Dr. Jeff Welser — Vice President and Lab Director, IBM Research Almaden

I had the pleasure of kicking off THINK 2019 by meeting with Dr. Jeffrey Welser, Vice President and Lab Director, IBM Research - Almaden. I met Jeff right in the heart of THINK! So you will be able to hear the buzz of the conference as we talk about Jeff's hobbies, his career, the future of IBM research, quantum computing and more! Jeff was an awesome guy - so accomplished but very down to earth, relate-able and easy to talk to - exactly the kind of guy that I am sure the IBM research team would love to work with and follow. Enjoy the podcast!

Contents

🎧 Listen In

📖 Read Along

💡 Key Messages

🎧 Listen In

Here is the podcast.

📖 Read Along

As usual, the footnotes like you see here 1 will contain fun extra notes. I have also included some of the raw speech-to-text bloopers which are by far greater than the real content itself. These footnotes are slightly more boring 1 and will contain definitions and additional information.

Dr. Jeff Welser, so great to meet you and thank you for talking to me. PhD graduate from Stanford, Director of IBM Research Lab Almaden and Vice President. It’s all very intimidating
Hahah
Just to humanise you, would you be able to tell us what your favourite movie, your favourite food and your favourite hobby just to kick things off?
So I'll start with my favourite hobby which is actually cooking. I love to cook, it is by far my favourite thing
Well that works well with your favourite food
Exactly. For foods I love sushi in general but if i’m cooking something I really like to make braised meats, like a piece of beef or a piece of pork and cook them for for hours and hours in the stove with a really thick sauce, oh that's great. And favourite movie, favourite movie. Well my favourite classic movie is probably Harold and Maude which is back from the 60s. Something that is more more modern that I have enjoyed recently, well I have to say I watch a lot of kids movies right now because my son is 10 years old, so I'm deep in the middle of the Marvel Heroes series which are hardly arts films but they are kind of fun
Awesome awesome. So you went to Stanford University and did electrical engineering at your bachelor?
Yes that's right
And you decided that wasn't enough and that you wanted to do your masters in electrical engineering?
Yep haha
Aand that still didn't satisfy you and so you decided you wanted to do your PhD
Haha correct
So looking back on your younger self, what made you decide to wanted to do a PhD and did you know at that age that research was what you wanted to go into?
So I think two things. First of all actually, growing up like my father was a professor. My mom also taught at a university. So everyone I knew around me had PhDs. I lived in a very educated area, everyone had at least a masters
Right so it was like an arms race
Yeah exactly I always joke my father “it wasn't until I got to college that I realised I didn't have to go, I thought I had to”. So I got to college, I really was really going to computer science and programming but I really got interested in the hardware the physics side of the world. Yeah. So starting an engineering and when I finished the bachelor I realised I wanted to get at least a masters because I really wanted to get into some of the material stuff and that that point I got into the PhD program but took a year off and went worked for IBM.2 There was a guy there who liked to take in students when they're somewhere in the graduate program
Like an internship?
Sort of but it was a year long so it was sort of like a postdoc but like, before you're a doc. Right. So did a year at Yorktown Heights and really loved doing research. Thought it was great so yeah that solidified it, go back to school, get the PhD
And that ticked that box that you wanted to go into research
Exactly, although interestingly though when I finished the PhD I was kind of on the edge about going into research at someplace like AT&T Bell Labs or IBM, like an industrial research lab or going to be a professor
Yeah traditional sort of research
Exactly so I was kinda on the edge and one of the things that drew me to IBM was when I started there in 95 they let me also teach at Columbia University for a couple of years. So I like to kind of test the waters for a while before I decide on something
Yeah so that allowed you to balance both of your desires
Exactly. I realised that I loved and still love working with students, I get to continue to work a lot with universities, but I liked doing the industrial side of research
Having business value for what you are you doing?
Exactly
Awesome, and now you're become the Vice President and Lab Director of IBM Research Almaden, not just any research lab but the one in the tech hub of the world. From starting your first position at IBM Research T.J. Watson, what was your journey from there to getting to where you are today?
Well first of all I think like most people I didn't ever see that I would be an IBM this long. I had the idea it would be for a few years and then I would try a new job but I kept finding new opportunities, actually one of the things I always encourage people at IBM to do is that there are so many different things you can do at this company. So for me I was a researcher I loved it. After about four or five years I started managing the group which I also enjoyed and I realised I liked being a manager as I could see more of the research rather than just my little slice
What was your slice?
I was a device to device person so I focused on how you create the next generation Moore's Law chips, new materials, new device structures. So a lot of physics and fabrication in the lab
I suppose there is a big overlap between the electrical engineering and the physics
That's exactly right. Actually my group in grad school was applied physics and half electrical engineering. So I like that part, like doing the management and then I started talking to my managers about the fact that I thought I might want to go for more of a managerial track rather than a technical track
And that was just to continue to have that overview?
Yeah. I like the breadth. I like being able to get lots of different things even rather than just doing my one thing. So I got an opportunity actually be a technical assistance to one of our general managers at the time. John Kelly who's now a senior V.P. He was at the time the general manager for the micro electronics division, the chip division. So I spent a year shadowing him and that was a great role to help me understand, you know, what the real business of IBM is about. I was amazed at how they don’t really spend much time with the technology they assume the technology and are like - How are you gonna market? Who are your partners going to be? Who are your clients going to be? Understanding all of that was really cool
Shadowing, that’s interesting you brought that up because back in Australia New Zealand there is discussions going on about changing the graduate program to include shadowing opportunities for the graduates. How would you describe it, was that one of your most pivotal experiences do you think along your journey?
Absolutely, because it really has in many ways. First of all it solidified my mind that I do like idea of going into management but also realise that I really had to think more suddenly about what is managing? what do I actually want to do? There’s development and consulting and lots of areas to go into. Yes so I think that a T.A. position is great. Tends to be a full year so it a lot of commitment to your career. Yeah I think just seeing with like a week or two of shadowing would be helpful to get some ideas on things. So from there I went back and did a management development so I got out of research for a while and I enjoyed that, it was a great experience. I do highly recommend getting out of your division, try other divisions of IBM at some point because you get a better view
And just to keep things interesting
Exactly exactly. And then I came back into research. I spent several years actually in a role where I was managing a consortium of companies, with IBM being one of them of course, that funded university research on electronics. So I got a lot of time there working with university professors, working with executives of other companies that we can be pleased are our competitors like Intel, etc and then also the government, trying to get funding from the government to fund universities to do work that we thought was interesting. It was a very different experience. I loved it. That was really interesting for me. I actually then moved out of my comfort zone yet again to start managing software, which was not my area. That was I was a director so I would say that was an interesting challenge because I'd always been used to being in the area that I knew really well, so when I talk to my employees I knew that area very deeply. I don’t know software. I can program but i’m not a software guy. So it was very interesting, how do you manage a team when these guys all have PhDs and are all these experts in their field. How do you manage them and really help them if you can't actually help them technically?
When you do when you're at the depth that they might have
Exactly. So really its much more than about strategy and figuring out your resources and how to allocate those resources
And trust?
And trust, a lot of trust. Also getting better about understanding when people are talking to you, if you do not understand the details, when something needs to be poked down a bit maybe. Is that really going that well? or are we having some trouble here? So you kind of learn that skill. But I think mostly it's about hiring good people, watching for results and trusting that you get good results
Awesome and then that led you into your role today then?
Exactly. I did that and then in 2013 I moved from that role and took my old boss’s role to take over the lab
What's that like?
That is the best job in IBM. I think running a research lab, particularly one of the big labs like Zurich, Haifa, Almaden, the ones that are a fairly large and somewhat independent is great. The lab is a good size, I've got about 300 researchers so it's big enough we can really do cool things, but it's also small enough you really feel like a family and you get to know everybody and interact with them. So yeah it's a fantastic, and the breadth of stuff we do. We've got material science, which is my area, there are guys in the basement who literally move individual atoms around to create materials and structures. It's just fascinating. We’ve got a lot of work on quantum computing, polymer chemistry, hardcore science for the future chips that we do. And then there’s software and AI, storage system software like scale storage and cloud. We do a lot of work in medical imaging, and health in general, a lot of healthcare work. Also natural language processing, like the stuff that goes into the Project Debater although we weren't really big in the debater part itself, but some of the underlying technologies we work on. So yeah it's a great lab
Awesome, you stole the next question
Hahah
There's so much exciting stuff going on in that lab and then even beyond that, globally as well. Is there any particular field that fascinates you right now?
Quantum computing is by far the most fascinating thing that is going on in technology today, hands down. Even just the actual hardware I appreciate as well because it's very complicated, but putting that aside, just the software and the programming paradigm is so different than anything we've ever seen before. And it combines so many different fields of math and physics. We also need software developers, hardcore software developers who are willing to learn enough about quantum so we can start to apply it in new areas. So I think you know if I were starting my career, if it were 1995 again I would be spending a lot of my time focussing on quantum, I think it is really interesting
So in the lab do you guys have the coolers?
We have some of the coolers, we did some work, we mostly do the software work, a lot of the hardware work goes on in York Town Heights
So I'm of the mindset that we live in a very exciting time as a human race. I mean looking at the last 120 thousand years, you know nothing really happened until a couple hundred years ago, like 200 years ago we were still firing cannonballs. And since we have had electricity, the industry evolution, space travel, the internet and computers. And now you know everything going on now, with AI, virtual reality, robotics, we’re going to be able to book holidays to Mars you know potentially in the next 50 to 100 years. What are you my most excited for us as a human civilisation for say the next 50 to 100 years?
So I got to say, it sounds very mundane but I cannot wait for self-driving cars to become real. Unfortunately I think we are further away than we think they are because I think it's really hard to get this right. Myself, I want to stop driving when I am in my 70s and not get behind the wheel. I do think it would be amazing to have that freedom, where we will actually get to where we want without having to drive
Yeah, so you could read the paper?
Exactly. Insinuating that I'll be old and senile I will want the car driving me around
That's actually a big thing, I remember at a speaking event I did about self-driving cars, a lot of the senior people felt strongly for it because they feel less confident driving as they get older
Absolutely, I think a still driving car would already be better than me today
Haha yeah and might cost less on insurance. When the day comes where you will look back on your career, what would be the one thing or what would want you’d want to say that you did?
Well look I have to say two things because I'm actually very proud of the work I did when I first was in grad school and what came out of strain silicon which became a basis for a lot of what we do for our computer chips today. So just from a technical standpoint I was really proud of being able to be part of that time. Yeah but if I think about my career afterwards…
And you may have already achieved it
Haha well I think, well I hope that I will be able to identify those things we could have real impact and fostering and growing them. Because once you go into management you aren’t ding it yourself anymore. But I want to be able to look back and say wow, you know it was because I said let's go do this
That you picked the right things to pursue
Right and I don’t know which one of those it’s going to be yet, which ones are going to be the ones that I remember the fondest, but thats what I hope to look back on
Awesome. Is there anything that you wish you'd known when started out, if you could go back and talk to a younger version of yourself, what would it be?
Yeah. I would have I would told myself to stick with the programming and computer science longer. I would never change my actual major and where I did it, but when I got into electrical engineering I kinda just got enough programming under my belt to be able to use it. I don't think I realised, or any of us did in the late 80s early 90s, how all-pervasive software would become to everything we do. So now I mean obviously Ive picked up Python, Java and I can pick up some things along the way but I wish I'd stuck with that longer. I would say for people today, no matter what you are you going into, make sure you learn software
If you could recommend one book to somebody what would it be?
Gödel, Escher, Bach. It's a treatise on Gödel who a famous mathematician, Escher of course the artist and Bach the musician and it really is just a treaty on intelligence, what is intelligence, what is consciousness like, from all different aspects. I just found it fascinating
A mathematician, an artist and a musician? Wow
It's written a series of little parable like stories and then some more depth behind it as well. I find it fascinating. For a fiction book I love Cloud Atlas. Its not a light read but its a fun read
Jeff. Thank you so much
Absolutely

💡 Key Messages

Here are my key takeaways from the podcast.

  • Stick to one thing for a part of your life and do it well - A part of what has led to Jeff's success is that he stuck to something - in this case electrical engineering - and did it very well for a big part of his life. From there that opened up the opportunities to move into management but that depth of knowledge and experience is something that he draws on all the time
  • Seek Shadowing opportunities - One of the pivotal points in Jeff's career and development was shadowing someone in a position that he was looking to move into for a full year. Jeff said the experience was amazing and opened his eyes to so much more of the business and strongly suggests that people seek shadowing opportunities, even if it is just for a week or two
  • Make your preferences known - Jeff stated that once he realised he wanted to go down the managerial track that he let his bosses know. It may sound simple but it is extremely important to make your aspirations and preferences known to those around you so that they can help foster your growth
  • Everybody should learn software - Software is all-pervasive and Jeff believes that everybody, no matter who you are or what your role is, should start to develop an understanding of programming and software
  • Jeff can't wait for self driving cars - So when he's - to use his words - 'old and senile', he can still get from A to B
  • Read Gödel, Escher, Bach - A book about human intelligence and consciousness by a mathematician, artist and a musician