back to article IBM's Watson Health wing left looking poorly after 'massive' layoffs

IBM has laid off approximately 50 and 70 per cent of staff this week in its Watson Health division, according to inside sources. The axe, we're told, is largely falling on IBMers within companies the IT goliath has taken over in the past few years to augment Watson's credentials in the health industry. These include medical …

  1. Sporkinum


    I currently administer a Merge system at a hospital. Hopefully this will not affect the service we get.

    I have a phone conference with them next week where they are going to be talking the new version of software including "AI".

    We shall see, said the blind man.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Merge?

      Makes me wonder if it's not time to stop buying IBM software solutions and which is in a worse state, IBM or HPE? Oh well, time will tell.

      1. Steelted

        Re: Merge?

        HPE is in a much better state. Their revenues are growing. IBM is now a shithole company.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Merge?

          "HPE is in a much better state. Their revenues are growing. IBM is now a shithole company."

          Your statement is a total non sequitur.

          And IBM is not a shithole company. They're a company of amazing people doing their best to deliver client value in the face of f*cked up exec 'leadership' and constant negative press. Being a non-executive IBMer is probably one of the toughest places you can be right now.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Merge?

            > Being a non-executive IBMer is probably one of the toughest places you can be right now.

            Sounds like being in an abusive relationship. Perhaps they need to get out?

            1. GruntyMcPugh

              Re: Merge?

              @AC "Sounds like being in an abusive relationship."

              That's pretty much how I look back at my time there. With the annual PBC process eroding morale, and the incessant axe swings reducing headcount, you count yourself lucky to be employed, without realising the crap you are putting up with.

          2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

            Re: Merge?

            in the face of f*cked up exec 'leadership'

            So I should bet my company on them to support the solution they sell me ?

            Being a non-executive IBMer is probably one of the toughest places you can be right now.

            And these are the people I will be relying on to be around and motivated in 10years to fix the critical system I'm considering buying

      2. CheesyTheClown

        Re: Merge?

        I’ve walked into companies, seen HPE and walked out. It’s just not worth the pain. Every time you give them money, they take it, and sell off the business unit. And their servers and networking are just not good enough.

    2. sad_loser

      AI = Magical thinking

      There is real value in AI but not 7,000 staff members’ worth in health alone.

      They failed the Rumsfeld test: they didn’t know what they didn’t know.

      AI does not overcome the basic law of stats, the standard error of the mean.

      They didn’t understand the data and they bet too big.

  2. CujoDeSoque

    Same as it ever was.

    I've never understood why anyone would trust IBM, look what they do to their employees/

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      What's the "right" thing

      Why continue to commit talent to develop a product that's not desired enough to pay for itself? Better to release them to find something more profitable to do. If you lose your employment because your employer failed, that's not your fault.

      1. midcapwarrior

        Re: What's the "right" thing

        May be true but when you weren't expecting it's still a gut shot.

        Even if you were it's still know fun.

        Been there done that and I have the t shirt to show for it.

    2. PassingStrange

      Re: Same as it ever was.

      "I've never understood why anyone would trust IBM, look what they do to their employees/"

      Because at one time they were one of the BEST companies to work for, attracted THE best people, and made some pretty decent kit to boot. There was truth in the old "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM", because the company had a rep and an ethos. You had a problem with your IBM solution? They'd fix it.

      That all changed when Gerstner and the bean-counters took over. IBM still has some seriously good people working for it, but the higher echelons don't give a rodent's rectum for their staff, or even the business, provided the numbers "add up" at the end of the month/quarter/year, they can make their packet, satisfy the shareholders and vest their not-inconsiderable stock options.

      The problem now is inertia. When you've been building your core systems on IBM for decades, moving isn't just a trivial matter of throwing a few thousand and a couple of weeks at a migration; it's a decade's work. You need a long-term strategy, and sufficient continuity of management to actually see it through (and few companies have that - usually the next bunch of guys not only don't keep the strategy but actively want to chuck it out and do something different ("after all, if you're not tweaking what your predecessors did, you're not 'managing', are you?")) Often, it's easier, cheaper (and, yes, technically better) in the short turn to just keep building parts at least of your new stuff on the same platforms that everything else sits on.

      I wouldn't advise anyone to buy a used match from IBM nowadays.

      - (ex) career IBMer

      1. HmmmYes

        Re: Same as it ever was.

        Thats 30 years ago now.

        1. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

          Re: Same as it ever was. Thats 30 years ago now.

          Roughly two and a half times in a lifetime.

  3. elDog

    When IBM was good, they were helping with open source

    But for most of their lives they've been horrid.

    I understand it's really difficult to sell specialized hardware and proprietary software within an OSS arena. But they had a wealth of talent and a market reach beyond any other company.

    Specialized services, consulting, 24x7 support, constomization. Shouldn't that be enough to pay a few talented engineers salaries?

    Maybe not enough for all the parasitic mid/upper-level managers, however.

    1. iGNgnorr

      Re: When IBM was good, they were helping with open source

      "But for most of their lives they've been horrid."

      I don't know how long you've been around, but IBM have been around over a century (only 96 as IBM though,) and particularly in the context of this article, for most of those, they were excellent with their employees but also their customers. Their competitors did no fare so well as evidenced by a few anti-trust actions and consent degrees.

      The brief time spent openly defending open source - while creditable - was but a blip in their long history.

  4. Daggerchild Silver badge

    "Strange...", said Overlord Unit 64

    This is odd. IBM (just by scorfing down all the smaller players) should have been near the front of the pack, collecting all this AI hype and selling some non-AI repainted thing to people who happily wouldn't know an AI if it bit them.

    Maybe this is just IBM horking up a big ol' owl pellet, but they should have something to show for all the work since Jeopardy Watson stole the show.

    Maybe they simply no longer requires so many humans..

    1. flactem

      Re: "Strange...", said Overlord Unit 64


      the IBM exec Comment notwithstanding... I think you've nailed it.. I don't work in marketing and advertising but I love commercials Watson has been around for at least 10 years in game shows and playing chest... And now that I think about it the Crux of this could be the fact that they've never Associated ( game show ) Watson with artificial intelligence or machine learning... Maybe the tag lines too long... But I believe there's an product placement/association issue... Only until recently I've discovered that Watson can go in there and fix an elevator or fix a problem with the plane prior to the problem being an issue...

      I am not very familiar with the aspects of artificial intelligence or machine learning but I do understand { strategically and financially viable) any software or product has to be practical and somewhat easy to apply for crushing large amount of data quickly considering the medical Acquisitions is Watson only relegated to the healthcare field? Moreover, you still have to program via algorithms to complete any specified task...

      This may be a simple case of (IBM getting out ahead of their skis) trying to initiate a large artificial intelligence footprint in conjunction with Acquisitions in the medical field in order to give the impression that they are on the floor front of something w/out practical direction.... I am speculating, but given the marketing and media blitz regarding artificial intelligence one would assume that it was ready to take the place of human beings in the next 5 years....

      I do admire IBM that is one Institution that is maintained its leadership at the Forefront of Technology... It could just be as simple as not having the AI mathematician core to support the administrative side that they are given the AX too...

  5. spold Silver badge


    I think IBM needs some AI - certainly upper management does not have any of the real stuff.

    The fact it can't help itself makes me doubt if it works - firing Watson Health people? I guess the IBM patient is looking tits-up. Perhaps I was being hopeful and thinking of Ginny.

    I've been through IBM twice - once for 10 years which were wonderful. I decided to broaden my experience. More recently for 4 years - and while the technology still inspired and motivated, the culture is/was drowning in Watson HR and despondency and toxicity.

    I was in Security last time - a growth area - but I still always felt I was looking over my shoulder... I guess the Watson Health people understand that.

    I've never been happier since I decided to leave the wreck and bring my skills to my new company - what goes around does come around - there are companies out there that value the years of experience you can bring to them.

    As a proud IBMer of the past it really does bring me to tears.

    Sad to see Cloud services also affected - y'know all those IaaS servers are powered by Thomas J Watson spinning in his grave...

    1. a_yank_lurker

      Re: AI?

      The upper mismanagement does have AI - Always Idiotic. The historical problem for Itsy Bitsy Morons is they never really adjusted to the PC revolution in the 80s and 90s (almost going belly up in the late 80s) losing their mojo to others - primarily Slurp. The issue was trying to protect big iron when many potential applications were going to desktops/workstations/servers and were not really dependent on big iron. In some ways they have been limping along for many years trying to find something that will make them relevant again.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Watson TV

      Isn't "Watson" really just a brand IBM slap on any one of numerous disparate technologies they want to present as AI in order to suggest there's a more cohesive connection- and association with the Jeopardy-winning computer of the same name- than is actually the case?

      1. GruntyMcPugh

        Re: Watson TV


        Pretty much,... IBM have done this before, with their 'Tivoli' products, some were bought in, and rebadged, like 'Tivoli Endpoint Manager' that was originally 'BigFix', was 'IBM Endpoint Manager' for a while and is now apparently 'IBM BigFix'.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So here's the thing... management doesn't need AI. We've known for (40 maybe 50) years you just need to ask standard questions and follow the diagnostic ladder with appropriate tests and reviews.

    If you don't do this correctly, people don't get better. Unfortunately "the system" sucks at this, for various reasons, some external (pressure/cost/dodgy corporate ethics), and some internal (Dunning-Kruger Effect and rampant confirmation bias with almost no counter-pressure).

    IBM Watson can't fix that. So it was always doomed. No doubt we will all get to talk to a robot before we are allowed an ambulance, but I very much doubt the existing systems won't defend themselves to the death to prevent any effective improvement.

  7. cs9

    Let's not forget the Watson / MD Anderson fiasco

    With the disaster known as the MD Anderson Oncology Expert Advisor, axing these clowns was a no-brainer.

    Let's recap that diaster:

    1. $62.1 million total cost

    2. Contract extended 12 times when IBM continually failed to meet their goals

    3. Can't even talk to their relevant data systems

    4. 'The Oncology Expert Advisor "is not ready for human investigational or clinical use, and its use in the treatment of patients is prohibited," reads the audit report,'

    Worth the read:

  8. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

    "90 days' notice with 30 days' severance"

    Any disgruntled employee with the ability to influence AI outputs in that mix?

    I'd advise steering well clear of any hospital using IBM Healthcare systems for a very long time...

    Because... Who audits the "intelligence" that the AI uses?? Look at the number of "Easter Eggs" found in conventional software products over the years.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "90 days' notice with 30 days' severance"

      When I left IBM I was told I couldn't talk about it to anyone or risk jeopardizing my severance package. Considering back then the severance was pretty good I kept my mouth shut, both to other employees and customers, so there were a lot of surprised (and pissed off) people when I let them know it was my last day. Losing 1/3 of the SE team did not go over well with Sales - apparently no one notified their management about it, either.

      One of the best days of my life, looking back.

  9. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    $2.6b in buy-ups

    I wonder how much it would have cost to just create a new division, staff it and do the work? And that's just taking into account two of the named buy-ups since only those were given monetary values. (although I suppose that $2.6b wasn't all cash, a big chunk will have been share swapping and other shenanigans.)

    1. gb032645

      Re: $2.6b in buy-ups

      IBM ponied up $2.6 billion for Truven to acquire their customer datasets (which encompassed 200 million-or-so patient records), nothing more and nothing less, and they made that perfectly clear from the get-go. And that is exactly why I bailed from Truven shortly after IBM bought the company.

  10. roselan

    Each 10 years, companies like IBM tend to fire most of their 50 yo techs.

  11. Jim Preis

    Free-willed humans continue to fuel the layoff machine.

    Disposition: Will not fix. Working as designed.

  12. HmmmYes

    If only they had an artificial mind, or intelligence.

    They could have worked it out....

  13. cjcox

    In jeopardy

    Answer: 50-70% layoffs this week.

    Watson: What is IBM?

  14. SecretSonOfHG

    I saw it coming back in 2015

    When Trevor posted an article about IBM's future...

    Have to say that I feel bad for beign right just because there remains some decent people at IBM that are going to ultimately lose their jobs.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Striking parallels with the Conan Doyle stories

    No-one entirely knew what Watson was for; Holmes has the brains and did all the work. Watson was essentially useless on his own. If you wanted a problem solving, it certainly wasn’t Watson you asked.

    1. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

      Re: Striking parallels with the Conan Doyle stories

      I presume the reference to Watson came from IBM's past, rather than Conan Doyle.

      First there was Thomas John Watson Sr,

      followed by his son Thomas Watson Jr.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Striking parallels with the Conan Doyle stories

        I presume the reference to Watson came from...

        And it gives me great pleasure to award the Lawrence Logic 2018 award to... Ken Moorhouse! Give him a hand!*

        (* and by this I don't mean detach your own hand and give it to him, or give him a hand from a corpse, or ... oh Jesus...)

  16. Anonymous South African Coward Bronze badge

    Watson's going on at IBM?

    (insert WAT granny here)

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Put this on your resume...

    Phoenix pay system

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Getting your corporate comms via the Reg.

    Of course here, within the the Watson Health group, we've heard nothing at all about this from IBM. Why explain, rationalize or even make clear the reasons for failure when rumor and suspicion can grow and feed the fear.

    Really, nothing, not a work of communication...

  19. Howard Hanek

    An Observation

    IBM seems to have mimicked the life cycle of the incandescent light bulb and the LED it now is but a shadow of it's former self. Everything it touches dies a slow death.

  20. This post has been deleted by its author

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Watson HC going from RH Openstack to VMware cloud

    Nothing says winning like paying your competitors to run your Cloud project

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Other stories you might like