Sophie Vandebroek

Xerox innovation chief Sophie Vandebroek talks about the future of 3-D virtual work, the switch from 'paperless office' to reusable paper, and the hows and whys of a diverse workforce.

Sophie Vandebroek oversees the worldwide research centers at Xerox Corp. Previously, she was chief engineer at Xerox and vice president of the Xerox Engineering Center. She is a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and a Fulbright Fellow and holds 12 U.S. patents. In an address in December to the National Science Foundation she said, "Research and development is no longer a question of what we can do by ourselves, working somewhere in a back room. We are a company now defined by our collaborations. There is a reason why so much innovation is [from the] ground up. Open innovation works."

What do you say to people who think of Xerox as just a photocopier company? Within the research and technology community at Xerox, we no longer do any work on photocopiers. What Xerox really focuses on now is how do customers deal with document-intensive processes, whether it's a lawyer dealing with all the paperwork required to win a legal case or a mortgage company dealing with all the paperwork. There are many document-intensive processes, and in most cases, they are pure digital documents.

Speaking of paper, what ever happened to the "paperless office"? What we see today is that paper has a much more temporary existence. One of our studies found that in a typical enterprise, more than 40% of what is printed is basically recycled within 24 hours. People still like the look and feel of paper, but most of the information is available digitally, so they may not store the paper. But we do have several projects going on to help customers get to a more paperless state, like our legal or mortgage workflow applications.

We are also developing concepts like reusable paper, so you can print today and in a couple of days reuse your paper without having to recycle it. It doesn't use physical inks; it's like your sunglasses darkening when you are outside, and when you come in, they get clear again. You can reuse the same paper over and over.

How will the office be different five to 10 years from now? Just the notion of having an office might not exist in the future. Everything will be connected, so it doesn't matter if you are physically in an office or around the world. It will be easy to communicate and collaborate and connect to the right experts and the right partners.

Will social networking be part of this future office? A year ago, we started a research center in Second Life. We have several projects to understand how we can really leverage those 3-D virtual worlds to help our customers within 3-D virtual worlds quickly get the information they need, when they need it. In my mind, the 3-D virtual world is the future of the Internet. In the future, you don't need to be in the same room to look each other in the eye and understand the issues and collaborate on projects. Our researchers around the world have meetings in Second Life, and we have product announcements in Second Life.

Is the U.S. losing its technological edge? We are definitely in danger of losing our innovation leadership. It's partly because the number of students interested in science and technology is dropping off. Second, post-9/11, it's much harder to get a green card and come study in the U.S. Third, these students now have great opportunities in their own countries.

There are quite a few women in senior management positions at Xerox. Your chairman and CEO, Anne Mulcahy, has said of diversity, "What began as good citizenship has morphed into competitive advantage." How do you get a diverse workforce? Forty percent of the new engineers we hire are women, about twice [the percentage that] graduate from colleges with engineering degrees. More than 10% of our engineers are Hispanic; more than 10% are African-American. You reach a tipping point, and it becomes easier when students come to interview and they see a lot of role models that kind of look and feel like them. They think, "I don't have to be a trailblazer to have a great career at Xerox."

Do you see a decline overall in the number of female students going into technology fields? Not only women, but also men. Women in high school need to know that engineers can help come up with more environmentally friendly technologies, solve medical issues, make sure people have clean water and so on. Many girls just don't see the connection between being an engineer and solving these societal problems.

What advice would you offer a young woman who would like to make a career in technology? I mentor quite a few new hires, and I say No. 1, you have to make sure you quickly gain respect and credibility from your peers and managers. Once you gain that, your project will go much easier. Prove that you are really good. Show results in a timely manner. I call it "punch your ticket and keep it punched throughout your career."

No. 2 is your relationships. You have to really build a strong human fabric, because you get things done through others. It's knowing who you can collaborate with to get your project done and understanding people's potential fears and being able to work with them so they see the value of your project.

The third thing I tell them is what I call "dreaming with the customer" -- go out and find customers to dream with, and understand their pain points, and then make sure that the kinds of technology you are working on will really address their pain points.

The fourth thing is, don't be afraid. I have this Chinese proverb hanging in my office that is a two-stroke Chinese symbol or word. It says "danger" or "chaos," but if you cover the left stroke and look at the right stroke, it says "opportunity." Don't be afraid to go after the opportunity.

Finally, have fun. You have to have fun and have to be happy in your job.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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