Alumna Hillery Hunter (BSEE ’99, MSEE ’02, PhD ’04) thinks about engineering the same way that she, as an accomplished pianist, approaches the whites and ebony sharps.
It’s a counterpoint of roles, always planned several phrases ahead and performed across the full tonal range—spanning, in engineering, from software to market analysis, from the conceptual to the applied.
Hunter is the Senior Manager, Computer Architecture and Research Memory Strategy Lead at IBM. She is responsible for making sure that IBM research projects relating to computer memory and computer architecture move and develop in concert.
“It’s a very broad role,” she said of the strategic duties. “It is one of keeping the research teams across everything from silicon to software within the memory area interlocked with our development organization ... so that we’re sure that we’re working on things that are going to push forward the state-of-the-art for IBM systems.”
IBM is an industry-leader for high-bandwidth, high-capacity memory systems, and Hunter masterminds a portfolio of projects related to these, envisioning how the systems can better handle computing challenges in the coming years, including, quite notably, the growing demands of Big Data and analytics.
“It’s the problem of, how does a business not just have data, but get insights from that data and monetize that information,” Hunter said. “Memory, including new memory technologies like flash and some other things that are starting to emerge, is going to be a really key piece of that overall equation for companies.”
Her title denotes two jobs that are done in tandem, and as Senior Manager of the Computer Architecture Department, Hunter also oversees the architectural research supporting IBM Systems, including System z, the collective name for the company’s mainframe computers.
Hunter’s initial experience at IBM was in 2000, after her first year of graduate school, when she interned at the IBM Development Lab in southwestern Germany. As an undergraduate, she had studied abroad at the Technical University of Munich for one year, where she took engineering courses in German. She was essentially fluent at that time, having spent two previous summers in the country, working with children. Her aptitude for both the language and engineering was proven when she won the university’s Outstanding International Student Prize.
“Having that greatly enhanced my experience at Illinois,” Hunter said of the two semesters abroad. “I work now with a team that is spread everywhere from California to Zurich to Tokyo to Korea. We work globally. We source components globally. ... So that experience of being somewhere else, dealing with a different culture, while still being in a technical environment, has been invaluable.”
When Hunter joined IBM full time in 2005, after three additional internships at the company’s T.J. Watson Research Center, she was a member of the exploratory computer systems group, where she was tasked with putting together a technical story, arguing the cost-performance benefits of incorporating eDRAM, otherwise known as embedded dynamic random-access memory, onto IBM’s processor chips. Based on her work, which drew from research happening in various departments, all of the IBM processor chips released in 2010 were equipped with eDRAM.
After that project, Hunter was named the memory power lead on a project relating to DDR3, a type of off-chip memory. Because IBM does not manufacture the off-chip memory, she was responsible for interactions with external vendors, establishing specifications for the products, as well as the initial, in-house design initiatives that aimed to lower the power consumption of the devices.
“My work was largely in getting things translated across technical teams, and really making sure that technically we had good communication flow, and that we were making the right decisions based on what other teams were doing,” she said.
As an undergraduate and graduate student in electrical engineering at ECE ILLINOIS, Hunter did research in the Coordinated Science Laboratory with Professor Wen-mei Hwu, a leading authority on computer architecture who was her graduate adviser, as well as with Professor Naresh R Shanbhag, whose expertise lies in integrated circuits design and signal processing.
“The interdisciplinary nature of centers like the Coordinated Science Laboratory is really important in preparing students for the real world,” Hunter said. “Just because in computing in general, I think we are running into problems that require people with interdisciplinary understanding and willingness to tackle problems from a different angle.”
Hunter was admitted into the IBM Academy of Technology in 2012 and earned an IBM Outstanding Technical Achievement Award in 2011. Along with some 20 other awards from IBM and elsewhere throughout her career, those honors are a testament to the work that can be accomplished in those regions of interdisciplinary overlap, when disparate parts are orchestrated to act in unison, creating, like fingers on the keyboard, a collective and innovative whole.
“Everything I’ve done here has been interdisciplinary,” Hunter said. “Absolutely.”
This story first appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Resonance, ECE ILLINOIS' alumni magazine.