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Alumnus, IBM CEO Krishna offers memories, advice to students

Alumnus, IBM CEO Krishna offers memories, advice to students

10/9/2020 Kimberly Belser

On Sept 24, students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Grainger College of Engineering had the opportunity to spend the evening participating in a fireside chat with the CEO of IBM, Arvind Krishna. 

Krishna earned his masters and Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Illinois in 1987 and 1990 respectively and has been with IBM for almost 30 years. 

The chat was hosted by Engineering Council and Grainger Engineering, with Dean Rashid Bashir acting as moderator. Mahip Deora, a junior in computer engineering who served as a technical sales intern at IBM, represented Engineering Council and introduced both speakers. Krishna answered questions submitted from students on a variety of topics, including the future of technology, dealing with adversity, and his own experience at the University of Illinois.

Krishna spoke about the “long standing” relationship between the University of Illinois and IBM which “goes back decades.” As a student at the University, he fondly recalled his first year on campus in 1985 when Illinois won the Rose Bowl and the Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl. He also remembers being struck by how friendly and embracing everyone was to him – the warmth and inclusivity will always stay with him. He identified the most influential classes that he’d taken were digital communications and random process – courses that were part of his time as a graduate student at the University. 

Offering career advice, Krishna said “real life” experience is different from college. He advised students to prioritize what is important within their jobs and not necessarily what is urgent, to focus on the tasks and areas which they are confident in their ability to excel in, and to be prepared for failure. 

When asked about dealing with adversity and the lessons that he’s learned from his own experiences, Krishna said adversity is something that is always present. “Anybody who expects that they’re going to get ten successes in a row in real life is kidding themselves.” Engineers tend to focus on what’s controllable, he said, yet up to 70% of “real life” is uncontrollable and is shaped by the opinions of bosses, customer reactions, and other forces. He suggested to always be learning and continue to aim high.

Dean Bashir gave Krishna the opportunity to share if he would do anything differently if he had the ability to restart his career, to which Krishna said he’d be more curious about social sciences during his time as a student. He also emphasized the need for a level of social balance as it makes you not only more approachable but also allows you to connect with many different kinds of people.

The biggest forces shaping modern technology, or “tectonic forces” as Krishna refers to them, are hybrid cloud, quantum, and artificial intelligence. As technology continues to advance, he encouraged attendees to learn basic skills in analysis and coding, skills which he said are important, even now.