Nick Donofrio: The Formative Years


The Nick Donofrio Story

Several years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Nick at one of his favorite restaurants near his home. As a favor to Dr. Pedro Aspe, a board member of McGraw-Hill, I had an exploratory meeting with Nick to see if he might consider joining the board of McGraw-Hill. Earlier in the summer, I met with Dr. Aspe at his of-fice in Mexico City. In 1993-4 I had placed Dr. Aspe on the board of McGraw-Hill and he and I were catching up on things. During our discussion, he talked about the changing nature of McGraw-Hill’s business. He was concerned about the challenges facing legacy based publishing companies like McGraw-Hill. He sensed the company needed to have a visionary technologist on the board to help them transition into the digital age. Someone who understood the enabling power of technology and could play an important role guiding, directing and help reshape the company so it could thrive in the future.

Nick Donofrio, had recently retired from IBM after a 44-year career. He was an EVP who led IBM’s technology and innovation strategies from 1997 until his retirement in October 2008. His most recent responsibilities included IBM Research, Governmental Programs, Technical Support & Quality, Corporate Community Relations, as well as Environmental Health & Product Safety. Also reporting to Mr. Donofrio were the senior executives responsible for IBM’s enterprise on demand transformation. In 2008 IBM Chairman Sam Palmisano elected Nick IBM Fellow, the company’s highest technical honor. After being hired full time at IBM in 1967, he spent the early part of his career in integrated circuit and chip development as a design-er of logic and memory chips. He held numerous technical management positions and, later, executive positions in several of IBM’s product divisions. He has led many of IBM’s major development and manufacturing teams – from semiconductor and storage technologies, to microprocessors and personal computers, to IBM’s entire family of servers which in 1992-93 represented more than half of IBM’s global business revenue.

On November 21, 2011 Grant Lussier and Meredith Lussier of Celera Search interviewed Nick at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center. In the interim, Celera Search has conducted more than ten hours of interviews with Nick which we are going to present in four parts. The Formative Years represents Part I and covers his formative years leading up to being hired full time at IBM in 1967. Part II covers his 44-year career at IBM. Part III covers his Post Career Activities serving on boards and as a highly sought-after advisor. Part IV examines his insights into topical issues relevant to key decision-makers across the private and public sector.

Grant Lussier: So this section is about you, about the types of things that have influenced you and how you became Nick. So it is all about your personal life, your ancestry, and the kinds of things that inform your thinking and are responsible for your guiding principles. Let’s start by telling us how your parents came to this country and when.

Nick Donofrio: So my grandparents were born in Southern Italy. On my mother’s side, they are from the city-state called Abruzzi. My grandmother and grandfather were born in a little fishing village called Vasto, on the Adriatic.

And on my father’s side, they were from Naples. Well, on my mother’s side, my grandfather came over really to fight in World War I. So he came over in, I would say, 1915. He fought for the United States in World War I, and he was a truck driver there. On my father’s side, they probably came over a little bit later. My grandfather was a shoemaker. That was an affectionate name for me, ‘Shoemaker’. In Italian, shoemakers are people who make things happen. They find a way to bond and put things together. So he came over with his wife. And they had a family here, four boys, and she died very early on after the last child was born. And he struggled initially in business. He had to get another wife, literally sent back to Italy for a woman. The grandmother that I know…

Grant Lussier: So they did not know each other prior to being married?

Nick Donofrio: She was a friend of his wife, my grandmother who died. She was a friend. But interestingly a friend from Northern Italy not a friend from Southern Italy.

Grant Lussier: …not from the same village?

Nick Donofrio: No, not the same village. They were modest people. He passed away before she did. 

Grant Lussier: And they settled in New York?

Nick Donofrio: They settled in the Mid-Hudson Valley in New  York. Initially, my mother’s  grandparents settled in New York City and then eventually they moved up to the Mid-Hudson because my mother was born in New City. She was born in the Bronx. And she moved up to Beacon, which is where I was born, and that is where she met my father.

But my father’s parents went directly to Beacon. Beacon was a very hustling and bustling little town on the Hudson River about 50 miles north of New York. So it is about 10, 15 miles north of West Point. It is a very high labour-intensive area– hats were being made there. Dye factories, dye mills, textiles were being made there. Bricks were being made there; famous brickyard, Denning’s Point; and a stone quarry, Trap Rock. Beacon is where my parents fell in love. That’s where they raised their family. My father has passed on. He was a veteran of World War II.

Grant Lussier: How old are you right now?

Nick Donofrio: So I am 66. My father died when he was 85. My mother is still alive. She is 91, God bless her. And I grew up in Beacon, New York. We are Catholic. My parents sent me to a Catholic school, great school, Saint John the Evangelist. It doesn’t exist anymore but the parish is there, school is something else. Eight years, actually nine years, I went to kindergarten till the eighth grade in the Catholic school system. Went to a public high school. And my parents were very modest of means. That’s a polite way of saying poor. Italians do not like to be called poor especially when there is sufficient food on the table to eat. So it was clear they could not afford to send me to a Catholic high school.

Grant Lussier: So how many other brothers and sisters do you have?

Nick Donofrio: I am one of four. I have an older brother and two younger sisters. So I am kind of in the middle. My mother worked in the house. She did homework as they used to call it, for a hat shop. She would stitch things together, snip and clip, and they would bring her a box of raw materials and then two days later they would come and pick up the hats. She is a great sower. Great at everything, great cook, very smart woman.

Grant Lussier: So she was a shoe-maker like you said.

Nick Donofrio: She was a real shoemaker. We were shoemaker people. We were truly shoemakers.I mean my father’s life is all that way. He is not a very highly

I mean my father’s life is all that way. He is not a very highly educated man. He left school in the 10th grade for a myriad of reasons, the least of not which was the Depression. So he kind of fashioned his life on his own, the hard way. He had a job with the New York State Penal Institution, there was a big criminal institution for the mentally ill in Beacon, New York; it has now turned into a bigger general New York state facility for prisoners, a penitentiary, but then it was Matteawan hospital for the criminally insane. So my father went to work for them, left when he went into the army; came back, and immediately went back to work for them. So that was his base job. But my father painted houses after work. He gardened; we had a huge garden as you can imagine, Italians love to have gardens; and he was a night watchman. So some days he worked four jobs. Most days he worked three.

And that was the kind of person he was because he was bound and determined that we were going to be more successful than he was. And as a result of that, he needed to continue to find the money and the resources to be able to do this for us. My father was determined that we were going to be more successful than he was. He was a very demanding man, a very powerful man in many ways. I like to tell people, he is the reason I am who I am. For whatever reason my father used to just fundamentally focus on me. Maybe, I was a bit of a wise guy when I was growing up.

Grant Lussier: What did you mean more? Was he tougher on you than the other siblings?

Nick Donofrio: There was no doubt about it. I do not know what he saw in me.

Grant Lussier: So what do you suppose that was for?

Nick Donofrio: Well, his view was if you have the potential, you have to drive to your fullest, and he had higher hopes for me or maybe higher expectations for me or maybe he was living vicariously through me, I do not know. My brother was born while he was away in the service. When I was born — obviously my father and mother were together but then he left for the service and then I was probably — I was probably one of the vacations he had.

Actually everywhere along the way it was always, “Do better, do better, be better, be better. Be different, be different, be different, be different.” So fundamentally nothing was good enough for my father. Whatever you are doing, do better. Whatever you’re doing, do more. He works three jobs, I work three jobs.

I am a newspaper boy for I think six years. I deliver 100 newspapers a day after school, six days a week. That’s a good thing. Making a little money. It’s not bad. He is making us all work. So it is not bad. Turns out I win the…

Grant Lussier: Did any of your peers also have jobs like this?

Nick Donofrio: Very few of them, which is why I used to argue with my father about, like, why me? It’s not that he is being mean spirited. It’s just that he wants you busy. He wants you engaged. He wants to be working. Now, I have to tell you the truth, I am telling the truth here, I won the Gannet News Scholarship, which is probably the only reason I could have gone to RPI. I think when I went to RPI, it was like I want to say a $1000 or $2000 a year. So the Gannet News Scholarship covered a very big piece of that. I think he was just idle mind is idle thoughts, stay occupied, stay busy, stay focused, stay committed; do, do, do, do, do. That’s the way he did things. That’s the way I did things. He used to paint houses. I would have to go help him paint houses. We would lay floors. I would go and lay floors with him. I mean, we are shoemakers, remember? We are doing everything and anything that people need labor for.

Grant Lussier: And what kind of an influence did your mom have on you?

Nick Donofrio: So my mom’s the intellectual. My mom, she finished high school I think at 16 in New York City. She is very smart. She could have gone to college. She probably should have gone to college but they could not afford to go to college. So she never did. But whenever I needed help scholastically, my mother was always there. She spoke French, she spoke Italian, of course she speaks English, she was good with math. I mean, she would be there to kind of counsel all of us academically.

Grant Lussier: So do you speak Italian?

Nick Donofrio: No. I speak very little Italian. But this is an interesting thought. The question was always ‘who are you?’ They asked that question a lot, ‘who are you?’ And my grandmother, I will never forget, she would always say,

“American. You are American first, you are Italian second.” No Italian spoken. You speak English. My father used to curse at us in Italian. He used to yell at us in Italian, as did my mother, but always English.

So the extended family is kind of forcing you to be American first, not Italian first. And then my father was kind of driving me to be better than whatever I thought I could be or whoever I am, be better than that. And he was seeing to it by occupying me with all kinds of jobs, whether it is working with him, working my paper route, my job in the gas station on Saturday’s, gardening, his garden gets bigger every year, I have to clean the garden, I mean, I am the tender of the garden. He is the planter of the garden. I am the keeper of the garden. I have to weed it, I have to water it. I am the maintainer of the garden.

Grant Lussier: And so did the other siblings help you tend it?

Nick Donofrio: He was really biased. So it was the men’s job to do this, not the girl’s job. So, my sisters got away with murder, and my older brother, he was four years older; so he was always busy. He worked hard too, by the way. He had jobs, I mean, he had a paper route before I had the paper route. I took his paper route. He didn’t get the Gannett

News Scholarship, which really bothered my family because he deserved it; he worked very hard at that. But things took a different turn for my brother. And so it kept falling to me.

Grant Lussier: Were you all good students?

Nick Donofrio: My brother and I were probably the better students. Maybe I was the best. My brother second and my two sisters struggled a little bit but they did just fine. So they didn’t rock the house but I have one sister who just retired from the New York State System where she was an accountant for the Penal Institution out in Elmira, very smart, very savvy, head procurement person for New York State. And then my other sister still works at IBM, she is an Administrative Assistant, and she does incredibly well. But they went different ways.

So in general in my family, the girls got away with a lot. But this idea of dinner, everybody getting together, I will never forget this. I was a bit of a problem. I mean, I wasn’t horrible but I did a lot of interesting things. And my father wanted to know everything I did. So at dinner, we would have to report, and my sisters were just always, “Nicky did this, Nicky did this, Nicky did this.” And, yes, I love my sisters now. But that was tough growing up with them because they were just always ratting me out to my dad. My brother, God bless him, he would just sit there and just keep his mouth shut, hoped to God they didn’t rat on him knowing full well that they were going to pick on me.

Grant Lussier: And so you grow up as Nicky? They would call you Nicky?

Nick Donofrio: Actually they did. Yes, my father called me Nick. My mother called me Nicky and my sisters called my Nicky, still to this day; my brother calls me Nick. And my mother also calls me Nicholas, and she is the only one that calls me Nicholas. I prefer Nick of all the names that people call me.

Long story short here, my father was a big driving force. My mother the intellectual that she still is, is a very great source of pride. I tell everyone the reason I went to IBM was be-cause my mother made me go work for IBM. I co-oped with IBM and I wasn’t going to work for them after I graduated. It was a good year, ’67 was a great year; that’s 1967.

Grant Lussier: So you were still at Rensselaer?

Nick Donofrio: I was still at RPI. And where Beacon is right to Poughkeepsie East Fishkill, that’s big IBM territory there. IBM is the predominant employer in that region even as far up as Kingston at the time. So I said to my mother “I really want to go west. I have never been further than Newburgh, New York. So I am going to go to California. I am going to take a job with one of the Federal Defense Firms and I think that is the better thing for me, ma.” At that point in time, you were getting offers without even interviewing for people. It wasn’t that they were slipping interviews under your door.

They were slipping job offers under your door. It was kind of profound in 1967. Any engineer who is worth anything, got multiple offers, sight unseen. So I tell my mother this one night, and she says, “I do not think that is a good idea.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Oh, I think you should stay here. Why would you go away? You can always go away later. I would like you to be here for a while, given all that we sacrificed to sent you to RPI.” And I was getting married that summer anyway, the summer I graduated.

Grant Lussier: Do you meet your wife at college?

Nick Donofrio: Oh, I met my wife in high school. We are high school sweethearts. My wife and I have known each other since 1961. We didn’t like each other then. Well, I actually met her for the first time in ’60 when we were freshman.

Grant Lussier: So were you both at the same high school?

Nick Donofrio: High school, yes. She was smarter than me. She was younger than me. Because she is smarter than me, she went to a one-room schoolhouse in Chelsea, New York for about the first five or six years of her education and then she came to Beacon. Chelsea is just a little hamlet right on the Hudson River about five miles north of Beacon. It doesn’t sustain itself, so it is part of the Beacon school system. She is intuitively brilliant, but she just doesn’t like to work as hard as I do. So she has the brains and I have the brawn.

Meredith Lussier: Good combination too.

Nick Donofrio: It is a good combination. So we met each other in freshman year. But I was smitten with lots of other girls.

Grant Lussier: What’s her name?

Nick Donofrio: Anita. Anita Marie Burner was her maiden name. I think it was junior year. It might have been sophomore year; I am trying to help her pass Geometry. She had flunked it once. Don’t put that in your thing by the way. She hated it. She just hates math although she is not bad at it, she just hates the rigour. She just hates the rigor of math. I love it and I love science. So junior year comes along; junior prom. I am the Chairman of the Prom Committee. Word gets out she wants me to invite her to the junior prom. I do not. I invite somebody else.

Grant Lussier: So you have always been very much involved in all kinds of activities in your life. You are always involved in something.

Nick Donofrio: Oh, yes. Well, I think that is pretty much the push from my father — always engaged. In New York, they have a summer school system. You can go to summer school and make up — what you flunked — or you can get ahead. My father insisted that I go to summer school the year between eighth grade and ninth grade. Before even technically getting into high school I am already enrolled in high school, taking a math course because of my father.

Grant Lussier: To be prepared…

Nick Donofrio: To be prepared, or be ahead, he doesn’t care.

Grant  Lussier:  Could you rebel? Did you rebel at all?

Nick Donofrio: I did. I did. I picked my time because you didn’t rebel with my father. He was that kind of a guy.

Nick Donofrio: I didn’t squirrel my courage up until — between my Sophomore and Junior year. So I toughed it out, and I remember sitting down with him — I said to dad, “Look, we just have to talk, because I am little confused about my life compared to everybody else’s life. Everything has to be different for me.” I mean, I looked at my colleagues, my friends, my buds, they are not doing half of what I am doing. But he sat there,

sitting there very calm and serene and sober. And I will never forget this. He looks me right in the eye and says, “Because son if nothing changes, nothing changes.” And I said, “What does that mean?” And he says, “If what you have been doing is not what you want then all you are going to be getting is what you have been getting if you don’t change something.

So for you, everything has to be different because I know what it is for me. I know who I am, I know what my life is all about and I know what purpose I am serving. You have to be better. You have to be different. So if nothing changes son, then nothing will change. You just keep getting what you have been getting. Don’t let that happen to you.” That was profound and that fundamentally shaped who I am.

That shaped how I thought. That shaped what drove me. And right around that time is when I decided I was going to be an electrical engineer. My father had a good friend who happened to be an electrical engineer for the then, the New York Central Railroad. He went to RPI, and because he went to RPI, that immediately got my eyes focused up there. I applied elsewhere but I applied to RPI on early decision and I got in.

Grant Lussier: So what were the activities you were involved in during the high school days?

Nick Donofrio:. I was in the drama club, in the debate club, the Honor Society. I was the financial editor, treasurer of the Year Book, Key Club; I was not only — Key Club is a Kiwanis-related club for high school kids.

The Kiwanis Club. It’s a local do good club like Lion’s Club. I actually became the Lieutenant Governor of the Key Club for the state of New York, boys state.

Grant Lussier: So this is all during high school…

Nick Donofrio: I couldn’t go out for sports. I wasn’t particularly very good at sports, but I wasn’t terrible at it, but I just had no time to do it, and I graduated second in my class .

Grant Lussier: So you were a good student.

Nick Donofrio: You kidding me? With my father? You were either a top student or no student.

Grant Lussier: What were your friends like? What kind of friends did you have back then?

Nick Donofrio: It was a mixed bag. I mean I had a couple of friends from Saint John’s who came to high school with me. And I had friends that I made in high school. There was no formula; I mean, some were athletic; some were more book-driven, more knowledge-driven

Nick Donofrio: The kid that I went to high school with is the kid I roomed with at RPI, Harry Calhoun. He was a football player. He was a football player at RPI as well. And then we became fraternity brothers together.

Meredith: What fraternity did you belong to?

Nick Donofrio: Theta Chi at RPI, I became active in the fraternity, but we also became very active on campus; became active in lots of different things. They had this thing called Campus Chess which is the equivalent of unitedway, a fundraiser for NGOs. I became very active in that; became active in the governmental process, student government process at RPI. Not that I wanted to run for office but I ran the political party. So it was mostly a male school when I went there. There were some co-eds but very few. And the way it worked was the fraternities dominated back then, and so our fraternity led a party, and there was always an opposing party. So I got very active in our platform building, but more importantly how do you get people elected, how do you get people on the ballot, mak-ing relationships with other fraternities in order to get your people elected. So I ran our political party. I ran our political party I think in my junior year. And I got the two top leaders in the school elected, never done before at the same party.

Grant Lussier: You studied electrical engineering?

Nick Donofrio: I’m an electrical engineer. Remember when I was at RPI, they were telling you — this is what they were telling the freshman, “Look to the right, look to the left, one of you is not going to graduate.” That’s the welcoming talk from the President.

Grant Lussier: Did your wife go to college?

Nick Donofrio: She did. She goes to nursing school. So she goes to Kingston and to New Paul’s. So we had fallen in love. We are going steady. We are boyfriend and girlfriend from ’62 forward. And as soon as I get into a fraternity, I pin her. So…

Grant Lussier: What does that mean when you pin her?

Nick Donofrio: You give her your fraternity pin, it’s called pinning. You’re not engaged, but it’s the best thing you can do because you have no money to get engaged. So she gets out. She is a registered nurse. She gets out before me. And she goes to work. We still stay together. And then I get out a year later from RPI, and we get married, that summer, we got married in August. I graduate in June, and we are getting married in August. I go to work for IBM as soon as I leave, get married in August, and life is good. And we are still together.

Grant Lussier: So how many kids did you have?

Nick Donofrio: Two. We have two kids, a son who is the oldest, Michael. He is a lawyer. He is right now an assistant Attorney General in Vermont, doing lots of wonderful good things. He gave us two grand-daughters and they live in Montpelier. Collectively as a family we lived in Vermont for 15 years, on and off, and it made a big difference in Michael’s life because he kind of grew up in Vermont.

Grant Lussier: What took you there?

Nick Donofrio: Sure, IBM. And we just had our son. I said to Anita, IBM is transferring my mission to Vermont. And they want me to go with it. And they want me to lead it. They want me to become a manager. So up until then, I am an engineer doing what I thought was reasonably good engineer-ing work. Now, I am going to become a manager and be responsible for the department.

Nick Donofrio: So this happens in 1970.

Grant Lussier: And you joined in ’67?

Nick Donofrio: So I was hired by them full time in ’67. Re-member I also work for IBM from ’64. And things are chang-ing so rapidly. This is the exciting part of technology evolu-tion here I mean; semi-conductors are coming into their own, this is what it’s all about, and I am a circuit designer. I am only a circuit designer but I am a monolithic circuit designer.

So we signed up to do this. And in ’71, we packed up with our little boy and our worldly belongings.

Grant Lussier: And what was the official name of that group?

Nick Donofrio: Of course, it is IBM. It was at Essex Junction. That is literally the physical location. They call it IBM, Burlington. But the plant is at Essex Junction. It’s making semi-conductors.

Grant Lussier: So it’s a manufacturing site?

Nick Donofrio: And a development site. So it is a big lab, and it is a big manufacturing facility. It’s the largest employer in Vermont. I think today, it still is the largest private company employer in Vermont.

Grant Lussier: So you basically joined IBM roughly at the halfway point of the history of the company, right?

Nick Donofrio: Pretty much. That’s right. I like to say that. I use this famous chart by Ray Kurzweil. I should get it for you.

Nick Donofrio: The reason I use it is because it has my life on this chart. So he (Kurzweil) plots a hundred years of technology advancement. He is not plotting it for IBM’s benefit. I am using it to describe the life in IBM. It’s a very interesting chart. Semi logarithmic. So what he plots is the amount of computational capability you can get for a fixed amount of money in a fixed amount of time. And it turns out the curve is a hugely super-semi logarithmic chart super exponential. In a hundred years it rises 16 orders of magnitude. And what I like to point out to people is I started at the point of vacuum tubes, which is about right in the middle of the chart. (Nick points to the Kurzweil chart in his hand that he pulled out of his brief case) It’s about a hundred years and I joined right there. I came out of RPI with vacuum tube skills. I actually designed circuits with vacuum tubes, right? Only to find out that is not where we are. “We are trying to move to the tran-sistors, Nick.” And then nobody knows this, but then we are going to do all of this along the way. So I quickly re-schooled myself, re-skilled myself. This is how I get to Syracuse. I get my Masters degree in Electrical Engineering from Syracuse. I got my degree because IBM had a programme with Syracuse.

Grant Lussier: So what did you focus on?

Nick Donofrio: I am a circuit designer. I am a chip designer. I focused on disc transition from here to there. And of course, IBM is teaching me as well. I mean this is a high-intensity time of transition, not just for IBM but the whole industry is going this way, right? Nobody knows anything. No one understands a darn thing about what’s going on…




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