By Steve Hamm
Aleksandra “Saska” Mojsilovic grew up in the former Yugoslavia before it splintered into nine nations, and, by the time she graduated with a PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Belgrade in 1997, “The world I knew didn’t exist anymore,” she says. Today, as a scientist at the IBM Research lab in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., she’s making it possible for people to understand how the world works much more deeply than every before–so they can transcend traditional boundaries and make better decisions in their private and professional lives.
Saska is one of 11 IBM innovators who today received the company’s highest honor for technologists when they were tapped as IBM Fellows. Other honorees from IBM Research include Tamar Eilam, Krishna Ratakonda, Dharmendra Modha, Shiv Vaithyanathan and Alessandro Curioni. Two come from IBM services, Michael Haydock and Rhonda Childress; two from the software division, Namik Hrle and Sandy Bird; and one from hardware, Andrew Walls.
The IBM Fellows program was created in 1963 with the goal of recognizing the outstanding achievements of top scientists and engineers. Fellows are granted considerable latitude to pursue interests that won’t likely translate quickly into new products and services–but which have the potential to transform technology, business and society. “The Fellow program is really the core culture of IBM,” says Saska, who focuses on data analytics. “It shows that we believe in fundamental innovation, which takes time and patience, trial and error. You have to believe in your ideas and persevere.”
While such radical innovations can’t be produced on a schedule, IBM Fellows have played timely roles in the company’s own transformations. Those passages include the emergence of modern computing in the 1950s and 60s, the early days of the microchip in the 1960s and 70s, IBM’s mainframe shift in the early 1990s, and, again, today, as IBM attempts to lead the transition into a new era of computing.
In fact, it’s fitting that on this day when new IBM Fellows are being recognized, the company’s most senior Fellow, Robert Dennard, who became one 35 years ago, is retiring at age 81. Bob is famous in tech circles for his invention in 1967 of the DRAM (dynamic random access memory), one of the fundamental building blocks of computing. You will find DRAM today in every computer, cell phone and tablet. He and his team at IBM Research also invented scaling principles for fitting an ever-increasing number of transistors on a microchip, which has made it possible for the tech industry to fulfill the prediction made by Intel founder Gordon Moore in 1965–later codified as “Moore’s Law–that the industry would be able to double the number of transistors on a chip every 18 to 24 months. “If there was no Bob Dennard, there would have been no Moore’s Law,” says Bernard Meyerson another longtime IBM Fellow.
For Bob, being an IBM Fellow meant he had license to go out into the world and engage with scientists who were leaders in their fields. Also, as Fellows, “We had a lot of influence within IBM. I was able to offer advice to people who maybe weren’t looking for it, but quite often it was accepted, ” he says.
He’s putting it mildly. Sometimes, disagreements over the correct technology path forward nearly consumed the company–such as in the early 1990s when the fate of the long-venerated mainframe was very much in doubt. Bob, with assistance from his then-protege, Bijan Davari, argued forcefully that the chip technology that was then at the heart of the mainframe, called bipolar, had to be replaced with more modern and efficient CMOS designs. They made their case by proving that CMOS was superior. The company’s leaders ultimately sided with them, and the mainframe was reborn. “As a Fellow, you’re the tip of the arrow,” says Bijan, who was named a Fellow in 1996. “You have to be persistent. You have to make your case. You have to show it can work.”
IBM celebrates its “Wild Ducks”–scientists and engineers who stake out radical positions and challenge orthodoxy. But, in practice, the life of a contrarian is often stressful and lonely. The Fellow program is intended in part to give the wild ones a little extra clout.
Bernie Meyerson, who became a Fellow in 1992, takes pride in the fact that his brashness and unconventional ideas rub some people the wrong way. He earned his stripes for proposing that IBM build a business around using silicon germanium as a base material in a new generation of communications chips. He found so little support within IBM that he sought funding from clients. Eventually, the company embraced his ideas and built a large business on them. “The Fellows program allowed us air cover to push forward with radical innovations,” he says.
Today, innovators at IBM face pressure as the company stakes out leadership positions in big data analytics, cognitive computing, cloud computing and other dynamic areas of technology. At times like these, there’s considerable tension between short-term imperatives and longer-term ambitions.
Dharmendra Modha, another of this year’s Fellows, demonstrates that the Wild Ducks credo is still alive and well. For nearly a decade, he has single-mindedly pursued an audacious goal–to design chips modeled on the workings of the human brain that can perform tasks that are not well suited to conventional computers. “We’re at the boundary of what’s possible; combining fantasy with reality; theory with practice; beauty with practicality,” he says. After years of hard work and difficult decisions, his team’s designs are proving out.
So IBM’s “Wild Ducks” persevere, though that doesn’t mean their jobs are easy. The Fellows program is critical. It sends a strong message to them: Keep at it. Don’t give up. Transform the world–and IBM. And it sends a strong message to IBM’s leaders, too: Don’t muck with your Wild Ducks.