Most of us have flipped open a cell phone to make an urgent call, or rushed to an ATM to get emergency funds. And most of us do not know, or even care, how this technology works; we simply know that it is there, available for our convenience.
As vice president for development at IBM Systems & Technology Group, Rodney C. Adkins’s job is to know what we do not, regardless of how fast-paced the advances are in the world of technology. He leads a team of approximately 14,000 developers who are spread out over 14 development sites worldwide. Together, they are responsible for developing the necessary hardware and software for the large mainframe computers used as storage systems to manage the transactions we make every day, like going to the ATM. They provide the large support infrastructure that enables these on-demand operating environments to work.
Earlier this year, Adkins, 46, was named one of the 50 most important African-Americans in technology by US Black Engineer and Information Technology magazine. Not bad for a Black man who started at IBM in 1981 right after college. “It was my first professional assignment and I have been here for 22 years,” says Adkins.
In those 22 years Adkins has held a number of product development, business operations and general management positions. He has experience in multiple product areas, including printers, personal computers, servers, storage and software. He has served as general manager for desktop systems in the company’s Personal Systems Group; general manager for UNIX servers in the Server Group, during which time IBM saw the most significant share gain in the history of this market; and general manager for pervasive computing in the Software Group, where he led IBM’s initiatives to extend e-business to a new generation of devices.
Humble despite such accomplishments, Adkins insists that he was fortunate to be with a company like IBM, which offers so many different areas of opportunity. IBM is unique, he says, in that it offers opportunities in four key areas: technology, hardware, software and services. “If you think of IBM along those dimensions, you can have many experiences working on a broad set of products within the same company. I have had the opportunity to work across multiple product groups and types of jobs ranging from doing development of products to business operations to general management,” Adkins explains.
He concedes, however, that being elevated to a position such as his ultimately is “based on results, capabilities and what [I have] accomplished, and it is also a vote of confidence as to where [I] will continue to take the company.” And he is acutely aware of the ethnicity factor, noting that he is identified as much by his race as by his position. He never allows race to be the only thing that defines him as an executive. He is, after all, one of the highest-ranking executives—Black or otherwise—at the world’s largest information technology company and the world’s largest business and technology services provider.
“Race comes into play, but the interesting thing about my accomplishments is that, although I am a high-ranking Black in technology, I would also describe myself as just a high-ranking person or executive in technology who just happens to be Black,” says Adkins. Rightfully so.
Adkins demonstrated an interest in science and technology at an early age.“I never accepted the standard answer of how things worked. I always wanted to know in a very detailed way why things work the way they work,” he says. Fortunately, his parents always encouraged his curiosity. Adkins credits them for his success today, believing that their support played an important role in his decision to pursue his interest in science. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Rollins College, in Winter Park, Fla., and B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
It is largely because of his parents’ support and encouragement that Adkins participates in activities and programs today that support youngsters. “I had a support structure in my parents and in the education process that encouraged the creative side of me. Fortunately for me, someone recognized that I had a high aptitude for math and science early on.”
In an effort to raise awareness of technology among African-Americans and other minorities, Adkins serves as co-chairman of IBM’s Multicultural People in Technology and is an active member of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). He also serves as co-chair of the National Black Family Technology Awareness Week, which tackles the nettlesome issue of how to heighten awareness that technology has become an integral part of everyday life. In all these campaigns and programs, Adkins works with business people, with individuals in the community and with educational institutions. The idea, he contends, is to ensure that school curricula encourage interest in math and science, thus developing a skilled labor pool ready to compete for jobs in the 21st century. At the same time, he insists, Black communities must recognize that technology is shaping the future. “Today we don’t stand in line, we go to the ATM. In the future, we will use things like electronic wallets and even our cell phones and PDAs to manage transactions,” he predicts, referring to the handheld computers known as personal digital assistants, “whether you are checking into a hotel or simply getting a Coke from a vending machine.”
Technology is seeping into the Black community and more businesses within these communities are integrating advanced technologies into their operations, Adkins notes. And he predicts that more people will consider technology a viable career opportunity. “I am very encouraged. If you look at the rate of new business and businesses participating in tech, you have to feel encouraged. I trust that there will be many others like me, and I hope that is in the near term versus the long term. We need to continue to focus on the rate of progress, but I do believe we are going in the right direction,” he states.
Adkins is committed to improving that rate of progress by educating others about technology and creating opportunities for Blacks. “As I look at how I benefited from others along the way [and] the fact that I received that kind of support, it is my view that, given my position in the industry and what I have accomplished over the years, it is my responsibility to give back and make sure that we are reaching down and pulling through as many people as possible, whether as part of the educational focus, or other businesses or in the community. Leaders like me should feel responsible to do that.”
Adkins approaches his other roles with equal seriousness. Married, with two teenage sons, he confesses that most of his free time, especially weekends, is devoted to his sons and their sports activities. He is a staunch advocate of life beyond the company. “Although I spend a lot of time in the industry, I believe there has to be some balance, so I have specific hobbies. And there should be some spiritual aspect,” he says. “I am heavily into martial arts. I used to participate in tournaments and was an instructor and I use it to stay in shape now.”
What’s left to accomplish for a man with countless accolades from his industry? In addition to his successes at IBM and his citation by USBEIT, Rodney was named one of Computerworld’s “Premier 100 IT Leaders: Innovation, 2004”; Savoy’s “100 Most Influential Blacks in America,” 2002, 2003; Fortune’s “50 Most Powerful Black Executives in America,” 2002; Texas Technology’s “Technologist of the Year for e-Business, 2001”; and won the National Society of Black Engineers’ Golden Torch Award—Lifetime Achievement in Industry, 2001. The list is longer still.
“I am not done,” Adkins insists. “I am pleased with many of the things I have been associated with and I am very pleased with the support provided by IBM. But, frankly, I have been in the industry 22 years, and I still have a lot more that I can accomplish within my profession, make sure that we are building the pipeline of future leaders who look like me.”
Indeed, Adkins is deeply concerned with providing others in the Black community with the necessary skills to compete for high-ranking positions such as his. “There are two things I would like to be remembered for. I would like to be viewed as one of the top industry leaders who happens to be Black and I would like to be viewed as one of these leaders who really helped develop some of our current and future leadership capabilities. I would like to go down being recognized for my contributions to diversity leadership.”
Many would attest that this already is his legacy. Not Adkins, however. There is surely a lot more to come from this man.
By Soroya Brantley