Bob Pickard

Speech: Building America's Engineering Excellence

Delivered by Al Zollar, former General Manager of IBM Tivoli Software, at Georgia Tech University

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Thank you and good evening. I’m honored to be here and have the opportunity to talk with you all tonight.

I’m honored for many reasons. First, Georgia Tech is an elite university … and the only institution focused on technology that’s ranked among the nation’s top 10 public universities.

Second, I’m a big fan of the FOCUS Program, which Georgia Tech launched in 1992. The “focused” drive to increase the number of master’s and doctoral degrees awarded to minority students is a worthy pursuit … in many ways, it’s a calling.

Third, I consider the young men and women in the Georgia Tech FOCUS Program to be very special individuals … smart, talented and driven. They're exactly the type of people we need to tackle the tough challenges our nation faces on so many fronts these days. The kind of young people on which to bet our future.

I’m proud that IBM has been a major supporter of the FOCUS Program at Georgia Tech. Over the last three years, we’ve sponsored 12 PhD candidates in the FOCUS Program here … and this year, we’re awarding FOCUS Fellowships to four more deserving students.
But let’s be honest here … IBM has gained from its support as well. We’ve hired several Georgia Tech students after they’ve finished their advanced degrees. And I’d say that’s a very good return on our investment.

It’s been just over 30 years since I received my master’s degree in applied mathematics from the University of California at San Diego and then began work at IBM as a systems engineer trainee.

I remembered how I felt back in those days, worrying and wondering about the best way to launch my career … which is how many of you must be feeling now.

You’re probably asking yourself … is it time for me to put away the books and go get a job? Or should I put in another two, three, even five more years of hard study to get an advanced degree?

To put it another way … will the view be worth the climb … the climb up that steep academic mountain to get your master’s or PhD?

Now that’s a tough decision … it’s one of those crossroads where the direction you finally choose can make a profound difference in your life.

In my case, I felt the added knowledge was well worth the climb. And over the years, I’ve seen that the unquenchable thirst for knowledge is a constant among smart, talented and driven individuals.

Let me tell you a story about one them with roots right here at Georgia Tech. His name is Chris Klaus … that’s right, there’s a building named after him here on campus … the Christopher W. Klaus Advanced Computing Building.

As a student here in 1994, Chris founded a company called Internet Security Systems … and it just took off. ISS grew so successful so quickly that Chris immersed himself in it … and didn’t get around to finishing his degree.

Thousands of customers in companies and governments around the world bought ISS software and services to help ensure the security of their networks. With that kind of success, who needs a degree? Who cares?

Well, Chris did. Even with ISS going great guns, he always felt that he needed a degree … wanted a degree. So he went back to Georgia Tech, finished up his requirements and got it.

Of course, that’s not the end of the story. In 2006, IBM bought Internet Security Systems. To show his gratitude to the university that got him on his way … and to help others get the best start possible … Chris made an incredibly generous donation to his alma mater … and it made that beautiful building possible.

To me, Chris Klaus is a great example of someone who clearly understands that that the continued pursuit of knowledge is worth the climb … and we should never stop climbing. In all truth, we simply can’t allow ourselves to stop climbing. It’s become a simple matter of survival. Before you think I’m overstating, think about this.

You’ve heard many times about how countries like China and India are producing many times the engineering graduates that we do in this country … and that South Korea, with one-sixth of our population, graduates as many engineers as we do.

Why is this such a disturbing trend?

It’s disturbing because engineers are vital to success … they take dreams and make them real. They take innovation off the drawing board and put it in your hand … on your desk … in your car. They make it real.

In today’s global marketplace … where every day we are more interconnected, where change and innovation move faster and faster … this “engineering graduate gap” becomes an even bigger threat to our ability to compete.

Today, the stakes are even higher. It’s not just about competing with India and China and South Korea. It’s about confronting the perfect storm of tough challenges that we’re facing in this country right now.

You know what I’m talking about … the meltdown of our financial institutions … the continued damage to our environment … the ongoing waste of precious energy … and a raft of other issues that may have touched you or your family … like costly health care or run-down schools.

Just as each of you students stands right now at your own personal crossroads … our nation stands at a historic crossroads as well … and the decisions we make and the actions we take in the next months and years will make all the difference.

Now, these kinds of crossroads usually offer two ways to go. I like the way our CEO, Sam Palmisano, put it last November. “When you face a meltdown,” Sam said, “You can retrench, pull in your horns, protect the balance sheet and preserve cash ... “Or you can realize that this is about humanity screaming for change.”

In other words, you can play it safe … or you can boldly go where no man or woman has gone before. I vote for bold … and I bet you do, too.

Speaking of bold changes … next Tuesday, we will witness a true historic event in this nation’s history … the inauguration of Barrack Obama as the 44th President of the United States.

Change was the cornerstone of Mr. Obama’s campaign. And among the key changes he talks are significant investments to improve this nation’s infrastructure … from roads to schools to clean and alternative energy technologies, and much more.

Mr. Obama has a dream … that rethinking and re-engineering our infrastructure is a key step toward creating good jobs, re-invigorating our economy and regaining our global market leadership.

It’s an exciting mission … and it will provide plenty of opportunity for companies like IBM … and for smart, talented and driven math and science students like you.

How do I know? Because industry is taking it seriously and is already responding.

At IBM, we have a great number of exciting initiatives under way, part of our Smarter Planet approach. Let me tell you about a few of them … because these are the kinds of projects that cry out for sharp young engineers.

Around the world, traffic jams are much more than just a nuisance. In this country alone, congested roads cost $78 billion a year in wasted hours and gas.

We’re developing smart traffic systems that are showing great results. A test program in Stockholm reduced air pollution by 12% and gridlock by 20%. We’re now redoing London’s traffic control system, and several more cities are lining up.

Energy. We’re starving for it, but we waste so much. We’re working on a number of smarter systems in this area.
For instance, intelligent oil field technologies can increase both the performance of pumps and the productivity of wells — a great benefit, considering that today only 20-to-30 percent of available oil reserves are being pulled out of the ground.

Health care costs too much. How can technology help? Smart healthcare systems can lower the cost of therapy by as much as 90 percent. Our work with the ActiveCare Network is cutting costs dramatically for more than 2 million patients in 38 states by monitoring the proper delivery of their injections and vaccines.

Smart systems are transforming supply chains and water management, and much more. And these are only the ideas that we have so far … what might you be able to bring to the table … especially armed with an advanced education?

Right about now, you might be pretty excited about this. More than willing to jump in and take on the world.

Well, you may be willing … but are you able?

That’s what the FOCUS Program is all about. To help you get the advanced education that will prepare you to help solve the challenges and seize the opportunities ahead of you.

I know the program works. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what three IBM FOCUS Fellows here at Georgia Tech students say about how the program.

Brett Matthews, who majors in electrical and computer engineering, has interned at IBM’s TJ Watson Research Center three times.

Brett says those internships are by far the most interesting and challenging work experiences he’s had … and through them he’s made many key contacts and produced several publications. That’s a foundation to build a career on.

Calvin King, an electrical engineering major, says that mentoring by IBM executives and employees has given him the big picture of industry needs … and how his research fits into meeting those needs. That’s finding your direction.

Adaora Okow, who majors in operations research, said FOCUS changed her life by showing her people who look just like her that are striving for … and achieving … the highest academic distinctions. Now she’s one of them … she’s going after her PhD.

I hope I’ve shown you how the FOCUS Program provides insights and experiences you can’t get any other way.

Before I close, I’d like to give you a fuller picture by sharing a story of an IBM FOCUS alumnus who is right here with us.

It’s the story of Nakia Echols, a FOCUS Program graduate who earned a master’s degree in industrial engineering and then joined us at IBM eight years ago.

Nakia grew up in Canarsie, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York City. Her parents came to this country from Guyana, in South America. Nakia was the first of their children to be born in the U.S. Her parents really emphasized the value of education -- especially her mom, who had been a teacher back in Guyana.

Nakia became interested in engineering at Carnarsie High, and knew she wanted to major in it at college. She chose Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute after attending a Minority Student Weekend there … it was one of those “a-ha” moments that open your eyes.

There, she met women and African Americans who wanted to be engineers. It inspired her.

Her freshman year at Rensselaer … luckily for us … she became interested in IBM, when none other than IBM’s Nick Donofrio spoke to her freshman class. Yes, the same Nick Donofrio that was the sparkplug behind IBM getting involved with the FOCUS Program here at Georgia Tech.

Small world, right?

Nick described how IBM was creating customized on-demand solutions for its clients. It opened her eyes to new ways that engineers can contribute to business success. Another a-ha moment.

At Rensselaer, Nakia continually pushed herself and looked for new challenges, but never seriously thought about graduate school. Her course seemed set, and then she heard about the FOCUS Program at Georgia Tech. She applied, mostly out of curiosity, and was accepted.

Great, she thought … I get to visit Atlanta and the number-one industrial engineering school in the country. But as she rode the shuttle bus toward campus, she saw a whole new world open up for her. Talk about a major a-ha moment.

That bus was filled with undergrad minority students from all over the country — smart, talented and driven … and like her, interested in pursuing advanced degrees in engineering.

The scene gave her an adrenaline shot of confidence. Sitting in that bus, she remembers thinking, I can actually do this. And sure enough, she began pursuing her master’s in industrial engineering in January 2000.

Nakia found her career path during her second and final year of studies at Georgia Tech … thankfully, with IBM. This a-ha moment came a career fair at the university. IBM’s supply-chain management consulting practice was there, recruiting students who had earned … or were working on … master’s degrees in industrial engineering.

Today Nakia is a project manager on the Delta Air lines account … helping them work out technical issues and make critical decisions as Delta merges with NorthWest Airlines.

Best of all, Nakia has never stopped climbing. Two years ago, she was chosen to attend the IBM MBA program at University of Georgia. She’s earned a second master’s, this one an MBA in Finance.

But that’s not enough for her … next, she’s going to complete IBM’s certification program for project management. Her big challenge now, she says, is how to apply all this new learning and expertise for her future growth at IBM. That’s good for her, and good for IBM.

So how does Nakia’s story apply to you and the decisions ahead of you?

Looking back on her career path, Nakia sees two big turning points: One was being accepted into the FOCUS Program … where she was exposed to people who looked like her … who had the same background and experiences that she did … and who wanted to accomplish the same things she did.
She knew then that her dreams were within in her reach … that they were possible.

The second was realizing that by earning an advanced degree … she would be presented with more job opportunities … and more doors would open for her, doors she didn’t even know existed … than if she hadn’t gone for that degree.

So I’m sure you can see why I’m such a big fan of the FOCUS Program … and why I believe you should take advantage of it now.

Remember as you watch President Obama’s inauguration next week — there are no limits for you, except the ones you choose to accept.

There will be plenty of opportunity coming up soon for excellent engineers … the country needs them more than ever, to create solutions to problems that will benefit us all.

To prepare yourself to take on those opportunities, you’ll need all the education and training you can get … and the FOCUS Program makes that possible for you.

And finally, take a lesson from Brett Matthews, Calvin King and Adaora Okow and Nakia Echols … never stop learning and challenging yourselves.

Never stop climbing … because the view just keeps getting bigger and better.

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