How I got a job in quantum computing
Updated: Nov 6, 2019
Today I want to tell you about the path I took recently while searching for a new job. There’s nothing particularly interesting in changing jobs in general and it’s a topic many people have already written about. However, I think my case is a little bit more interesting since I was trying to get into quantum computing—a field so niche that in the entire world, I found only 15 open positions that suited me. In the end, I succeeded and I think my case shows that it is much easier than many people think.
I see a lot of people new to the field asking about “Do I need to do a PhD in Physics do work in quantum computing” or “How can I get a job in quantum computing?”. I hope my example will help some of these people to answer these questions and plan their actions better.
And just before we start—I use “QC” as an abbreviation for Quantum Computing and “QML” as an abbreviation for Quantum Machine Learning.
Let me start by telling you about my
We—my wife and I—have dreamed of going abroad for many years. It’s not that we don’t like living in Poland, but we both think living in a different country will be an incredibly enriching experience. This decision created a marvellous opportunity for my career for two reasons:
- I’m no longer restricted by my location,
- I can choose any field I want.
Obviously, not every country is suitable for my family and I can’t count on getting any job I want, but you have to admit these two conditions give a lot of freedom. I wanted to work in a field which:
- Will be interesting and intellectually fulfilling for me,
- Is future-proof,
- Gives me the ability to have a huge impact on the world.
Finally, after a couple of months of considerations, I’ve decided that QC is the best path for me. It is a nascent field, there are still relatively few people working in this industry. It’s also unexplored—we still have no idea what will be possible in just a couple of years, which solutions and methods are good and which won’t work in the long run. Furthermore, even though there is some consensus across the community that real-world applications will appear in the next 5 years (so 2024 or sooner), it’s still speculation—we don’t even know what kind of hardware platform will work at a larger scale (currently superconducting qubits seem to lead the race, but this is not the only technology that people are working on). If you take all that and add the potential for solving important problems that are impossible to solve with classical computers, you’ll probably understand why I’m excited about it.
Another reason why I have chosen QC is that my background gives me a natural fit:
- BSc in Physics (and MSc in engineering),
- Basic knowledge of quantum computing and quantum information,
- Software engineering,
- Researching algorithms,
- Machine learning.
These skills and experiences are very valuable in this field so I was already in a pretty good position.
With that being said, let me tell you my story:
I’ve recently heard about Rigetti Computing from A16Z podcast (this and this episodes), which reminded me about the field and sparked my interest again. While looking at their website I found a job offer for Junior Quantum Engineer program and decided to apply. I had an interview and did an assignment, but was finally rejected. At this point, I wasn’t sure if QC was the thing I wanted to do but took the shot and it was a really valuable experience. I also got some interesting materials from my interviewer which inspired me to investigate this topic further. I also started to play a little bit with pyQuil—an open source library for QC.
After a few months of considering various options, I finally decided that I want to pursue a career in QC. In order to do that I needed to understand the market. Using data mainly from the QC report (which is arguably the best source of knowledge about the industry) I have analyzed the geographic distribution of companies and their job offers. I was looking for places with many companies and other organizations interested in this topic which will have a chance to become hubs for this industry in the future. It seemed to me that Toronto, Cambridge/London and perhaps the Bay Area might be such places. Another thing was creating an “ideal candidate profile” based on analysing job offers. I’ve noticed a segmentation here: huge companies like Google, IBM or Microsoft, were looking for people with PhD, years of experience and track record of publications. Startups and smaller companies, on the other hand, were looking for people with less of an academic and more software engineering/machine learning background. At that time I found about 10-15 job offers that I could apply for but usually I didn’t meet even half of the requirements. This research gave me all the information I wanted about the skills I had to acquire or prove.
Another important thought is that if you want a job, applying for an open position is actually the least effective way of getting it. It is much better to be recommended or to establish some relationship with the company. So in addition to building a portfolio proving that I have all the necessary skills, I also needed to know the right people.
Since the plan was to find a job before July 2018, I needed to prioritize and plan carefully. I decided that the best course of action will be to:
- Do a project using some open source QC frameworks and post it on GitHub,
- Go to a conference or two,
- Start contacting people from the industry.
I was learning more about quantum software and pyQuil and was wondering what project would be interesting to do. At the beginning of March, I had a call with Witek Kowalczyk from Bohr Technology—a QC startup from Poland. We decided that I can do an open source project for them, so both parties would benefit. Finally, we decided to write an algorithm for solving the Travelling Salesman Problem and to create a web application based on that.
In the meantime I began to contact different startups, especially from Toronto.
In April I participated in the BQIT conference in Bristol. It was not only about QC but also about other quantum technologies. Even though it didn’t bring any job opportunities for me, I learned a lot and validated some of the ideas I had about the industry. I really recommend it, you can find the videos of some presentations here.
Later I was also taking part in the QML workshop in Cracow. I met many interesting people here, most importantly Peter Wittek, Academic Director of the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) track for QML. CDL is a seed-stage program for startups and there is a special program for companies interested in QML.
At this point, I have contacted several startups from Toronto and almost finished my project for Bohr. Then, it turned out that Bohr was accepted into CDL and Witek asked me to join them for a 2-week technical training in Toronto. That was the best thing that could happen. I scheduled a couple of meetings, took two-week vacation from my job and travelled to Toronto at the beginning of July.
What an excellent experience that was! It was two weeks of technical workshops with experts in the field of QC and QML. And even though CDL also covers more business-oriented topics, we focused on the technical aspects during these two weeks. There were many things I loved about it but from the perspective of this post I would highlight two areas:
It was 2 weeks I spent immersed in an extreme amount of knowledge about QC, QML and the industry. I think it was one of the most intense learning experiences of my life. Since I already had some practical experience with quantum algorithms and with machine learning, I was able to grasp quite a lot of what happened there.
During the two weeks I was in Toronto I had meetings with 6 or 7 different quantum startups, including a regular technical interview. Some of the meetings were arranged earlier, some popped up during my stay. I also met many people who were about to start their startups—knowing them is a great professional capital for future ventures, even though most of these startups will probably fail (statistics are ruthless).
After I came back to Poland I had two offers on the table. The first one was for a 3-month contract from one of the startups—I actually got it just before coming to Canada. The second one was from Bohr for a regular job. I quit my job at Estimote—31st of July was my last day there—had a month break and in September started to work for Bohr remotely from Cracow.
Right now I’m working at Bohr, remotely, from Cracow. My immigration process is moving forward and I hope I will be able to move to Toronto sometime in spring 2019. I plan to continue my remote work for Bohr from there since I really enjoy both the stuff I do and working with my team :)
Now that you know my story I would like to share a couple of thoughts about getting a job in QC (or in general)—I hope it will be useful for someone :)
Personally, I don’t think a PhD is necessary for getting a job in QC. In my opinion, industry experience is equally (if not more) important. But I don’t want to get into the debate “is doing PhD worth it?” since in the end, the question “Is PhD necessary to work in QC” is a poorly stated question. The question people should ask is “What skills and experience do I need to get a job in QC and what is the best way for me to obtain it?” Doing a PhD might provide you with many of the skills required but perhaps getting a low-level job at some startup might give you the same skills in a much shorter time. What’s more, the industry is growing very fast and the skills required change—most jobs are more flexible than a PhD. Regardless of whether or not a PhD is the best way for getting a job in QC, you don’t risk much by considering other options and you might actually choose a path more suitable for you.
Applying to startups
If one is not an expert, I think it’s easier to find a job in a startup than in some bigger, well-established company. There are at least two reasons for that:
- I haven’t found any entry-level positions in big companies,
- There are many more startups.
A couple of observations from my experience:
- You can just write to several startups and try to make some contacts—usually one contact leads to another,
- It’s best to write directly to the CEO—especially in smaller startups,
- The fact that there are no open positions doesn’t mean they are not looking for people (this is actually true for any company),
- Some startups (especially those in the earliest phase) are willing to let you work in exchange for shares instead of money.
Meeting people who are already working in QC is incredibly valuable. It allows you to validate some of the ideas you have about the industry and career, expand your knowledge and gives a lot of motivation.
There are many ways to meet these people. The two I tried is:
- Going on the conferences/meetups/workshops,
- Cold-mailing and talking with them on Skype.
It might sound trivial but it really works.
I hope this post will be helpful for those of you who think about a job in QC and interesting for those who don’t.
As always, I will be happy to get feedback from you and I encourage you to sign up for the newsletter (form below).
A lot of things changed in the meantime: Bohr Technology no longer exists and I work at Zapata Computing now, Toronto office. Also, the field grew significantly in the past two years. But still - I think most points of this blogpost still hold.
Have a nice day!