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December 21, 2022

IBM faces ‘dinobabies’ ageism lawsuit, TSMC powers on – February 2022 in review

February saw IBM accused of ageism, ransomware hackers backing Russia, and TSMC cementing its semiconductor supremacy.

By Matthew Gooding

We continue our look-back at the stories that made the headlines in 2022. In February one of the biggest names in chipmaking came under the microscope.

“Can anything stop TSMC?” we asked in February, after Taiwan’s semiconductor powerhouse delivered yet another set of record-breaking financial results. The company’s stranglehold on advanced chip manufacturing – it is one of two companies in the world, along with Samsung, capable of producing leading-edge processors – has helped it hoover up customers from a wide range of business sectors, particularly during the global chip shortage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The semiconductor shortage helped TSMC to gain a global list of customers. (Picture courtesy of mpohodzhay/Shutterstock)

What is the secret of its success? “TSMC has matchless customer relationships based on total trust as well as its – currently equally matchless – technical prowess,” Mike Orme, a semiconductor analyst for GlobalData, said. “It has the world’s top engineering talent base, experienced and battle-tested management, as well as Taiwan-based cost efficiencies and government support.”

So is the future set fair for TSMC? Or will there be problems on the horizon, particularly if pursues its long-standing ambition to annex Taiwan? Dan Hutcheson, of semiconductor industry analyst house TechInsights, said the company’s global expansion plans, which will see it build new fabs in the US, may cause an issue, with American staff potentially unwilling to work in the conditions tolerated in Taiwan.

“They’ve never successfully run manufacturing outside Taiwan,” Hutcheson said. “There have been marginal gains but they have never seeded anything successful. So it’s a huge risk because they rely on a very tightly coupled Taiwanese culture which is a mixture of Chinese and American. In a way it could be like what we saw in Japan in the 1970s and 1980s – it rose as a tech power but then fell again when it tried to go global.”

TSMC’s new plant in Arizona is scheduled to come online in 2024.

IBM ‘dinobabies’ lawsuit and IT’s persistent ageism

Speaking of problematic working cultures, documents appearing to show institutional ageism at IBM were released as part of a lawsuit against the company. The cache of internal memos was unsealed as part of the case of Lohnn vs International Business Machines, and appeared to show communications between two executives, in which one “applauds the use of the disparaging term ‘dinobabies’ to describe the older IBM employees” as part of a “plan to oust them from IBM’s workforce”.

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IBM went on to settle the case in August, paying an undisclosed sum to claimant Denise Lohann, who said her husband Jorgen Lohann, killed himself directly as a result of being unfairly made redundant by IBM in 2016. Jorgen Lohann, who was 57 at the time, had worked at IBM for 15 years.

The disclosures in the case “were pretty surprising”, said Josh Bersin, founder of research company Bersin Associates. “IBM has a long history of reskilling and continuously developing its workforce, and also a history of offering early retirement programs,” he said. “If these statements are true it’s a sobering story about IBM leadership which may be a wake-up call.”

Big Blue’s chief human resources officer Nickle LaMoreaux said that “discrimination of any kind is entirely against our culture and who we are at IBM, and there was (and is) no systemic age discrimination at our company”, so whether the wake-up call has been heeded remains to be seen. The problem is not IBM-specific, as ageist attitudes persist across the sector.

Conti backs Russia – then doesn’t – in the Ukraine war

As war in Ukraine escalated, tensions between hacking gangs also mounted, with prolific ransomware group Conti declaring its support for the Russian invasion, before quickly backtracking in the face of opposition from its partner hacking groups.

Conti’s attempt to backtrack came too late, however, as thousands of its private chats were leaked online by an unimpressed Ukrainian security researcher.

Though the leak exposed the inner workings of Conti, Andy Norton, European cyber risk officer at security company Armis, said that allying with the Russian government was still in the group’s interest. “I don’t think the group will be weakened by this, their largest exposure is the threat of local law enforcement arresting them,” he said. By “showing loyalty” to Russia, the gang will probably receive greater protection from the security forces, Norton added.

Indeed, throughout the conflict hacktivist activities have become commonplace from both pro and anti-Russian hackers.

More from February 2022: Reach for the stars – the UK’s post-Brexit race to space

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