Welcome Brenda Dietrich
- New Faculty Year: 2018
Brenda Dietrich has joined the faculty of the School of Operations Research and Information Engineering (ORIE) at Cornell as the Arthur and Helen Geoffrion Professor of Practice. Dietrich comes to Ithaca after 33 years with IBM.
“I was always on the ‘2-year plan’ at IBM,” says Dietrich. “I told myself from the time I started at the Yorktown Heights facility that I would just give it two more years.” After 33 years and many promotions later, Dietrich retired from IBM as a Vice President and an IBM Fellow.
Before joining IBM, Dietrich earned her B.S. in Mathematics from the University of North Carolina and her Masters and Ph.D. in Operations Research (OR) from Cornell. “Originally, I came to Cornell to study mathematics,” says Dietrich. “But then I had an internship at the Department of Energy and I was introduced to mathematical modeling. It was fascinating. I learned I could use math to say something true about the future.”
As a math major at Cornell, Dietrich was obliged to declare a minor as well. “I chose OR,” says Dietrich, “because it had everything I liked about math and nothing that I didn’t like about math.” Dietrich eventually switched out of the Math Department and into the School of Operations Research and Information Engineering (ORIE). She spent summers working at IBM’s research division in Yorktown Heights and then took a full-time job there after earning her Ph.D.
Dietrich has been the Chief Technology Officer and Strategist for IBM’s Business Analytics group. She has also led Emerging Technologies in the IBM Watson Group. “Everything I did at IBM was grounded in math and data,” says Dietrich. “I never moved very far from my field of expertise, by choice.”
In 2016, as she was contemplating retirement from IBM, Dietrich began to entertain the idea of teaching at a university. Cornell Industrial Engineering alumni Art Geoffrion ’61 offered to introduce Dietrich to some people at Cornell. ORIE Department Chair (at the time) David Shmoys invited Dietrich to speak at ORIE’s 50th Anniversary celebration. While talking with Shmoys and Geoffrion about the opportunities at Cornell, Dietrich was also talking with other schools.
“But in the end, Ithaca felt comfortable to me,” says Dietrich. “It felt like home. And the students here are great—they were a big factor in my decision.” Dietrich says that problems repeat themselves and that over time you start to recognize them. Also, over time, you hope that you have better tools to address the problems. “This is something I can bring to students here,” says Dietrich. “In 33 years at IBM I have seen the kinds of problems that come up again and again. I have some perspective and I can help students identify where the research opportunities are.”
Dietrich will be teaching undergraduates Introduction to Operations Research, where she will focus on applying the tools of OR to the real world. “I want to change it up a bit so that the students must gather their own data instead of me providing the data to them,” says Dietrich. “I also want them to think about the feedback loop—how do you incorporate the way people use your OR tool into the next iteration of the tool? We need to be able to adjust to real world concerns and constraints.”
Dietrich will also be teaching a graduate class designed to allow all of the students in the class to benefit from what each of the students has learned during their internships. She also has as a priority connecting Ph.D. students with interesting problems. Her long career at IBM and her many connections across many industries should make this goal an easy on to reach.
“When I think about what I did at IBM, a lot of it boiled down to presenting information to people,” says Dietrich. “It is something I have gotten good at and it is something I enjoy. I think I will like teaching a lot.”
When Dietrich is not planning or teaching classes, she can often be found spinning wool, knitting, weaving, or designing knitting and weaving patterns.