At one time, a tech industry truism held that "nobody ever got fired for buying IBM." The company was practically synonymous with computing in many industries, whether it was offering mainframes or early PCs. But when it comes to new technologies like cloud computing, younger programmers at startups today are less likely to instinctively reach for offerings from Big Blue, the company readily acknowledges.
"This new kind of emerging, new-style programmer doesn’t think positively, they don’t think negatively, IBM’s just kind of invisible to them," says Steve Robinson, general manager for client engagement.
That’s part of why IBM started its Bluemix Garages. They're locations that are typically embedded within incubator or coworking spaces popular with startups, where developers can get assistance from the company in exploring its Bluemix cloud platform, he says.
The first Bluemix Garage opened in 2014 at the San Francisco branch of Galvanize, a company offering workspace and tech training at locations across the country. It hosts about 220 startups at that workspace alone. Since then, IBM has opened additional Garages in cities including Toronto, New York, London, and Nice, France, with more planned for Melbourne, Tokyo, and Singapore.
"We set them up where there are these larger groups of startups," Robinson says. "We are a citizen of their community, and we bring the Bluemix and the IBM story there as well."
The facilities offer collaborative sessions where IBM staffers help companies brainstorm potential ideas and spec out ways to reach particular types of users, or even work together over a period of weeks building out working apps harnessing IBM technology.
"They go home with not just a prototype, but a live, active application running on the cloud," Robinson says.
IBM isn’t the only cloud vendor to offer walk-in locations for developers to ask questions. Amazon Web Services, which according to data from industry analyst Synergy Research Group still dominates the cloud market, operates what it calls AWS Pop-Up Lofts in New York and San Francisco. The Lofts feature training sessions, walk-in office hours and workspace for developers, and, of course, plenty of other vendors regularly demonstrate their offerings at meetups and conferences.
But Robinson says the emphasis on design thinking and serious collaboration—IBM encourages companies using the Garage to bring developers, designers, and business staff and to meet with counterparts from within the company—set it apart from the competition and help IBM learn what its cloud clients really need.
"It’s given a chance to have our IBM groups be much closer to the pulse of startups," he says. "They, in turn, get to see IBM in a newer light."
And, it turns out, the sessions don’t just attract startups: They also bring in more established companies looking to learn modern design and development practices while turning out new products for the cloud, he says.
Visiting developers typically pair program with IBM engineers sitting at computers equipped with two keyboards and developing a fledgling application together using various IBM APIs, from the Watson artificial intelligence and machine learning suite to weather data feeds. In the New York Garage, in an area of SoHo not too far from Wall Street or the financial industries’ Jersey City data centers, many companies are interested in exploring IBM’s blockchain tools, Robinson says.
"We’ve done everything—we had one company looking to work with the Watson APIs where they wanted to take a look at their executive speeches and see whether they were online with the marketing messages they wanted to put out," he says. "We had another bank in who wanted to open up some APIs to their extended business partner community."
For PLM Industries, a startup working on digital trackers for freight shipments, the staff of the San Francisco Bluemix Garage helped bring together engineers expert in IBM’s Internet of Things platform (which the company relies upon as a backend), designers, and even IBM employees who had previously worked in the logistics industry and could understand the company’s goals, says PLM President Tim Parker.
IBM helped the startup focus on what was necessary for a basic version it could quickly test with potential customers, says Vernice London, vice president at PLM.
"We came in with tons and tons of ideas and functionality we wanted to put into the system," he says. "They allowed us to focus in on the end user and get that minimal viable product and showed us the way to quickly get to market and what they call land and expand."