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From silicon to hybrid cloud, Nick Fuller has charged towards the future of computing

Fuller began his career at IBM in semiconductors and pivoted to hybrid cloud and AI as the world was shifting to internet-based computing.

Nick Fuller at IBM Research Thomas J. Watson Research Center.

Fuller began his career at IBM in semiconductors and pivoted to hybrid cloud and AI as the world was shifting to internet-based computing.

If there’s one thing Nick Fuller wants everyone to know about cloud, it’s that there’s more to it than storing and sharing old photos.

“Everyone should be thinking about the cloud as a utility, and computing as a service, like lights and water,” he said, with his trademark Trinidadian accent.

When Fuller started his career in the late 90s, most people stored their personal files on a desktop computer loaded with proprietary software. The idea of leasing the whole hardware-software package, like so many kilowatt-hours or cubic feet of water, seemed preposterous. But by 2006, IBM and the rest of the world began moving to internet-based computing. Spotting an opportunity, Fuller pivoted from semiconductors, where he’d gotten his start at IBM, to focus on the company’s emerging hybrid cloud business.

Now VP of distributed cloud, Fuller is at the epicenter of another tectonic shift in computing. Instead of running massive AI models on servers in the public cloud, and crunching data there, more AI workloads are shifting to where the data are generated: on phones, watches, and other smart devices.

With a team of 170 employees, Fuller works with IBM’s corporate clients to integrate AI into their operations to create efficiencies and give customers faster, more personalized service. The job requires building a flexible infrastructure that lets companies easily move data and data-processing between the public cloud, private servers, and phones and sensors, in near-real time.

From his office at IBM Research, Fuller ticked off some examples: McDonald’s, an IBM client, automating its drive-throughs to deliver orders faster, with fewer mistakes; Ford, using a phone-based inspection platform to find and fix automobile body defects before cars move down the assembly line; National Grid, sending agile robots to patrol its powerplants and sniff out safety hazards.

The goal, he said, is for IBM clients to have a similar experience as users on digital-native platforms like AirBnB, Uber, and Netflix. “How they function as a business is where we want to be,” he said.

Like a lot of mid-career executives, Fuller grew up in an analog world, listening to calypso and reggae, on cassette in Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean nation off Venezuela where he was born and raised. His family didn’t own a computer — the closest were the PCs in the computer lab at school — but he remembers watching CNN for the latest science and tech news.

His mother had an entrepreneurial streak, alternately working as a caterer, boutique owner, and cab driver, allowing him and his older sister to attend private religious schools. To compensate for the absence of his father, who moved away when Fuller was a child, and the death of two uncles who were like surrogate fathers (one passing away violently), Fuller threw himself into studying.

That work eventually paid off, with a full ride to Morehouse College, the HBCU in Atlanta. Fuller majored in math and physics before going on for a PhD in applied physics at Columbia University. Semiconductor research seemed like a natural fit, and he thrived at internships at Bell Labs and a small electronics company in Lowell, Mass.

He chose to focus on plasma processing, a set of techniques for etching silicon and other thin films. In a paper published in his final year at Columbia, in 2002, he showed how silicon can undergo a phase change when chlorine gas, used in manufacturing transistors, interacts with silicon atoms, a discovery recognized with an AVS Science and Technology Society student award.

By then, the bubble had burst, but demand for semiconductors was surging. IBM Research offered Fuller a job at its lab in Yorktown Heights, NY. It was a good place for a semiconductor researcher to be. IBM had recently replaced its on-chip aluminum wiring with copper, a breakthrough that ushered in generations of faster, smaller, and more reliable chips.

Over the next decade, Fuller and his colleagues chased Moore’s Law, squeezing more and more transistors into a circuit, boosting processing-speeds by threefold as transistors shrank in size from 90 nm to 22 nm — a hundred to a thousand times smaller than a human hair. In two back-to-back papers, Fuller and then-IBM intern Marcus Worsley contributed to this engineering feat, introducing a technique to manufacture a new type of copper-wiring insulator. The work earned them an Outstanding Technical Achievement Award.

A pivot from semis to software — ‘he seemed to have no fear’

A few years after the iPhone’s release, Fuller could see where the field was headed. In 2012, as the number of smartphone users hit one billion, he pivoted to cloud, on a hunch that the shift from desktop computing would require a new IT approach.

“This was a completely new field, but he seemed to have no fear,” said IBM VP Mahmoud Naghshineh, who encouraged Fuller at the time to go for it. “He had the confidence and curiosity to say, ‘This looks like an interesting space. Let’s jump in.’ “

Jump in, he did. Fuller worked with what is now the IT consulting firm Kyndryl, devising strategies to apply AI to IBM’s software business. The work led to IBM’s AI for IT initiative and several products, including Cloud Pak for Watson AIOps and IBM Mono2Micro, tools designed to respectively reduce the downtime of mission-critical applications and accelerate their move to the cloud.

In July 2021, Fuller moved into his current job, helping traditional enterprises use AI to extract insights: from data generated at the edge, on machines outfitted with sensors, smartphones, and other edge devices. His team is in the process of helping to launch a robot-inspection service at National Grid, and scaling IBM’s Maximo applications for monitoring industrial equipment. They are also extending OpenShift, Red Hat’s hybrid cloud platform, to manage applications at a large number of edge locations.

Each month, Fuller fires off a newsletter to his team that reads like a mini annual report. In it, he celebrates recent accomplishments and results, and lists the objectives and challenges ahead.

The same attention to detail comes across in his monthly meetings, as he calls out managers and technical leaders on-screen and in the conference room, shifting from chit-chat mode to all-business without losing his warmth or exuberance.

“He’s never really ‘Hi,’ ‘Hello,’ “as IBM’s Femi Otelaja put it. “He’s ‘Hey, man!”

Otelaja was a PhD student at Cornell when he met Fuller. His mentoring, in part, helped lure Otelaja to IBM. Now a manager in systems-memory, Otelaja remembers asking Fuller how he made the leap from scientist to VP. “He said, ‘Never stop learning,” said Otelaja. “The more you learn, the more your technical team will respect you.”

At a lab with a high tolerance for eccentricity, Fuller is known for his approachability. “He’s a VP and a manager, but I see him more as a friend,” said IBM’s Ruchi Mahindru, a senior researcher down the hall.

Mahindru remembers walking back to their offices after a coffee break and having one of the soles of her flats peel away. Then came the other. Barefoot, clutching her broken shoes, she was mortified. But Fuller just shrugged and shared his own embarrassing life-moment. “He did that to make me feel better,” she said, with a laugh. “It worked.”

As a champion for a more diverse workplace, Fuller likes to give three bits of advice. Look closely at a company’s representation, he said. If none of the interviewers look like you, they should explain what they’re doing to improve. Have a support crew: friends, colleagues, and family, he said. Having grown up without a father, Fuller takes particular pride in his two-parent family; he and his wife, Roxene Gascoigne, a dentist born and raised in Jamaica, have two sons aged 9 and 11. “He’s extremely loyal and committed,” said Gascoigne. “Nothing stands in the way of family.”

Fuller’s final word of advice is to always remember to be yourself. “Anytime I have imposter syndrome,” he said, “I come back to that.” In a career that has spanned semiconductors, IT services, software, and now, systems, this authenticity has served him well.

“He’s a very rare researcher,” said mentor and IBM Fellow TC Chen, who is VP of Science and Technology. “Most people who try to switch fields the way he has fail miserably. He took all those challenges as opportunities, and it paid off.”