Several months ago Susie Wee (’90, SM ’91, PhD ’96) took on a new role at Cisco as the VP and Chief Technology Officer of Networked Experiences. As with other transitions in her life and career, her abilities as a strong team builder and a well-grounded technologist have propelled her into new roles and challenges.
Although she grew up in a small town in western New York — not a Silicon Valley or a Cambridge hub — Susie Wee was intensely interested in computers and programming. In fact, she not only went to programming classes that started at 6 am, but she stayed up all night programming on the family’s Apple IIe computer. When Susie applied to MIT and received her acceptance letter, her father, who is a medical doctor (who really wanted to be an engineer), brought the letter to her in the middle of her high school class. She recalls, “He was so happy it was like he got into MIT!” Her older brother also went to MIT and is a medical doctor as well.
As a Course VI student, Susie especially loved the double 0’s — 6.001, 6.002, etc. In particular, she loved 6.003 for which Prof. Hal Abelson was her recitation instructor. She says, “I loved the way he taught 6.003 — working with Fourier transforms and signals and systems gave me a great way to think about things and got me interested in optics and image processing.”
As she seized opportunities throughout her undergraduate years and into her masters at MIT, Susie Wee built on her love for signal processing. Taking advantage of an Institute-wide internship program, she worked summers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, ultimately completing her masters degree and building her knowledge of optics. And, working as a UROP in the Media Lab with Prof. Ted Adelson, Susie was able to extend her knowledge of 6.003 and her growing interest in optics by doing image and video processing.
A formative graduate school experience
Continuing in optics and image processing at MIT EECS, Susie Wee joined the lab of the late Prof. Bill Schreiber as his last PhD student and later she found out she was his first female PhD graduate. She notes that it was a great experience working with Prof. Schreiber, who “always just treated me like all the others.” She particularly appreciated the fact that Prof. Schreiber had returned to his lab from retirement to continue work that aimed at practical application. She notes: “I loved that he was not only advancing theory but he was also making leading edge practical systems. Over his career he made black and white television into color television, black and white printing into color printing, and standard definition television into high definition television. He was heavily involved with industry and with government policy, making sure that things went in the right direction, really looking at the broader issues at play.”
Susie Wee and Mike Polley (’89, SM ’90, PhD ‘96) were Prof. Schreiber’s last two PhD students, and they studied closely with their now spouses John Apostolopoulos (’89, SM 91, PhD ’96) and Rajni Aggarwal (’89, SM ’90, PhD ‘96). Susie and Mike worked together on the technology aspects of a joint project on a new approach to building a high-definition television (HDTV) system. Susie designed the source code and Mike designed the channel coder. John worked on the MIT Grand Alliance HDTV system for Prof. Jae Lim. She was impressed that many of Prof. Schreiber’s earlier students were designing and building the prototype HDTV systems in different companies — before the standards were established.
She also liked the fact that because Prof. Schreiber was retired, she was sharing the lab with Professors Jae Lim and Al Oppenheim and their students. “It was really great to have so many colleagues to know and work with,” she notes.
Naturally drawn to Teams and Technology
Always an avid ice hockey player, Susie Wee found that her love not only for the sport but also for being part of a team eventually resulted in her becoming the ice hockey captain and ultimately a team coach during her 10 years at MIT. In fact, when she accepted the Women in Technology International (WITI) Hall of Fame award in 2010, she cites and compares her experiences in both playing and coaching ice hockey to being a woman in technology, where creating a winning move or strategy can make the difference.
When she interviewed at Hewlett Packard Labs in Silicon Valley in 1996, Susie Wee gave a talk. She figured that it was standard that not only was this advertised but also the room was packed. It was affirming that her presentation, which was based on her thesis work, was considered unique and cutting edge by the HP researchers. She says, “When I got there and started working I found that not all interview talks are so well attended. I also found that technically, I was really prepared.”
Several other factors were striking to her. As one of very few females in the HP Labs, she says: “I didn’t look like anybody else. Most were older men with button down shirts and khakis.” Nevertheless, she and her work were valued and she brought a new dimension to what they wanted to achieve. She reasoned: “The way I am and I think most MIT people are, I could develop technology all day long. At that stage I had no trouble producing things, being relevant and pushing the state of the art forward.”
Two years into her work, when she had a performance review with her boss, she noted the contrast between her workweek and her team-sports-filled weekends. HP then recognized Susie Wee’s potential, and she went from supervising an intern to leading projects and managing teams. Ultimately Susie Wee was leading big projects with global, cross-functional teams and leading collaborations with companies such as NTT DoCoMo working on mobile video systems for 3G and 4G wireless networks and incubating new product areas such as the HP Halo immersive video conferencing system and the HP OpenCall Media Platform.
At this time, Susie also led a collaboration with EECS faculty at MIT including Professors Anantha Chandrakasan, Muriel Médard and Greg Wornell to outline a plan for an MIT Wireless Center as well as establish an HP-MIT Researchers in Residence program. Under this program, which ran from 2000 for nearly ten years, MIT students, particularly those in between their masters and PhD, came out to work in the HP Labs during IAP, creating a formative experience toward their PhD thesis work.
Ten years into her HP Labs experience, Susie Wee moved into the business — first into the PC group, where she was the Vice President of the Experience Software Business, where she ran software development for HP’s PCs and where she took her first CTO role. She notes about this point when she was stepping out of research, “You could say that HP Labs is like a natural extension of MIT, doing graduate school and research. Then basically I went up the chain in HP Labs and became a lab director. But then I took the career step to move into the business—this was something completely different for me.”
Transitioning is like starting over — both challenging and exciting
“Becoming a vice president in charge of running a software business,” Susie Wee notes, “required learning the current way the business does things and then learning how I could make an impact on the business with my different perspective and experience.” In her new role as CTO of Client Cloud Services, in HP's Personal Systems Group, Susie ultimately worked on HP Halo, which involved developing face-to-face telepresence high-end video conferencing systems. In a Tedx Bay Area Women talk in 2010, she described this kind of helping people to communicate as “Making Local Global and Global Local” — something, which she obviously loved and believed in.
Although Susie admits that she “tends to stick around”—as she had for 10 years at MIT and 15 years at HP—she accepted an offer to work as CTEO (Chief Technology and Experience Officer) of Collaboration at Cisco. Right away, she was encouraged to build the position to combine technology and experience. She notes: “I was able to work across all of the different businesses: video conferencing, web conferencing, unified communication, and instant messaging and presence —mixing these different areas into an integrated collaboration experience. This was in April 2011, when Susie moved up to Vice President and Chief Technology and Experience Officer, CTEO of Collaboration.
Now, Susie Wee is working across all of Cisco’s products. With the networking and data center teams she looks at software and application-centric networking both for the enterprise as well as for service providers and data centers. Her efforts aim to bring an experience centric approach to the area — understanding what the operational experience is for these networks and converged infrastructure and how it can be improved with the fundamental shift in architecture towards software-defined networks. She notes: “The area of software and application-centric networking is being formed. It has the chance of being defined poorly or defined well. If it gets defined well then there are tremendous opportunities. It is important to shift from a technology only approach to an experience- and technology-driven approach.”
Throughout Susie Wee’s career moves since MIT, she has kept several constants to guide her. One is her experience living with people at MIT. She says: “The neat thing about the MIT experience is that you are hanging out with really smart people — the people you live with, the people you hang out with and grow with. You take it all for granted at the time, but when you leave MIT you realize that you have pretty much worked with the smartest people you are ever going to bump into. This raises your game.” She has found this helps her as she raises the bar in her career advancements.
At the same time, she remembers her PhD advisor Prof. “Bill” Schreiber, for whom she spoke at the celebration of his life held at the MIT Faculty Club on November 21, 2009. She spoke about ‘Schreiber-isms’ — lessons, which he left with all who knew him—particularly his students. Among these, “Bill advised me not to be an analyst, but to build things that add value to the world.” It appears to be a lesson that Susie Wee has taken to heart.
* In Remembrance of Professor William F. Schreiber, Nov. 21, 2009 entry in Susie Wee’s blog.