Dean, Mark E. 1957–
Mark E. Dean 1957–
Mark E. Dean is one of the top engineering minds at the International Business Machines (IBM) Corporation, and one of just fifty prestigious fellows at the legendary company. Dean’s area of expertise lies in computer systems, and he made his first mark in the industry in the early 1980s, when he and a colleague developed one of the pieces of internal architecture that allows a computer to communicate with a printer and other devices. Of the nine patents for IBM’s revolutionary personal computer (PC) introduced in the 1980s, Dean is the holder of three. He is also the recipient of numerous honors and professional accolades, including a place in the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame, but the Tennessee native only reluctantly participates in ceremonies and tributes. “I do it because I feel it’s important, but I’d rather be in the lab debugging or writing code, he told Terry Costlow in an interview with Electronic Engineering Times. ”
Dean’s penchant for engineering and for solving mechanical puzzles dates back to his youth. born in 1957, he grew up in Jefferson City, Tennessee, a town in the Smoky Mountains area of the state. He initially attended a school that was segregated, though there were just a handful of African-American students. They were relegated to one classroom, and as a first-grader Dean could listen to the fourth-grade math lessons. “When the schools were desegregated I was really bored,” he told Austin American-Statesman journalist Lori Hawkins. “I couldn’t read worth a darn, but all I cared about was math anyway.” His father worked as a dam supervisor for the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Dean often went along with him on inspection jaunts, fascinated by the dams’ engineering and mechanical marvels. His passion for science and learning was an inherited one: he and his father once built a tractor from scratch, and Dean’s grandfather was a high school principal. Dean believed that his family provided the tools for his success, as he told U.S. News & World Report writer Frank McCoy. From them, he explained, he learned that there is often more than one right way to do something. “The tricky part is picking one and getting on with it,” Dean told McCoy. “If you miss a goal, that’s not a catastrophe. You just reset.”
At a Glance…
Born 1957; son of James and Barbara Dean; married Paula Bacon. Education: University of Tennessee, B.S., 1979; Florida Atlantic University, M.S., 1982; Stanford University, Ph.D., 1992.
Career: International Business Machines (IBM) Corporation, director of architecture in Power Personal Systems Division, 1993-94, vice president for system platforms, Interactive Broadband Systems, 1994-95, IBM fellow and vice president for system architecture & performance, RS/6000 Division, 1995-97, IBM fellow and director, IBM Enterprise Server Group, Advanced Technology Development, 1997-00, IBM fellow and vice president for systems, IBM Research, 2000-; awarded several patents; writings published in scientific journals.
Member: Houston-Tillotson College board of trustees, 1977-; board of directors, Inroads Inc.; board of advisors University of Tennessee School of Engineering.
Awards: Ronald H. Brown American Innovators Award, 1977; inducted into National Inventors Hall of Fame, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, 1997, for work on personal computers; Distinguished Engineer Award, National Society of Black Engineers, 1999; Founders Day Medal, University of Tennessee, 1999; Black Engineer of the Year Award, Career Communications Group, 2000; named one of 50 Most Important African Americans in Technology by California African American Museum, 2000.
Address: Office —Thomas J. Watson Research Center, P.O. Box 218, Yorktown Heights, NY 10598.
In high school Dean was both athletic and studious, earning varsity letters in several sports as well as straight-A grades. He studied electrical engineering at the University of Tennessee, graduating in 1979, and was thrilled to be hired at an IBM facility in Boca Raton, Florida. He had dreamed since his youth of working for the company, which made some of the world’s first-ever computers. He earned a master’s degree in his field from Florida Atlantic University in 1982, and applied what he was learning as a member of IBM’s development team to the first generation of IBM PCs. Following an early model called the Acorn, IBM introduced the 286-AT computer in 1984. It was the first model to be mass-marketed to consumers, and it revolutionized home and small business computing. With colleague Dennis Moeller, Dean devised the PC’s ISA bus, a driver device that sent information from the keyboard to the printer and allowed the computer’s central processing unit (CPU) to communicate with these and other external devices. It would be used in later applications with a computer’s mouse, stereo speakers, and even networking systems.
Impressed by his talents, IBM sent him to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, to earn his Ph.D. in electrical engineering, which he received in 1992. Meanwhile he advanced in the ranks at IBM. He served as director of architecture for IBM’s Power PC project with Motorola and Apple, and in 1995 was made an IBM fellow, the highest technical ranking at the company. Dean is one of only fifty among 200, 000 employees to achieve this rank. At the same time, he was promoted to vice president for system architecture and performance for the RS6000 workstation computer project.
In 1997 Dean became director of the IBM Enterprise Server Group of the advanced technology development team. This also made him head of the IBM research lab in Austin, Texas. A year later, the company announced their success with a new microprocessor, the first 1, 000-megahertz chip, and revealed plans to have it on the market within five years. Estimated to be three times faster than processors currently in use, this new chip would be able to compute one billion calculations per second. In 2000 Dean was made vice president for systems at IBM Research. There, his projects have included IBM’s futuristic E-Tablet, a hand-held prototype device the size of a magazine, which is designed to perform all the functions of a desktop. It would be programmable, have handwriting and voice-recognition abilities, be capable of video and audio streaming, and feature wireless Internet access as well. IBM engineers are currently able to achieve these results, but have encountered problems with the display screen, for Dean believes it should match the same resolution qualities as a simple piece of paper.
At IBM Dean is also involved in medical research, and specifically some projects that attempt to create computer systems that mimic human biology. Protein molecules and how they come into shape will provide the key to many of the next advances in science, and IBM has committed $100 million to the project. The aim is to create a computer system nicknamed “Blue Gene,” which would be a descendant of “Deep Blue,” the famous IBM computer that won a match against international chess champion Garry Kasparov. The tag also recalls the nickname for IBM itself, Big Blue. “The absolute folding of a protein is maybe less important than the understanding we get from simulating and understanding how proteins actually fold,” Dean told Andrew Park of the Austin American-Statesman. “A lot of things that Blue Gene can do will drive new experiments in biology and chemistry.”
Blue Gene requires a computer chip capable of running at petaflop speed, or one quadrillion floating point operations per second. It would use one million microprocessors in one system, a staggering first. “Once computers start simulating that, we can see how drugs work, and we may find cures for terrible diseases like Alzheimer’s and AIDS,” Dean told Costlow. This new venture into medical research is an exciting one for Dean, as he told Park: “This is actually weird, because very few people get a chance to start another industry. I’m not going to say it’s going to be another revolution like the information technology revolution but it may be a data revolution where information is the world currency versus money.”
In 1997 Dean and Moeller were inducted into the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and Dean became only the third African American to enter such exalted ranks. They were honored for their achievements in the architecture of that first generation of personal computers, which was described as “the real grunt work, the dirty work of figuring out how to get different parts of the machine to talk to each other or how to get electricity to run through a chip,” according to James Cortada of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers History Committee, in the interview with Hawkins for the Austin American-Statesman. “It’s not the glamorous stuff, but it’s the stuff that determines whether a technology works or not.”
In all, Dean holds twenty patents, and was honored as one of the “50 Most Important African Americans in Technology” by the California African-American Museum in 2000. Other honors have included the Distinguished Engineer Award from the National Society of Black Engineers and the Black Engineer of the Year Award. He admitted once that he had encountered the occasional incident of racism in his life, but in the end they were incidental, and his sharp problem-solving skills were the key for transcending the situation, as he told McCoy. The engineer has met with nothing in his career that “I couldn’t run right through or just go around,” he noted.
Dean is married and enjoys restoring American hot rods from the 1960s. He owns a Mustang and a GTO, and though he likes to tinker with engines and exhaust manifolds, he remains pleased with his original career choice. “Information will be the currency of the next millennium,” he told U.S. News & World Report. “That’s where the money will be made. The opportunities are going to be endless.” Though he accepted an invitation to deliver the commencement address at one of his alma maters, the University of Tennessee, he usually prefers to stay out of the limelight. He has described himself as a consummate engineer at heart, “a nerdy kind of person,” as he told Costlow, and is ultimately uninterested in such honors. “I do this because I feel it’s important. I feel I need to increase awareness of the contributions of African American engineers to the African American community and the industry in general,” Dean said. “Most people don’t know African Americans [have] contributed so much to technology.”
Austin American-Statesman, August 18, 1997, p. Dl; October 9, 2000, p. D6.
Electronic Engineering Times, March 20, 2000, p. 137.
Jet, February 23, 1998, p. 23; February 4, 2002, p. 16.
U.S. News & World Report, January 3, 2000, p. 48.
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