Former Stanford Sloan Fellow and current Senior Vice President and Digital Chief Technology Officer of General Electric (GE), Colin Parris M.S. ’98, received the 2023 Black Engineer of the Year Award (BEYA) at the 37th annual BEYA STEM Conference. The Daily sat down with Parris to discuss his recognition, his career as an engineer and his advice for the future generation of engineers.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
The Stanford Daily [TSD]: Congratulations on this honor. How did you feel when you found out that you were named Black Engineer of the Year?
Colin Parris [CP]: It was a combination of pleasant disbelief and deep delight. We had a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion conference going on — I was on the stage with a panel with the [GE] CEO Larry Culp. We were talking about issues and challenges in GE and then to my surprise, they came out and told me I’d won it for 2023. This was in front of 200 people. It was an utter shock. I have just had the honor and privilege to build some great teams and along the way, some good things just get done. It’s just me being privileged to work with the best and smartest people.
TSD: How did you get your start in engineering?
CP: My father did his degree at Howard University and then he did his Ph.D. in engineering, so I was raised in it from a young age, seeing what engineers did and grew to love it.
TSD: So what do you currently specialize in?
CP: I use analytics machine learning AI and create digital twins of all the assets GE has. I’m in GE’s energy company. We generate a little over one-third of the world’s electricity. 30% of all the electricity that moves through the transmission grid is done using our software. I use data and digital techniques to run this more efficiently. I can take data and create a digital twin of the data in a living learning model. That living learning model allows me to predict — I can get an early warning, weeks, months in advance of a failure. I use data and digital twins to give you an early warning of a problem to actually predict the failures you will have so you can take actions and optimize so you have the lowest cost. I’m using the data to change the real aspects of energy, which is the very foundation of our society.
TSD: What would you say is your proudest achievement in engineering?
CP: The digital twin is so important because it applies not only to energy but also to aviation to make sure the planes fly safely. We apply it to healthcare machines — if you go to a hospital right now, GE has many MRI machines with this technology. I was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in the US because of the digital twin.
I would also say that I am proud of the IBM Blue Gene machines — I was at IBM working on these. This machine figures out how we can look at the human genome structure and how we can understand it. Then we decided to apply it to other things because it was so powerful as a high performance computer. We took a lot of things, creating models in the high performance computing system and applying it to real-world things.
TSD: You’ve obviously had a very accomplished career, with a lot of different educational experiences. Can you tell me about your time at Stanford as a Sloan fellow?
CP: That was an amazing time for me. When I came into IBM, there was the notion of ‘you could build anything with technology; what should you build?’ Stanford has a rich history of building companies. I needed to learn the language and mindset of business and IBM suggested that I apply to the Stanford Sloan program. It was amazing. You got a perspective, you got taught by some of the brilliant Stanford professors and you got a perspective that came from a different angle from the people who had different experiences. The foundation of my business knowledge and the ability to integrate business and technology was what I got from Stanford — I’ll never forget that and I’ll always love Stanford for it.
TSD: So what would you say to rising engineers?
CP: Think in terms of the three C’s. The first C is context. Context means ‘where are you going to spend your time?’ If you are a good engineer, what you want to do is impact people. Where will you do that? The second C is content. You’ve got to think about the system. For instance, build a solar panel — most people say ‘well, I’ll just figure out how to build a good solar panel that goes on the roof.’ No, you’ve got to think about the materials to manufacture it, how to build it, the design, how to install it, who would service it, government regulations, investments — think about the system around it. Once you have the system-wide view, you specialize. And the last C is call. This is all about price and passion. Figure out the price for your passion. It’s all about the price you’re willing to pay and the passion needed to sustain it.
TSD: What advice would you give to students who want to enter the field of engineering?
CP: I always tell people, I take passion from little kids. If you’ve ever seen a baby learn to walk, that baby will pull itself up. It would fall repeatedly but it would learn to stand. It would cry when it falls, but it never stops. And then when it stands, it will learn to laugh and then it tries to run and it will fall — but it never stops. There’s not a baby I know that sits down and says ‘I really want that toy but you know what, I’m going to sit here and you have to bring it to me.’ You’re going to have to persevere over the years. You’re going to have failures. You’re going to have to enjoy it when nobody else wants you to enjoy the process. This is a great time to be an engineer. When the world is in a tough situation, people look for people who can provide a solution. Now is the time when you can get to the table, where you can deliver. The world needs a solution, needs more engineers to solve problems.