This Oracle Manager Has Been Leading Humanitarian Efforts Since His 20s

photo for Kartik Kulkarni
Photo: Kartik Kulkarni

By: Kathy Pretz

THE INSTITUTE When Kartik Kulkarni was 23 years old in 2009 he might have been one of the youngest IEEE members to lead a global IEEE steering committee. The group was tasked with studying how to use members’ tech know-how to solve societal issues.

Kulkarni already had some experience in that area. In college, he and his classmates developed games to encourage children with special needs to complete their treatment plans.

In 2013 he and other committee members founded the IEEE Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Technology (IEEE SIGHT), with Kulkarni as chair. The global volunteer network helps connect IEEE members with underserved communities and local organizations, for work on sustainable development projects.

The IEEE senior member is manager of the database transactions R&D group at Oracle, in Redwood City, Calif., where he has worked for more than eight years.

After serving as SIGHT chair for four years, Kulkarni was appointed in 2019 to a one-year term as chair of the IEEE Humanitarian Activities Committee, which reports to the IEEE Board of Directors. The committee focuses on raising awareness of how technically trained people can contribute to society. It also provides training on how to go about it. In addition, the committee provides funding for humanitarian technology projects and sustainable development activities.

For his volunteerism and technical work, Kulkarni was selected as this year’s recipient of the annual IEEE Theodore W. Hissey Outstanding Young Professional Award, which is sponsored by IEEE Young Professionals and the IEEE Photonics and Power & Energy societies. He is being recognized “for contributions to the technical fields of transactions and in-memory databases, as well as for enabling young professionals working on technologies for sustainable development.” He is set to receive the award at the virtual 2021 IEEE Vision, Innovation, and Challenges Summit and Honors Ceremony, to be held from 11 to 13 May.

The Hissey Award was created to honor young professionals for contributions to the technical community and IEEE fields of interest. Hissey, an IEEE Life Fellow and IEEE director emeritus, supported the IEEE Young Professionals community over the years.

“The award is the legacy and inspiration from Ted Hissey that we young professionals need to carry forward, specifically in the sector of sustainable development in pursuit of achieving the U.N.’s sustainable development goals,” Kulkarni says. “Never before has there been so much emphasis and importance [placed] on the need to achieve the sustainable development goals around the world. The young professionals of IEEE have a huge role to play in pushing this movement further. I think this award is basically a testament to the fact that this trend needs to be supported, encouraged, and resourced.”

COMPASSIONATE STUDENT

Kulkarni credits his mother, a mathematician, for encouraging him to pursue an engineering career. She helped him build circuits, assisted him with science projects, and took him to science exhibits held in and around Hubli, Karnataka, India, where he grew up.

His mother also instilled in him a desire to help others. Kulkarni says he joined the IEEE student branch at B.V. Bhoomaraddi College of Engineering and Technology (now known as KLE Technological University), in Hubli, to put his engineering knowledge to work on humanitarian programs in his community. He later served as the branch’s chair.

One organization he helped was the USHAS Center for Exceptional Children, in Hubli. The center works with children who have physical and mental challenges. To motivate the children to do their therapy and exercises, Kulkarni and 18 other students developed electronic games, devices, and toys. One helped children enhance their cognitive abilities. Kulkarni describes another, the Walking Tutor leg-exercising aid, as a physical version of the Pac-Man video game, played in a room with glowing tiles.

The team won the 2009 IEEE Presidents Change the World Competition’s Distinguished Student Humanitarian prize of US $5,000 and a trip to Los Angeles to receive the award. There, Kulkarni met several IEEE presidents, who later tapped him to chair the IEEE SIGHT steering committee.

“This program really was a big thing, at least in my volunteer career,” he says. “We scaled to over 100 groups in 40 countries. These groups of engineers solved a variety of problems,” including off-grid electrification and building communications in remote places around the world.

“Seeing technology and our efforts directly benefiting the local community and solving the problem and then witnessing the impact of technology firsthand—there’s big excitement in that,” he says. “That type of experience is hard to get, especially in the engineering sector, if you’re working in a corporate job or if you’re working on some academic research effort. These projects put us in a position where we can directly experience the impact that’s created.”

PRINCIPLES AT WORK

Kulkarni graduated from B.V. Bhoomaraddi in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, electronics, and communications. He then earned a master’s degree in computer engineering in 2012 from Carnegie Mellon. He joined Novellus Systems (now part of Lam Research) in 2009 and began working at Oracle in 2013.

At Oracle he is a lead designer of the Database-Native Blockchain Transactions initiative. The aim is to use blockchain technology to make databases more manageable, scalable, and easy to analyze.

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Photo: Kartik Kulkarni Kulkarni [second from the right] with the former president of India, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, [center] and other attendees at the 2012 IEEE Honors Ceremony in San Francisc

Kulkarni says his day job is typically focused inward, meaning he isn’t in direct contact with the last-mile users benefiting from his work, “whereas humanitarian projects are all about looking at the actual beneficiaries as the stakeholders and involving them in the overall project.”

He says he takes inspiration from the rigor of his Oracle job and applies it to his humanitarian work.

“The quality and performance of Oracle’s products are extremely important, so we have to think about everything that can go wrong and everything that moves the performance needle,” he says. “That same kind of mindset is important to humanitarian projects. Applying systems thinking to the humanitarian projects is key to ensuring success of those projects.”

ADVANCING SUSTAINABILITY

Kulkarni has a message for IEEE’s young professionals: Use IEEE as a platform and a resource to help achieve sustainable development goals.

“Sustainable development is going to be the next biggest thing in a decade or so,” he says. “I think there is growing consciousness across the board that whatever is good for the environment and whatever’s good for the society should also be prioritized from the business standpoint. But I also see a lack of rigor, a lack of measurement, and a lack of quantitative analysis. We as engineers should bring this perspective of rigor into this sector.”

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 24 March 2021.