People of ACM - Joel Branch

September 18, 2018

What led you to earn a BS in Computer Science at Howard University and later a PhD in Computer Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute?

I grew up with a strong talent for artistry, so much so that my eighth-grade art teacher gifted me tuition for a summer course at the Art Institute of Chicago. I unfortunately couldn’t attend the course, so instead I purchased a really nice graphic arts software suite and discovered (in the early 1990s) how computers provided near-magical outlets for my talents. Then I got into 3D modeling and studying the groundbreaking cinematic CGI of the time. Given my evolving passions, computer science became a clear choice for a college major. I chose Howard University for college because my family had a tradition of attending historically black colleges and universities, and I wanted to attend the best.

At Howard, my growing interest in pervasive computing technologies pushed artistry to the side (though I’ve rekindled my talents, thanks to my children). In considering potential career choices, I became increasingly captivated by research and entrepreneurship, mainly because I thought my professors lived pretty exciting lives. So, pursuing a PhD became another clear choice. I chose to attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where I absolutely enjoyed solving challenges in ad hoc wireless sensor networking. I also established a strong relationship with IBM Research through various internships, and started my career there, which was an excellent place to start. I have yet to become a professor, but have enjoyed adjunct faculty roles over the years.

What are your core responsibilities as the Director of Platform Development and AI Architect at Lucd?

Lucd is a new company focused on helping enterprises unlock new market opportunities via the integration of cutting-edge artificial intelligence workflows into their business models. We focus on accelerating AI-based value creation via secure streamlined data management and analysis tools and automation for effortlessly and quickly tuning and serving our partners’ models using our platform. I’m part of a tremendously talented, hard-working, fun team and it’s exciting to see how our various skills and experiences in different domains are converging to bring relevant innovation to the enterprise AI space. As AI Architect, I help develop many of the core AI capabilities for the product. As Director for Platform Development, I’m essentially chief liaison between our business and technical experts. I take strategy plans and use them to focus our agile development efforts. Conversely, I advise strategies for certain partner engagements based on the technical team’s expertise in various domains.

Lucd represents your first startup experience. How have your past professional experiences prepared you for this particular career step?

At IBM Research, I learned what a world-class technology organization looked like. Among a range of things, that included encouraging technological exploration and finding diverse ways to honor technical excellence. A significant component of impactful work was tight collaboration with other IBM business units. So I developed this habit and passion of constantly learning about business strategies, real customer problems, and making friends across the company.

Working at ESPN (in an applied research group) was valuable because I obtained the experience of trying to introduce technical innovation in a non-technology company. That experience brought a unique set of challenges which I discovered weren’t dissimilar to those of a startup. The culmination of all these experiences has been extremely helpful for my roles at Lucd. In short, I bring well-honed skills to help smart technologists aim their talents at making real-world impact. We’re fostering an energetic atmosphere built on building community, constant ideation of how to get to know our clients better, and how to use all of that to prioritize our development activities.

The theme of this year’s ACM Tapia Celebration is “Diversity: Roots of Innovation.” Will you tell us how the program you put together reflects that theme?

I attended my first Tapia conference as a graduate student in 2005 and never dreamed I’d be the program chair 13 years later. I am beyond honored and blessed to work with Tao Xie (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Tapia 2018 General Chair, and a wonderful, selfless leadership team and program committee. The opening statement of this year’s conference reads, “The 2018 Tapia conference theme reminds us to celebrate the historical role of diversity with respect to STEM innovation, and declare it as a standard essential set of roots for computing innovation in the future.”

As usual, we have a stellar program covering a range of disciplines in computing. This year, there are some additional sessions emphasizing that organizational goals of inclusion be on equal footing with other innovation strategy staples such as take measured risks, fail fast, and know your customer. So we have sessions covering topics like unknown histories of Black women in computing and interdisciplinary innovation to remind us that computing breakthroughs have always benefited from diversity. We have sessions covering disability employment guidelines and top-down diversity strategies to further support institutional inclusiveness. Last, we’re covering cutting-edge topics like like autonomous systems, confidential computing, attention harvesting, and AI explainability with diverse voices, helping to lay diverse roots for addressing such challenges moving forward.

What initiatives do you see as necessary to creating more diversity in the computing field?

There have been gains in diversity, but much broader strategies need to be pursued. For one, the computing community must collaborate with experts in other fields (such as sociology and organizational science) to understand the broader and historical factors underpinning challenges in occupational and societal inclusiveness. This is no different than preparing to solve most other hard problems, gaining a sharp understanding of context from the right experts. Also, progress is needed in the startup domain. Capital investment in female- and minority-led technology startups is comparatively lacking. One initiative that can help here, and is already underway, includes establishing programs to deliver technology business development education, networking, and mentorship to underrepresented groups. That, coupled with more open-minded funding decisions, will surely help. We’re also starting to observe more technology job creation efforts outside of traditional hotbeds like Silicon Valley and New York. If business investments occur where more diverse populations live, that can be helpful.

Finally, we still need to emphasize that diversity is absolutely essential for innovation—especially ethical innovation. Let’s consider what’s happening in machine learning. Many applications of biased and insensitive artificial intelligence (for example, algorithms predicting likelihood to commit crimes) could probably have been avoided if diverse participants and viewpoints were present during ideation. Initiatives promoting or even requiring diverse participation in autonomous systems that affect communities should be investigated.

Joel Branch is the Director of Platform Development and AI Architect at Lucd, a company that helps businesses leverage complex datasets for artificial intelligence, machine learning and deep learning applications. Earlier in his career, he was a Research Staff Member at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, and held positions as a Manager and Staff Software Engineer at the ESPN Advanced Technology Group. He has authored 18 publications and received 27 patents.

Branch is serving as Program Chair of the 2018 ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing, having served as the Tapia Celebration’s Scholarship Chair in 2017. Branch is a member of ACM and the Black Data Processing Associates.