Alumna Rowe inspires CS @ ILLINOIS students as WCS keynote speaker
Working in the financial industry for nearly 20 years, Ulku Rowe (MS CS '97) has excelled at driving business transformation by building scalable enterprise systems that leverage quantitative analytics and big data technologies. Rowe shared some of her career experiences with students October 27, 2016, as the keynote speaker for the annual Women in Computer Science Alumni & Student Dinner, which kicked off the annual CS @ ILLINOIS Alumni Awards weekend.
The head of Credit Risk and Capital Technology at J.P. Morgan, Rowe is responsible for the global technology platforms that manage the firm’s counterparty credit exposure and capital. Prior to this, she was the global head of market risk technology at Bank of America Merrill Lynch and she held a variety of leadership positions at UBS. She experienced firsthand the sea change that occurred after the 2008 mortgage crisis and subsequent financial market meltdown.
“After that, there was a fundamental shift that occurred in how technology was used in financial markets,” Rowe said. “As a technologist, there was a lot of focus on creating the next great algorithm to make money before 2008. But, after 2008, we focused on how do we not lose money and invested heavily in our risk management systems.”
According to Rowe, her time as a graduate student at Illinois was a pivotal experience that shaped her life. She was drawn to Illinois in 1995 to pursue her master’s degree primarily because of the caliber of faculty and students.
“I was thousands of miles away living in Istanbul, but the Illinois faculty were the people whose papers and books I had been reading,” she said. “When I showed up here I had access to these people who were actually changing the way the world operated. My fellow students were also smart as hell and intellectually curious, so it was phenomenal.”
Rowe also appreciated Illinois’ world-class facilities, including the Beckman Institute’s virtual reality CAVE, NCSA, and a Silicon Graphics Lab located in DCL, the CS department’s home before the Siebel Center.
Working with CS Professor Jean Ponce on a collaborative project with Caterpillar, Rowe built a virtual reality prototype of a garbage compactor for her thesis. Rather than simply complete the project in a comfortable lab, Rowe donned work boots and a hard hat and drove a real garbage compactor at a nearby landfill to better understand how the machinery worked.
“I learned two important things from the experience: You need to get your hands dirty physically and metaphorically,” she said. “It also taught me to not be intimidated by anything. It didn’t even occur to me that there were things I couldn’t do. Driving earth-moving equipment was a good thing.”
During her talk, Rowe gave the Illinois students several timely pieces of advice. First, she said, focus on getting things done. “That requires ruthless prioritization, separating the signal from the noise.”
Second, collaborate as much as possible in school because while it may be frustrating at times, it leads to innovation. Third, take risks every day. “You’ll fail now and then, but that’s ok. You’ve got to push the envelope.”
Rowe also told the students to surround themselves with the best people and maintain a healthy work-life balance. “It’s easy to get excited about what you’re doing and you could work endless hours, but don’t forget about social and cultural opportunities,” she said, encouraging her audience to take advantage of performances at Krannert Center and sporting events on campus. “You’re at one of the best educational institutions in the world with access to the best faculty and facilities and you’re surrounded by great people, so enjoy the ride.”
According to CS senior Emily Chao, Rowe’s advice resonated with her. “She told us to not take for granted this university because its resources are immense,” said Chao, an officer in WCS. “She told us to surround ourselves with smart people and learn from the best.”
In addition to sharing her time with students on campus, Rowe has supported her alma mater through financial giving. Rowe and her husband Craig (BS CS + BA Econ '90) and other family members established the Rowe Family Scholarship a decade ago to provides support for incoming CS freshmen who needed financial assistance in order to attend college.