P-Tech intern: My interview with IBM executive Arvind Krishna

IBM Arvind Krishna“So when I say innovation that matters, it’s actually innovation that can help make a difference to the world.” – Arvind Krishna, Senior Vice President and Director, IBM Research

Chigozie Okorie, P-TECH student and intern at the IBM Center for Applied Insights, is conducting a series of executive interviews exploring topics such as the skills necessary for business today and how to prepare students for a very dynamic future.

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As a kid, I had very colorful and vivid imagination. Whether it was my many Power Rangers drawings or the plate of food I played with, I thought everything I did and ate was a form of innovation. But my kind of innovation at the time wasn’t life altering; it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized innovation could prove to make a difference in the world. The items we consume and the technology that we use daily are examples of breakthroughs that were once ideas and turned into actual commodities that help improve our lives. At IBM Research, there are projects that do just that and on a global scale, impacting the world. Arvind Krishna, the Senior Vice President and Director of IBM Research, is helping lead the force that strives to use creativity and collaboration to make a technological difference in the world. The interview with Arvind was imaginative, compelling, included awesome mental math, and gave me detailed insight on the creative process of IBM Research; all combined, it made up an amazing learning experience for me.

I want to start off by asking you to please describe your role at IBM in five words.

Innovate and imagine the future.

Here at IBM, you have accomplished a lot. So I want to know, what are some of the biggest influences that have led you down your current career path?

First, my grandmother; she was a person who believed that you could do anything you wanted to. Nothing would stop her. She grew up when India was under British rule and was among the first or second set of women in India who went to medical school and became physicians. So she had a certain personality; she was not afraid of anything.

I also remember when I was in the 10th grade I had a teacher who tried to instill a real love of math.  I remember the lessons really well because he had a unique way of teaching – and he walked with a limp so he used a cane. If you weren’t paying attention and your head was somewhere else, whack! The cane would come down on your desk and startle you. But despite all that, he instilled in me a love of mathematics that lasted into grad school.

My grad school advisor was also a big influence. Oh the patience he had. He knew, when you walked in with a problem you’d been working on for weeks, that he could do it in like three minutes. But he would never do that. He would actually keep asking you things until he kind of led you to the answer yourself. And that taught me that it’s really important to be humble and learn how to work with people and help other people, teach other people, not just try to show off and do it yourself.

Arvind and I in front of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, awarded to IBM in 2009 by the President of the United States.

What does “be innovative” mean to you?

Being innovative has a number of dimensions. You could make a big difference to somebody in the world, like a client.  For example, if I can get Gallo better grapes, that’s being innovative because it’s important to them. Or if I can conceive of a computer that beats the Jeopardy world champion, that’s also innovative.

But then let’s go to a different dimension that most of the world wouldn’t think of, like stochastic optimal control theory. And now you’re working on the kinds of problem that maybe only a few hundred people in the world are capable of solving. So that’s innovation at a deep level, bringing mathematics, physics and real-world modeling all together.

So when I say innovation that matters, it’s actually innovation that can help make a difference to the world of today or a reasonably close tomorrow.

So why are partnerships and collaborations critical to innovation for IBM?

It’s all about expanding reach. So there are 400,000 employees in IBM, give or take. And if we say that we like to do all our own innovation, and every employee does an innovation, that’s the amount of innovation we can do. But the world has 7 billion people, so that’s more than 10,000 times, nearly 20,000 times, the amount of people IBM has. So can we be so arrogant as to say that we can do all the innovation? Or should we be humble enough to say, “Hey, there are a lot of other people who can also do innovation”? Maybe together, we can do more than we could alone. And we can all benefit.

I think, in today’s world, ecosystems of innovation accomplish a lot more than just one company. But how do you get an ecosystem of innovation? All sides have to benefit, otherwise why should people participate? And you drive those ecosystems through partnerships, through open standards, through open source, and all the methods we can think of.

Of all the projects being tackled in the dozens of IBM research labs, what excites you the most?

My list would go into the hundreds. But I’ll mention a couple.

Many emerging countries have a lot of pollution. What if we could predict it? Then if the pollution is heavier, I could turn down coal plants and turn up the gas plants. In China, we’ve launched a very sophisticated project called Green Horizons. You place sensors all over the city to get the readings. Then it looks at airflow, wind and the topography of the city and predicts that, if this goes on three days from now, you might be crossing a limit that you don’t want to cross. The city then gets three days to say, wait a moment, can I do something about this? Can I turn down those plants? Can I shut off certain industries and not cross that limit? That’s pretty good then for the people that live there, right?

The other project is downstairs, where we have people working on what’s called quantum computing. A quantum computer works on what’s called quantum bits. So the bits don’t have a value. At any time, they occupy all values. So when you want to do multiplication, normally you’d say two times three is six. That makes sense to you as a junior in high school, right?

Now imagine multiplying zero by nine, one by nine, two by nine, all the way up to nine by nine. A quantum computer does all those in one step. And it has all the answers.

So, wow. How much faster could you do things if a quantum computer is like that? Now you’ve got to think about how to input the problem. How do I take my answers out? How does it operate? How do I make this thing do what I think of as algebra? So we’re working on that downstairs.

I saw in one of your recent presentations that 90 percent of data created over the last 10 years was abandoned. How is IBM research changing that?

A lot of this is about what we call the Internet of Things. Think about the car you drove in; it has sensors in anti-lock brakes systems, and the sensors and the brakes are working all the time. Its engine management system is putting out all kinds of data.

So what do you do with all that data today? You throw it away. You don’t even keep it for a minute. You just manage that car. What if we combined what’s going on in engine management systems to say, you know, you’re running that nice six-cylinder car, but it can work perfectly well on four. Yes, it won’t be quite that fast. But today maybe it’s better to have less pollution and less acceleration. Then perhaps tomorrow, based on all the data from the engine management system and environmental sensors, your car is able to determine that it’s okay to run on six-cylinders. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to build all that? But today all this data that we could be using is thrown away.

How is IBM Research changing the world?

Well, think about bringing natural language generation, about having a computer that can have a debate with you, not just answer questions, about advancing the density of semiconductors so you can have more in your mobile phone — like a hundred times as much as you have today. Those are all ways in which we will help our clients, and change the world.

For people who are interested in a career within technical research, what advice would you give them? What are the most critical skills required?

Be curious, ask lots of questions, try and understand why something is important or why it works. And I know I sound like a broken record – but physics, math and I’m adamant about communication. You’ve got to be coherent and cohesive in how you write, how you think, and how you speak.

What non-technical skills are required to thrive in the technology industry? How can young people today acquire the skills that cannot be taught in schools?

Time management, focus, obsession to get a task done are all skills that are critical for success – not just in technology, but in many parts of life.

I would say that kids who do a lot of sports probably learn more about time management than kids who don’t, because they’re forced to. They’ve got to spend a lot of energy and time on their team training.

The other area is collaboration, which involves communication. If you’re going to collaborate with someone, you’ve got to learn to communicate in a way that they can understand.

What are the top five skills all employees should have regardless of industry?

Write well, be capable of constructing a coherent argument, have numerical literacy, be empathetic to your coworkers, and have an intense curiosity about how your clients and competitors work.

PTECH_KRISHNA_09-28-15

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About Arvind Krishna

Arvind Krishna is senior vice president and director, IBM Research. He is only the eleventh person to hold this position in the seven-decade history of the IBM Research labs. In this role, he helps guide the company’s overall technical strategy, overseeing a global organization of approximately 3,000 scientists and technologists located at 12 labs on six continents. Previously, Arvind was the general manager of IBM Systems and Technology Group’s Development and Manufacturing organization, responsible for the advanced engineering and development of a full technology portfolio including Power 8, the industry’s first processor designed for big data.

He is the co-author of 15 patents, has been the editor of IEEE and ACM journals, and has published extensively in technical conferences and journals.

About the IBM Center for Applied Insights

The IBM Center for Applied Insights introduces new ways of thinking, working and leading. Through evidence-based research, the Center arms leaders with pragmatic guidance and the case for change.

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