IBM Fellow Donna Dillenberger: “Do Things You Are Afraid Of”

Donna Dillenberger
IBM Research
Global leader of Enterprise Systems
Connect on LinkedIn

2015_fellows_donna_dillenberger_300x400“If you only have two pennies left, spend one on someone dear to you, and the second on a hyacinth.’ Those whom we care for and beauty – they are the best things in the world, as long as one is healthy and safe.”

That sentiment captures much of how 2015 IBM Fellows class member Donna Dillenberger has framed her career: innovating to help society, delighting in community, and exalting beauty in patterns and invention. She is a recognized leader in high-end, integrated transactional analytic systems and services, and datacenter optimization.

Donna takes great pleasure in partnering with universities, vendors, and businesses to create new software for enterprise systems, using or improving upon IBM middleware – the software that bridges operating systems or databases and the applications we see and use.

Another area Donna had worked on was around Severity 1 problems (the most critical machine errors). “I enjoyed reading data dumps. They’re like mystery novels,” she said. “Some data field gets ‘murdered’ and there were clues left on which data got corrupted, how it happened, what software or hardware did it and glimpses of what happened was there in the dump to figure out.

“Reading data dumps make you a better engineer because you can see the ‘soul’ of a machine – all the conditions that were inadvertently left out of the initial design.”

Recently, Donna has begun work on making mainframes more cognitive, by allowing users to interact with them in a more natural way, and by providing new components that can detect patterns in business data. Once a stalwart for banking and other big business, IBM’s z Systems now juggles mobile and unstructured social data, which requires an entirely new set of analytics capabilities.

“Nowadays, I’m focusing on systems that help people use their data more effectively,” Donna said. “Instead of relying on a person to know what they’re looking for, I want to build systems that proactively detect patterns to help people stay healthy, delight their clients, and suggest interesting cohorts to businesses.”

A perfect illustration of this is her recent work on Cognitive Z. Donna is working with insurance companies and government health organizations to provide analytics to medical claim data. The goal is to find patterns of events leading to an illness. Policy holders or healthcare recipients voluntarily send their current health statistics to the insurer’s or care provider’s service, which applies the analytics to match the individual’s current health with trends in the medical claims data.

The service then notifies the individual if their health data matches a population that has filed claims for a particular illness – asthma, diabetes, or heart disease, for example. The feedback allows users to proactively change their habits and stay healthy.

Whatever she has worked on, one thread in particular has remained consistent. “The best parts of all my experiences have been the people I worked with,” she said. “There are so many things you can work on, and whenever I have been at a point of choosing a new project, I chose the ones that have positive, kind people.”

As for the future? “I want to create systems that help people and populations become healthier, wiser, kinder, and more compassionate,” she said.

“Beauty in nature, the arts, software and hardware, a theorem, a proof, a job well done, a person’s spirit… that’s what is important.”


Donna Dillenberger in her own words…

What advice would you give to aspiring IBM Fellows – from today’s new hires to an IBM Distinguished Engineer who is only a step away?

For new hires, work with the most senior technical people you can, so they can push you. Do things you’re afraid of. Code! Play with open source and compare it to what IBM is building. Work on sweeping problems that would make your grandparents say, “wow!”

For experienced IBMers, focus on what you believe in. Don’t give up. If you absolutely know that a part of the company should be changing its direction, it’s up to us to nudge it. There are people who will help. You’re not alone. For everyone, work with positive, kind people. It’s thrilling to be with people who will build it, code it, make it work.

What are some key moments or mentors that helped you get to where you are today?

I’ve had mentors who taught me how to approach technical problems, organizational questions and questions of personal principles. Everything starts from principles: what do you want to do as a person to make a company’s, client’s or colleague’s life better?

What’s the last book you read?

The Snowball. It’s a recent biography of Warren Buffett. I like the aspects of behavior guided by principles, which shepherd a person from the pressures of what’s convenient, what looks easy, what’s legal but unethical, what’s profitable short term but detrimental long term and so on.

What was your first job, ever?

For me, luckily, living in such a prosperous country, my first jobs didn’t necessitate getting paid. A job was an activity that brought me outside of myself – helping someone else, causing me to grow in unforeseen ways.

My first job was looking after my younger sister from the time I was seven, while my parents were away working. She is four years younger than I am (and she is the best!). From that time, I learned to read in English, and my mother asked me to teach her English.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?

Make the world a better place in everything you do.


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