A Magazine for Alumni and Friends

SpringNott Memorial 2012


An innovative combination


our opportunities are limitless, nothing has been finished. The world is advancing all the time.” -Thomas J. Watson Sr. to Union’s graduating class during Commencement 1953

In the early years, those leaders were Ralph Palmer ’31 and Byron Phelps ’35. Both helped propel the company into the age of computers, inventing many processes and technologies critical to the evolution of these now ubiquitous machines.

“Union people grasp what you need to do to reinvent yourself. You need to deal with the realities of the market in ways that are not dismissive of what’s been done before, yet in ways that are innovative.”
–President Stephen C. Ainlay

Phelps, who studied electrical engineering at Union, joined IBM in 1935 as an engineering trainee. With approximately two dozen patents to his name, he invented binary-coded decimal representation, which made computers more suitable for commercial use, and was instrumental in the development of magnetic tape. He also pioneered concepts that led to the 604 Electronic Calculator, which proved the commercial practicality of electronic computing.

In 1955, Phelps took on the first of his many leadership positions as manager of the Poughkeepsie Laboratory Patent Engineering group. In 1961, he received the IBM Achievement Award for his myriad patents, some of which he shared with fellow Union alum Ralph Palmer ’31.

Palmer, hired by IBM in 1932, worked with Phelps on the 603, the predecessor of the 604. The two men also contributed greatly to the 701, IBM’s first large-scale electronic computer to be manufactured in quantity. This machine was taken from pencil drawings to a working commodity in less than two years, and was the first IBM machine to store programs in an internal, addressable, electronic memory.

Having supervised the development of the 604, Palmer continued to oversee IBM’s electronic computer systems. These would establish the company’s dominance in the creation of mass-produced data processing systems and scientific computers.

In 1963, he became an IBM Fellow—one of Big Blue’s highest honors. Several years later, he was promoted to IBM vice president.

Palmer and Phelps helped set the stage for the next generation of Union-IBMers, which includes Paul Castrucci and Jack Drescher, both members of the Class of 1956. In fact, when Drescher started at IBM in 1956 as a patent engineer, Phelps was his first manager.

Drescher, who retired in 1991, went on to help lead the team that created a web of supercomputer centers called the National Science Foundation Network. A collaborative effort between IBM, the state of Michigan, a number of universities and other entities, the NSF-backed project gave birth to the modern internet.

When NSFNET went live in 1988 with 174 networks linked together, it became possible for academic and research communities to access a reliable, effective data network spanning the United States. It changed business—and the way we live—permanently.

“It was a very exciting time,” Drescher said. “It really was.”

Castrucci, who retired in 1988 as manager of IBM’s plant in Essex Junction, Vt., also made lasting contributions to the industry. The inventor or co-inventor of 30 patents, he co-created the SP95, the first 16-bit integrated circuit memory chip.

The chip came into being after a spring 1965 meeting, in which he and a colleague were tasked with building a data security system using integrated circuits for a NASA computer.

“None of us had any experience with integrated circuits,” Castrucci said.

But that didn’t stop them.

By mid-1966, NASA had a computer with the SP95 inside. Other IBM integrated circuit chips soon followed, as did an industry-wide paradigm shift. Until this point, computers had utilized magnetic core memories.

After this, they utilized integrated circuits, in which all elements—resistors, capacitors and diodes—exist on a single piece of silicon.

Castrucci went on to preside over the manufacture of the industry’s first CMOS 4M bit dynamic random access memory (DRAM) chip, the forefather of all modern DRAM chips used in computers and cellphones.

Ainlay believes alumni like Castrucci thrive at IBM, in part, because of how they think.

“Union people grasp what you need to do to reinvent yourself. You need to deal with the realities of the market in ways that are not dismissive of what’s been done before, yet in ways that are innovative,” he said. “IBM grasps that this kind of person comes out of Union. They’ve been very aggressive in hiring Union alums and moving them to positions where they can make those sorts of decisions and keep the company current.

“So I’d like to think Union has played a key role in IBM’s success.”

And one could certainly argue it continues to do so. John E. Kelly III, Gary Cohen and Steven Mills were all Dutchmen once.

Today’s Union-IBMers

Kelly III ’76 has been senior vice president and director of IBM Research since July 2007. He’s responsible for the company’s research operations worldwide, which includes approximately 3,000 technical employees in nine laboratories in seven countries. His top priority is to stimulate innovation in key areas of information technology, and bring those innovations into the marketplace to sustain and grow IBM’s existing business.

Ralph Palmer ’31 pioneered the development of some of IBM’s most important early technologies. (Courtesy of IBM Archives)

IBM’s Watson computer system competes against Jeopardy!’s two most successful and celebrated contestants—Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. (Courtesy of IBM Archives)

Throughout Kelly’s career with IBM, which began in 1980 after he earned a doctorate in materials engineering from RPI, he’s been involved with numerous initiatives that have changed the face of technology.

“I was very much engaged with the development of chips and microprocessors for big game manufacturers, like Xbox and Sony PlayStation, as well as the clients themselves. IBM chips power all three of the big game machines,” said Kelly, vice chairman of Union’s Board of Trustees. “Similarly, I’m heavily involved in our supercomputers— the most powerful supercomputers are what we call Blue Genes and they set every world record imaginable for performance and energy efficiency.

“And lastly, the one that’s most recent and may end up having the most impact on the planet is Watson. This computer competed on Jeopardy and is now training to assist doctors in diagnosis.”

Steven Mills ’73 has been equally impactful as senior vice president and group executive for systems and software. His responsibilities include development, marketing and sales for all IBM hardware and software products.

“About $40 billion of IBM’s revenue and about 60 percent of IBM’s profits is associated with what I do,” Mills said. “In the course of the last 15 years, I’ve been involved with buying over 100 businesses. We do a lot of acquisitions, bringing companies into ours and leveraging them to enrich IBM’s portfolio.”

“I work on where we’re going and building the future,” he added. “My job is to connect the long-term direction with practical applications and everyday excellence.”

While doing that job, he’s contributed to the explosion of IBM’s software business, which has tripled in size and more than tripled its profits over the last 20 years.

“We’re the second largest software business behind Microsoft and I’ve led a lot of this—every piece of it since 2000,” Mills said. “We built a very successful software business applying entrepreneurial practices. We’ve done so many things outside the box, which has really been a theme of my career here and also my long-term contribution to IBM.”

Before Mills took on his current role, he was general manager of programming systems. The man he succeeded when he got that job in 1993 was Earl Wheeler, a well-respected leader at IBM and member of Union’s Class of 1955.

Gary Cohen, who graduated 23 years after Wheeler in 1978, joined the technology giant 34 years ago and has held leadership positions around the world. As vice president of strategy, Cohen was a principal architect of business growth strategies. As general manager of the pervasive computing division, he developed this emerging business area into a vital component of IBM’s software group portfolio.

Cohen is now chairman, IBM Africa, and general manager of the company’s global communications sector.

“I support the strategic execution of IBM’s business in Africa, as well as the business IBM does with telecommunication, media, energy and utility clients globally,” Cohen explained.

Over the years, he’s played a vital role in many of Big Blue’s industry-changing accomplishments.

“I was very much engaged with the development of chips and microprocessors for big game manufacturers,like Xbox and Sony PlayStation, as well as the clients themselves. IBM chips power all three of the big game machines,”
–John E. Kelly III ’76

“I’ve had a lot of exciting roles. Part of my responsibility was building strategy relating to the internet. The market approach and phrase e-business was developed by my team,” he said. “I’ve also helped develop approaches for being an entrepreneur inside a large company, which creates emerging business opportunities.

“I’ve worked for IBM and lived with my family in Japan as well, gaining global know- ledge by leading and managing people. My wife, Lauren, and I are expanding on this in Africa. These global experiences are a great part of my business experience, as much as they’ve been a wonderful part of my family life and even my Union education.”

Indeed, an experience abroad is just one reason Union graduates—the nearly 200 currently employed at Big Blue—make such excellent IBMers.

Union = Great IBMers

“The fact that Union has such a strong engineering program and such a strong liberal arts program, and encourages interdisciplinary action across the two, really matches the requirements of a place like IBM,” Cohen said. “IBM has been one of the top employers of Union grads for as long as I can remember, partly because we’re so well suited to work here.”

Cohen studied economics and psychology, spent a term abroad in England, and also took many classes in math, computer science and engineering.

“In my role as leader of IBM’s business in Africa and in telecommunications, media and entertainment, and energy and utilities, one needs to be able to deal with all three industries competently. 2One needs to understand math and science, and the people from those industries all around the world too,” Cohen said. “You need to be very sensitive to what drives human behavior and organizational behavior. You need to know how decisions get made, and how those align with tactics and business approaches to benefit both IBM and its clients.”

“Union provided the foundation,” he continued. “Nothing I did in college was a direct match to what I do now, but I got a set of varied experi- ences that I draw on constantly. Just traveling abroad, you get an important truth— that the world is larger than Union or New York or IBM.”

Michael Factor ’84, Distinguished Engineer in Storage and Systems at IBM Research-Haifa in Israel, agrees.

“I studied a lot of photography at Union, and one lesson I learned was how to look at things in different ways,” said Factor, a computer science major. “Solving problems as a researcher often requires looking at those problems differently. Everyone can tell you that abstractly, but in photography, you actually see concretely the effect of doing that.”

“It’s also important at IBM to not just understand technology, but to understand what it’s good for—how you can bring it to bear for managing health care records or traffic,” he continued. “Union doesn’t just let you study computer science; it makes you spend half your time outside your core area. That really broadens your horizons and puts you in other people’s shoes.”

Putting himself in other people’s shoes is essential for Mills, who majored in psychology.

“What I’ve done for the last 38 years has been very technical in nature. And while I didn’t take many technical classes at Union, I often joke that I’m one of a few people in any meeting who actually gets to use his degree,” Mills said. “Business is about people and how they interact. I’ve been in management at IBM for the last 30 years, and that involves working with and motivating a lot of people. So my psych degree has been very applicable.”

Keen critical thinking skills are also vital, and they’re something all Union-IBMers possess.

“Thinking about Steve Mills and John Kelly, John has an engineering background and Steve, psychology. So how do people with such varied backgrounds become senior business leaders in such a technical company?” Mark Chadurjian ’80 asked. “Union offers a very well-rounded education. Whether you’re focused on the humanities or the sciences, the common skill you get is analytic ability, the ability to logically think through solutions to meet technical or societal needs.”

Chadurjian, who studied electrical engineering, is now senior counsel for intellectual property law in IBM’s software group. Incidentally, Big Blue has received more U.S. patents than any other company during the last 19 years.

Kelly also lauds Union’s focus on interdisciplinary education.

“Statistically, you would say there shouldn’t be so many Union-IBMers. There are 400,020 IBMers and Union only has 2,000 undergraduates,” Kelly said. “But T-shaped individuals tend to be very successful in companies like IBM; they’re people with deep core expertise who have broad exposure to other areas. Union does a very good of producing individuals like this.”

Union also gives students practical learning opportunities.

Matthew Gravely ’12 and Alethea Schepperly ’12 enjoyed the cultural and professional learning experience provided by their internships with IBM in Beijing. From left: Graveley, Jay Yao, Schepperly and Roger Chang on the Great Wall of China.

IBM’s embedded dynamic random access memory chip is used in the Nintendo Wii U console (Courtesy of IBM Archives)

“In the basement of the Science & Engineering building, we rebuilt a small accelerator GE had given us,” Kelly said of his student days. “For an undergraduate to have that level of hands-on experience was fantastic, and it served me well at RPI and IBM. I had no fear of working in a lab or changing oil or rewiring x-ray detectors.”

This past summer, three Union students had just this sort of practical opportunity, albeit on a much grander scale.

IBM’s impact on Union

As Smarter Planet interns, seniors Alethea Schepperly, Matthew Graveley and Matthew Manning worked in IBM offices thousands of miles from their New York hometowns.

“It occurred to me a couple of years ago that many schools have terms abroad to study at foreign universities. But what’s really required for students today is to go aboard to work—to be immersed in a culture and learn what it’s like to work in a huge growth market like China,” Kelly said. “We did our first pilot with Notre Dame’s graduate and undergraduate students, and then in 2011 we brought in RPI, City University and Union.”

“All these schools have technical programs, but aren’t strictly technical,” he added. “We were very much looking for top-quality colleges at the intersection of liberal arts, science and engineering.”

Schepperly, a Chinese and East Asian studies student, spent her summer in the IBM China Research Lab in Beijing. Her research focused on the integration of social networking, and the impact of cultural influences on user behavior. Her team studied the online activities of Facebook and Ren Ren (Chinese version of Facebook) users.

“This internship confirmed that I want to work in inter- national business,” she said. “I hope one day to obtain a position where I am able to travel back and forth between China and the U.S., helping a company advance and aid the people it serves.”

Graveley also worked in the Beijing lab. The bioengineering major helped analyze oil-water separation processes used by the oil refinery industry.

“My first task was to identify inefficient oil-water separation techniques to help determine whether IBM should develop a computer program that increases efficiency,” Graveley said. “Thereafter, I was assigned the task of calibrating a computer model of a water distribution network. The goal was to develop an algorithm to update the computer model using a limited number of measurable parameters, like flow or pressure readings, so that it more accurately represented the physical conditions throughout the real network.”

“I’d never conducted research in a professional setting before this. It enabled me to collaborate with professionals, helped me learn about Chinese culture and business, and allowed me to present research,” continued Graveley, who plans to earn an MBA and work in biomedical engineering. “And when I returned to Union, I tutored several students studying a computer language I used at IBM. My internship with IBM China Research Lab was eye-opening and invaluable.”

Manning, an electrical engineering major with a minor in economics, was based in IBM Zurich, where he was part of the lab’s nano-fabrication team. His main responsibility was to design and develop a control program for a device used to deposit nano-particles on a silicon substrate.

“The interdisciplinary focus at Union parallels the IBM Zurich lab very much,” said Manning, who will pursue his master’s in engineering after graduation. “In Zurich, they place high value on learning from researchers outside your field, which results in a cross-fertilization of ideas. At Union, I often find myself discussing engineering in a liberal arts context, and vice versa.”

“This opportunity was the perfect combination of education and adventure,” he added.

In addition to irreplaceable experience off campus, IBM has also helped augment learning on campus.

Big Blue on campus

During the last few decades, Big Blue has given Union over $4 million in support, including equipment like the supercomputer recently installed in the Peter Irving Wold Center.

Individual Union-IBMers have been generous too. Cohen, for instance, is an active member of the President’s Council, and he and his wife, Lauren ’78, recently established Union’s first Minerva Fellowship at McCord Hospital in South Africa.

“Part of what we were taught in our family, and at Union, is that you’re building a legacy for others. You’re part of the story but the story’s not about you,” Cohen said. “I feel a responsibility to participate in Union’s future, as much as Union provided for me and helped me to my future.”

Castrucci and Mills feel likewise. Castrucci and his wife, Margaret, donated the art gallery in the Wold Center atrium, while Mills and his wife, Marianne, gave the building’s grand staircase.

“Like many alumni, I look back on college years and have a positive view of what Union contributed to my success,” Mills said. “It’s a great school that has continued to turn out great grads, so why not give something back?”

Kelly shares his colleagues’ devotion to Union as a formative institution, but his involvement also revolves around the College’s very character.

“I interact with many colleges and Union is simply unique in its approach to liberal arts, science and engineering. I believe Union has huge untapped potential and underleveraged capabilities that I would like to see it take more advantage of,” he said. “My donation of the Advanced Computing Lab in the Wold Center very much focuses on this.”

“Wold is physically and intellectually at the intersection of liberal arts and engineering in terms of its facilities and goals,” continued Kelly. “And this intersection is what attracts me as a donor to Union.”

This sentiment also begins to explain why IBM as a company chooses the College.

Why Union?

Using the supercomputer as an example, Ainlay explained that Union represents a learning opportunity for Big Blue. The company’s leaders are curious, for instance, about the computing capability differences between large research universities and smaller institutions.

Twenty years ago, Ainlay said, the difference in computing power between the two types of schools was relatively small. But today, that’s not the case.

“What concerns IBM is that the gap is growing. The question IBM wrestles with is: What is the appropriate level of computing for a place where teaching is certainly a priority, but where research is also taken very seriously?” Ainlay said. “So they came up with this notion, through a lot of conversations with us, to put in a cluster computer that would allow people at Union to answer that question.”

Ultimately, this isn’t just about Union, though. It’s about an entire category of schools.

“There’s a very deep commitment on IBM’s part to Union, to trying to move us forward as a representative of a type—the so-called research college,” Ainlay said. “Company leaders wouldn’t be wasting time on us if they didn’t see great promise.”

“And IBM certainly sees the formation of T-shaped individuals as an American competitive advantage. For all the gains international higher education has made—and there certainly have been enormous gains in China and India, for example—liberal arts education is still an American product,” Ainlay continued. “And what IBM has determined is that this kind of person allows you to be globally competitive.”

Kelly added that IBM, like many large businesses, pays close attentions to its employee pipeline.

“Union is in a very unique space at the intersection of liberal arts and engineering, and this will be more and more important in our future,” he said. “As we begin to apply technologies to untraditional areas, an initiative we refer to as Smarter Planet, we’re going to require more people who can operate at that intersection.”

The Union-IBM future

As Union continues to redefine what it means to be liberally educated, and IBM continues to reach milestones that redefine the high-tech industry, leaders at both institutions only expect their affiliation to grow stronger.

Ainlay is particularly excited about joining IBM’s Smarter City initiative. He hopes to combine the company’s resources with the College’s, to work with Schenectady in solving local challenges.

“There’s a real opportunity, as IBM looks at great cities like London and New York, to get them engaged in the solutions for the small urban environment,” he said. “Their technologies will allow us to monitor things from traffic to the use of natural resources.”

Ainlay also sees a chance for collaboration with IBM in the Mighty Waters Initiative, an effort he’s involved with that seeks to understand the relationship people have with the Erie Canal and the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers.

“IBM has these devices that literally allow us to monitor these rivers in real time and to share data internationally. I imagine in the next five years, Union is going to be the institution on the Mohawk River that allows us to monitor pollution, to monitor ice flows, to help solve some of the problems we saw in the wake of Hurricane Irene,” Ainlay said. “I’m very excited about the possibility of working with IBM, Congressman Paul Tonko and others to provide real-time, real-life solutions to some challenges that can’t be solved without the resources of both IBM and Union College.”

He’s also simply happy about the nature of the institutions’ connection.

“I think this is the real Union-IBM story. Wonderful things have happened and will continue to happen because of good will, the innovation and talent, and the kind of passion and commitment you see in this relationship,” Ainlay said.

Cohen doesn’t disagree. When asked what makes the Union-IBM bond so special, he said simply, “It’s deep. It bleeds garnet and blue.”

Computer Science Chair Valerie Barr works with students in the Kelly Advanced Computing Lab.

The supercomputer, donated by IBM, gives Union the greatest computing capability of any undergraduate liberal arts college in the U.S.

 Spring  2012 table of contents