QC Mentorship Program - backstory
Updated: Feb 2
As the main coordinator this project I would like to give you some of the backstory and motivation behind it. You can find more practical information about the project on the QOSF website.
I hope that beside being an interesting story, it will also allow you to better understand the state of the QC community at the moment.
It all started when I was working at Bohr Technology. Its CEO, Witold Kowalczyk, had the idea of creating a program called “bqResearcher”.
The idea was simple: find people interested in QC, assign them projects relevant to what we were doing at Bohr and help these people deliver those projects.
It was a triple-win idea:
First, it was a great hiring tool — it allowed us not only to grow our network of people, but also to develop a deeper relationship with them and see what it was like to work with them. Second, by choosing the right projects we could outsource some of the research/software engineering to other people. This part didn’t work out particularly well in practice, but in principle it could. Third, it was a pretty nice marketing tool.
In case of the participants, I think the main benefit for them was using this program as a learning opportunity. There are not that many people out there who know QC and can help you if you get stuck. Also, it’s not easy to come up with an idea for a good project. In addition to that, I believe it was good for building one’s career — having a GitHub repo with a QC project done together with a startup doesn’t look bad at all.
The community gained two things: projects and people. All the projects were open-sourced (or meant to be open-sourced when finished), but I think more importantly, we were able to introduce some people into the QC community and raise their skill level — at least a little bit.
Sounds too good to be true? Well… there were some downsides, too.
For Bohr it was opportunity cost — every hour that I spent working on this program was an hour that I was not working on something else. If the program had been executed poorly, the participants could also lose — not only their time, but also their motivation to learn QC. And then, the community could lose some potential or existing members.
In the end I think that overall the impact was positive for all the parties, even though there have been some issues down the line — more on that later.
The program lasted for about 6 months — it started in October 2018 and finished around April 2019. Apart from the website, application form and some strategic decisions I was responsible for everything: screening the applicants, assigning the projects, mentoring people, and much more. It all took me about 100 hours of active work, which gives roughly 4 hours per week.
We got about 70 admissions and accepted some 30 people into the program. Out of these 30 people, 12 actually started working on their project and 5 have finished it.
People who have applied represented a really broad spectrum of experience and fields. Academics and professionals, from students to professors, from software engineers, through data scientists to physicists. And they were from all around the world.
And here is the list of the finished projects:
Honorable mention — Katerina Gratsea was working on solving the Job Shop Scheduling problem with QAOA. It was an example of a great person working on a great project, but unfortunately both my own mistakes and some external factors caused that it has never been finished.
I stopped working for Bohr in April 2019 as the company was closing. This also meant we had to close the program.
While I definitely don't want to take credit for the achievements of the participants, some of them say that being part of this program helped them build their career in QC. For example:
Ntwali works at Zapata Computing.
Will works at Psi Quantum.
I have met so many great people through this program and learned so much that I feel that I was the main beneficiary. Here are some of my main conclusions:
From the beginning of bqResearcher the idea was that most projects will be open-source. There was more incentive for people to participate, it served the community and could work for further promotion of Bohr.
In retrospect, I think it worked very well and it made me certain that open source projects are not something to be afraid of.
I was surprised by the diversity of the applicants. It shows that QC is attractive to a really diverse crowd. However, from the point of view of running the program, it meant that it was hard to serve equally well to all the people that joined.
One side of that was the difficulty of matching a project with one’s skills. Knowledge about QC was one thing, but general software skills were equally as important, if not more. Another side was that as long as one’s attitude was similar to mine, we could work well together. However, if someone had a rather theoretical approach, it was much harder for us to find a common ground (I’m more of a “hands-on” person).
It turns out that in a program like this, the main reason behind someone being able to finish a project is not their skill or knowledge; it’s their motivation. Some of the people that enrolled had track record in QC projects or PhDs in Physics. However, in the end what mattered most was whether a given person had the drive to actually finish what they started. Only one third of the people in the program actually started working on their project, so it looks like motivation and good work ethics were crucial factors for succeeding.
Building a community
The main means of communication with the participants was a dedicated Slack channel. However, it turns out that having a Slack channel doesn’t mean having a community. Most of the projects were independent, and there was very little communication between the individual participants. And that’s too bad, because in many cases, people could learn a lot from each other. I’ve learned that building a community is not an easy feat and it requires a lot of effort to really make it work.
After the program had finished I wanted to revive it in some form. However, 2019 wasn’t a good time for me to do that, so I have used that time to reflect on bqResearcher, talk with people in the community and plan.
The time to act has finally come and I can proudly announce that we’re starting a very similar project called “QC Mentorship” in cooperation with QOSF. There are a couple of elements of this new project that I want to highlight.
I knew I wanted to partner with some organization on this project. I considered doing that with one of the quantum companies, e.g. my current employer, Zapata, but after some consideration I realized it would be too limiting.
I felt that given the community-building and open-source spirit of the initiative, QOSF would be the best fit. So I pitched this idea to Mark and Tomas, they liked it and here we are — launching the QC Mentorship program under the flag of QOSF.
We are also partnering with Unitary Fund — while we don’t need a grant, help in crystallizing some ideas, promotion and getting mentors on-board is very valuable.
I’m extremely happy that we will have some great mentors on-board for this project. There are several reasons why bringing more mentors to the program makes sense, as it addresses several issues I’ve highlighted before and boosts the program overall:
With a diverse group of mentors, we’ll be able to cover a broader spectrum of topics.
There will be more people helping in the community building.
Our collective brain will be bigger and stronger ;) – we will be able to help the participants better.
The program overall will be able to handle random events better.
The more people we connect together, the better for the community :)
For this program the plan is to put much more emphasis on community building. I want to build a vibrant community of motivated people supporting each other — by conveying this vision to both mentors and participants and working with people experienced in community building.
In the QC Mentorship Program, we would like to be selective when it comes to people we accept into the program. We decided there will be some minimum requirements for the participants to meet — the program is meant for people who already have some knowledge in QC and would like to deepen it, not for those who want to learn it from scratch.
In this program we will require people to perform simple tasks before being admitted to the program. If someone meets the basic criteria, it shouldn’t take them more than 4 hours to finish those tasks (and they will likely need less time than that). Hopefully this will allow us to find people who are skilled enough as well as well motivated.
Thank you for reading this blog and thanks to all the people who contributed — especially Rafał Ociepa, Witold Kowalczyk and all the bqResearcher participants!
I recommend you go check out program's website, sign-up for my newsletter (at the bottom of the page) and spread the news about the QC Mentorship program :)
Have a nice day!