Dr. Dario Gil — Director of IBM Research

During THINK I sat in on the opening presentation for quantum computing, presented by the director of IBM Research, Dario Gil. Dario had a certain charisma which made me very quickly say to myself "I have to interview him". I waited all of about 5 minutes before getting out my laptop and sending him an email. His assistant agreed to slot in some time later that afternoon, perfect. The interview was smack in the middle of the conference, so this installment will only have the textual version of the interview. Dario is a great guy, very easy to talk to and gives off a great energy. Dario's extensive experience in leading technical teams, coupled with his charisma, passion for people and strong moral compass will make him a perfect fit for the new director of IBM research. Enjoy the podcast!

Contents

📖 Read Along

💡 Key Messages

📖 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.

Here with Dario Gil, thank you so much for meeting with me!
Thank you, It's a pleasure to be with you
So, PhD Graduate from MIT?
Yes
And now Director of IBM Research
Yes that's correct
Congratulations by the way. Just to kick things off, what would be your favorite hobby, your favourite movie and your favorite food?
Well 1 and 3 are connected, my favorite hobby is cooking for sure. I grew up in Madrid, Spain. So my family is huge into cooking, we cook and when we're eating we talk about food and about what the next meal will be haha. So anyways I like to cook, I really like to do many different kinds of rice dishes from the southeast of Spain where my family is from
Awesome
And my favorite movie is The Godfather
Oh! Love it. The whole series?
Yeah. I like first one. Part 2 I like very much too
So, you went MIT to do your PhD in electrical engineering. Looking back on it you, what made you decide to do a PhD?
Well when I was an undergraduate I really got interested in nanotechnology of all things. I got fascinated by small things that I couldn't see. I had the benefit of working with a professor who started inspiring me and so I did some summer internship positions doing research. And as I got into it I loved the idea of doing independent work and getting really sophisticated about it. So I just wanted to continue, I wanted to keep studying, I got the bug of research. I loved trying to discover new things because as an undergraduate you're very focused on the learning and less on the applying it to to do something interesting. So I thought I just want to continue doing this and once I decided I never looked back. I never thought about it again. I said that's what I'm going to do once I make a decision, thats it
Well that was my next question, was that the point that you decided that research was wanted to do for your career then?
Well I decided that I wanted to go to grad school, then after that you never know right? When most people go to grad school they think that they're going to become a professor in academia. Then as you go into it you see what it means to be a professor you know, there are plusses and there are minuses. So at some point I decided that I loved research and I wanted to continue doing it, but I just wanted to go outside. I didn't want to do it in academia. There's not that many extraordinary research organizations in industrial sector, IBM is arguably the finest and so that was my dream and I said that's what I want to do. I want to go there
So you just wanted to work in a research environment that had more business outcomes?
Yes, that and to be able to create things and have broader impact. I liked the teaching dimension but I wanted to see things through and not just be in the initial loop you know? 2 Then the second dimension was that I was in the world of nano fabrication and lithography 3 - making small things - and the most advanced work happens in industry - with Moore's Law and making chips - you just cannot do it at that scale in academia. So I wanted to have that industry experience and then once I got into IBM, over time I saw all the great things you can accomplish and so you know, I stayed
Haha well who could blame you. So tell us about your first role when you first came in, how did you start?
I was hired as an individual technical contributor in a group called the Advanced Lithography group, which is a mechanism by which you can print the circuits that go into semiconductor chip and is the reason why we have Moore's Law. So when I started there I got assigned to the next generation of lithography systems and then two months after they asked me to look into this obscure new approach to making chips and so I said sure, that sounds pretty interesting. So I was lucky enough that a number of months later, the mainstream approach sort of died and the thing that I was working on became the mainstream method, immersion lithography 4. So doing this particular technique, I started to work with this company in the Netherlands called ASML 2. I led the team that built the world's first microprocessor with immersion lithography and now that's how every chip in the world is made. So I was like lucky in some way that I was the new guy working on this stuff that other people didn't want to work on haha
Haha, well you can call it luck but sometimes it comes down to being in the right position when the wave comes right?
That's true, exactly
So did that role have you starting in Europe or were you still based in the US?
I've only worked in the United States. So after I finished my the in 2003, 3 weeks later I joined IBM. And it was a tough year because I moved and then not long after I had my first daughter, so she's 16 years old now. So I went from grad school to IBM, moving into a new house, a new kid, a new job. It's too much haha I don't recommend it to anybody. Too many things haha
Haha I can imagine 5. So would you be able to talk through your journey from that first role to where you are today?
So actually when I joined, I didn't really like it. It was kind of tough because when I was in grad school I had my own lab, I had a lot of autonomy, I could order whatever I wanted, do whatever I wanted, I was happy. Then I came into IBM and it was tough right? All these rules and mechanisms to learn, I didn't know how everything worked, so it took me a little bit to figure out - how do I get things done here? So one of the things that helped me discover that I wanted to be a leader was when I started working with the outside, like this company in the Netherlands, ASML. I started to appreciate the amount of respect that others had for IBM. And even though I didn't understand it yet, I started to think wow well there must be a lot of good stuff going on here. So I started getting to know more people, connecting with other scientists in Almaden, starting to work together and I soon discovered that I enjoyed that aspect of leadership a lot, bringing teams together to accomplish a goal. So once we enabled the success of that project I said - this is really for me, this is what I want to do, I want to lead technical teams. So I had an awesome senior manager at the time and he really believed in me and he said you know we have this manager position that's opened up and you've only been here a year but we believe in you
This was after your first year?
Yes
Wow
And so I became a manager a year later and I was like wow, this is fantastic. So ever since then I've been always been given wonderful opportunities to continue to progress. I did that and then later I became a senior manager and I started to get more responsibility. So another key moment for me, IBM has a wonderful program - particularly salient in the research division - called the technical assistant program. These are rotational assignments where you get to spend a year shadowing somebody and learning. And I did that with the vice president of science and technology. This was six years into working at IBM. That was transformative for me because I got to see how the plane is flown you know? I got to see all these different dimensions. So I went from there, leaving my science, technology and physical sciences background and going into a totally new area. I went into smart grids. This was at the time that smart planet was launched, and so I went into that group to become a manager with two people, in this totally new area. So I took that and we grew it. I was tasking risks and by going somewhere else new I kept having different experiences. So at the beginning of my IBM career I used to be the nano guy or the lithography guy, then the science and technology guy, then the energy guy and then after a while and I was no longer defined by any of that. People started seeing me differently, they started just seeing me as a good technical person. A good scientist that can leap across different areas. So then ever since then I have had many many roles leading all the different fields and aspects of research. So I think it was this that eventually allowed me to get to the current position
Congratulations by the way
Thank you. Thank you
What was that transition like, going from being highly technical to managerial and overviewing a wide range of different areas?
Well in the dimension of management first and foremost you've got to like people. You've got to care about them, really you're there for them. I mean my role as a manager and a leader is just to serve the scientists and the researchers, they are the ones that do all the work. So first you start with that and then I think there is a methodology to conduct projects successfully. I think there are 4 dimensions that are really important. Number 1 is that you have to inspire people - where are we going? You've got to have a vision and you have to communicate and be able to articulate where the team is going. The second aspect is the ability to build teams, to be able to select the right people and bring them together. The third dimension, you've got to give them an infrastructure to succeed. So for example, if you are in the world of quantum computing they've got to have cryostats, laboratories and fabrication. You've got to give them the resources to succeed. Fourthly, you've got to have a sustainable business model. You have got to pay the bills, it has to work. Now it sounds very obvious that you need those 4 things but many many people I see do a few of them but not all 4. They have a wonderful vision, but a poor team or they have a great team and no vision, a vision and a team but no money. You need all 4, doesn't matter whether the project is small or big. My view is that this methodology works. So that's a lesson I learned when I was doing my TA rotation assignment and I've applied it ever since. Think about those dimensions and if you are spending your time making sure you are doing all of them. That is my recipe
Well cooking is your favourite hobby haha. There's obviously so much exciting research going on right now, is there a field that really fascinates you in particular?
Well I would say the field of artificial intelligence in general, the opportunity to be able to create capability to make progress against that goal is phenomenal. AI, it's just one of the grandest things we could imagine right? But what motivates me is to achieve it in the context of helping people. I am a very humanistic person, I like technology but in the end I really feel very strongly that we are at the center of this all and technology is just a tool to help us. So it needs to be grounded in that philosophy. So I feel very strongly about that idea, Ginni talks a lot about stewardship and the importance of doing this in a thoughtful fashion for the world. So I'm fascinated by AI, I also love quantum. I love it intellectually, I love technically, I just love it
It's been a recurring theme, a lot of people that I have spoken to have said quantum is what they are most excited about
I just think it is one of those things that only happens every 50 years. It's just an amazing moment in history that we are in and the team is phenomenal
Yes! When you put the long span of human history into perspective, we really are in a special moment in time right now
Yes exactly, and even in other areas. I admire and am incredibly fascinated about what's happening in biology. Computational biology and genomics and the implications it will have is absolutely incredible. So I think that intersection of quantum, physics, biology and the world of mathematics and artificial intelligence will be absolutely transformative
It's such an exciting time
It's very exciting
Which one of those fields do you think will have the biggest impact on our lives?
All those three. I mean just imagine the implications of genomics, biology and health. Just imagine the implications of using quantum to develop a future generation of materials and what that could mean for batteries or new fertilizers. Just imagine the implications for knowledge and dealing with complexity with artificial intelligence helping us. I just think it will be these pillars that are going to shape our future
This one might be a bit more far fetched, is there anything more on a 50 year timeline - maybe taking a holiday to Mars or the ability to cryogenically freeze yourself for example - that excites you about our future?
You know I think our challenge is not going to be that we don't have great technology, it's going to be to make sure that we're smart enough to put it to the service of all of us. Managing it right will be the key thing. I'm not one of these guys that wants escape Earth, I'm committed to here haha
You're happy where you are haha
I just want to bring humanities and the human experience together and I think that the technology and science should be at the service of us and not the other way around. So I wish that we have enough wisdom and enough governance where we can put it in its proper context, that it's really for us all and that it doesn't become a race, or a weapon that humans use against each other
Making sure it becomes a positive thing
Yeah. That we put it in its proper context. I'm not a technological determinist, I just want democratic societies and that governance first
Absolutely. When the day comes that you will look back on your career, what will be the one thing that you want to be able to say that you were able to do?
I think that quantum has probably been what I have been most involved in and I really want to see it through. I think that would be the one thing, bringing forth quantum computers to the world
It's a good answer haha. If you could go back and speak to a younger version of yourself, is there anything you would tell yourself with what you know now?
I would say to worry less about what others think. I grew up in a family where my mother is extremely loving but my father - who is a fantastic person as well - is very authoritarian. So I became very susceptive to criticism, I was always worried. I am always concerned with what someone thinks when sometimes I shouldn't. I feel like it is a bit of emotional baggage that I had
It's okay we all have some of it
haha I know but it is just unnecessary. So I would tell myself just ignore that and really focus on doing a great job with my work and my teams. I am better at it now but that's what I would tell myself
If you could recommend one book to somebody what would it be?
Oh boy. Just 1?
Haha, well you can rattle off a few if you like
I would recommend a couple of things. So in the world of physics and science, I have always loved reading Richard Feynman. His lectures, the character of physical law, his stories of becoming a scientist and surely you're joking Mr. Feynman. think his lectures are inspiring, so if you are a person who is inspired about being a scientist those lectures are wonderful. In the realm of literature, for short stories I love Jorge Luis Borges. He is a famous writer from Argentina and arguably one of the world's greatest short story writers. They are just fantastic stories which still have connection to the world of mathematics. I love that. To continue on the latin theme, I think 100 years of solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is the best novel written in the 21st century in spanish so I would encourage everyone to read it. It is about the world of magical realism, it is very beautiful
Sounds like I have got a few things to look up myself haha. Dario, thank you so much
Thank you

💡 Key Messages

Here are my key takeaways from the podcast.

  • Seek Shadowing opportunities - One of the pivotal points in Dario's career and development was shadowing someone in a position that he was looking to move into for a full year. Dario said that this allowed him to really see how the plane was flown, or the ship was steered, or ah, yeh
  • Make your preferences known - Dario stated that once he realised he wanted to go down the managerial track that he let his manger 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
  • Take risks and move into different areas - By constantly taking risks and moving into new areas, Dario was able to transition from being known for being good in a specific area to being known just generally as a great scientist and a great leader. This was one of the key factors which led to him becoming the Director of IBM Research
  • Worry less - I think we can all do this, pretty simple. Focus on doing a great job, building good relationships and enjoying the ride
  • We live in an exciting time - The intersection of quantum, AI, biology will completely transform our lives. Quantum and AI will empower our ability to perform computational genomics and create new materials at a level we have never experienced. This will have huge implications on health, engineering and pretty much just anything imaginable. Our lives are going to be very exciting, which is always a plus
  • Read everything - Dario obviously loves to read. I myself am going to look into the Richard Feynman material before attempting some of his spanish recommendations