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My Career at IBM Research

Updated on April 12, 2016

IBM Watson Lab

Introduction

I spent 19 years at the T. J. Watson Research facility named after the son of the founder of IBM, T.J. Watson Jr. He pushed IBM into adopting advanced technology and created a first class research facility at Yorktown Hts. NY

- Jan. 2016

- Updated Mar. 2016 (Note that some technical details are included for reference). A glossary of terms is appended at the end to help with understanding some of the jargons.

Background

1983 was a crucial year in my career. I had just got married in 1982, a new baby on the way. An opportunity came that required me to sell my house and relocate 50 miles away. It would involve learning a new system and making new friends. It was a difficult decision but we decided to go for it. It was the best decision I ever made.

My career at IBM is actually two careers. The first was a 9 years period where I worked in a development division as a hardware designer and system Engineer. The second career was as a researcher and programmer working on imaging, compression, color fidelity, digital imaging capture and display and print and on content management and digital library. This second career spans 19 years and cover a wide variety of disciplines. I was not trained in any of these fields. I had to learn on the job and develop the skills needed to rise to the occasion. I went back to school and got a masters degree in Computer Science. My path from one career to the other is not unique in IBM. Many people have been moved from division to division and one location to the next based on the needs of the company. The company paid for relocation and everyone is happy with a changed environment and a fresh challenge. My case was a little unique.

The Research Division of IBM is the most prestigious division. Most people were hired as PHDs from universities. In my case, I was a Staff Engineer transferring from a development division to an Advanced Technology group based in Yorktown Research. This small group was not part of the Research Divison. They were created because there was a need to work on advanced technologies that was present at research and may be applied to improve existing products. A year after I joined the group, a reorganization allowed our group of 8 people to be merged into the Image Technologies Department of IBM Research. It was a lucky break that allowed me to become a Research team member. However, we retained our previous titles where as Research members are known as RSMs.

I'm often asked what's the difference between an RSM and an Engineer. The simple difference is that the scientists deal with theories and formulas and physical laws and complex concepts while the engineer makes things work. They both have overlap in skills and ability. The RSM focus on the big picture and the engineer focus on the details. Both are necessary for a successful project.

CPD(Communication Products Division) - Advanced Technology Group

My first year at IBM Research was working in the Imaging advanced technology group. I have no training in imaging. I got involved with this group through a good colleague that worked with me on the TUSKEN project. A few months earlier, he had transferred to this group and referred me as a potential hire. The manager of the group had some dealings with the Kingston facility and know of our past work. He was impressed by our accomplishments and thought we could help with his new initiative. He was working on improving an IBM product called Scanmaster. It was a first product to handle document imaging and FAX. The idea was to improve the quality of the scanning and processing of the image. They were working on an innovative CCD device using TDI (time delay integration) to improve the capture time and quality of the signal. The improvement would lead to a better quality document on the display and for print. We were able to create a working model but unfortunately, it never made it to the final product.

Even though this project did not succeed, as in many other cases in IBM, it was not a total loss. It paved the way for other projects down the road that took advantage of the lessons learned and new skills. In my own case, I learned about digital imaging, compression, grayscale vs. bi-tone, programming, and working in the Research community. I was encouraged to go back to school at night and earn a Masters degree. This would be advantageous for my career.

Reorganization

After one year, a reorganization allowed our small group to be merged into the Image Technologies department of IBM Research. This larger group included four smaller groups reporting to a second line manager. Our focus was on all aspects of advanced digital image processing encompassing, image capture, image display, image compression/decompression, image printing and various image processing techniques. This created new opportunities and synergy between our small group and the larger Research group.

First page of an 8 Pages Brochure

IBM 4250 ElectroNEG

The IBM 4250 printer was a new technology using electro erosion technology to put dots on paper. A research project was started to see if that could be adapted to use a special coating onto mylar so that the printer could be used to produce negative plates to be mounted on short term printing press. This would be a revolutionary way to produce print on demand short runs. Our group was given the task to produce the software to create the color separations of CMYK needed for printing. We had no expertise in this area. A few of us were sent to Rochester NY to attend a course given at RIT(Rochester Institute of Technology) on color science and printing techniques. This week long course was very intense but educational. It gave us the knowledge to proceed. There were two parallel groups working on this project. The one scientist was working on the actual chemical coating to allow this to work with the 4250 printer. Our small group was given the task of scanning the original photographs in color and producing the color separations and making the plates and then producing the color proofs. As part of this effort, we had to purchase special equipment such as a Chromalin machine and a Minolta colorimeter and X-rite calibration meter and a viewing booth.

As a promotion of our project, we produced an 8 pages color brochure using this new process.

PRO/3000 Scanner

PRO/3000 Scanner

In working on the 4250 project, one of our other group was developing a high end digital color scanner as follow-on to the work on the CCD device. Our class in RIT helped in finding the ideal set of color filters to create the most color fidelity scanner at that time period. Combining that with the TDI CCD technology, this group developed a "best of breed" scanner ideal for high end applications. This was the beginning of a long slew of projects having to do with museums and libraries and moved IBM to the world of digital libraries. I was lucky enough to be involved from having been trained on programming and interfaces to this new piece of hardware.

A Memento Replicate Medal

Andrew Wyeth (Brandywine) Project

IBM Corporate Headquarter is located in Armonk, NY. An important IBM function is the Corporate Community Relations activities. They are the group that funds important projects that help advance IBM standings in the world community. One such project came about from Thomas Watson Jr., the retired CEO of IBM, who happened to be a neighbor of the American renowned artist Andrew Wyeth.

One day, the Wyeths mentioned to Mr. Watson if anything could be done to help with their vast collection of artworks. The retired Mr. Watson called the Corporate office who in turn called on IBM Research (Watson Lab, named after Thomas Watson Jr.) to see if anything could be done. As a friendly gesture and in line with our active research on color capture, we embarked on the challenge.

The ambitious project, with a budget of $6 Million, was to capture the vast collection of Mr. Wyeth which totaled over 10,000 works of art. In addition, we were charged with creating a database to track the provenance information which had existed only on 4x5 index cards. The most challenging piece of the project was to reproduce the color fidelity of Mr. Wyeth's artwork. He is a master at using light and shadows and subtle colors and details in his artwork utilizing various mediums. The struggle was to be able to capture this vast dynamic range in color and to be able to display them on a high resolution CRT monitor.

The year was 1990 and not one of the items we needed were in existence. We had to create a new system including capture, display, storage, database, and a simple graphical interface for the staff. The final prototype system included the following:

  • Proprietary high resolution color scanner
  • OS/2 Scan Application
  • PS/2 System with a 23" color CRT (calibrated)
  • Optical Disk Jukebox to hold over 10,000 high resolution images and metadata.
  • OS/2 Application to search and retrieve and input text data to/from a DB2 database.

Part of our team, besides our small group in IBM Research, also included two programmers from IBM Canada. They were given the task of coding the GUI interface and integrating our scanning system to the database and the optical storage unit. The GUI interface was necessary to make the operations user- friendly for the staff.

After completing this installation at the Wyeth's studio compound located in Chadds Ford, PA, I was elected to give a personal demonstration of the system to Mr. and Mrs. Wyeth. We had scanned a few well chosen painting to demonstrate the accuracy of our color reproduction. This was something we had spent much effort on and were very proud of our results. The Wyeths were very grateful for our efforts and thanked us at IBM for coming to their rescue. I remember putting up one painting on the display monitor and they were looking at it in silence for a few moment, when Mrs. Wyeth commented that it just did not have the impact of the original painting. I was disappointed by that comment but not devastated as one might expect. It was only later that we found out the original painting was 4x5 feet tall. Our 23 inch CRT simply could not do it justice. It shows that our technology at the time was not able to bridge the gap between real live exhibits and reproductions.

Antiques and The Arts Weekly Jan 24, 1992

Rome Reborn (Vatican Library)

Our next project came naturally following our success with the Wyeth project. A medieval scholar, Professor Anthony Grafton was doing a project with the Vatican Library to create an exhibition for the Library of Congress. They were looking for equipment to capture these rare manuscripts that are very valuable and hundreds of years old. It was envisioned that these manuscripts could be digitized and transmitted across the continents to scholars all over the world. As a result of the pilot project, Professor Grafton created a table top book on some of these rare manuscripts. We helped create a digital slide show to be displayed at the Library of Congress. This kiosk was so popular, we sent a duplicate to be shown at EPCOT in Disneyworld. Needless to say, it was a big hit. So much so that we were asked to do a full blown project with the Vatican Library. Father Leonard Boyle, the prefect of the Vatican Library, was invited to our lab in Yorktown to kick off the project.

After seeing our facility, Father Boyle was full of enthusiasm and was totally bought in. He was a visionary among other things and saw the great potential of digital imaging to help make these rare contents available to scholars world wide.

The summary of the project was published in a paper I co-authored with a large group of participants. The title is "Toward On-line, Worldwide Access to the Vatican Library Materials."

One of the innovations that grew out of this project was the visible watermarking of digital images. Here is a paper on digital watermarking by our colleagues.

A Kiosk on Display at EPCOT Center

IBM Digital Libraries Initiatives

Over the next decade, IBM promoted the Digital Library Solutions by engaging in a long list of projects worldwide. They included the following.

  • National Gallery of Art - Washington DC (1992)
  • Lutherhalle Museum - Wittenberg, Germany (1995)
  • Library of Congress - Washington DC (1995)
  • Smithsonian Institution - Washington DC (1995)
  • Museum of Art Sao Paulo - Brazil (1996)
  • Yale Beineke Library - New Haven, CT (1996)
  • National Palace Museum - Taiwan (1997)
  • Hebrew Union College - Klau Library Cincinnati, OH (1998)
  • State Hermitage Museum - St. Petersburg, RU (1999)
  • Egyptian Museum of Antiquties - Cairo, Egypt (2001)

A Plaque I Received on My 25th Anniversary

Lutherhalle Museum

A special note on my trip to Wittenberg, Germany. This is the home of Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation. I was honored to be there and stood in front of the famous door where he posted his 95 thesis.

What was my learning experience had nothing to do with religion or library or technology. It was the glaring example first hand of witnessing the difference between capitalism and communism as a form of government. My trip was only a few years after the fall of the Berlin wall and the re-unification of East and West Germany. When I landed in Berlin, I found a thriving city with construction all over and a modern infrastructure. The people were dressed similar to people in NYC and the restaurants were full of customers. In contrast, after driving only a few miles into the former East Germany, I was shocked to see a depressed region no different than some third world nations. How is this possible?

State Hermitage Museum

Of all the projects I was involved with, this was the one that I was most proud of. This was a major undertaking by IBM that included 8 geographic locations, a team of professionals from all works, to deliver a first class solution to one of the top museums in the world.

Our final solution was described in a joint paper so I won't go into much detail. You can visit the Hermitage website to experience the final product. It included a high resolution capture system, an Education and Technology Center at the Hermitage, a kiosk to guide the visitors and a top award winning website that contains some advanced technologies including invisible watermarking of images, dynamic zooming of artwork, panorama views of the Hermitage and a searchable database.

I was also impressed by the people that I met. Both our IBM counterparts and the Russian people that worked at the Hermitage. Their professionalism and work ethics were to be admired especially with the limited resources that they are constrained with. Just as an example, at a local restaurant, I was given one small square piece of paper napkin. Coming from the land of McDonalds, this was a culture shock to say the least.

My Trip to St. Petersburg

What Was My Role?

I realize giving a long list of projects that are very similar in nature does not really communicate my role in all of these. I had to really think back and come up with a good description. The one word I came to settle on is being a "facilitator." It is true that I was part of a large team of diverse people with various skill sets. Here are the items that I personally was responsible for on a daily basis.

  • gave demos to visitors
  • publicize or work and advanced technologies
  • participate in the system design
  • obtain the technical information/training as needed
  • interface with the various groups and individuals that are part of the design team
  • designed the workflow
  • program the scanner interface
  • performed beta testing on our programs
  • provided training and documentation to our customers
  • provided tech. support when things went wrong
  • managed expectations of our customers
  • perform the installation at remote sites
  • conducted group meetings on discussion database
  • published papers along with colleagues
  • put out "fires" when disaster happens (Murphy's law)
  • Be the face of IBM to our customers

A facilitator is one that makes the thing happen on schedule and with minimal distress. It is doing what ever it took to get the job done. It is a person who knows what is important and what is not. It is a person who anticipates what may happen to minimize risks. He is a problem solver and knows who to contact to get the right solution.

Quarter Century Club

One of the highlight of my career happened in 1999. It was the year of my 25th year with IBM and being inducted into the Quarter Century Club. It was a big event with a large luncheon attended by colleagues and my spouse, a check for $1000 and a gift chosen from a catalog. My choice was a gold watch from Rolex. It had an inscription on the back with my name and the year. In addition, my colleagues chipped in and made a plaque with a list of the projects we worked on. It was a great day and one that I will remember forever. This was a long tradition at IBM to honor an employee (no matter what level) after being there for 25 years. It was started by Thomas Watson, the founder of the company.


Some Other Projects...

Besides the major projects, I was also involved in a few interesting side projects.

1. PC/IDU (image view on PC)

One of IBM product coming out of the UK facility was the PC/IDU. It is an image viewing utility for the IBM PC. This software allows the user to browse fax images transmitted over communication networks. It adopted standards from the international CCITT group 3 standards for FAX. Because of transmission errors, it is possible for these data to be corrupted. My task was to detect any errors and flag them on the side of the image. Since most office documents images are 8.5"x11" with a white border and background, it is decided to add a black mark on the right edge of the document to signal an error of one or more lines of data. This task involves examining the bit stream of the data and verify that all the run length codes are correct. If an error was detected, a mark is created on that line and I would scan till the next good run and continue till end. This would inform the user that an error was detected but the data may still be usable. This utility would help in areas where transmission is poor and costly. Instead of re-transmitting the file, the results may still be quite acceptable. This was one example where our technical skills and our programming ability was able to help an IBM product's division deliver a superior product.

2. IBM Archives (IBM Gallery, IBM Truck)

The IBM Archives based in Somers, NY on occasion have contacted our group for assistance. One of IBM's past assets were a collection of paintings collected by the Watsons. They includes works of art by Frida Kahlo and others and they were on exhibit at 390 Madison Ave. We were asked to scan the collection and create a high resolution archive for those works. Unfortunately, IBM later decided to sell off the collection and close the gallery. Another occasion, a retiree had restored an old IBM Service Truck from the early 1900s when IBM was selling weight scales. We created a slide show of this restoration and it was featured along with the Dayton Truck exhibit.

3. System 9000 (medical system) A compiler for a new machine. This was a joint project which I assisted a colleague in developing a new compiler for the S9000 medical system. The S9000 was a not too well known computer base on the Motorola 68000 processor used specific for medical instrumentation. The more popular IBM PC was based on the INTEL 8080 processor family. The two had very different architecture. Our group at Research had developed a programming system called PDS, a very powerful language that can run without being compiled and also allows programming at the register level. This is an advantage when speed of process is important. The project was to create a compiler that will run PDS on S9000. Another group in our department had done the same for the IBM PC and allowed our group to write code to run on the PC. The previous mentioned project PC/IDU was such a project. This new project will allow us to do the same for the S9000. It was an excellent opportunity for me to learn how a compiler was build from the ground up. Even though the S9000 never was a success in the market, it was very satisfying to see a project from start to finish and make it work.

Lessons Learned

1. Giving Demonstrations - As part of our projects, I had to participate in numerous demonstrations. Some of which is repetitive and boring. The importance cannot be overlooked. Many of our follow-on projects were the direct results of a demo.

2. Being Prepared and acting Professional - This lesson was learned early in my career. On one occasion, in performing an upgrade to our system at the Wyeth compound, the system failed unexpectedly. It should have been an easy file copy of our updated application and re-start. However, on this occasion, it failed to come up. I must admit I lost some sleep that night trying to figure out what went wrong. The next day, we came up with a backup solution and it saved the day. It did taught me a lesson of being prepared and making sure we always appear professional in front of our customers.

3. Traveling Overseas Tips - Having traveled many places overseas and within the US, I've discovered a few simple things that will help.

  • Pack lightly
  • Bring some basic medicine such as (Aspirin, Tylenol, Imodium...)
  • While on long plane ride, (drink ginger ale, try to sleep)
  • Keep your wallet and valuables protected
  • don't shop in tourist traps (don't share your credit card info)
  • Good idea to bring some local currency

4. Taking pictures (it's OK to be sentimental) - I am very grateful for the opportunity to visit all the places as part of my work. In all cases, I'm also glad that I brought along a camera. I was able to capture memories that last a lifetime. It is also the reason I'm able to share some of them here in my memoir. I have many more photos that are too numerous to post here.

5. Collaboration (Lotus Notes discussion DB) - Working on an international team have its challenges. One of which is group communications. IBM had a product that is ideal to address this. It is called Lotus Notes discussion database. Unfortunately, it was not the success in the market place as it should be. The idea is sharing data and files across international boundaries and time zones. It extends the power of email to include multimedia content in a shared space with security and accessibility. It reduces the amount of duplication of data and transmission. It is also a capsule that documents a project as it is being conducted. When a project is concluded, the discussion DB captures all the communications and versions of agreements, and images and all sorts of related information. It is self documenting. The final benefit is the archival nature. If a computer crashes or laptop is lost, the data resides on a server offsite. No need for local backups.

Summary

My two careers at IBM were the best that anyone could ask for or expect. I guess I was very lucky to be at the right place and the right time and worked with extremely talented people to achieve great results. I also traveled extensively all over the world and got to experience all cultures. Some of my other hubs on HubPages highlighted some of my experiences.

IBM was known for being a top notch Corporation. The most valuable part of any organization is the people that works there. The IBM culture I knew and lived through is the best. I cherish all the memories and the colleagues, the many successes and the few failures.

My story here is just one individual's experience working at IBM but I'm sure similar stories can be repeated for many other IBMers. Given the right environment and support, great things can happen. This brings me back to Watson's Three Beliefs. These three simple concept transcends time. It is relevant then and more so now when many corporations are struggling in a competitive world market. It is worth repeating - Respect for the individual, Service to the customer, Excellence must be a way of life.

Thanks for reading my story. I welcome comments and corrections.

Glossary of Terms

  • BRANDYWINE - A code name given to the Wyeth Project. The location of the Wyeth's compound is located by the Brandywine River in PA.
  • CCD - Charged Coupled Devices (an electrical device that is sensitive to light).
  • CCITT - A prestigious international standards committee.
  • CMYK - Cyan Magenta, Yellow and Black (the color separations for printing)
  • CRT - Cathode Ray Tube (a display monitor that predates the flat screen TV)
  • DB2 - An IBM software product that is a relational database to track various defined fields. It is highly extensible and used by small business and large corporations to track the vast amount of textual data.
  • FAX - Facsimile Transmission (of documents)
  • PC/IDU - A software program provided by IBM for PCs to help with Image Display Utility.
  • RSM - Research Staff Member
  • TDI - Time Delay Integration. This is a technique to increase the sensitivity of photo signals by creating a bucket brigade such that a given space is sampled multiple times.


Epilog

I had intended to write about the IBM PC experience as part of this chapter. Since this chapter has grown much larger than I anticipated, I've decided to create a separate Chapter on the PC and other matters.

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    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E. Franklin 15 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      I was an engineer at IBM in Kentucky and Colorado. The first project I worked on was an ink jet printer. We worked closely with some people from the Watson lab on compression and aerodynamics. I also worked on a team developing a digital fax machine. So, this hub brings back lots of memories.

    • jackclee lm profile image
      Author

      Jack Lee 15 months ago from Yorktown NY

      Ron, thanks for checking in and hearing from a fellow IBMer. That was the golden age.

    • kalinin1158 profile image

      Lana Zakinov 14 months ago from California

      You've got an impressive career my friend! And I've seen the Hermitage website, it's really stunning!! I had no idea someone I know had their hand in that :)

    • jackclee lm profile image
      Author

      Jack Lee 14 months ago from Yorktown NY

      Lana, thanks for the compliment. It was a great project with many participants. I'm just glad to play a part in it. I hope to visit St. Petersburg again.

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