We sat down with Robin Coxe to talk about her career path to quantum and professional advice for getting started in this field, as we celebrate her promotion to Vice President of the Control Systems Engineering team.
Tell us why you decided to join Atom Computing?
Robin: I jumped at the chance to be an early employee at a startup where I could lead a team designing state-of-the-art electronic systems, help build a company, and play a part in the next revolution of computing. My job at Atom Computing makes my somewhat unconventional career path make sense. When I started grad school in elementary particle physics, I was under the impression that I was going to be a professor. As I was finishing my PhD, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, where the Higgs Boson was eventually discovered in 2012) was delayed by a few years, so I averted a decade-long postdoc and made the leap to industry. My first role after graduating was as a systems engineer on an imaging satellite program at an aerospace giant. I went on to spend 15 years as a digital logic designer, primarily focused on wireless telecom. Prior to joining Atom Computing, I was the R&D manager for the Ettus Research software-defined radio product line at National Instruments. At NI, I gained valuable experience leading a multidisciplinary technical team and shepherding hardware designs from conception to mass production. The key elements of the control systems for Atom’s quantum computers that interact with laser systems that cool, trap, and manipulate atomic qubits and read out quantum states happen to be technologies that I’ve spent years working on with: software-defined radios, field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), and image processors. We are always on the lookout for talented software, FPGA, and hardware engineers with experience in these areas.
Did you have any reservations about getting into quantum computing, even though it was a relatively new technology and market?
Robin: Not really, to be honest. It was an easy decision to join Atom Computing. I didn’t even know enough to be dangerous about atomic physics or quantum information when I started. I was very upfront about my lack of expertise in these domains during the interview process. Fortuitously, I appeared on the scene at just the right time when Atom Computing was looking for someone with expertise in FPGA and hardware design, software-defined radio, and technical leadership. I have a long history of learning on the job and my colleagues have made figuring things out on the fly very easy. The team members at Atom Computing are not only extremely smart and capable but also genuinely nice, humble, and willing to share their knowledge. Having a Ph.D. in physics is not a prerequisite to join the Control Systems or Software teams here. We are the Non-Quantum Engineers of Atom Computing– hurrah!
What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned since working in this field?
Robin: I avoided atomic physics in college and graduate school because at the time it seemed boring. Working at Atom Computing, I have come to appreciate that we are the beneficiaries of experimental techniques using lasers to cool, trap, and manipulate large arrays of alkaline earth atoms that are astonishingly clever and deserving of the Nobel Prizes that were awarded to the physicists who created them. I still find calculating Clebsch-Gordan coefficients very unexciting, but fortunately, that is not my job.
What gets you excited about how quantum computing could change the world? What is a problem you are passionate about that quantum computing may help solve-for in the future?
Robin: In recent years, computing industry pundits have been predicting the imminent demise of Moore’s Law as transistor sizes approach limits where quantum mechanical effects can no longer be ignored. I am of the opinion that any self-respecting Bay Area tech person should be wildly excited by the promise of quantum computing to target classes of problems that cannot be solved in tractable timeframes on classical computers. Quantum Moore’s Law? Yes, please!
Using quantum computers for high-energy physics simulations appeals to me because as a former particle physicist, I would like to see that sub-field of physics continue to pursue the reductionist ideal for many years to come. Practically speaking, developing quantum algorithms to solve gnarly optimization problems (i.e., “what is the most efficient way to do X?”) would be amazing – the entirety of humanity could benefit from wasting less time.
What is one piece of advice you’d offer someone considering getting into this field?
Robin: The ability to write concisely and clearly and to give coherent, compelling presentations are often overlooked superpowers in STEM jobs. Another important skill is the ability to debug things when they break by thinking both broadly and deeply, adhering to the scientific method, writing everything down, and only changing one thing at a time.