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An 18-year IBM veteran, Dr. Chitra Dorai is a big fan of mathematician Richard Hamming and credits his writing with shaping her career. When she was an undergraduate at the Indian Institute of Technology, she came upon a quote from Hamming: “If you do not work on an important problem, it’s unlikely you’ll do important work.”
“That has been an undercurrent in everything I do,” said Chitra. “I ask myself, ‘Am I addressing an important problem?’ Every few years I jump into a completely new area, and absorb that field with the help of all the work that has been done before and with the help of my colleagues. I then try to make a difference by going after some of the important questions in the field.”
That peripatetic mind has engaged with a host of subjects from industry analytics (her current area) to multimedia systems, data mining, image processing, pattern recognition, machine learning, stream processing and cloud computing. Along the way her work has earned her recognition as an IBM Distinguished Engineer, a Master Inventor, and membership in the Industry Academy and Academy of Technology. Now she’s focusing on the use of analytics in the mortgage industry.
“Soon after the 2008 economic crisis, a group of IBM leaders decided to get into mortgage services outsourcing,” she said. “At the time, about 14 percent of U.S. home owners were at risk of losing their homes, facing foreclosure or serious delinquency. With analytics, we could help people save their homes, or at least make a dignified exit. That really spoke to me, and I became a member of the mortgage team.”
“We signed a large contract with one of the nation’s biggest mortgage firms, and launched a new business to service home loans. This business collects payments, modifies loans, and provides other options to help home owners stay current on their payments and avoid foreclosure. Many of these loans run 30 to 40 years, so it’s a very long-term relationship.”
“’Industry analytics’ are an important development today,” Chitra said. “It applies the best machine learning algorithms to solving critical problems in many industries, not just banking. It’s an exciting time to be in this area of analytics because industries are going through a tremendous amount of transformation due to the adoption of cloud technology, mobile devices and social networks.
So every corporation has become a data corporation. They collect data, they generate data, they consume data. Analytics has become fundamental to understanding that data and getting insights to provide the right services to customers at the right time.”
Data and analytics aren’t the be-all, end-all, however, according to Chitra. “The key question in industry analytics is ‘how do you combine analytics with industry expertise in a way that is actually useful for business decisions?’”
“That requires deep understanding of the industry and the problem domain. It requires a deep understanding about which business processes can be transformed by embedding analytics in them. It also requires deep knowledge of predictive modeling, text mining, speech analysis, and optimization techniques, so you can bring the right solution to the problem.”
And analytics isn’t her only strong suit. She also values communicating complex concepts clearly. One of her prouder moments was a colleague’s reaction to one of her more than 100 published papers. “’That read like a story.’ To me, that was fantastic.”
Chitra Dorai in her own words…
I would have to return to Richard Hamming’s advice about working on important problems. I think about that every day. This advice has helped me to focus on the most important problem in any new area I get into and to go after it. It also helps you to see what the impact of the work is going to be. Projects with societal impact have been a big calling for me.
When we ask ourselves as we begin each and every project, what are the important problems, here? Who is this important to? Why is this problem important? It helps us to quickly see the safe, incremental questions for what they are and steers us towards the really important, challenging questions that matter to science, or the business, or the society, which can lead to great work and making a difference.
I’ve also found that when you work on a really important problem, you won’t let anything else distract you; you’ll be consumed in your focus on the end goal. And challenges become things that are just to be dealt with, and you keep moving forward.
What are some key moments or mentors that helped get you to where you are today?
My training to question the status quo began early in life. My parents crossed the strict caste lines of a conservative South Indian society to build a life together, and I grew up in orthodox Chennai surrounded by very few like me and my family. Luckily my parents’ and teachers’ independent thinking nurtured my love of math and science.
Then it was my time to challenge the tradition, when I opted to pursue engineering instead of medicine, which was considered more prestigious and also preferred for women among Indian families. My dad did his best to steer me to medical school, citing examples of all the women doctors we had met, and I would counter him with names of famous women scientists and engineers I knew from books.
I was one of 9 women in the undergraduate engineering class of 320 students at the Indian Institute of Technology. That ratio did not improve very much, even in graduate school in the US. It made me realize that the issue of gender in engineering and computer science crossed international borders and it has become vital to me to give back time and effort to mentor and encourage women to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and increase their numbers in these fields. At IBM, I have been extremely fortunate to be mentored by extraordinary people like Fran Allen, Edie Stern, Radha Ratnaparkhi and Eric Ray who have inspired and supported me throughout my journey.
What do you look for when you’re hiring or bringing in new technologists for your team?
Curiosity, willingness to learn new skills, to pick up new topics, and boldly asking “What if?” A person with these traits would be a dream addition to the team.
Where do your best ideas come from?
This question makes me think of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip on creativity. Calvin says, “You can’t just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood” and when Hobbes asks “What mood is that?” Calvin responds, “Last-minute panic.” That happens to me too!
But typically, once I latch on to a problem, that’s all I am thinking about nonstop, even my subconscious is working on it. There is no room for anything else. There is no specific time or day when an answer dawns, but obviously, quiet early morning hours are the best. It also happens when I’m looking over my son’s homework and I simply zone out because I have something new to think about.
What do you like to do away from work?
Reading. Most people read books, I devour them. Right now, I am working through the books of Alexander McCall Smith. Utterly charming and such humanity in his writing! When you see a title like The Kalahari Typing School for Men, or The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, how can one resist?