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August 26, 2014: People of ACM: Matthias Kaiserswerth

Today's Topic: People of ACM: Matthias Kaiserswerth

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Matthias Kaiserswerth is Director of IBM Research - Zurich. Since joining the company as a Research Staff Member in 1988, he has held a number of positions, working on research projects ranging from high-performance communication systems to message brokering in a medical environment. From 1997 to 1999, he led the networking software and security research effort at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center in the US, where he was responsible for setting IBM Research's global security research strategy and starting IBM efforts in the emerging field of privacy technology research. In 2000 he returned to IBM Research - Zurich as Director.

Kaiserswerth received degrees in Computer Science from Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany and McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and his PhD from Friedrich-Alexander University. He is a member of the ACM Europe Council.

How would you expand on your statement in a recent blog post that data is the new natural resource, and what implications does this development have for computing?

Every time we record our lap time with an app, map directions online, or post photos on social media, we are creating a blizzard of new data. This is very exciting because today we have ways to make sense of all of this data like never before. Unlike in the past, when only statisticians and information scientists with supercomputers could crunch this data, now, thanks to cloud computing and mobile apps, we put these powers into everyone's hands. For consumers, this makes us powerful and the same can be said for marketers—in fact, it can be a significant competitive advantage. Just like countries that are sitting on top of oil reserves, gathering and making sense of data can generate wealth. Some of the data may also be a commodity. Therefore, it's really about how it is used and combined with other data. For example, IBM is working with police departments in the US to use data to predict areas in a city where crimes are likely to occur. Or with Watson, we are sifting through data to help doctors diagnose patients from a mobile device anywhere. That's powerful.

Do the IBM research labs in Kenya, Australia and Brazil focus on specific regional challenges, or are they engaged in broader research initiatives common to other labs?

IBM has 12 research labs around the world. Our oldest labs in New York, California and Switzerland are very broad, essentially covering everything from analytics to atoms, as I like to say. But our newest labs take a very different approach. They were selected in regions where IBM Research can contribute to local challenges. In Kenya and for all of Eastern Africa, the lab is looking at water and traffic management, for example. In Australia they are very focused on helping citizens during natural disasters and with managing natural resources. Finally, Brazil is working with the mayor of Rio de Janeiro to help predict mudslides, while also leveraging all of the social media data from the World Cup and the upcoming Olympics to create a smarter city. But the global footprint is completely focused on IBM's strategic priorities with cloud, analytics, engagement, mobile, and security.

What obstacles did you face when you transitioned from actual lab research work to the role of lab director at the IBM Research Lab in Zurich?

I think "obstacles" is the wrong word. I would say that I was presented with opportunities. But of course I didn't want to rock the boat too quickly. Let's not forget that this is a two-time achieving Nobel Prize-winning lab, so you don't want to break something that doesn't need to be fixed.

Clearly we needed to contribute to IBM's goals and to get IBM back to growth. And to do this we decided to focus on the client. So we opened a new building on the campus with a space dedicated to client briefings called the Industry Solutions Lab, which is now called the Think Lab. This facility opened the doors to research, facilitating demonstrations and highly interactive workshops between clients and our scientists like never before. Initially, scientists were hesitant to step out of the lab, but once they had their first meetings and saw opportunities to have a real impact, it started an evolution that continues to this day. Since we opened in 2000, we've hosted thousands of clients from all kinds of industries around the world.

As an accomplished computer scientist with both research and management experience, what advice would you give to young people considering careers in computing?

Well, clearly analytics, cloud, social and mobile should all be a focus for anyone in IT these days. But beyond this, and it is applicable to any field of science, we are looking for what we call the "T-shaped" professional. The T-shaped professional has both depth of knowledge in one discipline while also having a breadth of experience, such as working in different countries or having a combination of scientific and business skills. This is important, particularly in a global environment like IBM, to effectively work within diverse teams and find a common language.

My last point would be to use social media to build a brand for yourself. Similar to how IBM or Apple leverages social media to promote themselves as innovators, young scientists should do the same. In today's networked world, publishing papers just isn't enough.