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2015 IBM Fellows

Bala Rajaraman

Bala Rajaraman

IBM Cloud
CTO for Cloud Platform Services

“My first real job was as a teaching assistant for an ‘Electric Machines’ class at Drexel University. Me, a goof-off in college who was pretty much the same age as my new students!” said Bala Rajaraman, IBM’s CTO for Cloud Platform Services, and member of the 2015 Fellows class.

“I quickly realized the vast dichotomy between learning and teaching... but also discovered a great enthusiasm for connecting with my students and learning new things right alongside them.”

That enthusiasm for connection carried over to Bala’s work at IBM. “My work has never been about a product or even a topic. It’s about working with interesting, passionate people to solve world-changing-big problems,” Bala said. Now every developer in the world can solve problems with his idea-turned-Platform-as-a-Service, Bluemix.

IBM announced Bluemix last February as its “cloud platform that helps developers rapidly build, manage and run web and mobile applications.” Today, you can use Bluemix to create Watson-powered apps, such as Personality Insights and Tradeoff Analytics, or build mobile apps for fitness activity reporting, or even finding your car in a shopping center parking lot. Its flexibility is its hallmark. Developers worldwide can thank Bala’s and a few of his colleagues’ enthusiasm for a Technology Team (TT) study in 2012.

“A group of us – led by two Fellows, Dave Lindquist and Rod Smith, and two vice presidents, Danny Sabbah and Jim Comfort – were studying the evolution of virtualization and cloud computing. And we noticed small teams developing complex systems and growing incredibly fast – and that could adapt quickly—by composing available services and APIs on the cloud,” Bala said.

My work has never been about a product or even a topic. It’s about working with interesting, passionate people to solve world-changing-big problems.

The team decided to experiment. Could they emulate what they were witnessing externally, internally? In a word: yes! IBMers loved the grassroots nature of their makeshift cloud operating environment. It was incremental and democratic. No layers of bureaucracy between the code and the result. IBM teams from all over the world worked together on ideas.

“The idea of ‘cloud’ isn’t new so much as it’s a fruition of factors. We always want to automate system functions to make computing easier and faster. But from the generational evolution of what’s capable on the Internet, to even factors like recent downturns in the economy, technology on the cloud has become a compute and cost necessity for all sorts of industry challenges.

“We believed that we could change how that kind of software could be designed and deployed. Maybe this idea of code democratization, and community interaction could increase the rate and pace of development for all kinds of solutions,” Bala said.

And that philosophy became Bluemix. IBM and its clients use it. Independent web developers build with it. Schools teach it.

Bala left Mumbai for Philadelphia in search of adventure. Almost 30 years later, and a move to Durham, North Carolina, the self-proclaimed “ex-goof-off” still keeps finding new adventures – and ways to share them with the world. “I’m amazed at what people build with Bluemix. And we’re still at the beginning. It’s going to be a fun ride,” Bala said.

Bala Rajaraman in his own words...

What was your first job at IBM?

My first job at IBM was working on the System/390 mainframe. While I was in college, I actually disliked the S/390 because it was very different from UNIX, which is what I was used to. But just before the interview, I read an S/390 Architecture & Design book and it captured my attention. I thought, “hey, this is really cool.”

What are some key moments or mentors that helped you reach this goal?

I’ve always had great mentors at IBM, but I have to start with my parents. Dad was in telecommunications, and he would bring printouts to debug code at home! We’re talking about binary dumps – the machine's memory was just all over the paper. It was inspiring to see him pour over this work. He would also bring home Bell Labs Systems technical journals, which inspired me to want to work on networking and queueing theory.

Mom was a teacher. The amount of influence she had on her students showed me how important teaching is. I guess it carried over to when I was a graduate and PhD student, because I really enjoyed teaching, too.

What advice would you give to an aspiring IBM Fellow?

I've found that you have to be curious across many fields because you learn from unexpected sources. Finding insight in unique places helps you grow and make breakthroughs. It helps you keep your passion, too!

Where do your best ideas come from?

I’m always wondering about the simplest way to solve a problem, so try to question things as a state of being, not just at certain place or time. So, I talk to people. People at work, friends, even kids.

What was the last book you read?

I’m not sure about my last book, but I read everything – even the instructions on my coffee cup! Maybe the last thing I read was my kids' homework.

What is on your iPod right now?

I love podcasts, and recently listened to Serial.

What does it mean to you to be named an IBM Fellow?

To quote Newton, “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This accomplishment is as much about what other Fellows have done, and the teams I have been on have done. It’s humbling.


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