Adkins deftly applied himself as a hardware engineer but soon discovered he had to be open to a diversity of assignments to advance within the company. “One of the things I typically advise young engineers and young computer scientists is always have a view of what your next two jobs should be,” he maintains. “[It] allows you to think about the best way to plan your career, moving forward. The other thing that helped me in my career is having opportunities in multiple parts of the business. Although I was an engineer, I accepted assignments in other disciplines.” His range of experiences not only developed broad skills, but increased his business and operating perspective. He quickly acquired a reputation as the go-to executive to tackle tough assignments.
On his first international project he collaborated with engineers at Yamato Development Laboratory in Japan on IBM’s first mobile PC called the p70. He held stints as general manager of PC Desktop Computing before taking over the UNIX Server business,and then Pervasive Computing Software. Adkins is now credited with putting the hardware business back on track after assuming the role in 2009 when his boss, Robert Moffat, was arrested in relation to the Galleon insider trading case. Installed in the position on an interim basis, Adkins was permanently promoted less than two weeks later.
Mentors guided Adkins through critical periods in his professional ascent. His most valuable lessons, however, came during the company’s darkest days. In the early 1990s, Big Blue could have been more aptly dubbed Big Red. Between 1991 and 1993, the company posted net losses of $16 billion due to increased competition and a flawed divestiture and reorganization plan. Its new CEO Louis V. Gerstner initiated a corporate turnaround, restructuring the IT business, adopting Internet strategies, promoting product integration, and remaking the corporate culture over the next decade. After laying off thousands of employees, slashing billions in expenditures, and selling assets, Gerstner converted IBM into a solutions-oriented, customer-obsessed company. “I learned that the most important thing in any given crisis is our ability to focus,” Adkins reflects. “There was a famous statement [from] Lou Gerstner when he was asked about vision and strategy. He said, ‘The last thing we need at this point is a vision’. Now, any company will have a vision and a strategy, but the point he was making was that it was much more about focus.”