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2015 IBM Fellows

Berni Schiefer

Berni Schiefer

IBM Analytics
Manager of the Analytics Performance and Benchmarking Team

When newly named IBM Fellow Berni Schiefer was in grade school in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and the weather wasn’t too cold, he would walk the kilometer or so from school to his house for lunch. On the way back, he would pass a corner grocer that sold candy, and classmates would often ask him to buy them a few pieces. As more and more classmates lodged requests, the young entrepreneur started adding a 5-cent service charge to each order.

“Business continued to grow quickly, but tracking individual requests was taking too much time,” he explained. “So I started making bulk purchases to improve throughput. I even hired helpers.”

Business boomed, until his Catholic school’s administration caught on and shut his “start-up” operation down.

Berni had taken his first small steps into a world that would become his passion: figuring out how to make complex systems work faster, and getting them to scale. System performance was Berni’s calling.

Upon receiving his undergraduate degree from the University of Saskatchewan, Berni joined IBM’s Structured Query Language/Data System (SQL/DS) team in Toronto. He began working in quality assurance, running system stress and regression tests on the mainframe. From the beginning, he looked for a better way to do things.

“Three months in, I went to my boss and told her that I couldn’t do what we were doing anymore,” Berni said. “I wanted to automate the process. She told me as long as my regular work was completed on schedule, I was free to innovate.”

He had been running the five tests a day manually before he began developing automation techniques. That number ballooned to some 2,000 overnight.

Berni is someone who thinks the glass is more than half-full even when it is lying shattered in pieces on the floor.

Berni has since established himself as an industry leader in benchmarking and database performance, and has been instrumental to IBM’s big data capabilities in particular around DB2 and BigInsights. Both products are central to providing clients with secure data repositories from which they can derive real-time, actionable insight through analytics.

Berni knows that the concepts that have guided his work throughout his career will remain relevant. “Performance and scalability are problems that will never go away. They will just change in shape as hardware and software evolve,” he said. “That applies to these incredible new fields that are emerging – analytics, cognitive computing, the continued advances around big data, and more.”

“I believe there is a renaissance in Artificial Intelligence underway that is using a combination of old and new ideas coupled with massive computational power,” he said. While he was keenly interested in AI during his undergraduate years in the mid-1980s, computers weren't yet powerful enough to achieve the loftier goals in the field.

Enormous advances in computing and an explosion of collectable data has changed that. “This new era of insight, using vast quantities and an incredible variety of data, will transform our daily lives in the same way that the Internet and search engines transformed our access to information,” he said.

Using the combined capability of Watson and IBM’s analytics software, Berni envisions IBM playing a preeminent role in this rebirth. The intelligence of Watson, coupled with the power of accelerated hardware, is already playing a critical role at both ends of the equation: powering the underlying computing engine, and building industry-focused solutions that deliver tangible value.

“This breakthrough technology will have profound effects everywhere – on health, on the environment, and on virtually all aspects of daily life – to create a truly smarter planet,” he said.

Berni Schiefer in his own words...

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

I'm sure I'm not the first to say that it's a great honor, privilege – and responsibility! Becoming an IBM Fellow has been a long-term career goal of mine. Although this honour goes to an individual, I think it's really a reflection of the creativity, passion, dedication, and achievements of the people I have worked with more than anything I did by myself.

What was the best piece of advice you ever received, and who was it from?

Bob Picciano often shared his experiences as an executive assistant to Lou Gerstner with me, and I have found those to be inspirational. Bob heard Lou say that there are three big keys to success. First, figure out what it means to do the best job possible in your role. Even if that means getting a cup of coffee, figure out what the best cup of coffee is. Second, be a teammate. Being a teammate doesn’t mean doing someone else’s job, or getting them to do yours, but instead figuring out how to make one plus one something greater than two. Third, be positive. It is important to ensure that you are communicating with energy and with a positive tone on what our possibilities, opportunities, and challenges are.

What do you enjoy doing away from work?

I love to travel and explore new parts of this amazing planet. I love to savour the complex flavours of foods from around the world. I also like to cook: one of my favourite cookbooks is The New Best Recipe from America's Test Kitchen. I love that book because they don't just give the "algorithm" (i.e., recipe); they also write about all the failed experiments that brought them there. I also read voraciously. My favourite guilty pleasure is dark chocolate with a snifter of fine Cognac.

What is on your iPod right now?

iPod? What's that? Between my laptop and my iPhone I have enough devices. I have varied tastes in music. I love classical music, especially Vivaldi and Chopin, but I also like the music from the 60's, like Donovan, Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles.

Lately, my teenage daughter has been trying to bring me up to speed on music in the 21st century. Two recent indie folk music groups she introduced me to are City and Colour and Mumford and Sons.

How would you like to be remembered?

I'd like to be remembered as a good person – at work with colleagues and at home with family and with friends. I'd also like to be remembered as a creative thinker, a leader, and someone who is perpetually optimistic about the future. Someone once described me by saying, "Berni is someone who thinks the glass is more than half-full even when it is lying shattered in pieces on the floor." There is a way forward. Melt down the glass and make a new vase that can catch the falling rain.


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