Twelve years ago I did a summer internship at IBM in RTP. I was an undergrad at Duke and excited about the opportunity to work for a large technology company writing Java code . My role was to build example apps for what would eventually become WebSphere. At the time, my department was writing components and infrastructure objects for a big beta client: the State of Connecticut.
IBM was a study in contrasts. Every morning when I came in and every day when I left I had to log in to a mainframe app on a green screen to record my time. That’s right, I used a mainframe app as a time keeping system while building web-based apps in Java. At the end of each payroll period I’d log in to the same green screen app and double check my hours. I had never used a green screen app before and have never used one since.
One of the initiatives IBM had that summer was asking employees for ideas and ways to innovate. Funny enough, I’m never short on ideas so I submitted what I thought to be an obvious idea: enhance printer drivers to prompt users to not include the last page of the print out if it came from the web and had less than 5% ink coverage. The annoyance that I had encountered many times was printing a web page and having the last page be the copyright date or footer links — something of no value that wasted a piece of paper.
I typed up several pages of examples and rationale around the idea. After submitting the idea I didn’t think anything of it until a month letter I received a letter thanking me for the idea and letting me know it was rejected due to not being useful. Oh well, I tried. The consolation prize was a lanyard to hold my serial number badge. My days of innovating at IBM were over.
Interestingly, I read about a company in Portland last year that was generating millions of dollars a year in revenue by saving companies money on paper by doing the very thing I’d proposed at IBM. This is a small example that shows many ideas are too small for big companies, but big enough to be a small company.