IBM Fellow Krishna Ratakonda: Keep changing directions

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To Krishna Ratakonda, creativity and computing go hand in hand. A yin-yang interplay that can propel the next evolution in human progress. And can make a darn tasty passion fruit soufflé.

The new Fellow has been spending time lately in the kitchen, applying his deep mathematical skills to Cognitive Cooking, the IBM Research endeavor to put an apron on Watson, the world’s first culinary computing system.

“We’re just scratching the surface on creative human-machine collaboration,” Krishna explained. “We can push the creative boundaries of what people can do—in cooking, art, design, many areas people don’t regularly associate with computers.”

A pioneer of workforce science

Depth and breadth—a mile deep, a mile wide—has been the calling card of Krishna’s 15-year career in IBM Research. His first years were spent developing algorithms to compress video and signal data, technology that was implemented in IBM semiconductors and in the encoders used for HD television broadcast, including equipment on the roof of the North Tower of the World Trade Center destroyed on 9/11.

“When the encoding technology started becoming commoditized, IBM exited that business,” Krishna recalled. “I moved into a new area—services research. Our goal was to apply the same rigor and analysis we have always brought to machine-generated data to human-generated data.”

The new Fellow has been a pioneer in the burgeoning field of workforce science, authoring more three dozen patents in service delivery, resource planning and performance analysis, all widely used today by Global Business Services. “In a typical services engagement, we generate terabytes of data,” Krishna pointed out. “How do we use the data to improve quality and productivity? How do we motivate the workforce best? How do optimize scheduling? I’ve developed analytical models that GBS applies to address these kinds of questions.”

Big leaps from a small town man

A genial, thoughtful man, Krishna grew up in a small rural town in South India, excelling at cricket and academics. After secondary school, Krishna was accepted to the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Varanasi, a two-day train ride from his hometown.

After earning a degree in Electronics Engineering, Krishna attended graduate school at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, a quiet town surrounded by corn fields with one of the best engineering schools in the country. Krishna won several awards at Illinois for his thesis work and joined IBM Research in Yorktown after he completed his doctorate.

It’s been a good match.

Fresh off his work with cognitive cooking, the new Fellow is optimistic about the potential for creative human-machine collaboration to tackle problems even more consequential than making mouth-watering Indian Turmeric Paella.

“Computing is best when it supplements us and stretches our imagination to what is possible,” mused Krishna. “I’d like to apply analytical techniques to solving difficult problems that can have a meaningful impact on people’s lives.”

Krishna Ratakonda in his own words

2014_fellows_krishna_ratakonda_300x400What’s the best advice you ever received?

One of my mentors in school was a former IBM Fellow (Richard Blahut) who told me to expect to change my career direction every 10 years or so. He was absolutely right. If you don’t do that, you will lose your creative edge. In academic circles, for example, it’s harder to change your specific research area. I think at IBM we have opportunities to try new things. I started at IBM designing video encoding algorithms, and was able to bring my signal processing and analysis skills to the whole new field of services research. In the next 10 years, I’m sure I’ll change directions again.

What advice would you offer young technologists?

Try new things. Be creative. Don’t be afraid of change. Change can be the catalyst to achieve your true potential.

Last book you read?

Technically, the answer is James and the Giant Peach, which I read last night to my kids. The other was Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman—the Nobel-prize winning economist and psychologist. It’s a fascinating study on how we think and form judgments.

What’s on your playlist?

From hard rock to Indian classical music. More recently, Indian classic music. I listen to it as layman, with no real expertise, but I enjoy it.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure?

Probably too much dessert. Too much sugar. Even though I worked on Cognitive Cooking, I’m not a very adventurous eater. I’m the guy who visits a new place and tries to find the nearest McDonald’s.

What does it mean to be named an IBM Fellow?

I’ve worked with a number of Fellows and looked up to them as role models. It’s a privilege to join them. I see it as a responsibility to be a similar role model to the future set of leaders coming up in the ranks at IBM. So it’s a pleasure to have this honor, but I also see it as a responsibility to train the next generation.