CSL alum at the top of his field
After completing his degree in 1998, Krishna Ratakonda was packed up and ready to take an academic job when a conversation with a member of his Ph.D. committee led him down a completely different path: industry. He didn’t know it then, but that conversation was the beginning of a career that would result in him becoming a distinguished IBM Fellow.
“The committee member, CSL Professor Emeritus Richard Blahut, asked me what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to do practical things,” recalls Ratakonda, a CSL and electrical and computer engineering alum. “We talked about his own experience working in industry and it became clear that you don’t need to go into academic research to do interesting, intellectually challenging, and useful things. I credit him with pushing me in that direction.”
Since that conversation, Ratakonda has worked his way up the ranks at the IBM Watson Research Center in New York, eventually becoming an IBM Fellow in April 2014. Of IBM’s more than 350,000 current employees, only 89 are recognized as Fellows. In 2017 he also became the Chief Technology Officer for IBM’s blockchain solutions arm, where he led the development of a blockchain network for the world’s largest shipping companies. Lately he has been working with the traceability of the food chain related to sustainability and environmental stewardship. He credits the University of Illinois for giving him a good foundation for this career.
“Illinois has a fantastic engineering program,” said Ratakonda. “Many of the professors were and still are leading experts in their areas of research, so it was great learning from them what practical techniques you could use and how to apply them.”
Some of the research that Ratakonda recalls working on involved autonomous driving, even in the ‘90s.
“We were pushing the boundaries of computer vision,” he said. “The fundamental change in computational ability has brought many of these things that were in their prototype and infancy stage in the ‘90s to reality over the last couple decades. Many of the things I learned at Illinois I’ve been able to see grow, change, and become practical.”
The ability to adapt to change was another piece of wisdom Ratakonda received from his advisory committee – one he wants to pass along to current CSL students who may want to experience the same success he has found in industry.
“Prepare to change. Every 10 years or so there will be a fundamental shift in technology, so if you are not prepared to invest the time and effort to keep yourself up to date, you’ll very quickly find yourself kind of becoming a dinosaur. Whatever you are doing currently will not be of much interest 10 years from now, so unless you keep changing with the new trends and new ways technology is evolving you’ll be left out,” he said.