Business Brains

Innovator | Sophie Vandebroek, CTO of Xerox

Innovator | Sophie Vandebroek, CTO of Xerox

Posting in Technology | From Issue 02 November 25, 2013

The head of research at "the document company" takes Xerox's focus well beyond paper.

Xerox's public relations officer warned me, Sophie Vandebroek would be recovering from a transcontinental flight. When he arranged the interview, I'd requested that she and I plan a stroll, but he suggested we stick to her hotel lobby.

As I settled into a lounge chair in the front room of the Sheraton in Long Island City, Queens, the elevator doors opened. The Xerox CTO, she of 14 patents, emerged with a still-damp bob, black leather jacket and heels.

"I got to the hotel, took a shower and now I'm ready to go out," she announced. She showed me a manila folder with a small stack of Google walking maps. "You have to be prepared," she explained, slipping a pair of Birkenstock-like sandals into her shoulder bag.

It turned out we had a pilgrimage to make. Queens holds the birthplace of xerography - a second story apartment the inventor Chester Carlson rented from his mother-in-law - and Vandebroek was keen to see the location for herself. She would present at a conference nearby later in the evening.

Vandebroek lives in Boston, but she strode through the Queens streets like a New Yorker. She jaywalked when the crosswalk was clear and calmly chastised a driver when he cut us off. As we passed through the industrial western edge of Queens, she checked her maps regularly to confirm our course.

Vandebroek told me she knew she wanted to be an engineer since one night when she was a 7-year-old growing up in Belgium.

"We didn't have a TV at home," she said over the hum of an elevated subway line, "so my father and mom brought me and my three siblings to my grandmother's house. We went to bed, and at four in the morning we were woken up. I can still see the image of us us sitting there all in front of the TV, and we saw Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. And that was like, Wow! It was so amazing. I wanted to do that.

"Being able to innovate or create something new that makes a difference to people," she said, "is just so exciting. And so, I didn't end up on the moon. I stayed with my feet on Earth, and I love my job."

Vandebroek moved with her first husband to the United States to earn her doctorate degree at Cornell University. After graduation, she went to work at IBM Research just north of New York City, where she earned her first two patents for silicon transistors. At that time, she and her husband already had two children. She was commuting seven hours to work, and the routine became unbearable. A job at Xerox in Rochester seemed like an obvious choice - it put her nearer to their home and her husband's work, and she'd long admired the inventions of Xerox's Palo Alto research facility.

That was 20 years ago, and now she holds the highest technical position in the company.

"A lot is about being in the right place at the right time," Vandebroek started to explain, "and a lot of hard work ... I ended up in the group that made inkjet printers. I worked on the electronics within it. And I was the first person with a microelectronics degree that they had hired to work in that team, so I quickly was able to take on leadership responsibilities. I was a project leader and it just moved on from there."

Vandebroek said her leadership style was inherited both from her father, an engineer, and her mother, an artist.

"Make sure they're diverse, make sure they're empowered," she said of her strategy with her team, "and I treat them how - it's not how I want to be treated but how they want to be treated. You really have to show empathy, try to understand the other person. And then give them a lot of freedom."

We were approaching our destination. She checked her maps one last time, and we walked toward the side of a clapboard walk-up.

"So now we are where xerography was invented 75 years ago," she beamed. "That is amazing."

She called her assistant, Lisa, to ask for a picture to verify our location. Vandebroek filled her in on our walk. "Lisa's amazing," Vandebroek said when she got off the phone. "We have been working together for seven years. I don't know what I would do without her."

Vandebroek hands me her iPhone and I take a picture of her, smiling brightly, in front of the window where the first photocopy was made.

Xerox has transitioned away from xerography in recent years. It still sells printers and copiers, but about 55 percent of its revenue now comes from business services. The company expects that portion to grow to 66 percent by 2017. Vandebroek heads Xerox's research efforts as it makes that transition.

"Today in research, we don't develop copiers anymore, because that's really past. People don't really copy," she said without any sign of disappointment. In 1975, her predecessor George E. Pake predicted paperless offices within the next 20 years, and the company has been preparing for the shift ever since.

These days, Vandebroek's quite excited about Xerox's work on city planning. In Los Angeles, she says, "They're putting sensors under each parking spot. So at any time you can monitor which ones are free, which ones are not, who's parking where, how many people are driving through." Xerox then shares that information with city officials and offers advice on how to improve efficiency.

Her team has also focused on hospital systems. "In each research center," she said, "we have ethnographic researchers like anthropologists. And so they went into the hospital and just followed the nurses around for a month. And then they were really able to find that one of the pain points in the hospital is all the systems were disconnected. You have the electronic patients' records and the imaging records, the pharmaceutical database. And so [a nurse] had to personally, manually interact with all of these different databases."

Xerox found nurses spent about 75 percent of their time on paperwork. So it gave nurses mobile devices and a sensor on their badges. When they enter a patient's room, the sensor recognizes their location, and all of the patient's latest information pops up on their mobile device. The researchers found this system could lower the portion of time nurses spent on documentation to 25 percent.

"The really, really fun part of my job," Vandebroek said, "is being able to constantly move and help move into adjacent markets and new customers, new technologies."

For much of Vandebroek's time at Xerox, she was also raising three children on her own. Her first husband passed away in 1996.

"He and I were very, very close," she said after we'd retreated to a coffee shop. "We had been dating when we were 17. So more than half my life we had been together, my one and only boyfriend. We were all alone in the U.S., and we had focused on our jobs, our studies and our kids, not on building a community. He used to say I had the world by a string. Everything was going well for us. And then while camping, because we loved to camp, he got an asthma attack and basically between making a campfire and no longer being there it was like 30 minutes."

Vandebroek said the experience drastically changed her outlook. "Many things that people think are important in life are just not important. Life can be finished tomorrow, or in an hour, who knows? So letting go of the little things in life, like whether your kid takes a shower every day, and really focusing on what is important. And to me what suddenly became even more extremely important was my children."

She inquired about my own parental status. I could handle it, she assured me. "You do what you have to do, you could bring them," she said, gesturing under the counter. "I used to go to meetings and bring my baby, even when my husband was still alive. Just bring them, put them underneath the table in the conference room."

Vandebroek sees this prioritizing of genuine human needs in her mission at Xerox research. "The beauty of my job," she said, "is to look off five to ten years from now. How is this world going to be different, and what do we need to create today to really make sure that the right solutions of products exist in the future to really benefit the client, no matter who they are?"

Photo: GSG/Creative Juice

Share this

Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure