“Digital transformation” and “evolution” are words that best describe Dr. Colin Parris’ impact on the tech industry. The GE Digital Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer helps industrial companies make strides in utilities, power generation, oil & gas, manufacturing, and aviation by working with world-class teams to develop new technologies and transformative products and services to enhance the customer experience.
Parris has an extensive background working in the digital industrial space at powerhouse companies such as AT&T Bell Laboratories and IBM, where he worked on forward-thinking digital technologies in the communications, retail, and banking industries. Now, at GE Digital, he’s championing solutions that accelerate business impact and scale digital transformation with breakthrough technologies and solutions, such as Digital Twin.
Parris spoke with AfroTech to share his accomplished career journey and provide valuable advice for Black techies hoping to excel in the tech space.
Finding the Purpose and Power in Digitization
Parris’ technology leadership journey began in the early 1980s during an undergraduate course at Howard University in which he and his classmates were tasked with building a small security system. A process that usually takes around 16 to 18 hours to build, Parris built it in approximately two and a half hours using, at that time, a newly available computer processing unit (CPU) chipset and software. It was then that he was introduced to the power of what is now known as digital transformation.
“We build analytics that use the data in big GE and non-GE machines to make systems and operations more efficient,” Parris said. “We get the data from the machine and find a way for that data to tell us where and when [the machine is] going to break so it can be fixed before it breaks. The data also can tell us if its operation is not optimized, [such as] using too much fuel [or] putting out too much carbon. How can we fix that? We put industrial data to work to create a way for machines to run efficiently (at a lower cost) and so there are longer times between replacements.”
The Digital Twin also uses its “knowledge of the asset” to address environmental and societal concerns to help solve global issues, like finding a way to generate electricity at reasonable costs so everyone can access it, while optimizing it to use the least amount of fossil fuel and produce the least amount of contaminant exhaust.
“As the Chief Technology Officer, I am driving these exchanges in GE Digital,” Parris said. “I work with the Renewable and Power businesses to find ways to use their industrial data to allow their machines to run more efficiently, while at the same time making enough money so that GE can continue investing in research that transforms the planet.”
In addition to impacting the energy industry, this form of innovation and digitized technology also affects manufacturing and aviation industries. Parris is making sure he covers all grounds in these industries to provide for their customers’ needs. “Everywhere I look in energy and manufacturing, there’s so much change,” he said. “You have to respond so fast to some changes (e.g., fuel efficiency and cyber attacks) that you literally have to have technology running at speeds of milliseconds and microseconds. You can’t have humans making decisions and then translating those into a plan. It takes too long.
“It’s getting to a point where we have almost digitized the planet,” Parris continued. “We’ve spent a lot of time digitizing everything; everything is captured in terms of data. But, how do I use that data to create an insight? Can you forecast some change in equipment health? Can the data tell you how to optimize something [like] a process or an asset or a network?
“We know there’s going to be a massive amount of change,” he said. “We’ve seen it. Right now, we’re going through change because of COVID-19. [At GE] we normally have to change parts in a gas turbine. Our teams can’t fly to customer sites because of the pandemic. The good news is that we can use the Digital Twin to tell us whether those parts can last a few months longer given the current usage pattern, and we can do this remotely. There are going to be a lot of changes like that (remote access) in the future.”
Parris’ Commitment to Giving Back
Parris’ life and accomplishments aren’t shaped solely by his professional career. He takes pride in his community investment and touts the importance of learning from others.
“Learning is what transformed my life,” he said. “Learning gave me the ability to make myself meaningful as the world was transitioning. It gave me the ability to go into the AT&Ts, IBMs, the GEs of the world and contribute to the transitions we see occurring. I believe companies also have a commitment to help society with learning, and it just makes good business sense as you create a larger group of customers that can use your products.”
For more than 20 years, Parris has been giving back by helping high school students interested in the STEM field and supporting their collegiate pursuits. He has also worked with organizations on behalf of IBM and GE and has taken time to speak with kids about engineering.
“At the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, I would bring in students and show them different things we were doing in computer systems, banking, and agriculture,” he said. Parris used the initiative to expose students to various emerging digital technologies to help them find their own dreams and passions rather than pursuing someone else’s.
The Framework for Finding Your Perfect Opportunity
When it comes to tech’s future, diversity and inclusion are key in broadening the innovation spectrum in digital transformation. Parris believes what’s most important is setting up a sustainable journey to increase the chance of making it to the end goal.
“I’ve learned not to love the outcome but the process,” Parris said. “That’s the thing you’ve got to figure out. What is it that holds your attention so that you learn to love the process? Then you can do it for a long time until you get the needed outcome.”
Parris encourages the AfroTech audience to invest in the three components of leadership:
- Awareness: Look at different sources of information that may not connect to your current area of interest. The world works as a system, and you need to understand how all the parts impact each other.
- Resiliency: Experiencing failure is a necessary part of learning, and resilience after failure is the only way to gain expertise.
- Learning: Because the world is changing so fast, build the ability to learn because it will benefit both yourself and others. Build a network of experts in other areas because you can’t learn everything, but you can easily seek advice from your network when needed.
These tenets help Parris keep the GE Digital tech world turning. To learn how you can help transform the landscape of the digital world at GE Digital, visit here.
This editorial was brought to you in partnership with GE Digital.