By Teresa Messmore, Director of Communications and Marketing
Certain professions are impossible to prepare for, as they simply don’t yet exist.
When Preston Boyden ‘10 was studying economics in college, for example, the Watson supercomputer first appeared on Jeopardy!, the term “Internet of Things” was not in everyday parlance and the smart home concept was just catching on. Now three years after graduating, he is on the cutting-edge intersection of these technologies at an IBM think tank in Germany.
Boyden took a position in January as an interactive experience designer at IBM’s new Watson Internet of Things (IoT) headquarters in Munich, where he is working with clients to build innovative ways to combine emerging technology with industry. Fast-moving tech companies like IBM are looking not just for programmers and engineers, but also business-minded creative thinkers who can make connections between disparate fields.
IBM’s Watson, of course, is the pioneering computer system that can process the equivalent of 1 million books per second to answer questions by voice control. The robo-contestant famously beat Ken Jennings on Jeopardy! in 2011 and has since been integrated into healthcare decision-making, with other potential applications in legal research, finance, online commerce, weather forecasting and government.
Boyden joined a team at IBM that combines four sectors: insurance, electronics, industrial products and automotive. Developers and designers with experience in each field work together across industries to come up with solutions using Watson that would not arise if they were focused on one particular industry.
“The new part is to try to combine Watson speech recognition and big data analysis,” Boyden said. “We want to take data from all different sources, crunch the numbers and figure out relationships to make new insight out of it.”
The possibilities are endless. Think smart home technology—remote-access deadbolts, lights that repeat your usage patterns when you’re not home—playing into insurance policies. Or smarter agriculture, with improved soil sensors to better predict water demands and harvest timelines. Or automatic crash detection with sensors that pull in braking, acceleration and even more behaviors. Boyden’s collaborative workgroup brings together people with different, but not specific, skill sets for the cross-pollination of ideas.
“It ended up sounding really attractive,” he said.
His openness to the career opportunity can be traced, arguably, back to his Tower Hill days. While wary of sounding cliché, Boyden shared that the school’s Multa Bene Facta approach fit well with him. He grew into a student who was as comfortable taking art as math, English as athletics. He found a focus in studying economics at Vanderbilt, but even then he never articulated a clear vision of what he wanted to do.
“It was a great way to teach me to try out different things and not tunnel myself into one particular area,” he said.
Eying a move to New York after graduating from college in 2014, he considered working in wealth management or investment banking before being accepted into IBM’s Consulting by Degrees program. The entry-level, two-year program exposes recent graduates to in-house consulting with various aspects of the company. Boyden consulted on insurance pre-sales work with AIG and New York Life, and then he spent six months on a design team creating “Journey Map” murals, user stories and other materials for sales meetings.
“I really liked it, but I didn’t know where it could take me,” he said.
A year later, he received an email sent to IBM’s design team for a two-year assignment as a designer in the Munich hub that merges Watson with IoT, the network created through the billions of devices, vehicles, buildings and other everyday objects connected to the Internet.
As an interactive experience designer, he is drawing on his knowledge of insurance and design to help clients explore use cases for different industries with prototype-style apps and web page designs. His workplace is full of gadgets and technology from all sorts of companies to spark inspiration—facial recognition equipment, Under Armour smart scales, The Nest home security products, Apple watches, Amazon Echoes, different types of sensors. The building also serves as an incubation center for tech startups, with Munich in general having grown into a nexus for new technology businesses.
“It’s a really cool atmosphere,” he said. “I’m very happy to be a part of it.”