Yuchun Lee's journey from card counter to IBM's social media guru

The man in charge of IBM's effort to help chief marketing officers do their jobs learned how to take a chance while "Bringing Down the House" in Las Vegas.
Written by Jim Kerstetter, Contributor

Yuchun Lee was a college whiz kid engaged in extracurricular activities that became the subject a best-selling book turned into a Hollywood movie long before Mark Zuckerberg came along.

Unless you’ve been lost at sea for the last few years, you probably know young Harvard University student Zuckerberg was the main character in Ben Mezrich’s (some would say factually challenged) “The Accidental Billionaires,” which was turned into the factually challenged but enormously entertaining “The Social Network.”

A decade earlier and a mile away in Cambridge, Mass., Lee was one of the infamous Massachusetts Institute of Technology card counters in the entertaining (but perhaps more factually accurate) Mezrich book “Bringing Down the House,” which was turned into the forgettable movie “21.”

Today, Zuckerberg, of course, is the newly married CEO of the newly public Facebook. Lee has done pretty well for himself, as well. He’s the lesser-known but influential general manager of IBM’s Enterprise Marketing; the guy in charge of IBM’s technology and services meant to help the chief marketing officers of big companies.

Lee is trying to do for enterprise social media tools and services what IBM did more than a decade ago with its WebSphere Internet software: Tie disparate pieces of software into a coherent offering that allows business customers to choose what fits them.

At a company conference in Madrid, Spain today, IBM is expected to announce new features that allow companies to study the data behind social media promotions and turn those into promotions on services such as Facebook and Twitter. For the 46-year-old Lee, who became part of Big Blue when he sold his company Unica to IBM for $480 million two years ago, it’s the latest step in an unusual journey from Taiwan to Natchez, Miss. to Houston and finally to Massachusetts, with more than a few weekends in Las Vegas.

The affable Lee, as you might expect, has no shortage of opinions about the role of today’s chief marketing officer. A brand, he said, is no longer what the company puts out, it’s what people are saying about the company. “Marketing used to be about selling,” he said. “In the new world, marketing is about service.”

That, Lee said in an interview last week, requires a deep, data-driven understanding of the customer. What are people saying about a product or a company? More importantly, how do you gather all that information into something useful? That’s the problem he’s trying to solve.

He’s not surprised, for example, that General Motors loudly pulled its $10 million Facebook campaign. Not speaking specifically about GM, he said large corporations are still taking old methods to new platforms.

”They’re still blasting campaigns out there, sending junk e-mail and hoping for returns,” Lee said. “The social channel is about listening and understanding the sentiment and building trust.”

An entrepreneur and card counter in the making

When Lee was 13, his father, an oil tanker captain, moved his family to the United States and, of all places, small-town Natchez, Miss., where his uncle was a professor in a local state college. He didn’t speak a word of English, and within a year the family moved again to Houston, Texas, where they stayed. All the while, he dreamed of attending MIT.

”Even in Taiwan, people told me MIT was the best,” Lee said.

He majored in statistics, and started his data analytics company Unica when he was still a student. But his other sideline in college was probably a lot more exciting. And in those years, it was more lucrative.

”I saw a flyer posted in a corridor. ‘If you are interested in beating the casinos, meet us at so and so.’ I had heard about the (card-counting) team. A lot of people on campus knew about them.”

With that flyer, Lee started training in the numbers-driven world of card counting and took on a double life: On weekdays, he was a college student and later a young software entrepreneur. But every Friday, he would board an America West flight to Las Vegas, sometimes with stacks of cash strapped to his body, and return on the redeye Sunday night with, hopefully, even bigger stacks of cash.

’We had to be a cash operation,” Lee said. “You didn’t want to be leaving your money with the casinos. If you got caught, you could lose it.”

The 30- to 35-member card counting team -- though Lee prefers to use the term “statistical analysis” team -- was actually two groups, the Reptiles and the Amphibians. He was an Amphibian, able to blend in with the casinos because, he jokes, he was just another “crazy Asian gambler” spending too much money at the blackjack tables. Initially, it was nerve-wracking. “The hardest part of that entire experience is acting. Can you stay calm and cool when you know the entire casino is watching? Can you stay calm and cool and keep count of all the cards?”

A bad day for Larry Flynt

Lee believes that with six years at the tables, he was one of the longest-running members of the MIT team who never actually got caught. He won’t say how much he made in those years, but he will admit the biggest pot he ever played in one sitting was $80,000 at a high rollers table. He was sitting next to Penthouse publisher Larry Flynt, in his wheelchair, whom, Lee said, was having a very bad night.

Though he was never caught, Lee believes he was nonetheless discovered to be a card counter because his name is in the “black book” of professional card counters kept by casinos throughout the world. It’s important to note that card counting is generally legal but known card counters can be banned from casinos because they’re considered private property. Lee suspects his name was picked up when he was sitting next to a friend who was spotted card counting (though he says he was not at the time).

The black book means he’s not allowed in any casino...anywhere. That presents him with an unusual problem from time to time when IBM hosts a conference in Las Vegas. “I just try not to go anywhere where I’m going to upset someone,” he said. In fact, when Unica held a customer conference in Sin City, Lee made sure it was held well off the strip.

Lee finally dropped his gaming when he got married. “My applied statistics life in Las Vegas was too much for a married man,“ he joked.

Ironically, Lee dislikes gambling. “I never have any inclination to do it,” he said. “It doesn’t appeal to me to sit in front of a machine and watch it eventually take all your money.” What he was doing, you see, wasn’t gambling. It was applied statistics.

But one thing he did learn to be comfortable with in those “applied statistics” days was taking a risk. There can be huge swings in business or at the blackjack tables. “You need to be able to stomach the risk,” Lee said. He also learned to work with teams to solve a problem.

Today, his team is trying to solve how chief marketing officers can make better sense of social media. His group is nearly 2,000 people, combined in the acquisitions of companies such as Unica, Coremetrics and the soon-to-close deal with Tealeaf Technology. He wants to merge the creative sensibilities of today’s marketing execs with the data-centric sensibilities he brings to the table

”Today’s CMO needs to merge the left brain with the right brain,” said Lee, adding, “The CMO has traditionally come from a branding background. The successful ones will have to be creative and analytical. The combination of the two is a necessity.”

Besides, the typical chief marketing officer survives in his or her job for 15 to 18 months. Who, besides a gambler (or an applied statistician) would want a job like that?

Jim Kerstetter has been writing about the high-tech industry since the 1990s. He has been a senior editor at PC Week and a Silicon Valley correspondent at BusinessWeek. He is now senior executive editor at CNET News. He moved back to Boston because he missed the Red Sox. E-mail Jim.

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