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New IBM CEO sent President-elect Biden a letter. Here's why he wrote it

Key Points
  • IBM CEO Arvind Krishna noted in a letter to President-elect Joe Biden that 70% of the tech talent in the U.S. works for the private sector, and the government needs to secure strategic access to that brain power.
  • The new IBM leader stressed the importance of building coalitions between science and government to tackle challenges in medicine and in properly leveraging new technology like AI.
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IBM CEO Arvind Krishna on his new leadership approach for Big Blue

The technology industry has had an up-and-down relationship with President Trump, even though for many tech stocks, the Trump presidential first term has been up and to the right on the trading chart.

Apple CEO Tim Cook received kudos for a rapport with Trump that averted the worst potential outcomes of a China trade war. Former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, as well as Cook, joined a White House advisory board on AI and jobs. But Trump's policies also put corporate executives in some tough spots. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who is sometimes compared to Trump for his Twitter prowess and legions of loyal followers, felt compelled to leave a White House business council a few years ago due to Trump's climate change policy. Same for former Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, who was among the CEOs that quit a Trump council after the Charlottesville race controversy.

Now IBM's new CEO Arvind Krishna is wasting no time — not waiting for certified election results or the completion of a Georgia hand recount of votes — in reaching out to President-elect Joe Biden. The IBM CEO sent Biden a letter on Monday outlining technology priorities for the new administration to consider, including the creation of a new technology talent force for national security purposes.

Krishna has made some bold moves since taking over Big Blue, no decision bigger than plans to split the company in two and separate its cloud business from its legacy IT infrastructure. But in a recent interview with CNBC, he tried to make clear the letter to Biden was not meant as a bold call on the election.

"We are no political experts, let me just say that. But the networks and the various states, as they called for President-Elect Biden, IBM has historically worked with administrations of both parties in order to further our country's economic agenda. We felt it was really important to lay out priorities which can help further where we are," Krishna said at the CNBC Evolve summit on Tuesday.

Creating a scientific reserve corps

One of the big ideas he wants to community to the government and shared with CNBC is the national security issue related to where the nation's tech talent is concentrated: private sector companies. Krishna told CNBC that conversations he recently had with what he called "four stars in the United States defense" highlighted the risk to the government in not having enough technology talent among its active members. A scientific readiness reserves corps may be necessary for the challenges the U.S. faces in the future.

"You call on the reserve corps when everybody in the active is being overwhelmed, in order to provide brainpower, in order to provide physical power, and in order to supplement what is already there. It's not casting any aspersions or stones that who's there; but it's providing greater capacity," Krishna said at the CNBC event.

He noted that 70%, "maybe even more" of the U.S. scientific manpower is in the private sector.

Creating a reserve corps from that deep private sector bench should be a priority, and the current Covid-19 pandemic is an example of how critical the concept is. "You can draw upon those people who have the kind of training and the skills, because it is those skills that can be brought to bear to solve these incredible problems we have right now, around this health crisis," Krishna told CNBC. "Using science to fight Covid, using artificial intelligence, as well as supercomputing, to come up with better therapeutics," he said. IBM already has played a leading role in the formation of a Covid consortium of companies.

He recommended that as Biden consider his own approach to Covid-19, the government also look at the creation of a National Research Cloud for AI that would help in coming up with solutions to major medical issues, and the IBM CEO offered its quantum computing systems to help discover new medicines.

Black and white photograph of a group of IBM and government personnel in Silicon Valley, Mountain View, California, on September 20, 1961, standing next to the console of the IBM 7090 computer, which was used in early NASA space programs.
Smith Collection | Gado | Archive Photos | Getty Images

IBM's work with presidential administrations goes way back, as the CEO noted in his letter. IBM served as the data processor for the original Social Security system enacted under FDR. IBM built the computers for the Apollo moon missions during the JFK years.

Of course, IBM is no longer once what it was on the tech landscape. While Alphabet, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon have grown to be $1 trillion to $2 trillion companies, IBM is now at a market cap of $100 billion.

The letter to President-elect Biden was an opportunity to more generally promote unity, science, digital infrastructure and economic opportunity, Krishna said, and reiterate some priorities that were key to IBM under former CEO Ginni Rometty, who often spoke of "new collar" jobs rather than white- or blue-collar jobs, which could provide workers without four-year degrees opportunities to work with new technology.

"Maybe not everyone needs to have a four-year college degree to have a great job," Krishna told CNBC.

The letter to Biden also included some other self-interested priorities for IBM. For example, as IBM attempts to catch Amazon Web Services and Microsoft in the cloud, the IBM CEO recommended the government focus on its own hybrid cloud, an area where Krishna is hyper-focused for IBM's success in the future.

He told CNBC that IBM is, "Going after what you believe is going to be the best victory, both for our clients and for ourselves, which is pursuing hybrid cloud."

The IBM CEO also took some positions on more political issues, saying IBM "strongly supports" re-joining the Paris Climate Agreement, as well as the DACA program and the Dreamers Act, which have served as a major immigration and labor policy point of opposition between tech companies and the Trump administration; passing an economy-wide carbon tax, banning the use and export of facial recognition software as a result of racial injustices; and an update of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which has caused high tensions between the Trump administration and largest social media companies including Facebook, Twitter and Google's Youtube.

The pandemic has changed the way people create and consume content and access entertainment. But are these changes permanent? Join the CNBC Evolve Livestream on December 3 for a conversation about changing consumer trends and how far media companies should go in changing their strategies to reach their customers and meet their needs.