Senior Manager, Cognitive Computing
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Before daybreak. While on vacation with his family in Chennai, India. That’s when Shivakumar “Shiv” Vaithyanathan received the call that he had been named to IBM’s top technical rank of Fellow.
“Even though it was early, as [IBM Senior Vice President and Director of Research] John Kelly was telling me about how this honor was the result of hard work, I was awake enough to say that ‘this achievement is also the beginning of my hard work’,” said Shiv, IBM’s Chief Scientist for Text Analytics.
Shiv’s work in big data and analytics—hard for him, or not—impacts every industry. What business doesn’t want to understand its data?
“Recently, the head of a media group’s decision sciences team told me ‘I would love your job’… and it was because every day is a new challenge because of the diversity of the data and the industries,” Shiv said.
But it was a pioneering project 14 years ago that added “sentiment” to our analytical understanding of data.
When a professor of finance pointed out to Shiv that sentiment, or attitudes and emotions, impacted stocks, Shiv was also personally wondering how movie reviews actually impacted box office performance. As per his routine of spending between 4:30 and 6:00 a.m. writing out the problems he’s trying to solve, an early morning idea took seed: could a computer read, capture, and deliver an action about this kind of information?
“What started in 2001 with an intern from Cornell now helps movie producers tweak their trailers to reach a broader audience,” Shiv said.
His team has worked with the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab to reveal, via Twitter, how social sentiment analysis about Oscar-nominated films can change the way movie studios test new films. This same analysis has been applied to the Super Bowl and back-to-school retail, and led to the development of new products that deliver social media insights.
Shiv believes the next evolution of big data analysis is in “declarative analysis.” As in, we will declare to the system what we want. The system will be smart enough to translate the “what” of our questions into “how” to get it done.
“We should not need to tell a computer how to do something—just what to do. This move to declarative analysis will have a profound impact on the information-based actions we take,” Shiv said. That means everything from media and sports to business.
Shivakumar Vaithyanathan in his own words
After Dr. Kelly called, I looked at my children and thought, ‘when they’re old enough, I hope they understand how important this is.’
Where do your best ideas come from?
I have three kids. So while they’re still asleep, between about 4:00 and 6:00 a.m., I drink coffee (that family and friends in India bring to me from a shop in Chennai), and write down my thoughts on the problem I’m trying to solve at that time.
But ideas that can be acted upon aren’t really middle-of-the-night things. You build intuition as you work, and work with different people, including clients.
What are some key moments, or advice that helped get you to where you are today?
Early in my IBM career, I focused on machine learning. One of my mentors told me ‘Shiv, stop being a machine learning weenie! Think systems.’ This one statement made me think much larger than an individual algorithm.
Another mentor drilled into me the importance of relationships with the rest of Research, other IBMers, and clients.
What do you look for when you’re assembling a team?
First, passion. You need to have passion. Everything else can be learned. If you’re at IBM Research, you’ve already cleared a high bar in terms of general technical and scientific knowledge. The passion is what will set you apart, and keep you interested in your work.
Another piece of advice that relates to this is from the manager who put me in my current role. She told me ‘you will get as many ideas from the people who work for you, as you could ever come up with alone.’
What do you like to do away from the lab?
I love to spend time with my family, and I love to cook. Cooking is a therapy for me. My favorite dish to make is pistachio crusted salmon.
Along with cooking, my guilty pleasure is expensive wine—it’s expensive, so I don’t drink it too often!
What was the last book you read?
I recently read Shadow Lines by Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh.
What’s on your iPod right now?
I listen to a wide variety of music. Right now, I have music from Bollywood, some jazz from Al Jarreau, and even Jethro Tull. I love Jethro Tull, and even dedicated my PhD thesis to them!
What was your first job?
My first real job, right before I went to graduate school, was as a junior editor for a technology newspaper in Mumbai. It was great because it exposed me to the entire tech industry as it was just beginning to boom in India.
How would you like to be remembered?
It comes back to passion. I want to be remembered as a guy who was passionate about everything he did.