Denise Ruffner, President of Diversity in Quantum

Denise Ruffner, president of Diversity in Quantum, is interviewed by Yuval Boger. They discuss Denise’s path in quantum starting at IBM, the “Diversity in Quantum” initiative that she is leading, the current state of the quantum industry, including device sales, software infrastructure, and customer education, where the money is, and much more.

Full Transcript

Yuval Boger: Hello Denise, and thank you for joining me today.

Denise Ruffner: Thanks, Yuval. I’m looking forward to this.

Yuval: So who are you, and what do you do?

Denise: Who am I? My name is Denise Ruffner. What do I do? Right now, I’m consulting in quantum computing, helping companies move from stealth to having a product. I’ve always been in sales. And I’m also starting a new initiative called Diversity in Quantum, which is a nonprofit promoting diversity.

Yuval: Actually, why don’t we start with that? Tell me more about diversity in quantum. Who is the target audience? Who are the members? Is there a problem about, is there a problem or a need for diversity in quantum that’s not addressed today?

Denise: I’ll start with you look at most websites or most companies and they display all their people and you go, white man, white man, white man, white man, white man, white man, where are the women, where’s the minority, where’s you know some diversity and this is the beginning of the quantum industry so I think that all of us can band together and have an impact and bring diversity into it.

Yuval: Do you think this is a problem that’s specific to quantum or is it more about STEM? Not enough women study physics or quantum-related disciplines, and therefore they don’t make it as much into quantum computing.

Denise: So I think this is about STEM, and I think there are a lot of organizations that target women in high school or even in elementary school. But I also find that a lot of women are in grad school, and they say, “I’m the only woman. And so I dropped out or I failed my midterm, so I dropped out.” I find that when people come to women in quantum, which is what I’ve led for the past couple of years, you hear all sorts of insecurities and people that don’t have a network or a coach or a mentor, and it really affects their willingness to push ahead. And so part of what we try to do in this organization is give people a network, give people a mentor, and help them with kind of an ecosystem so that they push ahead and they hang in there.

Yuval: Do you hold events? How can people get involved in diversity in quantum?

Denise: So we do have events, and we primarily advertise them on LinkedIn. So if you want, link with me on LinkedIn, and you’ll be sure to get it. We’re having an event on August 12, and we have a diverse group of really fun speakers. And the subject of the event is failure. And all of us fail in our lives. And each speaker is going to talk about their perspective on how they fail and how they move ahead, and what they think about it.

Yuval: You’ve been in quantum for a few years now. Perhaps you could fill in for the audience where you were, and what you did. And I’m curious what you learned in this journey. What do you know today that you didn’t know, say, a year or two years ago?

Denise: Well, let’s talk about my journey. I started out at IBM Quantum in the very early days, and they asked me to join. And I’m a biologist, I was like, do I really wanna do this? And when I thought about it, I love things where I learn. And this was certainly a topic that I needed to learn about. And I knew that every day I would be challenged in learning. And so I took the job. And it was so early that they would go, let’s give it to Denise because, you know, I was, I’m one of those people that do everything. And, you know, oh, I’ll work another hour at night. Sure, I can do that. And so I had a variety of responsibilities, which was really great in like, for example, setting the sales strategy, leading the ambassador program, which I grew to 350 people, leading the startup program where we created a little ecosystem of startups working with IBM. Actually, it wasn’t little. And so I just had a variety of experiences which I really loved. Plus, I was pushed really hard to learn quantum.

And from there, I left and went to Cambridge Quantum Computing and led, was chief business officer, led their sales force, added to their Salesforce, worked on marketing, worked on fundraising, did a lot of different things. Very challenging. Opened an office in Japan, and it was on TV, you know, things like that that I had never done.

And at Cambridge Quantum, I was asked to comment on a press release, and I commented on the IonQ press release of their new computer, and people were asking me questions about it I realized, you know, I didn’t really know anything about this company IonQ so I called the president said tell me about your company and he said the reason why I’m talking to you because I otherwise wouldn’t is because I want to hire you, and so I moved to IonQ where I was VP of Business Development and again did a lot of different things, but closed the first sales in both academic and corporate and did a lot to get the company kind of positioned and moving ahead, like the research credits program.

And then from there, I met the CEO of Atom Computing, who said, “Why don’t you come to Atom?” And so I went to Atom, really enjoyed learning about neutral atoms and their potential. Again, did a lot of talks, did a lot of sales. So it was a very good experience. And then, I left in December for personal reasons. And now I’m back and trying to figure out really what my true next step is.

Yuval: You mentioned that you consult today with small companies that are trying to launch their first product. What do you think the main hurdles are? Is it that they need to find a niche where the giants don’t exist anymore? Is it just to tell the story right? Is it to figure out the pricing? I mean, I know it’s a little bit of everything, but if you could point to the top one or two things, what would those be?

Denise: So, it’s two things. One of them is to build a foundation for the company so that people know who they are and people know their technology. Generally, if it’s not IBM, people get confused. You mean it’s not superconducting? And so I think it’s important for the company to build a foundation. I had an experience with one company that didn’t really have a foundation and then came out with a product, and nobody engaged with them, and they were puzzled. And so that is what taught me that this foundation is really important. Secondly, I do think positioning is important. I just talked to a startup, and they told me their positioning, and it’s like, that’s the same as neutral atom. you need to come up with something different. And so I think there’s a discipline in how you talk about your company and how you stick to the positioning that the company has developed. And I think that’s really important.

Yuval: The million-dollar question, or maybe more than a million, the million-dollar question in quantum computing is where is the money? Is it with academia? Is it with the government? Is it with commercial companies who are trying to get into it? What’s your view of where the money is today?

Denise: So the money has shifted a little. I think right now it’s government And it’s also a lot of HPC centers or universities are looking for quantum computers. And it’s generally a system sale versus a time sale. And I think there’s a lot of opportunity right now for devices and devices of different modalities. So people wanna try superconducting and an ion trap and a neutral atom. And so I think that’s an opportunity for everyone, but I think device sales is the big thing right now. I’m seeing.

Yuval: How do you feel about the existing software infrastructure? Is it good enough? Does it need to be harmonized so you could truly move from one modality to the other seamlessly? What do you find when you speak with customers about software? How do you want to educate customers about software development?

Denise: A lot of customers drink Kool-Aid and think of that they can move from one device to another very seamlessly. And what I’ve found in a couple of companies is that, yes, you can, but you need to tune the software. You need to tune your algorithms, I’m sorry. And so the idea of an overarching software package that can handle every computer is a great idea, but I often find in practice that it needs some tuning or a little bit of work to make the algorithm run well on that particular device.

Yuval: A little bit earlier, you said that you think there’s money in device sales. Now if I were a cloud computing vendor like Amazon Bracket or Microsoft Azure, I would say, “Look, you can use my cloud. You don’t have to care if these computers are obsolete in the air because I’ll have new computers.” So it’s a really easy way to try. On the other hand, if a vendor sells a quantum computer and let’s say it’s a sale or release or whatever it is for five years, wouldn’t the customer worry that it’s going to be completely obsolete in a few short years, probably much faster than a classical HPC computer?

Denise: That’s true, and there are some customers, but typically in device sales people want to get their hands kind of dirty and have a computer they can work with. AWS or I shouldn’t mention names, but cloud providers are great, but oftentimes there are rules of the country that don’t allow certain data to leave the country. And a lot of times, there are institutions that have pride that they have three devices. So a lot of it is the governance of the country, as well as what goals a particular institution might have and how they meet those goals. But you’re right, I always ponder, you know, in three years, the computer is probably gonna be obsolete and whether it can really be upgraded or whether you have to buy a new one in three years.

Yuval: As you think about the various stations in your quantum journey, is there a particular project or particular customer activity that you are both very proud of and can talk about?

Denise: I can’t talk about them, unfortunately, but I’ve had some great relationships, financial relationships with a couple of big banks that I’m very proud of, and they’re also an academic sale that I’m very proud of. So I also sold the first enterprise software package in quantum so done a lot of different things and again I love variability, and I love learning new things so it’s been fun along the way.

Yuval: Going back to where we started on diversity in quantum, what would be your advice to, say, a woman, a postdoc that’s thinking about going into industry? Is it too early? Is it late should she stay in academia? How would you advise women to think about it?

Denise: So I’ve worked with a lot of women helping them transition from academia to a corporation or a startup and a lot of it is what the individual person wants, and I think we all think about getting a postdoc, and maybe it’s time to move on and so it’s up to the individual woman but I love it when they talk about it and ask questions. Should I do this? Should I do that? And so a lot of times, any mentor will test their appetite for moving to a corporation and changing maybe the way that they work because corporations have deadlines, and then what we do is we help them find the job and negotiate the job and maybe explain to them what a 401k is or help them really get started on the right foot in the job.

Yuval: Do you see, or can you give an example of a company that, in your view, has excelled at integrating diversity into its Quantum workforce?

Denise: That is a tough one. I just was on the phone with a company that had some very strong initiative around diversity and inclusion and had a department to bring that to the company as well as the budget. And I love those kind of things where companies really pay attention. They don’t have to have a department, but I love it when a company pays attention to it and actually looks at it in the hiring process.

Yuval: As we get close to the end of our conversation today, I wanted to ask you about quantum hype. Certainly, there could have been organizations that started a quantum project four years ago, and maybe they read someplace that quantum is going to change the world practically overnight. Do you see any quantum disillusionment these days or do you think everyone is pretty clear-headed about how long is it going to take and what is it going to take to get there?

Denise: When I was interviewing at one company, they said to me, “You’ve worked for two of the biggest hyping companies. Are you into hype?” And this is an area where I’m very firm about being honest about the potential of quantum computing and not misleading customers or the public about the potential. Now there’s great potential, but it’s not tomorrow. And so I’m a real big person on honesty. And then do I see disillusionment? Yes and no. I think the first part of every sales call I have with a person is what I call myth-busting. And we sit down and they say, well, so-and-so told me this. It’s like, nope, so-and-so told me that, nope. And so a lot of times we all need to reset the customer because again, they’ve read something and they or they’ve talked to someone and quantum has been misrepresented. And so I think it’s really important at the beginning of a sale or at the beginning of a discussion to talk about what’s real and what’s not.

Yuval: And I wanted to finish with my favorite hypothetical question. If you could have dinner with one of the quantum greats, dead or alive, who would that person be?

Denise: So there’s a long story, and I won’t tell it, but I live in Altadena. It’s a small town right by Pasadena and Caltech. And someone who lived in Altadena and actually is buried in Altadena is Richard Feynman. And I’d love to have dinner with him. I drive by him every day and say hello, but it would be fun to have dinner.

Yuval: Thank you. Wonderful. Denise, thank you so much for joining me today.

Denise: Thank you.