honored to get to have chatted with the both of you. I wonder for people that want to stay connected to you guys. What’s the best way for people to do that? Obviously, you can pick up the book on Amazon, but beyond that, Nick, what’s the best way for maybe people to reach out? Then Michael after Nick, I’d love to hear from you as well.

Nick Donofrio: Honestly, Scribe knows how to you can contact Scribe. They know how to reach me. We’ll build some form of the landing page for our efforts here, Benji. We want to hear from people. We’re going to have a LinkedIn presence, so there’ll be lots of ways for people to approach us and to get to us. We want to hear from you. We did this both for ourselves, but hopefully, our real goal is that we’re going to do some good for all of you as well. Mike, what do you think? 

Michael DeMarco: I agree. It was a story that needed to be told, I think. Nick discusses his desire to self-document and that certainly stands alone. Really I think this is an incredible life story and it’s certainly been a great honor for me to be able to participate in the telling of the story and bring it out to people. Again, I think, there’s a lot to just enjoy by reading the stories, but then also a lot of lessons, I think people can take away in terms of continuing to change and adapt in the world that we live in.

Benji Block:  That’s exactly right. Well, again, the book is called, If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes, it’s available on Amazon now. It’s going to be a great read and a resource. Nick, Mike, thank you so much for stopping by Author Hour, today, We appreciate it.

Nick Donofrio: Thanks, Benji, for having us. 

Michael DeMarco: Thank you, Benji. 

Nick Donofrio: Cheers.