New year, newish job

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As of the end of December, I’ve been with IBM for 30 years. That seems like a lot, but I think you just sort of wake up one day and discover that time has gone by, you’ve been working, your career has been advancing, your kids are no longer little, and so forth. It’s not dissimilar to that strange feeling when you graduate from college and you realize that the experience you prepared for over 18 years is now over. Life is like that.

At the end of last July, I moved to my current position in IBM Research as head of the Business Analytics and Mathematical Sciences group. That’s the “newish” job in the the title; I have not moved to a completely new position in the last few days. Nevertheless, I’m not quite six months in this role, so I still feel somewhat new, though less so every day. After six months, the honeymoon (if there really was one) will be completely over. I’m very happy to be back. I’m tempted to say that this is the best job I’ve ever had.

It was a bit strange coming back to Research. I was here from 1984 to 1999 with three years out in the middle to finish up my Ph.D. program, though I was still an IBM employee during that period. I’m based at the Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY, though the Research division is really global, with 12 labs around the world. There are folks under my aegis in Switzerland, Israel, Japan, China, India, Singapore, and other countries.

The strangeness I initially felt was the immediate familiarity and perhaps deja vu: I know the layout of the building, I know where the cafeteria is,and  I know that the restrooms are in the stairwells toward the front of the building. I still get confused at times between the top and the middle floors since they look quite a bit alike. I do manage to always make it back to my office, and I just pretend that I meant to walk down aisle 31 on the wrong floor.

Even with that acceptance of what has remained the same, much else has changed. When I left in 1999, Research had nowhere near the global presence I described above. The department I lead, now called Business Analytics and Mathematical Sciences, was then just Mathematical Sciences, or, more simply Math Sciences. Analytics, though an overused and hence fuzzy term, was simply not as well known thirteen years ago.

The work I did with others on symbolic computation and semantically rich scientific publishing is no longer done in the department. We still do a tremendous amount of optimization work and algorithms, though there is much more applied probability and machine learning than there was then. We do more work directly with clients now, so we can balance the theory work with solving real problems with real datasets for customers in almost every industry you can think of.

These are some of my initial impressions of what it means to me to be back in Research for Round 2. I’ll share more as I get further into this role.