Zollar, Alfred 1955(?)–
Alfred Zollar 1955(?)–
A few years before Alfred Zollar was born, then-IBM chairman Thomas J. Watson released a company-wide memo encouraging his staff to “hire people who have the personality, talent and background necessary to fill a given job, regardless of race, color or creed,” as noted in The Journal News. That was in 1953, eleven years before the Civil Rights Act was passed, showing that the company’s policy was far ahead of its time, given the segregationist hiring practices of that era. Zollar, who has risen through IBM’s ranks to land at number 15 on Fortune’s “Most Powerful Black Executives” list, has often credited IBM’s commitment to diversity as a factor in his success. However, he is not a man who has succeeded because of racial quotas. In the always-changing world of Information Technology (IT), the only thing that really counts is skill. Not only does he have skill, Zollar knows how to use it, and has becoming one of the most admired executives in the fast-paced, unforgiving world of IT.
Born around 1955 and raised in metropolitan Kansas City, Zollar enjoyed a fairly comfortable lifestyle, thanks to his father’s successful real estate business. In 1968, when Zollar was age 13, that life came to a screeching halt when his father died. “When he died, everything sort of went the other way,” Zollar told Hiawatha Bray of Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. “Unfortunately, we had some tough times, but we survived, and I’m proud of my family that we survived.” Part of that survival was a cross-country move to San Mateo, California. Leaving behind his all-black high school in Kansas City, Zollar abruptly became a minority as one of only six African-American students in his new high school. It was a tough transition and he spent several months feeling terribly isolated.
Fortunately, when basketball season rolled around, Zollar found a way to fit in on the court. He also soon found his niche in the classroom. “I had a teacher who did something I’d never heard of, and actually haven’t heard that much about since,” Zollar told Bray. “She required that you write a paper about math.” Zollar’s essay on the French mathematician Pierre Ferman not only opened his mind to a new way of thinking, but it determined his college career. Zollar recalled to Bray that he said to himself, “I think math has a lot to do with most things in the world, so if I took math, I probably could branch to something that interests me later.”
Following graduation from Mills High School in Millbrae, California, Zollar entered an accelerated degree program at the University of California at San Diego. He was able to skip over a bachelor’s degree and work straight through to a master’s degree program. In 1976, after earning a master’s degree in applied mathematics, he set out to join the computing industry. Unfortunately, his computer focus in college had been on obscure computer languages that had no application in the real world. Though he had graduated with good grades, “Nobody was interested,” he described to Bray. He was eventually offered a statistical job in an insurance firm. He turned it down, but the interviewer mentioned to him that IBM, which was located in the same building as the insurance firm, was currently
At a Glance…
Career: IBM, systems engineer, 1977-86, corporate staff member, 1986-89, DB2 product manager, 1989-95, Software Group laboratory manager, 1995-96, Tivoli senior vice president, 1996-98, Network Computing Software Division general manager, 1998-2000, Lotus general manager, 2000-03, iSeries general manager, 2003–.
Selected memberships: Board member, Chubb Group of Insurance; co-chair, IBM Black Family Technology Awareness; former board member, Alexian Brothers Hospital Foundation, San Jose, CA; Leadership Council of the Center for Business and Government, John F. Kennedy School for Government, Harvard University.
Awards: Ranked number 15, “Most Powerful Black Executives,” by Fortune, 2002; named one of “50 Most Important African-Americans in Technology” by Black Money and Soul of Technology websites, 2001.
Address: Office —IBM, iSeries, 1133 Westchester Ave., White Plains, NY 10604.
hiring. “So I walked up to the third floor, dropped off my resume at IBM, got a call back the next day, took their test, and got hired,” he told Bray.
Zollar joined IBM in 1977 as a systems engineer trainee in their San Francisco office. At this time, IBM had established itself as the world’s biggest computer firm through its dominance of the large-scale mainframe computer market. As Bray noted, “Its very name was synonymous with big-time corporate computing.” It was also—as it is now—a firm committed to diversity, quick to promote on the basis of talent. And talent was something Zollar had. For the next ten years he worked as a systems engineer in various IBM locations nationwide, moving up the ranks as he did. In 1986 he landed at the company’s White Plains, New York, headquarters as a member of their corporate staff. Though still the undisputed industry leader at the time, IBM was starting to lose its sure grip on the market. The company had begun to lose touch with its customers, mis-reading the PC market and leaving itself vulnerable to up-and-comers like Intel and Microsoft. “Under the leadership at IBM at that time, we stalled,” Zollar told Bray. It was in this atmosphere that Zollar took on his first management role in 1989, as a product manager for IBM’s relational database software DB2. At the California-based laboratory, Zollar was overseeing the leaders of database technology, yet he had to sit back and watch as rival Oracle took over the database market. “IBM was not really embracing what it fully meant to be a software company,” Zollar told Bray. DB2 was not compatible with Microsoft Windows, which had by then become the market leader in operating systems.
Over the next several years, as IBM struggled to maintain market dominance, Zollar took on positions of increased responsibility. By 1995 he was a laboratory director at the IBM Software Group based in Raleigh, North Carolina. In 1996 IBM bought software maker Tivoli and appointed Zollar senior vice president of development. “I was the senior-most IBM guy attached to Tivoli, and I had responsibilities for integrating the IBM people into Tivoli,” he told Network World. By this time Zollar was developing a managerial reputation as a team player. “I try to come in, listen to people and let them know I want to be an enabler and someone who can help the entire team succeed,” he explained to Network World. “I hope that my ears get real big and my mouth shrinks a little bit, so I can really lead the team effectively.” Zollar also proved to be committed to making whatever decisions were necessary to achieve IBM’s objectives. “Al is a very focused and driven guy,” one of his IBM colleagues told the Kinght Ridder/Tribune Business News.
Zollar moved up the ranks again in 1998, becoming the general manager of IBM’s Network Computing Software Division. His increased responsibilities included growing the company’s share of the Internet middleware market for e-business. Middleware is software that allows different applications to share data, essential in e-business where clients sitting at a PC want to access different types of data at the same time—from product details to shipping times to account status. Zollar also inherited OS/2, IBM’s problematic—and ultimately unsuccessful—operating system. Zollar’s management style again impressed co-workers. In Bray’s article, one IBM insider praised Zollar’s “very decent and balanced perspective.” This skill served him well during his division’s acquisition of Dascom. He told Network World, “[I worked] very carefully with the people of Dascom so they felt good about the way we integrated them into IBM.”
In 2000 Zollar was appointed president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Lotus Development Corporation. Bought by IBM in 1995, the maker of popular Lotus Notes was a billion dollar business. It also had an industry-wide reputation for a fiercely independent corporate culture that many Lotus loyalists feared would dissipate under IBM’s management. Instead, IBM encouraged the firm’s autonomy and, according to PC Week, “received much credit for keeping Lotus at arm’s length.” However, by 1999, market forces—including increased pressure from rival Microsoft—led IBM to start pulling in the reins. When Zollar—the first IBM executive to head Lotus—came on board, industry analysts agreed it was an effort by IBM to bring Lotus closer to the fold. With his experience at Tivoli and with Dascom, he was the perfect choice for the job. Zollar told The Australian, “I’ve always tried to focus on creating an environment in which people want to work and people feel empowered, and that their contributions make a difference.”
While IT insiders lauded Zollar’s efforts to integrate Lotus’s software development operations with those of IBM, African Americans—both in and out of “techie” realms—hailed him as a new role model. In a field that lags behind other industries in minority representation, Zollar had become one of the most visible and powerful players. An African-American Lotus Notes administrator echoed the feelings of many when she told Computerworld, “I see [Zollar’s hire] as a stepping-stone for more African-Americans to enter the IT field and to have someone there as an example to lead the way.” In the same magazine article, Zollar acknowledged, “The fact that I happen to be African American is a positive sign, relative to demonstrating a commitment to diversity [on IBM’s behalf].” However, he pointed out, “Technology is one of those industries where it’s easy to become color-blind, because it’s about the skills that you bring to the table.” He has long been committed to helping African Americans get those skills. “I really want young people to understand that there are opportunities in technology right now,” he told the Boston Sunday Globe. “But they must be prepared.” He has volunteered with the IBM Black Family Technology Awareness program and the North Carolina Black Achievers Program Advisory Board. As head of Lotus, he managed a program that provided underprivileged students and their families with free computers as well as one-on-one tech support. Soon after taking on his high-profile role, the quiet-mannered executive freely gave advice and encouragement to 75 young, minority IT hopefuls at a Boston banquet.
After three years at the helm of Lotus, Zollar left to become the general manager of iSeries, IBM’s range of servers aimed at small and medium-sized companies. He told Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News, “It’s a great opportunity for me, and a great opportunity to bring the [software] perspectives I’ve gained from the past three years into the hardware business.” Zollar has worked on completing a shift in the iSeries from straight up hardware products to fully-loaded software ready units. The move has been another step in Zollar’s rise through the ranks of IBM management. iSeries is a larger operation than Lotus, and the division is preparing to launch a new line of servers that industry analysts have predicted will lead to a resuscitation of the division’s sales. Praised by Fortune, respected by the technology industry, and acknowledged as a role model for African Americans, Zollar seems destined for ever-higher roles within IBM. However, as he explained to Midrange Server, “I tell people that I take every job like it’s the last job I will ever have. That is the attitude I will bring to this job, and that is the one that I took with my prior job.” It is just that sort of commitment that has got him where he is now and will no doubt continue to propel him further up the corporate IT ranks.
Boston Sunday Globe, April 2, 2000, p. K1.
Computerworld, January 31, 2000, p. 40.
eWeek, January 9, 2003.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News, June 12, 2000; January 28, 2003.
Network World, January 17, 2000, p. 8.
PC Week, January 10, 2000, p. 12.
“From a Black IT Boss,” Computerworld, www.computerworld.com/managementtopics/management/story/0,10801,76081,00.html (June 3, 2003).
“Most Powerful Black Executives,” Fortune, www.fortune.com/fortune/blackpower/snapshot/0,15307,15,00.html (June 3, 2003).
“Q&A: Lotus incoming CEO Al Zollar,” Computerworld, www.computerworld.com/news/2000/story/0,11280,42985,00.html (June 3, 2003).
“Revamped iSeries Lets Zollar Get Down to Growing Biz,” Midrange Server, www.midrangeserver.com/tfh/tfh012003-story03.html (June 3, 2003).
“Women, people of color rising in the ranks at IBM,” The Journal News, www.thejournalnews.com/newsroom/051202/12divwhibm.html (June 3, 2003).
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