Parallel Processor

How one engineer contributes to her field, her business, and the community

4 min read


When Sandra Johnson walked into a community center in Los Angeles a few years ago,the senior citizens in the room sat up in shock. Then they smiled. "They just did not know people like me existed in this country," Johnson says.

Johnson is a senior technical staff member at IBM Austin, in Texas, and a newly elected IEEE Fellow. She was also the first black woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. Since her milestone degree in 1988, Johnson has parlayed her expertise into two equally successful careers: one as an architect of computing systems and the other as an energetic volunteer who introduces women, minorities, and youngsters to technology.

Johnson juggles her many activities with a steady, almost impenetrable calm. In 1999, for instance, she simultaneously led IBM's research on Java server performance and the national Coalition to Diversify Computing. Now she heads a small business technology group and contributes to a companywide technical leadership team, all while serving on the board of directors of the Austin Area Urban League, raising scholarship funds with her sorority, and cochairing Black Family Technology Awareness Week, an international event of which IBM is the major sponsor.

Volunteering, like learning, is "something that I've always done," Johnson says. "It's something that I've always enjoyed doing." As early as the 1960s, during Johnson's childhood in Lake Charles, La., her mother instilled in her a belief that she should help those less fortunate than herself. The elder Johnson knew firsthand about adversity. She'll "tell anyone that she's proud to be a high school graduate," Johnson says of her mother. She raised her family alone after her husband, an Air Force mechanic, died in a car accident when Johnson was two years old.

Johnson's mother encouraged her bright daughter to pursue her dreams. But Johnson didn't know what those dreams were until an act of teenage rebellion brought a surprise answer. As a junior in high school, she received a letter about a summer engineering institute at Southern University and A&M College, in Baton Rouge, La. "My thoughts were, 'Well, I'm not really that interested in learning how to drive a train,'" Johnson says. "'However, I am interested in getting away from home.'" She soon learned that most engineers weren't train drivers. What's more--perhaps in keeping with her late father's technical skills--she quickly fell in love with electrical engineering.

Johnson soon returned to Southern for an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering. Afterward she went straight to Stanford University, in California, where she earned her master's degree in 1984, and from there she moved to a Ph.D. program at Rice University, in Houston. Johnson, with her reserved, matter-of-fact manner, shrugs off the prejudice she met along the way. During the first quarter of her master's degree program, most of the classes required students to work in teams on various projects, but "no one wanted me to be a part of their group," Johnson says. Finally some international students, perhaps also feeling like outsiders, asked Johnson to join them. "That turned out to be very good for me, because many of these students were the best students in the class," she half-jokes.

To make life easier for those who followed in her footsteps, Johnson wrote an information guide for female graduate students for the Washington, D.C.-based Computing Research Association's Committee on the Status of Women. The booklet's clear-eyed explanation of the difficult research process proved popular with both sexes. Its no-fuss advice mirrors the confidence and determination with which Johnson herself met doubters. "My thinking was, 'I'll make a believer out of them,'" Johnson says. "And every time that I can recall, I have."

Johnson's technical talent went a long way toward overcoming any obstacles. Her dissertation made her an expert on how mathematical algorithms fared on large parallel computers--a demanding specialty, because the speed of computation depends not only on the speed of individual processors but also on how efficiently and in what order they communicate. IBM snapped Johnson up in 1988 to ply her trade on ever larger computers. Her know-how helped the T.J. Watson Research Center, in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., settle on an input/output system for a computing behemoth--an architecture scalable up to 32 000 processors--whose commercialized offspring power applications such as chess and genome analysis.

The practical potential of Johnson's efforts began to intrigue her more and more. One of the accomplishments she's particularly proud of is her work on a parallel file system that was one of the first widely recognized research efforts in this area. It became the IBM Parallel I/O File System (PIOFS), designed for high-performance computers.

Johnson skipped among several assignments with increasingly business-oriented aims. Then, in 2000, she went to IBM's Silicon Valley Laboratory to take a two-year leave from both research and the East Coast. She never went back to either.

"When I first started working for IBM, my plan was to spend my entire career in research," Johnson says. But her stint in the development side of R&D suited her can-do attitude. She moved to Austin to head the performance team at the IBM Linux Technology Center.

A few years ago she shifted to her most hands-on work yet. With the imposing title of chief technology officer for global small and medium businesses, System and Technology Group, Johnson visits banks and other clients to determine--and then integrate, test, and sell--the combinations of hardware and software that work best for businesses with up to 1000 employees.

Her current position neatly pulls together the many strands of her technical experience, given that it requires knowledge of software, operating systems, and servers. But her natural curiosity may soon propel her onward. "I probably will not do this for a very long time," she muses. "I'm enjoying myself now, but I'm always cognizant and aware of other things that are around me."

That even extends to stopping and smelling the roses: in between taking care of clients and the community, Johnson spends her few spare hours reading self-help books and exploring for new restaurants. And, she says, "once a quarter or so I have to go on a spa vacation."

Johnson also sees vacations as a chance to mentor budding engineers. Her voice melts as she recalls a visit her teenage nephew paid her during a recent holiday. As a treat, she arranged for the video game fanatic to meet a designer of the Cell processor, the IBM chip that powers the Sony PlayStation 3 [see "Multimedia Monster," IEEE Spectrum, January]. Her nephew "really got a kick out of that," Johnson says, laughing. "He's on his way."

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