Having originally studied English Language and Literature at undergraduate level, but always having had a love for maths and physics as well, Richard Hopkins decided to pursue a career in IT starting at IBM. Although he did not know this at the time, this would get him on a trajectory of becoming an IBM Distinguished Engineer working on quantum, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the Institute of Engineering Technology. We caught up with Richard to find out more about what encouraged him to leave the arts behind to pursue a career in IT and quantum, his fascinating career journey, and advice he’d give to others considering working towards holding a similar role.
Your undergraduate degree is in English Language and Literature, quite the contrast to quantum! Can you tell us a little bit more about your journey to working in quantum and how you found the change in fields?
Indeed, I did study English Language and Literature; however, I also had a background in maths and physics as I studied those at A Level. When I arrived at Durham University, I tried to persuade them to let me do English and Physics but they said there was no way they could organise it and so I had to pick just one. I stuck with English, which was the right choice because it gave me a lot of flexibility around my time. It required attending fewer lectures, so frankly I spent a lot of time on the wrong floors of the university library and spent quite a lot of time programming computers!
When I left university, I really didn’t know what I was going to do so I applied for three jobs and whichever I was offered was the way I planned to go. I applied to be a teacher, to work for the BBC, and for IBM. I was turned down as a teacher but I did get offered jobs by the BBC and IBM. When I quizzed the BBC about what I’d be doing, it was clear that they wanted me to do the same thing I’d been doing in the summer holidays for the previous three years. Whereas, when I asked IBM what I’d be doing in three years’ time they said: “we have no idea what you’ll be doing in three years’ time, probably something completely different to what you start off doing”, and to me that sounded more interesting and has been true the whole way through my career!
The curiosity of learning and working in different fields never left me, and so when IBM said it was developing quantum computing and it needed ambassadors who could explain it to clients, attend trade shows and confidently speak about quantum machines, I was at the front of the queue to apply!
Quantum computing is an entirely new computing paradigm that works in a completely different way, this was obviously totally fascinating, and therefore I wanted to get involved. IBM was looking for physicists, particularly with PhDs to take up these roles; however, because I’d worked for the company for a long time and had become sufficiently senior and known in IBM Research globally, they decided to make an experiment out of me and see if someone without that background could be successful. I was very lucky in that I had done quite a lot of reading beforehand in order to educate myself. The training was provided by our lead researchers, and I asked some really hard questions, at which point they realised that I did understand what was going on and that some of those questions were quite insightful, so that’s really how my quantum journey started. Although I’ve never stopped having a foot in both camps, I’ve always had a fiction book and a science book on the go at the same time!
You have held several roles at IBM and are currently a Cloud Engineer, can you tell us a little bit more about your role and what a typical day at work is like for you?
That’s a hard question! What I do is help clients figure out how to move their traditional IT systems to the cloud and how to do so in as cost-effective and secure way. For example, it’s about working out how a large-scale banking system could move to the cloud, what needs to be left in situ and what should move, and really pushing the boundaries of what the cloud can achieve. There is no such thing as a standard day. My day might include a variety of design work, writing or giving presentations, attending conferences or seminars, one-to-one meetings with clients and so on. There are very few repeated meetings in my diary, of course there are some, but my work is mostly driven by events and the needs of our clients or the business. I’ve been working at home for four years now in a global role and given that you can’t be all over the globe at once, it makes sense to stay at home. Since it hasn’t got boring over those four years says a lot about the variation of the role!
You have also been the president of the IBM Academy of Technology; can you tell us more about the academy and what that role entailed?
The IBM Academy of Technology has been part of IBM for slightly longer than I have, which is more than 30 years. IBM is, like any large organisation, divided into segments that are both geographic and business oriented. We have a consulting business and a technology business, and the latter looks at many different areas. IBM has around 200,000 technical staff and about 400 of those are Distinguished Engineers like me, and around 90 IBM Fellows. The Academy is a way of bringing together those Fellows and Distinguished Engineers with the other senior technical people and getting them to work on problems that could otherwise be missed. Sometimes the problems are set by the executives, other times they come as suggestions from the grass roots. Members of the Academy are selected because they think outside their day job and like working across different groups. I was the 19th president of IBM’s Academy of Technology, and I was only the second one not to be from the US. I was quite honoured!
Alongside your usual work you are also an IBM Quantum Ambassador, what does this involve?
When we first started making quantum computers available, around six years ago, it wasn’t long before the need for quantum ambassadors was identified. It was appreciated that researchers working on quantum computing projects need to be able to focus on their work – fixing hard engineering problems with as few distractions as possible. So the idea of the quantum ambassador is to explain the capabilities, how to use them and how to program them. We’re able to have a substantive conversation with clients, and we don’t need to disturb the research teams. It’s a neat idea and because it’s an area that people are naturally curious about, we volunteer to do it often in our own time. We do it because we’re fundamentally interested, we want to inspire others, and we want this technology to make a difference in the world.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
It constantly changes. At the beginning of last year, I was writing quite a lot of code for a particular client engagement, because I was running a small team and everybody needed to pull their weight. I enjoyed it but after a few months I needed to move on to design work, which I also really enjoy. I like the variety and, in a way, I think I’m a genuine Jack of all trades, master of none, or perhaps master of a few after 30 years! But seriously, it’s the ability to switch modes and to switch to different topics which I love most. For example, last week I gave a presentation on sovereign cloud to a client, then I went down to London and gave a press interview, I then briefed a group of analysts (also on quantum) and later I spoke to a client about a new contract. I then got back on the train, came home and was working on a thought leadership piece of work around data modernisation patterns on the cloud and that’s all in the space of a couple of days! So which bits do I enjoy? All of them! I love the fact it’s so changeable.
What transferrable skills do you think you have gained throughout your career and what do you think are the most important skills for working in a role like yours?
The main one is curiosity and the willingness to learn because if you’ve got that, you can pretty much do anything and work anywhere, providing it’s something you’re interested in. The key thing is to never close any doors in terms of what you’re willing to learn or areas you’re willing to explore. You should be regularly walking into new roles which at first make you feel uncomfortable but which you then make a success. Communication skills never goes amiss either, and that’s both verbal and written. On the technical side, I’d say almost everything is ‘worthless’ because basically every five years everything changes in the IT industry. Even things that I thought were fundamental at the start of my career are not anymore. You’ve got to keep an open mind and be prepared to let go and relearn. An exception is A Level maths which has turned out to be continually useful across the board, but everything else moves on very quickly.
What experiences do you think are valuable for someone hoping to work in a role like yours? What would you advise young people to try and do?
First, cultivate a growth mindset. It’s a good thing if you happen to find yourself on the wrong floor of the library, keep on reading! Second, I’d say there’s a level of perseverance required. Don’t give up and don’t get too scared when you’re outside of your comfort zone but at the same time you need to be aware when you’re too far out of your depth. If that happens, seek help or mentorship from someone who’s been there and done it. Third, never forget your foundations. In computing, that is fundamentally programming, or even hardware engineering of computers. Whatever the foundational level is for your field, always keep a good understanding of it.
As I moved up the ladder from being an architect to a CTO, I never let go of the bottom of the ladder, this was so I was always aware of changes and could experience them and understand their implications first-hand. If you don’t do that, you end up at the top and completely out of touch! I don’t program very often as part of my role now; however, I still do it as a hobby because I enjoy it and there’s no way I could keep an understanding of changes being made in my field without doing so. One of my hobbies is to create and program robots! I’ve got a full-size robotic K9 that I have programmed to be able to talk, play chess, walk and follow me around!
Is there a particular application of quantum technologies that you are particularly excited to see the development of in years to come?
I’d have to say the application of quantum computers in fields like molecular chemistry and material science. Everything I’ve seen, heard, and understood so far about the technology means we are going to get genuine new insights and new capabilities in those fields and therefore able to advance them more than almost any other field.
Coming from Teesside, nitrogen fixation is of great interest to me. At the moment, the Haber-Bosch process happens at about 250 degrees Celsius and 220 atmospheres and it’s only about 50% or 60% efficient, it’s also dangerous. However, plants are actually doing this all the time at room temperature and pressures, safely. We know they’re doing it using an enzyme that has about 120 atoms in the molecule but that’s all we know. We’ve managed to create an industrialized process, which is fast and big, but imagine if we could create a catalyst that could do it in a cleaner and more efficient way! Imagine also, if we could create a process that basically took carbon dioxide and turned it into some kind of hydrocarbon like a methanol. That would enable carbon capture and the product could be used to power planes! It’s those types of accelerated discoveries, that we haven’t been able to make progress with yet, that I’ll be excited to see!
What are your hopes for the future?
I hope we’re on the cusp of an entirely new set of advances that are going to make a significant and material difference to the world. They’ll come from our clients, they won’t come from IBM, our role will be to act as the catalyst. If we or any of our competitors can get a working quantum computer that can scale to a few thousand, and then a million qubits, then I know it’s going to make a huge difference.
So far, we’ve solved the problems and reached milestones in timeframes we set out and I think that will continue. I hope that within a year or two we’re going to have serverless quantum computing, which means we’ll be able to start incorporating quantum computing algorithms into normal programs in real time – which will be cool. We’ve got a Quantum Roadmap laid out for the next three years covering hardware and software, and so I think the next decade is going to be where we see those first signs of real change coming through. That’s what I hope for, the changes becoming apparent not just for people’s lives but for the planet.