IBM has elevated a record number of eleven scientists to the IBM Fellow honor, the company’s most prestigious technical distinction. The 2014 IBM Fellows represent a microcosm of IBM’s diverse global organization. Their backgrounds vary—from a village in southern India to the holy city of Jerusalem to a small town in central Kentucky. From different starting points, today these 11 leaders in their respective fields have reached the same destination—the rarefied ranks of IBM’s all-time technical giants.
In the coming months, each of the Fellows will be presented on our blog, so please check back often! Today we’re featuring Aleksandra Mojsilovic, one of the three women from the 2014 class of IBM Fellows.
Aleksandra “Saska” Mojsilovic was into big data before it was Big Data.
The new Fellow from IBM Research has made her mark at IBM by pioneering new ways to apply analytics to business issues. But her data mining experience began even earlier, as a doctoral student at the University of Belgrade.
“My PhD thesis was based on predicting if a person is going to recover after a heart attack, given the ultrasound image of the heart. I made predictive models based on the image,” Saska recalled. “Back then, it was a very narrow field. It never occurred to me how it would scale into this big field of business analytics.”
From a war-torn world
An only child, Saska grew up in Serbia prior to the Bosnian war, making straight A’s in school and playing junior tennis, including one memorable tournament in which the future Fellow ran up against future Grand Slam champion Monica Seles. “She was only 9 and I was 14, but she demolished me,” Saska laughed. “The match was over in about 45 minutes. She was already a prodigy and there was a big crowd who came to watch her, not me.”
After earning her doctorate in electrical engineering, Saska jumped at the chance to move to the United States, working for Bell Labs. “My country changed so much after the war,” Saska said. “I just didn’t feel like I belonged there any more.”
In 2000, Saska joined IBM Research, part of the new generation of IBM data scientists.
One of her first big successes was building a predictive model to apply to large outsourcing deals. “We used data on contracts, on the financial performance of the client, management changes and restructuring, other variables,” Saska said. “The models were very accurate. The engagement we identified as the number one risk, a couple of months later terminated the contract. The client teams started using the analytics to take preemptive steps when they were negotiating deals to reduce the risks.”
The science of predictions
Saska’s work has been behind some of IBM’s most successful internal analytics projects, including a proactive retention program that helped reduce attrition of key skills in the growth markets.
Recently, she has been leading a team in IBM Research creating an analytics model for a health insurer in the United States seeking to understand the likely utilization and cost impacts of new enrollments in the healthcare exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act.
The new Fellow is driven by scientific curiosity and the itch to understand the underlying “physics” of the problem at hand. “I hope to stay in analytics,” Saska said. “The field is still in its infancy. We’re only at the beginning.”
Saska Mojsilovic in her own words
Women remain outnumbered by men in technology fields. Have you faced any special challenges as a woman in tech?
I don’t know if I’d make a difference between a man and woman. The only thing is, you do the work you love and you enjoy it. That really is the true reward. If you do work for sake of getting promoted, you end up being miserable. If you do work because it energizes you, you hit the jackpot. As Krishna said, you have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work.
One thing that is harder as a woman is being a mother. I have a daughter who is age 6. I’m a little bit split at times, if I have to work late, if I’m not there. I always reassure myself that one day she’s going to be proud of me.
What do you look for when you’re hiring?
I look for people who are very creative, who think outside of the box and have excitement about what they do. I try to avoid people who are replications of me. I always try to refrain from making that mistake. I look for diverse thinkers, that’s how you build innovation.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I do a lot of photography and I like to cook. I have a blog that combines those interests. I haven’t tried any Watson recipes, but I want to. I gave the team my Flavor Bible recipe book to add to the database. That was my contribution to Blue Chef.
What’s the last book you read?
The Little Prince, with my daughter, one of my favorite books.
What’s on your playlist?
My taste in music stopped in the ‘80s. I have every CD from the ‘80s.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure?
I watch Top Chef on Bravo. I don’t watch much TV, but I love that show.
What does it mean to you to be named an IBM Fellow?
It’s obviously a tremendous honor. I walk past the Wall of Fellows every day in Yorktown. I see all those faces and realize I’m going to be one of them. It kind of hits me then. It’s an exceptional honor, but more than that it’s a great responsibility to stand up to the title and make sure the work stands up.
How would you like to be remembered?
I’d like to be remembered with a smile. Anything else really doesn’t matter.