Tech

Two women teamed up to build IBM's new supercomputer — and they've been a powerhouse pair for years

Key Points
  • Hillery Hunter and Stefanie Chiras represent each of the two IBM divisions behind the Summit supercomputer. The project took four years and thousands of engineers.
  • In more ways than one, the two women complete each other.
  • Hunter helped build out Summit's memory and computing speed, and Chiras works in built materials and practical applications.
Stefanie Chiras, VP of Cognitive Systems at IBM (left) and Hillery Hunter, IBM Fellow Director of Accelerated Cognitive Infrastructure.
Source: IBM

IBM's newly minted Summit supercomputer spans two tennis courts, runs on 185 miles of high-speed cable and weighs more than a commercial aircraft. It occupies 5,600 square feet of a lab in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

It can run an estimated 200,000 trillion calculations per second with stunning accuracy, making it the most powerful supercomputer in the world — a title that was held by a computer in China until IBM, alongside Nvidia and the United States government, unveiled Summit on June 8.

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Equally remarkable are the two women who helped create the project: Hillery Hunter, a director of accelerated cognitive infrastructure, helped build out its memory and computing speed, while Stefanie Chiras, the VP of cognitive systems, is in charge of getting Summit's power into the hands of clients.

The two women lead their respective teams at IBM, despite staggering and persistent gender inequality in tech. 

Women hold fewer than 1 in 5 tech jobs, according to a report by recruiting automation platform Entelo from earlier this year. The more senior the position, the less likely a woman holds the title, the report says. Women hold just 16 percent of senior-level tech jobs and only 10 percent of executive roles. 

But Hunter and Chiras have come up together. They've each worked on several teams during their tenures at IBM — stints they call "mini careers." They've served the same team, separated as they moved on to different opportunities and reunited on cross-unit projects.

In more ways than one, the two women complement each other. They bring to the table distinct knowledge sets and shine at different phases of the government-backed Summit project.

When Hunter and Chiras work together, Chiras says, the sum exceeds the parts: "One plus one is three."

Hunter's current role has her working out of Yorktown, New York, 1,700 miles away from Chiras in Austin, Texas. They text or email almost daily, though, Chiras said.

"And sometimes when we're together we complete each other's sentences," Chiras said. "It's a great partnership."

Hunter built it up

Hunter's work is in the computing capabilities of Summit, which can perform 200 quadrillion calculations per second. That kind of power makes it ideal for applications using artificial intelligence, which requires processing massive amounts of data quickly.

"When you create AI faster, it's not just that you get an answer or a model for AI more quickly," Hunter said in an interview with CNBC. "It's that it really unleashes the creativity of the AI scientists because they can explore more options."

Speed isn't anything new for Hunter. She earned an undergraduate engineering degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in just three years — including a stint abroad for a Germanic studies degree. 

She's always been interdisciplinary, she says, balancing a mind for math and science with a passion for music. She plays the piano, and though she's never performed for her IBM engineering colleagues, she says several members of her team are also musical. 

"There's a pretty strong connection, I think, between music and engineering. I think both are very much related to logic and patterns and structure," Hunter said. "There's also a lot of procedure and process in both spaces. You know, there's a way to do music right and follow what's on the page."

Source: IBM

During her 13 years at IBM, Hunter has worked on four separate teams, from physical components to memory capacity to computing acceleration. Her varied background aids in the  "orchestration of different pieces," she said. 

"Everyone kind of has their own language," she said of the various IBM teams working on the project. "There's a lot of uniqueness to each discipline."

Chiras takes it to market

Hunter's work raises Summit to unprecedented computing levels, but Chiras brings the supercomputer back down to the practical world.

The idea was to achieve lofty computing feats, get Summit fully up and running, and then scale back to put "mini-Summits" into the hands of real-world clients.

That's where Chiras takes over.

Stefanie Chiras, VP of Cognitive Systems at IBM
Source: IBM

"For me this becomes a much longer journey ... to deliver that to businesses," Chiras said. "It's not just about some system and some technology that exists in some government lab. Now I can deliver that to a bank or a hospital."

Summit's capabilities could allow medical researchers to review genetic material for cancer links more accurately, help environmental scientists to run calculations on atmospheric changes more quickly, and help large-scale financial institutions to spot and prevent fraud more reliably.

Chiras has always been rooted in the practical and tangible. She helped her father fix car engines starting at a young age and got her professional start as a mechanical engineer studying metals and materials.

She keeps a sample vial of metal used during a college internship with NASA on her desk at IBM. She revels in choosing the right material for the right project — a metal strong enough to carry the load but light enough not to weigh it down, that can resist a certain level of heat but still be malleable — like the computer chips used in Summit, which can squeeze 8 billion transistors into just 650 square millimeters. 

The right materials, Chiras says, can stand the software up and make it bullet-proof. 

Chiras' work with Summit is more business-focused than her hardware background, though. She leads the company's portfolios team, tasked with rolling the Summit technology out to customers. 

Her interdisciplinary background, like Hunter's, helps Chiras to see the big picture. 

"How does the technology work from a software perspective, how does it work from a hardware perspective," Chiras said, "and how does it come together?"