In 2020, IBM scientists and researchers received 9,130 United States patent grants, making them the top patent recipient for the 28th year in a row. And this year, it was not even close, with the second-place company, Samsung, trailing by almost 2,700 patents. Dominance in scientific discovery and innovation has become a cultural linchpin for the company, which has been at the “cutting-edge” since they were manufacturing meat and cheese slicers under the name Computing-Tabulating-Recording in 1911. These days, IBM has mostly moved on from its roots manufacturing mainframes and electronic keypunch cards for early tabulators. In 2020, IBM was an industry leader in critical developing areas like artificial intelligence (AI), cloud, quantum computing, and security-related patents.
Not only is IBM a forward-thinking company when it comes to scientific progress in the form of patents, but the company has also been leading the way in other areas such as diversity and inclusion, and sustainability. The company’s legacy of leveraging science for good has even shined through during the COVID-19 pandemic. In April 2020, IBM became a founding partner of the Open COVID Pledge, which grants free access to its patent portfolio to innovators worldwide developing technologies to help diagnose, prevent, contain, or treat coronaviruses.
Long story short, there are a lot of reasons to be excited about IBM. Luckily, I have gotten a chance to go to school with Shireen Bhatia, who interned at “Big Blue” during her first summer of law school. When I heard the news about IBM’s success in 2020, I wanted to reach out to Shireen to get the inside scoop about working at the nation’s leading innovator, and thankfully, she agreed to answer some questions for us all to learn more about it. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the questions.
T: Shireen, what led you to choose IBM for an internship during your first summer of law school? Did your scientific background or interests play a role in ending up there?
S: I heard about working in IBM’s patent center from a fellow UNH student, now a UNH alum during orientation of our 1L year. Hearing her story about how exciting it was to work on software and technology-focused patents resonated with me a lot!
I had a strong interest in pursuing patent law as a serious career since I had completed a research project in high school in AVRDC the World Vegetable Center in Shanhua, Taiwan. The project was sponsored by the Borlaug Ruan Internship through the World Food Prize. I worked in a Virology lab and my research focused on the resistance of peppers to different types of viruses.
At the time, I was entering my senior year of high school and was equally interested in science and law. Working in the Virology lab and being on the debate team at school guided me towards a career in patent law. That summer in Taiwan revealed the world of patent law to me since the research center had its own IP counsel, and soon enough, I entered college with the intent to obtain a Biology degree and go to law school. Sure enough, I graduated in 2018 with a Bachelors in Biology and Spanish.
After our first semester in the fall of 2018, I began considering positions to apply to over winter break. I thought back to the orientation panel on summer positions and immediately looked up IBM to see if they were hiring summer interns. That’s when I applied, thinking it would be an ideal choice to learn more about patent prosecution, especially in the software industry. I was extremely lucky when IBM hired me as a patent prosecution intern.
T: What was your role as an intern? Were you working on patent prosecution?
S: I was in the patent center located in Rochester, Minnesota campus of IBM so I mainly focused on patent prosecution that summer. My job was to work directly with my mentor, an attorney, and help write arguments or edit claims for different office actions. Sometimes, I also helped write different parts of patent applications alongside my mentor.
T: What was it like working in such an innovative environment, and was it cool to learn about the cutting-edge technologies that the company was developing?
S: It was an incredible and collegial space to work. I was a 1L with little experience writing claims or creating arguments for office actions. I also had no software, AI, or computer science background. The best part of the job was not just learning about how to write claims or compose different arguments to examiner rejections. It was getting to analyze how the latest developments in IBM worked. I researched, read the invention disclosures closely, and found that I was learning all about different forms of software and applications.
T: With so much going on, was it stressful trying to keep up with the rate of innovation happening at the company and being part of such an accomplished legal team?
S: At times, it was stressful! However, having an excellent mentor and accomplished attorneys, agents, and paralegals around you meant that no matter what happened, you could always ask for help. From the first day I walked into the center, the office had arranged a meet and greet breakfast for me. Every attorney, agent, or paralegal I met that morning continually reached out to me during the summer to make sure I didn’t feel completely on my own. I felt like I had support going through the learning process and writing process for these innovative patent applications. I think that’s the goal of what an internship should be: to learn through support.
T: From working on some software patent cases myself, I know that sometimes it can be hard to get the patent examiner to understand the technology. Sometimes, there can be issues with the abstract idea exception (35 USC Section 101). Did you have any experience with that during your summer internship?
S: Oh definitely. I feel like 35 USC §101 didn’t come up nearly as much that summer. I saw way more §103 objections or §102 issues. However, I noticed sometimes the examiner had a different perception of specific terminology regarding an application for an invention relating to software. This resulted in interviews to clarify concepts and basically get interpretations on the same page. It usually did work out in the end after that clarification.
T: What was the culture like at IBM, either within the intern program or overall, and did anything surprise you? Were scientists running around in the hallways talking about their latest and zaniest inventions?
S: The culture was so friendly, collegial, and fun-oriented. As an intern, I felt that the patent center in Rochester specifically was a really interesting and talented group. The hallway was filled with attorneys or agents who were once engineers. Some of the patent specialists were PhDs in Chemistry and were extremely accomplished. Despite how talented every person I met was, each of them strived to be welcoming, kind, and focus on the learning process.
I was surprised at how open the attorneys were to helping interns, mainly with how accessible they were. There were times where I would have a specific question, and I would message my mentor. There were times where he would suddenly arrive at my door with a whole response to my question and other resources. He wanted to show me through drawing on my whiteboard in my office. The amount of education I received just by being there was incredible. I genuinely felt I learned more than what a class can sometimes fit in within three months.
I also felt that the entire culture at IBM, regardless of the department, is focused on a work-life balance. Because the Rochester campus is quite large, I had the chance to explore the building and the park behind the building quite a bit. I am a pianist in my spare time and found out that right by the cafeteria, the building’s manager had a piano sitting in a coatroom. In addition to eating with attorneys, agents, and other interns, I would spend my lunch break playing the piano or going on walks around the campus park. My department would go out to lunch together at local breweries or restaurants every other Friday. These afternoons were filled with stories, advice on careers, and exploring all that Rochester had to offer. Other times, we would play human foosball with a mini soccer field set up with nearly all the components for foosball set up, but life-sized!
Because it was the summer, the city also had an event called Thursdays on First where the entire street Downtown would be covered with farmers' market-style booths. This was also a department favorite for interns and attorneys alike.
Sometimes on my walks on campus, I would notice in the other departments, engineers and scientists were hard at work. You could see people busy with soldering through the windows or programming intently on their computers. Other times, you could find engineers sitting with scientists in the snack room, eating fresh granola and drinking juice while watching the FIFA World Cup, cheering when someone scored a goal.
People work hard and play hard, no matter the department you work in.
T: Finally, what was your favorite part about your summer with the company, and what advice and suggestions would you give to future interns based on your experience?
S: My favorite part of the summer was learning from some of the best and brightest in innovation. The amount of talent at IBM and focus on learning through the internship was ultimately what I took away the most from the whole experience. I learned more about Watson, AI, Software, and different programs in a patent context. It was the experience of a lifetime and so perfect coming out of my 1L year. It also confirmed that patent law as the right career fit for me!
My advice to future interns is to keep an open mind. You may be like me, with no engineering background or computer science background to speak of. You can still do this job! If you have a willingness to learn about new fields and a new style of writing, you can definitely learn through your experience at IBM. Embrace the knowledge, embrace the learning experiences, and don’t forget to have some fun along the way. 😊