Lessons Learned From a Master Inventor: An Interview with IBM’s Lisa Seacat DeLuca
Lisa Seacat DeLuca is the most prolific female inventor in IBM’s history. With more than 400 patent filings, she comes up with a new idea almost every week. She’s had numerous jobs within IBM and currently works as an omnichannel strategist for IBM Commerce. She works from her home-based Baltimore lab, which is filled with lots of different gadgets, including a 3-D printer.
Four Lessons From an IBM Inventor
We spoke to DeLuca about her career, how she has improved various technologies with her ideas and what she has learned from both being a mentor and mentoring others.
1. Be a Good Mentor — and Mentee — to Advance Your Own Career
One of the most important aspects of her career is the role that mentoring has played, both in being a mentor to others and learning from her own mentors. “I am always open to mentoring people and very quick to respond to them. What is interesting is that a lot of men are reaching out to me for mentorship,” she said. That could be because of the larger proportion of male techies, both within IBM and in the overall tech industry.
“But it is important not to discriminate because you can learn from anyone. So you should have as broad as possible a network,” she explained. “Mentoring is a two-way relationship, my mentees challenge and encourage me in my career just as I challenge them.”
One of her more influential mentors is Pam Nesbitt. “We became friends as part of the women’s inventor community within IBM, which Pam founded, and have stayed in touch over the years.” Nesbitt is now a distinguished engineer at IBM.
2. Entrepreneurship Abounds: Make Sure You Are Open and On the Lookout
Last summer, DeLuca was asked to speak at a Girls Who Code Summer Immersion program sponsored by IBM. “Some of the girls were scared because they didn’t have any computer science background and were worried they wouldn’t get A grades in those courses. I told them it is more important to find what you love rather than get that A.”
Working at IBM presents all sorts of opportunities, too. “Yes, IBM is a big company. But it is also easy to move around and work on what you want to do,” she said. “There are many entrepreneurship opportunities available, and to be able to pitch new ideas and get funding.”
On average, she has changed jobs every two years, explaining, “This keeps it fresh and allows me to learn about new technologies.”
3. Be Creative and Think of New Opportunities in Everyday Situations
DeLuca got her coding start in high school, when she taught herself how to code in HTML. Both she and her then-boyfriend applied to Carnegie Mellon University. She got accepted — and he didn’t.
Lately, DeLuca has been focused on wearable and mobile inventions and how they can improve commerce. One is a device that will provide her home network’s Wi-Fi password to approved visitors when they walk in the door. In total, she has sponsored the funding of more than 50 different Kickstarter projects, many in these mobile spaces. One such project was a small board called Metawear that DeLuca used to create a pendant that reacts to particular tweets.
Another one of Lisa’s inventions improves your smartphone security by varying the sign-on patterns slightly. Why is this important? “It was possible to easily guess someone’s password by looking at the smudge marks on their devices. By varying the sign-on pattern, you need to vary the starting point in the dot-based grid, so the smudge becomes inconclusive — making it harder to guess the unlock pattern,” she said. Clever.
A similar security idea is to limit the autocomplete field for user logins to require multiple characters before autocomplete would kick in, making them harder to guess should a phone fall into the wrong hands. DeLuca also explained that another concept is to leverage the new crop of phones with flexible screens so you can bend them in certain ways as a login authentication factor — “like having a physical CAPTCHA!”
4. Learn From the Open-Source World and Build on What Others Have Done
DeLuca recently spoke at a TED@IBM session on the process of innovation. During that talk, she mentions that everything will be faster, cheaper and smaller in the future.
“Certainly, we have more and more data that is available. We have to think more about how we can protect this data, and understand how our customers consume data and how they can keep their privacy safe and secure,” she said. “Really, all security is incremental, so we have to continually find new solutions and build on what has been done before.”
Those are wise words, and DeLuca practices what she preaches. Even with such a storied career at IBM, she still finds time to contribute to a number of open-source projects.