So, Farewell Then

R.I.P. Lotus Software UK
1983 - 2013

Not to sound overly dramatic about this or anything, but last Friday was the end of an era. IBM left Lotus Park, the home of Lotus software in the UK for the last twenty years.

For those of us who worked there this is a bit of a melancholy occasion. Not because of any particular love for the building itself; it struck me as a typically bland corporate box when I first encountered it in 1995 and it felt no different on my last visit about a year ago, when the tumbleweed was already starting to gather in the corners. No, what makes it sad is that this is the death of Lotus in the UK.

For several years, IBM has been slowly killing Lotus, the brand it paid 3.5 billion dollars for in 1995. You could argue that there have been several milestones that mark its actual demise: the decision a few years ago to rename the Lotus division internally to ISC (don't ask, it's too dull); the re-branding of Lotusphere this year as IBM Connect (zzz); or even the announcement that the next version of Notes will be marketed as "IBM Notes" (although obviously this won't stop everyone else calling it Lotus Notes forever more). While there were still some of the old faces clinging on in Lotus Park, we could claim a spark of the old firm was still present inside Big Blue, but no longer. Now there are just scattered ex-Loti, some of whom still work for IBM.

I have my own valued memories tied up with the place, many good, some bitter-sweet and a few bad. They are mostly about people. The place itself - an anonymous building in an anonymous business park in an anonymous suburb - is merely a container for these events, a vessel for the reminisces. Don't get me wrong, it was pleasantly situated on the Thames and comfortable enough, but being in ISSL (née CSG, LC and LPS) meant I spent significantly more time on customer site than any sales person, which may explain why I'm not as sentimental about the building itself as some. Indeed, if I recall memorable working locations, my two years in Edinburgh comes up first, followed by the 18 months in Halifax.

No, Lotus wasn't a particularly special place or even a uniquely gifted set of people, but it was, for a good while, a proper team, with all that implies. There were many great people, some of whom I am still in touch with and some of whom I wish I was. (There were some right wankers too, but that's inevitable.) We worked together, we played together, a few even loved together. Unsurprisingly, nearly all the stories we swap concern the latter two; for some reason there aren't many anecdotes about great business wins.

Lotus valued its people enough to consider them worth treating well. Obviously, creating a team isn't just about money, but it does help. A month after I joined I expensed £120 (almost £200 today) on dinner for two in Oslo (gravad lax, reindeer steak and cloudberry mousse, no alcohol), fully approved in advance. Everyone loved the Christmas parties, which followed a simple formula of loud music and free booze. We were taken for week-long kick-offs in Evian, Cannes and Athens, where the business content came a distant second place to the nightly parties. I worked for two months in Cambridge, Mass (in the Lotus HQ) and lived for the duration in a luxury apartment on the 26th floor of a building overlooking Boston harbour. On a separate occasion I blew $4,000 in two weeks at the Charles Hotel on Harvard Square (although they've left me off the guest list for some reason). We had an annual summer family gathering, at one of which the number of people injured by the activities on offer outnumbered those uninjured. And I worked for services, generally considered to be a poor cousin of the money-spinners in sales. They had serious amounts of cash thrown at them.

As an employee, I consider such generosity a good thing, of course. However, it's generally acknowledged that Lotus was losing money when they were bought and it couldn't last. IBM makes money almost despite itself, thanks in part to an intensive policy of penny-pinching (current restrictions include not buying laptop bags for new joiners), but I've yet to meet anyone who feels the same about working for IBM as we felt about working for Lotus.


  1. I suffered being an IBM employee because I was surrounded by friends and was immersed in the noble history of being part of the Lotus story. I wouldn't have chosen to work for IBM (in fact, I didn't chose to work for them, it just happened).

    Lotus may have been losing money, but they did it in the pursuit of trying to build a market for Notes. IBM's wider reach into customers boosted Notes for a few years but when they decided not to invest any marketing money, and went down the path of 'thou shalt be built on WebSphere' for a couple of years, the rot set in. Shame, as Connections is a great product, but I can't see it ever reaching the numbers that Notes once did.

    1. I'm sorry you feel you "suffered" being an IBM employee, Darren. I meant this post as a tribute to Lotus rather than a criticism of IBM, although I suppose it implicitly is.

      I don't want to get into the details of whether IBM "did right" by Notes, because I don't actually care. It does bug me that IBM has lost the team spirit that Lotus had, because I know from personal experience that, despite its size, it did used to have it.

      Before I went to university, I worked at IBM for a year. This was in 1987-1988, and the hanging gardens of Basingstoke (aka Mountbatten House) felt like a community to a naive 18 year old. I had a wonderful time: I travelled the country on expenses (I once flew to Greenock for a 30 minute meeting), fell in love with a beautiful girl, and got to play with technology for free. I could send emails all over the world (this was a big deal in 1987; I didn't know anyone outside IBM who could do this) and I could walk into any IBM building in the country - in the *world* - and be welcomed and fed.

      IBM is now the company that knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing (to quote Oscar) and this can be a little dispiriting. But I am lucky enough to work in a part of IBM - the software labs in Hursley - that retains a good community spirit and suits me very well.