Spending Quality Time at Qualcomm
Not too many people get to have an inside look at most technology companies, or even companies in general. Sure, recruiters will come to your campus, organize meet-ups and information sessions, invite fellow employees to do technical deep dives about their projects, but that kind of outreach can only show so much.
So that's why last week was an absolute whirlwind.
I'm currently a sophomore at Cornell studying electrical and computer engineering. I love coding, but, recently, I've gotten into learning about circuits, computer architecture, and embedded systems (some of the more hardware-focused fields). That's why when Qualcomm invited me as one of the 75 attendees for their Qualcomm Student Accelerator, I was (in a word) PUMPED.
If you don't know, Qualcomm "is an American multinational semiconductor and telecommunications equipment company that designs and markets wireless telecommunications products and services," aka the one company that you've probably never heard of but has touched almost every single device you've ever used.
Their main headquarters are in San Diego, so where else would 75 eager college students go to learn more about Qualcomm?
First of all, San Diego is gorgeous. This is coming from someone who has lived in the East Coast her entire life, specifically in "the city" (y'all know which one I mean ;) ). At this moment, it is 34 degrees Fahrenheit (which is warm for the end of January) in New York and 66 degrees Fahrenheit in San Diego.
I'm *definitely* not a hiker, but puffing my way at a hike at Torrey Pines was worth the approximately 90 minutes of walking up a slight incline.
Our first night in San Diego was scheduled with an opening keynote and, of course, dinner. The keynote speaker was Vicki Mealer-Burke, a vice president and Chief Diversity Officer. She was one of the first people who spoke to us, but she started the trend of learning that most employees at Qualcomm jump around between teams and titles, ultimately staying at the company for stretches of time longer than I've been alive.
That's a good sign: people love where they work enough to stay there for decades, and are also able to push themselves and learn new aspects of the company.
The first day of the conference was jam-packed from 9 to 6. It kicked off with Vice President of Engineering Rolando Saldana, who was absolutely chock full of career-oriented advice:
- Take charge of your career and make your decisions for you
- Make sure that your company allows for you to push yourself and explore new opportunities internally
- Failing fast is the way to success
- Respect and appreciate the diversity around you, and understand the reasoning behind every opinion/decision
A series of speakers followed to provide us with a breakdown the three main divisions of Qualcomm: Qualcomm Technologies, Corporate Research and Development, and Qualcomm Technology Licensing.
It wasn't enough to hear about the products these engineers and executives had touched over the years - we got to see them in person, too. We were given tours of some of their lab facilities and server rooms, all of which contained projects three or four years ahead of their time. Seeing all of those engineers developing and testing products that can potentially change the face of future technology was insane (and super top secret, so I'm keeping my mouth shut).
Afterwards was some quality mentorship time. We all got paired up with employees at Qualcomm to take us around the campus and tell us about their journeys to the company. Mine was a hardware engineer who also took us to talk to a software engineer at the company, so I got to hear about the two sides of technical development. It was nice to get a more intimate perspective, rather than hear it in the form of a Powerpoint presentation, and I definitely plan to stay in touch with her to get real opinions on what I should learn and get involved in.
Arguably the best part of the conference was the series of workshops that followed meeting my mentor: interview prep. I've gone through many a behavioral and/or technical interview, but I've always been kind of blind going into them. Qualcomm lined up a resume review with some campus recruiters (i.e. the people who actually look at your resume), white-boarding workshop with new grad employees to practice technical questions, and a full breakdown of what to do before, during, and after any kind of interview. Getting insight into the interview process from people who sit on the other side of the table was extremely helpful, and you know I took a ton of notes.
The day closed out with three TED-esque talks by managers at various departments at Qualcomm. All three of them didn't have traditional journeys to where they are now, and all three of them had such powerful reactions to the technology and diversity initiatives that they were pushing forward in their positions at Qualcomm.
This was all day one, so I hope you can understand how I exhausted I was :)
Day two was time for interviews and hackathon prep, two of those activities that are time-consuming and draining, but satisfying despite everything.
The interview was behavioral and technical, so I was able to test out those techniques I had learned the day before. My interviewer was actually the engineer who had showed us around the server room when we were getting tours of the lab and the projects some employees were developing. She was not only a great interviewer but a great conversationalist! She even explained why she decided to jump between different roles and titles, and why she had been in her current one for so long. The unique thing about this interview was that it included time for feedback, so I learned that I had a tendency to ramble (which I knew) but that it showed my passion for my involvements, and also slightly avoided eye contact (I mean, staring at someone directly for an hour is weird, so maybe I'll just start looking at the bridge of people's noses instead).
While we were waiting for the other rounds of interviews to be conducted, they provided us with more technical talks, on topics such as the advent of 5G (forget 4G LTE, y'all) and the introduction of self-driving software in autonomous vehicles. Hearing from the engineers who were invested and working on those products was a great opportunity, since they were able to answer technical questions about antennae and bands and the ethics behind everything.
It was on to hackathon prep for QHacks, the first and only hardware hackathon I've ever been a part of. Surprisingly, it was most people's first experiences with circuitry, and even hackathons in general, so I didn't feel super out of place!
In preparation for our hardware hacks, we were given two Arduinos, a pair of Bluetooth chips, and a slew of various sensors and types of wiring. Qualcomm has an extensive creative space called the Think-a-bit Lab, and they sent some of their head engineers to run us through how to connect the two Arduinos and understand the code that was allowing for the transmission of data via Bluetooth. It was the first time I had seen a circuit diagram actually being used outside of class (the phrase "voltage divider" still triggers me), so I actually was able to understand the location of the inputs, outputs, resistors, and LEDs!
It was an empowering feeling.
I had to leave my team before they could finally set up the Bluetooth connection (which they *finally* did, even with our chip picking up on other chips' signals) so I could prepare for my Ignite Talk!
Six of us were selected to each give a five minute talk on a topic of our choosing, anything from a research paper to a personal story. The trick was that the presentation auto-advanced a slide every 15 seconds, making it even more difficult to script a presentation. It was the first time that I not only had a clock ticking, but a self-aware Powerpoint progressing behind me.
Similar to previous talks I had given, I decided to speak about my history with attending, founding, and organizing hackathons! I gave background on how I've been hacking since my junior year of high school, how I've founded def hacks(), FwdCode, and ProgramHers, and how being a part of the hackathon community has shaped me to be who I am today <3
Despite having finished the Powerpoint itself two days ago and writing my script the night before, I pulled it off! I barely looked at my "lines" because I had spent so long thinking them up, and even improved a little bit. I stayed on track and flowed well between each slide. I stayed cool and confident and didn't clutch onto the podium for dear life ;)
When I get the footage of my talk, I'll be sure to upload it here!
It was finally time to finish up our hardware hack from the day before! My amazing team had gotten the Bluetooth capability working and had done some loose ideating in my absence, so we had a good place to start. Unfortunately, the hackathon itself was four hours, which is waaaay shorter than any other hackathon I had been a part of, so we weren't able to fully put together our (frankly, pretty useful) Internet of Things device.
It was called T.E.D., or Therapeutic Electronic Device. Meant to help soothe young children to sleep with the sound of their own heartbeat (detected via a heartbeat sensor displayed on a heart-shaped LED), T.E.D. would be a teddy-bear connected to a analysis application for the parents. The app would analyze heartbeat and other sleep-related data to help parents determine how their child is sleeping. This would allow for parents to not only be aware of their child's sleeping habits, but to also eventually help their children understand their mental health, since it's very much tied to their early development and sleep patterns.
We didn't make the entirety of our product, due to technical difficulties with the Bluetooth chips and a lack of understanding of how a heartbeat sensor measures voltage (which then requires math to derive the heart rate from) and not the heartbeat directly, but it was a learning experience. We learned how to read circuit diagrams involving sensors we didn't fully understand. We learned how to debug a circuit, which could have both wiring and software mistakes. We learned how to go with the flow and work with the resources we had, in an even more compressed environment than a normal hackathon.
It was a bonding experience for us all :)
And as a final treat, the entire conference was closed out with a night cruise around San Diego, full of food, feedback, and newfound friends. It was the first time we were able to sit and look back at the past few days, since every day was packed with talks and workshops and technology activities. Not only that, but Qualcomm brought Saron Yitbarek, the founder of CodeNewbie, as our final keynote. She might not have been part of the company, but she brought the same sort of innovative, entrepreneurial, and determined spirit that every other speaker had exhibited. She was truly inspiring in that she didn't start in a technical path, but pushed herself to learn how to code, and then eventually took it a step further and founded her organization to help other new coders take the same steps she did.
Now that I'm back at home, it feels as though my trip to San Diego was long ago, but I know (as cheesy as it sounds) it'll stay with me for a long time. My network has grown by 74 people, all of whom are as motivated and eager to learn as I am. I learned what successful Qualcomm employers and entrepreneurs would do if they were as young as I am, and I hope to take that knowledge and run with it as far as I can.
I can't be more sincere about this, but the Qualcomm Student Accelerator was a game-changer for me and I can't wait to see how.