Podcast | Quantum Career Pathways – with Denise Ruffner from Atom Computing

Podcast | Quantum Career Pathways – with Denise Ruffner from Atom Computing

Podcast | Quantum Career Pathways – with Denise Ruffner from Atom Computing

According to one source, there are currently 1,600 job openings in quantum computing. Evidence of a skills shortage, no doubt. A shortage that is only likely to become a bigger issue moving forward. What does it take to start a quantum career path? Is a PhD a must-have? Join host Konstantinos Karagiannis for a chat on becoming part of our growing industry with Denise Ruffner from Atom Computing.

Guest Speaker: Denise Ruffner, Atom Computing

The Post-Quantum World

The Post-Quantum World on Apple Podcasts. 

Quantum computing capabilities are exploding, causing disruption and opportunities, but many technology and business leaders don’t understand the impact quantum will have on their business. Protiviti is helping organisations get post-quantum ready. In our bi-weekly podcast series, The Post-Quantum World, Protiviti Associate Director and host Konstantinos Karagiannis is joined by quantum computing experts to discuss hot topics in quantum computing, including the business impact, benefits and threats of this exciting new capability.

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Protiviti Podcast Transcript Transcript

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos

According to one source, there are currently 1,600 job openings in quantum computing. Evidence of a skill shortage, no doubt — a shortage that is only likely to become a bigger issue moving forward. What does it take to start a quantum career? Do you have to have a Ph.D.? Find out more about how to be a part of our exploding industry in this episode of The Post-Quantum World.

I’m your host, Konstantinos Karagiannis. I lead Quantum Computing Services at Protiviti, where we’re helping companies prepare for the benefits and threats of this exploding field. I hope you’ll join each episode as we explore the technology and business impacts of this post-quantum era.

Our guest today is the chief business officer of Atom Computing, Denise Ruffner. Welcome to the show.

Denise Ruffner
Denise
Thank you. I’m happy to be here.
Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos
We’re both going to be speaking at the Chicago Quantum Exchange Quantum Recruiting Forum on April 8. I’d love to get into your thoughts on quantum career pathways. But first, please tell us a little bit about Atom Computing.
Denise Ruffner
Denise

Atom Computing is a startup based in Berkeley, California. We started in 2018. One of our founders, Ben Bloom, had experience building atomic clocks and had this “Aha!” insight that that technology could be used to develop a quantum computer. He went out and got funding and in two years built a 100-qubit quantum computer, which everybody in the industry knows is quite a feat. And we have since then closed a Series B round of $60 million, and we’re building multiple computers and we’re going to do even better than our first computer. It’s a very exciting company at a very exciting time.

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos
You’re already talking about 40-second coherence times, so it’s pretty impressive. Did you want to share anything about what the next machine is going to be like? Do you have any guesses in size, or anything like that?
Denise Ruffner
Denise

Well, it’s going to be more qubits. I’m going to say you’re going to go from hundreds to multiple hundreds, and I’ll leave it at that.

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos

That’s impressive. For anyone listening who doesn’t know this, when you add just one qubit, you double the power, so adding hundreds is pretty exponentially powerful.

We don’t normally go too deeply into the journey that each guest took to get into this field, but because of our topic today, it literally is the journey that we’re going to talk about. Can you take us through your career pathway — and I have a spoiler alert for listeners: You’re going to mention some quantum juggernauts, so be ready to hear that.

Denise Ruffner
Denise

Oh. Some quantum juggernauts?

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos
Places you’ve been.
Denise Ruffner
Denise

I’ll start off by mentioning that my mother is a physicist, and I never wanted to be a physicist. I always wanted to be a biologist, so I’m a biologist by training. I worked at IBM for 18 years, and while I was at IBM, I worked on high-performance computing in the life sciences. One day, my boss came to me and said, “The quantum team wants you,” and I thought, “Oh, no — it’s physics.” My mom would be happy. “Oh, no — I don’t want to do that.”

And then I thought about it, and it’s such a fascinating field. I had been following it while at IBM, and there’s so much to learn, and I love something that’s changing and fascinating. And that was the impetus for me to take the job and join IBM Quantum. I was lucky enough to join very early on, so I got to do things like set up the startup programme, where we had a group of software startups that we had alliances with and set up the ambassador programme, where we taught IBMers how to speak about quantum so they could go tell their customers about it. It was just a great experience to learn about quantum and to learn about the industry.

From there, I was recruited to a British startup, Cambridge Quantum, where I was chief business officer for a year, and then was recruited again, by IonQ, a trapped-ion quantum computing company. I spent a year there and most recently was recruited by Atom Computing to lead as the chief business officer, and I’m very excited to be at Atom.

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos

When you think about that Cambridge went on to create Quantinuum and then IonQ, you’ve literally been everywhere where the most powerful machines on Earth were created.

Denise Ruffner
Denise

It’s random.

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos

It’s pretty impressive. Stepping back to those early days with IBM, you were responsible for doing what a lot of companies are going to be tasked with doing right now. You’re moving into quantum, you have to find people who act as champions, who can build awareness and see how that aspect of your company can grow and interact with others. Can you talk about the challenges in that step alone? It’s going to be part of the theme of what we talk about today — getting people involved in quantum in general.

Denise Ruffner
Denise

I loved IBM because it taught me how to talk about quantum in a very disciplined way and in an accurate way. What I feel very strongly about is, quantum computing is amazing, and everybody loves to hear about it, but you can talk about it accurately, and they’ll still love to hear about it. So, I always try to represent the industry and represent my company very clearly and concisely, and based on the scientific data that we’ve shown, as opposed to hyperbole: What could quantum computing do 20 years from now? Let’s all get excited about that. I try to stick to the basics and to the science and create clear expectations. I look for people who also want to be accurate in how they describe this technology to other people, to customers, to collaborators.

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos

Because you didn’t start in quantum, I’m sure that’s going to give a lot of hope to a lot of people listening: You started in a different field and migrated over, so it is definitely possible.

Denise Ruffner
Denise

It is possible. Now, I’m not going to claim to be able to write software, or programme, but I have probably been to an equivalent of an undergraduate degree in quantum computing — I’ve sat through so many lectures. It’s something we all can learn, and there are a lot of great resources online, both in videos and on websites, where you can learn about quantum computing.

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos

There are a lot of different types of job openings and a lot of different focuses that people can have. It’s an exploding industry. Do you think we’re already headed for a skill shortage to meet the demand right now? I feel like I’m seeing it explode quickly.

Denise Ruffner
Denise

We are in a skill shortage. It is exploding quickly. Literally every week, there’s a newsletter from — my favorite one is Oak Ridge National Labs, and it’s free. It’s on quantum computing. There are 1,600-plus jobs open in quantum computing, and every week, they post the newest 100, 150 jobs, so it’s an amazing area. And people hear the word quantum, and they get scared. In fact, they should be running toward it because it’s an amazing field, the people are really nice and welcoming, and it’s fun. I encourage anybody listening to take a look at quantum and not get too fazed by the word quantum, and just look at the job and the opportunity and the challenge.

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos

And Ph.D.’s will not be required for a lot of the jobs. They do have a lot of prerequisites, though. I’d argue that most of them require some kind of quantum physics knowledge. A good number of them do, and they build from there. On the coding side, linear algebra, arguably, machine learning, some other coding experience.

Let’s dive in by job type. Let’s say you have the folks who are involved in building and maintaining the machines. What are your thoughts on those career paths? Are there things that Atom Computing looks for? Is there an approach for how they hunt for this elusive kind of talent — finding geniuses right out there, in a sense?

Denise Ruffner
Denise

When we look at a résumé, we try to look at the person holistically and what they bring. It’s not necessarily that you have to have quantum experience. We’re looking for a strong electrical engineer or a strong optics engineer or a strong laser engineer, whatever that position is, and having quantum experience is nice, but it’s not mandatory. We’re looking more for the skill set and what the person can bring, what they’ve done in the past, and so it’s not “must be quantum.” It’s more like, what can you bring, what unique skills do you have, what have you learned and how can that help us move forward?

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos

I see some of that potentially in the software world too. With your company, obviously, you need all these components to line up to make a working machine. In the software world, in the early days of software, you had to do almost everything, but now you could end up at a giant company — let’s say you went to something like Facebook as a developer. You could end up just working on one tiny piece of it. That’s going to happen in coding in the quantum world too. Do you have any openings like that at your company, and what do you look for there, like helping with the software side of the equation?

Denise Ruffner
Denise

We need all sorts of software people. We need to create a software infrastructure. We need to put our computer on the cloud. We need security. We need to code quantum algorithms. Any IT or software role that a normal company needs, we also need. And a lot of people go, “That’s a quantum company — I can’t,” but yes, you can. And one of the best parts about being at a startup is, you get to try a lot of different things. When you talk about being at a big company, a lot of times, your role is very defined and very limited, and at a startup, it often turns into “We need to do this. Who wants to do it? You do? Great. Thanks.” So you can gain a lot of new experience at a startup.

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos

It probably gives you that opportunity — big fish, small pond: You can make a big splash in a lot of areas in this company and really stand out. If you end up bringing in folks without quantum experience and then they start to see the more quantum jobs — let’s say they come in to do traditional IT, but then they start to look at the algorithm developers or whatever and they get excited — how do you handle that hopping over the fence? Do you plan on having some internal education pathway, or some way that they can start acquiring those other skills that they didn’t have before they got there?

Denise Ruffner
Denise

We do have an internal education pathway, and we’re very supportive of people who want to raise their hand and say, “I want to do this” or “I want to learn this.” That’s wonderful, and our organisation is very supportive of that. We would probably sit down and say, “What do you need to get from A to B?” and “Let’s put together a plan on how you get there and support it.” That’s something we’re always very open to. I have a lot of people who come to me from engineering and say, “I want to talk to customers,” and it’s, like, “Come on — let’s do that.” We’re very open and inclusive and supportive when people want to go outside their comfort zone and try new things.

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos

That sounds like a great approach. Here at Protiviti, we’re trying to implement something in Precipio, a training tool where you can go in and have a curriculum to follow for the different areas. We have a lot of people here, and when they hear quantum, they get excited. They want to learn more about it. It’s always interesting to see how other companies are doing it. There have to be less obvious jobs that aren’t getting the spot in the spotlight right now — you brought up a few. Do any others come to mind, things that people don’t even think of when it comes to quantum that might be out there?

Denise Ruffner
Denise

There are a lot of business jobs — sales jobs, business development, partnership jobs. There’s a lot of the internal workings of a company — accounting. Just about any job you can think of, we’re looking for in quantum. People go, “Quantum?” and they get scared, and sometimes people need to just Google it, or try to check it out a little bit. What they find is a great group of people and great opportunity.

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos

Still, the most important job, most likely, in getting this field off the ground is going to be the true quantum coder. Just in terms of numbers, almost every company is going to want to have a few folks on staff who are able to start using these machines. And then there are going to be companies like mine that help customers use these machines. If we view that as this core, let’s say, bachelor of science degree that that we want to see out there in the field, have you come across any school programmes that are already doing a good job at preparing students for something like that?

Denise Ruffner
Denise

There are so many programmes out there. I do agree with you that being able to programme quantum computers is a great skill, and there’s certainly a lot of demand, but anyone with a software degree can do that. It just takes a little bit of education, but if you know Python, you’re probably 90% there. There are high school–type classes — Qubit by Qubit is an organisation with a coding school. There are more complex courses through MIT. There are all sorts of courses around there. For example, UCLA now has a master’s programme in quantum. UC Davis offers great weekly quantum classes. There’s an amazing variety of different classes and different ways to learn this, whether it’s through a hackathon or a school or coursework.

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos

Does your company provide any feedback to educational institutions? Do you interact with them and say, “We’d really love to see more of this being taught,” or anything like that?

Denise Ruffner
Denise
We do. I’ve gotten very involved in a lot of the coursework. For example, UC Davis, I mentioned it because they have great weekly courses. We also work with quantum computing clubs at universities that are asking us, “What do we need to learn? Can we meet different people in different roles and understand what their jobs are like?” We do a lot of outreach, coaching work, to help people prepare and think about what skills they need to have a career in this industry.
Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos
That’s terrific. That sense of community is important still. How about internships? Do you think that they’re going to have an even bigger impact now as we’re all trying to figure out what curriculum should look like? Do you see internship being this extra way to feed back into a university, especially if you’re taking a junior, let’s say, in for a summer and you then bring them back?
Denise Ruffner
Denise

Internships are really important. We have an internship programme. I encourage every company that asks me to have an internship programme. At my company, last year, we had a great programme over the summer where we tried to give the interns not only a project to do but also a diverse experience where they understood the different roles and the different jobs in the company so they could work on something that was of interest to them, but also get a view of the different roles within the company so that if there were other things they were interested in, they could then go back to school and get more education on it or come back to us and do an internship in another area. Internships are a great way to kick the tires and check out “Is this something I like?” and a chance to do something fun and interesting.

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos

Right now, we’re still in this phase where there’s a lot of information sharing and scientific curiosity being encouraged in the field, so it’s great to see that. Do you think a lot of good training is really outside of school, in the online communities and things like that, especially for people who want to make like a career shift? I’m impressed by how much information is being pushed in some of these online communities. We had on Xanadu to talk about PennyLane, their software for coding, and they’re building around that. We’ve had some other guests where they build an environment just for learning. Do you think that that’s going to be a key part, something that students should be hunting on their own right now?

Denise Ruffner
Denise

That’s a key part, and that’s one of the questions we ask when someone comes to us with an internship. Obviously, if they know PennyLane or they’ve taken some coursework or they know Qiskit, that’s an advantage that they’ve already gone a little bit toward quantum computing and they have some base knowledge. That PennyLane course is great. The education they get is wonderful.

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos

Do you encourage employees, then, to give back to the field that way in terms of education — to help the next generation, for future team members?

Denise Ruffner
Denise

This is something we feel very strongly about. We have alliances with a couple of universities —the University of Colorado, the university at Berkeley, the University of Chicago — and we work very closely with them to try to work with interns and to help people that want careers or want to talk to us individually. That’s something we do a lot. I also lead a group called Women in Quantum, which is 9,000 people worldwide where we’re trying to help people enter the quantum field and help them navigate a career in quantum through mentorship and education.

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos
It’s funny you should mention that — that’s literally what I was going to ask you about next. As a woman in this relatively new field, do you feel your experience has been different than in other areas of the tech sector? This isn’t as established. Some other parts of the tech sector — even though technology is relatively new, when we use the word tech, some of it can feel kind of ancient, like, an infrastructure that’s been in place since, seemingly, the beginning of time. Do you feel that your experience has been noticeably different in quantum?
Denise Ruffner
Denise

Women are a minority in science. They are a minority in quantum, but I don’t think that stood in my way. This is a really welcoming, diverse community, and I don’t think it’s ever been an issue that I’m a woman, so it’s been great.

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos

That’s awesome. It feels like everyone is so excited to be building something new right now, so it’s fun to take a step back and think about how everyone’s experience might be in that growing world. We have a chance to build this from the ground up. It’s still pretty much a ground-floor industry. This is the decade of quantum, but we’ve barely started it.

Denise Ruffner
Denise

It’s very much a ground floor, and it’s funny, because we’re all competitors, yet we’re all friends, and so there’s not snarkiness that you see in other industries: “I can’t talk to him. He’s a competitor.” We’re all on the side laughing and talking and sharing information, so it’s a very welcoming group of people. That’s the part that’s fresh for me — the collaboration within the community and the want of the community to move this technology forward is amazing, and it’s motivating.

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos
It’s been one of the most fun things about being in the Chicago Quantum Exchange, seeing that friendly nature and sharing between companies and things. I say this pretty often on the show, but I’m worried about that day when we all close our doors because of IP concerns and we’re all, like, “We can’t tell you anymore what we’re doing.” You know, we’re all getting that little advantage.
Denise Ruffner
Denise

I’m with you. It’s a fun time, and I want to keep it fun as long as I can. It’s great.

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos
I’m worried about that day. Do you have any thoughts about how we can ensure that it becomes even more of a diverse field going forward? Is there something that companies should be doing that they’re not to make sure that they’re not just making the mix of men and women more equal but also encouraging all kinds of diversity? You have any ideas around that?
Denise Ruffner
Denise

When I go to trade shows, company presidents come up to me, and they stutter, “Denise, I haven’t hired any women lately — I’m so sorry” or “There’s not enough diversity in my company — I’m so sorry.” And the first step is that people are recognising that diversity is important, and there’s a lot of statistics out there that shows that diverse teams perform better than nondiverse teams. The realisation that diversity is an issue is the first step. I know when we hire, we work very hard to hire diverse candidates because as a company, we believe that diversity is important and will be critical to our success. I do see that the industry is moving in the direction that they recognise diversity is important and they try to bring in diverse candidates, so the trend is going in the right direction.

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos

That’s terrific. One of my most trusted employees is my right-hand coder there, Emily Stamm, who works at this company.

Denise Ruffner
Denise

Emily works there? She’s great.

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos

Yeah, I figured you know who she is. I’m sure she’ll be coming to the event too, within a few days of when this airs.

Denise Ruffner
Denise

Cool. I’m looking forward to the event. It’s really going to be great. I’ve seen part of the schedule. It looks amazing, and it’s that kind of event that’s going to help bring people into the industry and help them move into their next career role. That’s an important service that we can provide the community, and the Chicago Quantum Exchange provides the community.

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos

I’d like to see more recruitment events like this around the country participate. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to some schools about what quantum careers look like and that role, so I’m hoping that kind of thing keeps growing. And I’m going to, of course, mention this event in the show notes too so people can get an idea of what it’s like.

I appreciate you sharing some of your thoughts as a little preview. Now I’ll know what kinds of things we’ll be talking about onstage.

Denise Ruffner
Denise

The onstage discussions are always fun to get a diverse panel of people and talk about challenges or talk about opportunities. The message I want to send is that this is a great industry, and not to be scared by the word quantum, and to look around and see that you can really have a great lifelong career here if you want.

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos

It’s the decade of quantum, and it’s only going to grow, so it’s time for people to take note. Thanks again for joining me.

Denise Ruffner
Denise

Thank you.

Konstantinos Karagiannis
Konstantinos

Now, it’s time for Coherence, the quantum executive summary, where I take a moment to highlight some of the business impacts we discussed today in case things got too nerdy at times. Let’s recap.

Atom Computing is a startup that took adaptive technology from atomic clocks to building now 100-qubit quantum computers. They’re hoping to grow that count to multiple hundreds of qubits soon. They also happen to have some great insights into what it takes to grow a quantum talent pool.

It is possible to transition to quantum. Denise started as a biologist and migrated to quantum at IBM Quantum, moving on to Cambridge Quantum, IonQ and now Atom. She’s been involved in setting up programmes that help startups and teach staff members how to talk about quantum. Atom looks for people who explain quantum clearly.

There’s a skill shortage in the field. One source showed 1,600 job openings. Even the most technical positions might not require quantum experience, though — for example, component work with lasers. Some jobs are quantum adjacent — sales, etc. — but prerequisites do increase by some job types, and software is no exception. Quantum physics and linear algebra are requirements in quantum coding jobs.

Atom’s working on ways to help employees switch to other career paths. We do something similar here at Protiviti with Precipio training tracks. The dream is to have schools recognise the more practical jobs and offer bachelor’s degrees that lead to something like a hirable quantum coder, for instance. As we in the industry are communicating our needs to universities, hands-on internship programmes might be another way to influence the workforce of tomorrow as well as the institutions educating them. Online communities and forums are also a key part of educating this workforce.

Denise says women are a minority in science but finds her experience in the quantum industry has been positive and collaborative. She says the first step is to recognise that diversity is a problem to then be able to increase opportunities for women and minorities and build this industry more equitably from the ground up.

That does it for this episode. Thanks to Denise Ruffner for joining to discuss quantum careers and Atom Computing, and thank you for listening. If you enjoyed the show, please subscribe to Protiviti’s The Post-Quantum World and leave a review to help others find us. Be sure to follow me on Twitter and Instagram @KonstantHacker. You’ll find links there to what we’re doing in Quantum Computing Services at Protiviti. You can also DM me questions or suggestions for what you’d like to hear on the show. For more information on our quantum services, check out Protiviti.com, or follow Protiviti Tech on Twitter and LinkedIn. Until next time, be kind, and stay quantum curious.

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