Xerox CTO Sophie Vandebroek Steps Down, With Eyes on Boston
An era is coming to an end at Xerox. On New Year’s Eve, Xerox will separate into two independent public companies. Its famous printing and management services side will continue to be called Xerox Corporation. Its lesser-known but large business process outsourcing operation, which handles things like healthcare claims, E-ZPass transactions, and customer care, will be known as Conduent.
I’ll leave the overall breakup to other sources, and you can read the official word here. But an era is also ending on the R&D side of Xerox: chief technology officer Sophie Vandebroek, who has headed the company’s renowned worldwide research laboratories for some 11 years and worked for Xerox for more than 25, is retiring at month’s end and will not be part of either organization. Steve Hoover, head of PARC, the company’s legendary Palo Alto Research Center that helped pioneer personal computing, will take over as CTO for the new Xerox. Conduent has not yet named a CTO.
I have known Vandebroek since she was a middle manager at Xerox in the ‘90s and followed her career as she left in 2000 to serve as CTO for Carrier. She returned to Xerox in 2002, first as chief engineer, before taking over as CTO four years later. For Xconomy, I wrote about her moving to the Boston area in 2008, after marrying MIT professor Jesus del Alamo. She has spoken at several Xconomy conferences since then, including our cybersecurity event earlier this month. Her official last day on the job is December 31. But as of last Friday, she was off-duty at Xerox. She heads out tonight with a one-way ticket to Europe. She will be back, she promises (after all, her husband is here). And she has big plans for Boston in her future.
I caught up with Vandebroek last week for a kind of exit interview, asking her to reflect on her time at Xerox. But we also spoke about the future of technology, big trends for 2017 and beyond, and her own plans. On that last point, she isn’t sure—but read on for why she thinks Boston is an amazing place for the next phase of her career.
Here are highlights of our conversation:
Packing Up – Vandebroek worked out of her home office in Lincoln, MA, though she was on the road most weeks. She was shipping back her company laptops and secure video conference system as we spoke. “It has been totally amazing, a very, very fulfilling career, working with smart, creative, passionate people around the globe creating products and services that touch so many people’s lives in positive ways,” she says.
Revving Up the Innovation Engines – The past year has been a lot about prepping the R&D organization for the split, she says. “One of the key items that my team and I had to take care of this year was to make sure that both companies, Conduent and Xerox, going forward have a very strong innovation engine.”
Conduent takes over the India research center that Vandebroek formed back in 2010. That includes work on analytics, computer science, artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and analytics focused on the optimization of processes in healthcare, transportation, education, and more. Conduent will also take over the lab in Rochester, NY. For years, this center worked on imaging and computer science applied to printing and publishing, but it has more recently focused on applying its imaging and computer vision capabilities to the services businesses Conduent will handle.
Xerox’s Canadian lab, outside Toronto, has long specialized in chemistry and materials. It will stay with the new Xerox. “That lab will allow Xerox to focus on printing beyond documents,” says Vandebroek. Think smart labels for packaging—not just words, but circuitry that allows companies to track documents or products such as drugs or food through the value chain all the way from production to your table or medicine cabinet. “That’s really what will lead to the Internet of Everything, where everything around us will be smart. You can just print the intelligence,” she says.
The new Xerox also gets the old Xerox’s lab in Grenoble, France, which is also strong in computer science. And it retains the vaunted PARC. This lab has for years gone to a different type of business model, where half its revenue comes from Xerox for its own research, and half comes from government contracts, IP licensing, and outsourcing work for other companies worldwide. It will stick with this business model and can do work for Conduent as well, Vandebroek says.
Xerox doesn’t disclose the size of its five main research labs (India, Canada, France, Rochester, and PARC). But Vandebroek says they are staffed by PhD-level experts and that 125 people is a good size for a lab—big enough to have critical mass. “Most of our labs are around that size except for PARC, which is larger,” she says.
Predictions for 2017 and Beyond:
Internet of Everything – “We will live in a world where intelligence is embedded all around us. Our environment—our homes, cars, offices, etc.—will not only know what you need, but also what you want.”
Vandebroek sees some core elements of this future. “Three pillars of the Internet of Everything are smart everyday objects, information-centric networks, and smart analytics based on cognitive capabilities to provide insights. It’s a fascinating future, and it’s going to accelerate faster and faster,” she says. One caveat: “Cyber [security] could set us back as people get more conservative about what they buy and how they connect.”
Cognitive computing and smart agents — “The future is really all about a combination of machine learning, including deep learning, analytics, computer vision, and natural language processing. The combination of those technologies is called cognitive computing.”
“Smart agents will be able to do a lot of the work that people do today. Cognitive systems will be assisting people in doing their work better, helping physicians provide better care; teachers will be able to provide more personalized education, or cities can provide a better urban experience—leveraging automation and strong analytics to provide personalization of scale.”
Heading to Europe, but Will Be Back in Boston – “I have a one-way ticket to Europe,” Vandebroek says, citing the fact her mother and two of her children live there. “[But] I will definitely stay in Boston.” Vandebroek says she didn’t spend all that much time in the city over the past decade. “I was always traveling somewhere for Xerox. But in the last four months or so I really have come to know extremely strong innovation leaders within the ecosystem in the Boston area.” Her interests line up with a lot of what Boston is strong in: Internet of Things, healthcare IT, cybersecurity, and cognitive-related technologies. “I’m so passionate about them, and I want to continue to create this future,” she says.
Proud of Record Promoting Diversity – Diversity is something Vandebroek is passionate about. Not many women have risen to head the research organization of a global company: in fact, she was the only one I knew. Xerox’s CEO, Ursula Burns, became the first African-American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company when she took over in 2009.
“Xerox has always embraced an inclusive culture that reflects the communities in which we operate,” Vandebroek says. “An inclusive culture allows all employees to bring their whole self to work, both their intellect as well as their passion. Creating new products and businesses and pushing the boundaries of the unknown is difficult. An inclusive environment is essential to having a culture where innovation thrives.”
Vandebroek worked to realize that philosophy at Xerox. She is proud to have been the first recipient of a lifetime award from the Xerox Diversity Employee Resource/Caucus Groups. It reads:
Award of Distinction: Lifetime Diversity Leadership Recognition
In recognition and appreciation for demonstrated excellence in leadership and continuing advocacy on behalf of diversity: elevating the business value-add of inclusion within Xerox leadership and employees, and a role-model out into industry and around the globe.
”I will continue to be passionate about diversity no matter where I am,” she says. (You can watch her acceptance speech here.)
Next Up? – Vandebroek says she is looking at everything, from startups to larger companies to venture capital, consulting, or going into academia:
“When I buy my return ticket, you can interview me again when I have a new job.”