The Passionate Inventor

IBM’s Jane Xu is inducted into the WITI Hall of Fame for her technical innovations.

IBM’s Jane Xu is inducted into the WITI Hall of Fame for her technical innovations.
Photo Courtesy of Jane Xu

Inventors have the uncanny ability to use their imaginations to create useful things. The technology we take for granted today first began as a glimmer of an idea in an inventor’s mind. The path from idea to reality takes perseverance and fearless experimentation. Inventing isn’t for the faint of heart. It requires passion, an independent spirit and a love of hard work.

That description fits Jane Xu, CTO of China Systems and Technology Labs at IBM. Xu has contributed to many IBM innovations—such as the Digital Library, Net.Data*, DB2* XML enablement, Information Lifecycle Management, grid storage and autonomic storage management—and holds more than 20 patents. She was also inducted into the Women in Technology International ( Hall of Fame this year.

Xu’s introduction to the world of computer science came in 1982 when she arrived in the U.S. to study. She saw that computers can impact people’s lives.

“Without a doubt, I knew I wanted a Ph.D. in computer science,” Xu says. She achieved that goal, earning a Ph.D. in parallel processing and load balancing from the University of Southern California in 1990. Right after graduation, Xu joined IBM.

Many of Xu’s pioneering IBM projects have evolved into products that have indeed made a huge impact. Index of MP3 is an offshoot of the Digital Library, now Content Manager, for example. The Internet enablement of IBM back-end repository products evolved from work Xu and her team did for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, where IBM provided sports enthusiasts with virtual front-row seats at the games via the Web.

As a technical leader, Xu was passionate to adapt the newest technologies. In the early stage of Internet technology, Xu turned process-based CGI applications into thread-based API, then servlet applications—each within one week.

“Making applications thread safe, to avoid memory crashes, is extremely important to ensure the code quality,” Xu says, proudly pointing out that “during the high peak of the Olympic Games, our Web server did not crash.” The same technology was used for the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, the last Olympics where IBM supported the technology.

Xu brings zeal to her work, and instilling passion for technology and science is part of her job description. As the Shanghai-based CTO of IBM’s China Labs, Xu’s goal “is to set the strategy and help the technical community to grow up through mentoring.” Strategically, she’s involved in helping IBM tap the small and mid-sized business market in China and has developed an early deployment package specifically geared to that market.

As a mentor, Xu’s role is twofold. She likes to set an example to her team. “Since I was a child, I always have set a high standard for myself. I don’t want to do a sloppy job in anything,” Xu says. “I tell my team, ‘I want you to set a high standard for yourself. That’s good for your life.’ ” She also is charged with encouraging women to pursue technology careers. “In Asia, how to encourage a woman to pursue a technical career path or promote a woman in technology is still an issue,” Xu says, noting that women still aren’t a major technical force in Asia as they are in other regions.

While Xu’s life revolves around work, mentoring and research, she makes time for other pursuits, such as classical music, travel and photography. “I love to travel and walk and take pictures,” she says. One recent trip took her to South Africa, and she hopes to travel to Alaska to photograph the glaciers.

Travel is more than a relaxing pursuit—it’s when she gets her best ideas, whether it’s while driving a car in the States or riding in a Shanghai taxi to work. So the next time you see a contemplative traveler, it just might be Xu pondering a technology innovation that’ll help change your life.

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