The thrill and heartache of BlackBerry: employee perspectives

BlackBerrys

Whether Canadian mobile technology company BlackBerry has a viable future or not is still a big unknown.

The company fell from grace during this year as sales of its smartphones plummeted in the face of competition from Apple and Android devices, plus a collapse in confidence in the company,  in the brand and in its leadership, and a knock-on effect on its lucrative software and services business.

The cost was catastrophic. Calling BlackBerry “a company in crisis” would be an understatement.

While some reports now talk about success with its BBM messaging service, others paint a dire picture of a company whose market share in hardware devices had all but collapsed by the end of the third quarter 2013 in key markets – to near zero in the US, China, Spain and Japan, for example, as the Guardian reports, also highlighting one ray of sunshine in one market: the UK.

Meanwhile, interim CEO John Chen affirmed in an open letter last week that BlackBerry Ltd is “very much alive, thank you” as it rebuilds itself as a niche player concentrating on the enterprise market.

Whatever the future for Blackberry, its past is a rich library of compelling memories and stories told by employees, former employees and others with strong connections to the company from its founding as RIM in 1984 to the present day.

You’ve heard the massaged and nuanced PR stuff from company leaders past and present: now hear the unfiltered stories of employees.

Such stories have been captured by Bloomberg Businessweek magazine in a feature report that paints a picture of the people of BlackBerry and their perspectives of their lives and connection to BlackBerry:

Over the last two months, Bloomberg Businessweek spoke to dozens of current and former BlackBerry employees, vendors, and associates. Here is their account of the thrill of BlackBerry’s ascension – and the heartache of watching its demise.

It’s a series of powerful vignettes of people and their experiences. It brings BlackBerry into life – it’s about ordinary people, not inanimate objects like phones – as it presents a timeline of events in the mobile-device marketplace, from its early days and, especially, over the past decade, as seen from the perspective of people who made up the once-12,000-member workforce.

Two handfuls of those experiences:

Gary Mousseau, eighth employee at RIM and software developer and manager, 1991-2007: I first met [founder and ex-CEO] Mike Lazaridis when he interviewed me. Mike is a very good orator and communicator of technology. He was a convincing-enough soul that I ended up taking a 13 percent pay cut to join RIM. I started in 1991. My first job was to build my own desk. There was no more room for me. They put me in the fax reception area. I was the guy receiving packages. I sat beside the fax machine, which was not fun. It was a small place. It was crowded. We were above a pizza joint.

Jim Estill, member of the board, 1997-2010: In the early days at RIM, people had no idea what a smartphone was. People had no idea what two-way pagers were. But they had such a cool factor. You’d take one out, and everybody would want to touch it and play with it and see what it was.

Chris Key, global account manager and carrier sales and relationship manager, 2001-09: In 2004, I shipped off to India. I became very active in feeding devices to Bollywood celebrities. I recall going to Bombay fashion week, and I took a box-load of BlackBerrys. A friend of mine is an editor for Vogue. She put me in the VIP section, and I drank Champagne and ate strawberries and handed out BlackBerrys to all the celebrities.

Lidia Feraco, senior marketing manager for Latin America, 2005-11: In the Jamaica/Trinidad launch, we did an exclusive campaign where people would come into a discotheque. We would give them temporary henna bar code tattoos, and people could use their BlackBerrys to scan the tattoos to get people’s [personal identification] numbers. People would say, “Scan me, scan me.” And as the evening went on, people would get more risqué and put the tattoos on different parts of their body. So instead of asking, “Hey, can I get your number,” the conventional line in a nightclub, it was more, “Hey, can I get your PIN?”

Brendan Kenalty, customer base management, 2007-10: I was in the loyalty and retention group. People would be, like, “You’re in BlackBerry retention? Why would anyone need that?”

Jesse Boudreau, vice president, BlackBerry software excellence, 2004-08: In four years we went from [approximately] 2,000 to 12,000 people. Having been at Nortel, the politics that get played is exponential. I was starting to see it be like Nortel. There was bureaucracy. There was pointless process. You were getting decisions by committee.

Vincent Washington, senior business development manager, 2001-11: One thing we missed out on was that Justin Bieber wanted to rep BlackBerry. He said, “Give me $200,000 and 20 devices, and I’m your brand ambassador,” basically. And we pitched that to marketing: Here’s a Canadian kid, he grew up here, all the teeny-boppers will love that. They basically threw us out of the room. They said, “This kid is a fad. He’s not going to last.” I said at the meeting: “This kid might outlive RIM.” Everyone laughed.

Ray Gillenwater, managing director, 2007-12: If BlackBerry was going to be serious about consumers, they needed to make a fundamental shift in the way products were thought about, created, iterated, marketed, and sold. This was done but never to the extent necessary. It was always a partial effort. There was a period of time when this could have been corrected, but when it became apparent that HQ and senior leadership were not addressing systemic issues, people like myself left.

Jeff Gadway, current senior manager for product marketing: When you go into the focus groups, and you talk to customers about brands in the technology space, there are brands that don’t come up at all anymore. And then there’s BlackBerry. People have fond sentiments about BlackBerry. If people didn’t have that affinity toward the brand, I would be challenged to really believe in what we’re doing. People want to see BlackBerry succeed.

‘Thrill’ and ‘heartache’ are indeed the sum total of much of these experiences:

Much more at Bloomberg Businessweek: The Rise and Fall of BlackBerry: An Oral History.

I was never a BlackBerry user. I never bought into the “doing my email wherever I am” culture. Yet, today, reading those emotive snapshots, I say: Good luck, BlackBerry.

(Photo at top via the Guardian.)

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About Neville Hobson

Entrepreneurial business communicator with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Co-host of the weekly business podcast For Immediate Release: The Hobson and Holtz Report. Also an occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Follow me on Twitter and Google+.