IBM today christened a new generation of technology innovators, naming 66 new Distinguished Engineers from across the company. The DE rank recognizes people for their outstanding technical accomplishments, as well as their potential for breaking new ground in key areas such as cloud and mobile computing, Big Data analytics, social business, and many more.
This year’s class includes Dr. Anna Topol, IBM’s Chief Technology Officer for the Energy and Utilities sector. A native of Poland and mother of two young boys, Topol holds a doctorate in physics from the State University of New York Albany College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering and has earned nearly two dozen patents. She joined IBM in 2001. The Smarter Planet editorial team recently sat down with Topol for an inside chat with one of the company’s newest DE’s.
Smarter Planet: Where do you see the biggest potential for breakthroughs in your current area of specialization?
Anna Topol: There is a lot of innovation happening in the energy and utility sector. What has been learned from other industries such as telecommunications and retail, where the use of data analytics has had transformational benefits, is now being applied to help us be smarter about how we generate, consume and conserve energy. Right now, there is a focus on automation and the use of smart meters, devices and sensors. For energy consumers, this translates into a decrease in change-related outages through increased efficiency and reduced mean time to repairs.
SP: How can utility companies benefit from Big Data?
AT: For many utilities, maintenance is performed because it’s scheduled, not because something is defective. The savings come from a new understanding of when not to do the work in the first place. Now we have digitally based instruments, sensor networks and simulation devices, which can provide more data and insights. The analytics-driven information can help a company decide the best time to fix or replace a power transformer, for example, based on real-time information instead of an outdated maintenance schedule. Smarter utility companies are using their data to increase equipment utilization, reduce maintenance expenses and defer capital expenditures. This cost consciousness is particularly important for industries like energy and utilities which have an aging infrastructure.
SP: Did you always want to be an engineer?
AT: I always liked math and physics and loved astronomy. My parents instilled a love of learning early on. My mother was a physical therapist and my father was in the Polish navy and later taught navigation and ship construction. I moved to the United States when I was 18 years old, and I studied physics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. After graduating, I worked briefly for an IT company in Boston and realized I needed to learn more. I earned my masters and doctorate at SUNY-Albany. The professors there cultivated my interest in nanoscience and in industry research. I began my IBM career at IBM Research, working on 3D integrated circuit technology, and then moved into client-facing roles.
SP: What advice would you give young women who might want to follow in your footsteps?
AT: Always ask questions. If you don’t know something, ask. Sometimes, we’re reluctant to ask because we feel embarrassed that we don’t know enough, but that’s the very time we should be asking. In college, I found professors were incredibly generous with their knowledge. Ask your professors about their research; ask if you can shadow them in the lab. Experience is a better teacher than the textbook. Finally, be persistent. Expect to fail, but learn from your failures.
SP: What do you look for when you are hiring?
AT: Two things that go in different directions. First, you have to be a good team member. The smartest and best brains never create in a vacuum. I listen closely to see how eager people are to collaborate. Second is having a vision. Sure, you can be an engineer, follow orders and do a good job. But the only thing that moves us forward is vision. Where do you want to take our company, our clients, our industry, our world? Are you a follower or are you capable of independent thinking and making a difference? I’m looking for people who want to be a force for progress.
SP: Where do you get your best ideas?
AT: I get my best ideas by talking to people who have different backgrounds than me. I like to gather information from various sources. I also like to hear from people of different ages – older and younger generations. I think it’s very important to get those different perspectives, so you are looking at a problem from many different angles, not just your own. It’s what I call diversity of thought.
SP: What does being named Distinguished Engineer mean to you?
AT: It’s very humbling. It makes me thankful for the people I have met and the help they have given me along the way. Recognition is important. It has a direct influence on staying passionate about your work.
SP: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?
AT: I like playing volleyball. On Sundays, I go to church and pray for a good week. On Wednesdays, I play volleyball for recreation. Sometimes, that also helps me work out frustrations by banging the ball. But mostly, time with my family, my two boys, ages 5 and 6, are the wings to my day. They are my guiding angels. They wake up in the morning and they are eager to meet the day. I love seeing how the world looks through their eyes.
SP: What music do you enjoy?
AT: I play the piano and being from Poland, Chopin of course is my favorite. I like harmony – with a good portion of discord. I listen to smooth jazz and other music, but classical is my first choice.