By Chris Nay
On average, IBM bestows its top technical rank of Fellow upon only five employees per year. That adds up to 257 who have earned the title over the program’s 52 year history. And those who hold it are recognized not only across IBM, but throughout the industry and around the world for leading innovation that will change the future.
Fellows program founder, Gardiner Tucker, recently recalled an example of the impact and scope of the program when discussing the work of Nathaniel Rochester, Fellow class of 1967.
“Nat’s CONCEPTOR project attempted to simulate the brain’s neural network on an IBM 704 to more-efficiently detect patterns in a stream of data,” said Tucker. That was 1955. (Had he succeeded, CONCEPTOR might have been more popular than that year’s big breakthrough, the microwave.)
That work was 60 years ahead of what IBM Fellow (2014) Dharmendra Modha is making a reality with SyNAPSE. To be sure, the pace of innovation has dramatically sped up. For example, the first cell phone call might have been made 42 years ago, but what’s happening with the advent of the smartphone has arguably launched the industries of mobile and Internet of Things in less than 10 years. Not to mention all the big data analytics that races to understand what’s happening on the Internet and elsewhere.
The IBM Fellow program could be seen as a barometer of this acceleration. Since 1999, just ahead of the dot-com bust, Fellow classes have averaged seven inductees, including this year’s 10, the second-largest class in the program’s history (the record of 11 was set a year ago). So, while many companies did not fair well in the aftermath of the 2000 bubble burst, IBM and its technical wizards found creative, profitable ways to use the Internet. Now, there’s more data, creating more challenges, leading to an increased need for technical experts.
“The market has changed dramatically in just the last couple of years,” said Saska Mojsilovic, 2014 Fellow, predictive data analytics expert. “There’s this shift from a single product mindset toward creating solutions that solve complex problems – and that’s been reflected in this latest generation of Fellows.”
Saska’s putting that solution-oriented approach to work by using data to help solve the Ebola outbreak. She and colleagues hosted Ebola Open Data Jams and crowdsourcing projects to create “data maps,” and collect critical healthcare facilities data to help public health teams contain the spread of the disease.
And while the 95 still-active Fellows are taking on new challenges like this, using cloud computing and social media, to new security and systems technology, the world needs even more of their ilk.
“I’ve always worked on databases, and I try to be the ‘conscience,’ if you will, of IBM’s database technology,” said C. Mohan, an IBM Fellow for 18 years, and driving force behind moving databases from bipolar CPUs to CMOS in the early 1990s. This “parallel sysplex” technology meant that mainframe computers could share and efficiently manipulate a single database for the first time.
“Today, we want the cloud to function in a similar way: everyone share a database for social media, streaming video, you name it. But without the industrial strength technical underpinnings that supports different types of workloads with predictable behavior, it could be a disaster. You don’t want to use an app sitting on an unsecure database on a system that might fold in a week.
“Our DB2 systems, what some have termed ‘elephantine’ in the past, have been through these growing pains (it’s well documented). But it’s not just an industry standard, it’s 30 years of technology that, as DB2 BLU today, understands SQL as well as NoSQL (that unstructured data from social media) requirements – and is cloud ready,” Mohan said.
Good old DB2 also works with the world’s first open hardware ecosystem, IBM’s OpenPOWER, led in-part by 2015 Fellow Steve Fields.
“When I was a ‘chip guy,’ Fellows were seen as gurus focused on a single topic. They lived and breathed one thing,” said John Cohn, IBM Fellow, class of 2006, and occasional reality TV star.
“I worked on the chips IBM put into its servers and all three gaming systems between 1995 and 2005. But today, I’m the new guy in our Internet of Things group – which is the next step in building an interconnected, instrumented world. It’s an opportunity to reinvent myself and I couldn’t be more excited!”
John has always been a “maker,” building things like an interactive light up floor piece called “Floorish” as part of Burlington, Vermont’s City of Burlington Firehouse Gallery’s User Required Makers show. Now, part of his job is to determine what, from the Internet of Things, will transform how we use and interact with technology.
“The Gartner ‘hype cycle’ says that IoT has peaked. It’s a reality check. It means that we need to move beyond just what would be ‘cool’… like connecting your toothbrush to a toaster, and drive real value for our clients and for the world. So many things are possible. Like predicting when your car needs service before it breaks down. Now that’s useful!” John said. New Fellow Bala Rajaraman led the development of Bluemix, IBM’s platform-as-a-service to build just such apps in the cloud.
“I simply did what I like the best: putting the world around us into mathematical models.
“I did this as a graduate student, when it was very ‘uncool’ to work on computer models that could see medical images like we do. I did this as a new hire at IBM 15 years ago, when there wasn’t much of a focus on visual analytics. And I’m still doing it today, in a world where analytics has exploded,” Saska said.
Saska’s PhD work almost 20 years ago was building applications that trained computers to “see” images of the heart to help predict heart attack recovery, and of the liver to predict cancer formation. “It was still more science fiction than reality at the time, but I wanted the computer to describe these images in language we could understand,” Saska said.
At the University of Belgrade in the late 1990s, this meant waiting in a queue to digitize these images on a scanner. It could take a week just to get a few images for model analysis. Today, images are instantly digital, and the computing is “cognitive” like Watson.
“The models we were building 20 years ago were ahead of their time, but as an IBM colleague told me, ‘it takes 20 years to change how we think about something – innovation is a curve, not a button you can push.’ And now that Watson is state of the art, we’re pushing those boundaries: what else, like the human sense of taste, can it understand?” Saska said.
The next generation of Fellows
Part of being a Fellow is grooming technical talent at IBM and future talent still in school. Jim Sexton and Jing Shyr of this year’s class have taught at universities, and continue sharing their technical expertise with students. To Mohan, who also served as IBM’s Chief Scientist in India from 2006 to 2009, “a Fellow gives credibility to a long-term technical career.”
“In India, for example, it’s important to talk about this. There’s still the thought that if you don’t move up in management, you’re a loser. So, I give presentations to employees and students alike, telling my story of staying in a technical role – working as a manager is not required to succeed,” Mohan said.
John turns to social media, and tech communities all over the web to share his expertise – and to learn a few things, too. “In 2007, I was trying to reverse-engineer the LED lights I found in China (used for billboards) to make a headband. I went to a maker forum for help with its control format. A guy I’d never met helped me out and we ended up writing a paper and code about how to build these LED hats. From there, many other folks built on and improved that code. Today, it’s used by hobbyists around the world.”
“I love the social media aspect of this generation. It’s a great tool to get involved, and get others involved in technical projects,” John said.
“This new era of open technology has changed who is able to create and build things, too. Look at how IBM is working with smaller companies – even classes at universities – that use Watson Ecosystem. These aren’t your traditional competitors, clients, or partners,” Saska said.
Maybe next year’s Fellows class won’t be as big in number. But the ideas, and the love for sharing those ideas will be.
Read more about the entire 2015 class, and all IBM Fellows, here.