Brenda Dietrich
In three-plus decades at IBM, the pioneer in operations research and data analytics helped establish the company as a leader in business processes management
Brenda Dietrich smiles among empty seats in a theater

Over the course of 33 years at IBM, Brenda Dietrich dramatically improved the decision-making process for global enterprises, governmental agencies and academic institutions through her influential work in applied mathematics. As a widely recognized technical leader in the field, Dietrich was known for making key advances in management systems, distribution methods and human resources operations through an unwavering belief in the power of data.

From a young age, Dietrich was a fast learner. She entered grade school a year early and earned a BS at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in three years. She immediately enrolled to earn a PhD in operations research at Cornell University where, as a teaching assistant, she was often younger than her students.

Dietrich spent summer breaks applying her burgeoning expertise in operations research to real-world problems at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. “I wanted to have something in front of me and not just think of abstract things — that’s what I do in school,” she explained to an IBM publication in 1982. In 1984, after earning her PhD, Dietrich took a full-time research job at Yorktown Heights.

Once at IBM, Dietrich quickly established herself as an invaluable researcher and a technical leader. By 1991, she had been promoted to manager of the Manufacturing Logistics group. In 1995, she founded IBM’s Logistics Application group before stepping into another managerial role at the company’s Optimization Center in 1997.

I wanted to have something in front of me and not just think of abstract things — that’s what I do in school Brenda Dietrich 1982 IBM publication
Problems with potential

Dietrich assembled an ambitious team of researchers and oriented them toward some of the hardest problems known to applied mathematics at the time. Together, they developed a series of data-centric solutions to improve and even automate complex business processes — including resource allocation, workflow management and employee scheduling — for IBM and its clients.

In the late 1990s, the team helped Southwest Airlines rethink how it allocated flight crews. Until that point, a skilled employee had generated the airline’s flight crew assignments, but the work had become unmanageable. It wasn’t just a matter of navigating employee timetables. The work required adherence to union rules, pilot rest regulations and a general understanding of how much time it takes for a crew to recover between various flights. With so much to consider, the process of compiling schedules would often require more than a month.

Utilizing an emerging field of research, now known as machine learning, the team built an algorithm to solve the largest pairing problem in history. It provided the basis for a reliable scheduling system that saved Southwest millions of dollars. For Dietrich, it was the near-perfect challenge. “I want to be working on important, hard problems,” she explained to Think Research in 2003. “Problems that have the potential to change the way business is done.”

In 2007, Dietrich was appointed an IBM Fellow and in 2008 she became a vice president in IBM Research. She eventually became chief technology officer and strategist for Business Analytics and head of Emerging Technologies in the IBM Watson group, where she and her team continued to make inroads in optimization, simulation, machine learning and the instrumentation of new, high-value data.

I want to be working on important, hard problems. Problems that have the potential to change the way business is done. Brenda Dietrich Think Research, 2003 Interview
Making a positive impact

It’s nearly impossible to overstate the importance of data analytics in industry and society. As Dietrich articulated in 2013, the discipline has revolutionized science, manufacturing, healthcare, athletics and so much more. “There is no industry left where an analytics-trained professional cannot make a positive impact,” she said.

Dietrich's vital work helped establish a leadership position in this vital field for IBM. During her years with the company, she was awarded more than a dozen patents and authored numerous publications. But her influence stretches far beyond the company. She has served on advisory boards for Northwestern University, Carnegie Mellon University, MIT and the University of California, Berkeley, and on the board of trustees for the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics and the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics. She has been president of INFORMS, the world's largest professional society for Operations Research and Management Sciences, and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

Dietrich retired from IBM in 2017 and took a position at her alma matter, Cornell University, as the Arthur and Helen Geoffrion Professor of Practice, teaching students the value of applying mathematics and data to real-world problems. It’s a fitting bookend on the career of a researcher who discovered at an early age the world-changing power of helping businesses operate more efficiently.

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