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From the "suit of armor" to casual Fridays

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When Bruce Friedman graduated from college with a business degree in 1981, he knew exactly what the future held. "You joined IBM for one major reason: It was the big father figure. One of its selling points to college graduates was full employment. It had a history of never laying off regardless of the economic climate."

Back then, anyone who met the company's expectations could map out a career path--moving up the ladder was a way of life. "The way I looked at IBM when I first began working here was, if I perform well, I will never have to look for another job again."

And he never has. Friedman, who lives in Durham, is beginning his 23rd year as a network architect for the company. But a lot has changed. He's seen 15 rounds of layoffs, which left him unscathed, but not unaffected. "It's not your father's IBM anymore," he says. For one thing, the company has to compete with aggressive startups and smaller operations like Dell. Hiring contractors often wins out over hiring full-time employees. "Everybody's job is very volatile. There's no real sense of belonging or ownership because of the economy, the new millennium way of doing things."

But certain things are much better now, not least of which is the dress code. "When I first started working for IBM, I worked in Boca Raton, Fla., and that was in the days when you were required to wear a suit," he recalls. "This was in July. You would have just gotten out of the shower and gotten dressed for work, and you'd be wearing a black jacket, white shirt, blue tie, and wingtip shoes--the suit of armor, we called it. When you walked out the door at 8:30 in the morning, it was 90 percent humidity and 82 degrees." With the advent of "Casual Friday" in the mid-'80s, even father-figure IBM started to dress down. Today, the only people who wear suits to the office are marketing folks, executives, and those showing up for job interviews.

The anchor of Research Triangle Park, IBM is a lesson in the evolution of the high-tech workplace. It still has about 15,000 full-time employees at its RTP campus, far more than any other company in the Park. But in order to keep those employees--and keep its edge--it's had to change its ways.

Today, the backbone of the tech workforce is the made up of thousands of individual contractors who work on a per-project basis. They don't have to worry about the dress code since they tend to work from home offices. But they do have to worry about their own health benefits and retirement, not to mention perpetual networking. Job security is a thing of the past.

Friedman recalls that his team once finished a project and ran out of work to do. Their manager told them to go paint a room, or go catalog parts in the industrial division. "That'll never, ever happen again," he laughs. "I really feel so blessed that I had that opportunity. I think we're the last generation, those of us in our 40s, to see what it used to be like."

Fiona Morgan is a staff writer for The Independent.

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