Yossi (Yossef) Ehrlichman
In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Yossi (Yossef) Ehrlichman, a senior member of the technical staff at Axalume, USA. Erlichman has worked at Axalume since 2018, designing and characterizing hybrid integrated lasers, silicon photonics and photonic integrated circuits and devices.
Ehrlichman received his B.Sc. EE and MBA from The Technion, Israel, in 1999 and 2002, and his M.Sc. EE and Ph.D. from Tel Aviv University, Israel, in 2007 and 2015. From 2013 to 2015, he worked at SemiConductor Devices, Israel, developing advanced cooled infrared detectors. Later, between 2015 and 2017, he held a postdoctoral position at the University of Colorado, Boulder, USA, working on integrated microwave photonic circuits. From 2017 to 2018, he held a postdoctoral position at the University of California, San Diego, USA, working on integrated microwave photonic circuits.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
Curiosity is what made me pursue the science of engineering. As a young kid, I was curious about how and why things work and how I could build something new. I used to take apart old mechanical clocks to see what was inside. I used to play a lot with Lego. Since Lego was expensive, I was limited to simple sets. I used to browse the Lego catalogs and replicate the more interesting things, like medieval castles, with my own simple bricks. Growing up, I became interested in dinosaurs and, later, in astronomy …
At age 10, I received my first computer. I had a limited number of games, so I became interested in programming. As I grew up, I became interested in the inner working, the CPU, the motherboard, etc.
As a young undergrad student, I looked for a field that was a mystery to me. It was electromagnetics and optics. During one of the first interviews in my career, the interviewer said that RF engineering is a kind of “black magic.” I was, and I always am, looking for something that I don’t understand, to figure it out, build it and make it work.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
In my current work, I design products that, until recently, were researched in the lab. It worked once or twice in the lab, but now I need to make it work outside the lab and for a longer period of time.
The challenges are enormous. During the design process, I need to think about many things that weren’t relevant during research. How to package it? How to design it so it will work under different environmental conditions? How to prepare for production so that the 1001st circuit will work the same as the first one produced. The challenges are very real-world. To know that what you will build will be sent to the world and be used by others without me standing nearby, with an adjustable wrench, ready to step in if something goes [wrong]—it is a challenge.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
Publishing journal papers and presenting at conferences are the strongest networking opportunities. Poster presentations, which are sometimes considered [to have] less “prestige” than verbal presentations, are a strong networking tool—either by engaging in conversion with presenters or presenting your own poster and being engaged in conversion by others. In large conferences, exhibitions are also a good tool for networking and interacting with people.
Other networking venues could be by participating in different activities, like the Optica Technical Groups. I served, until recently, as a committee member of the Optics in Digital Systems Technical Group. It was a great way to network and meet new people.
What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field?
I am always holding some textbooks by myself—some in integrated optics, some in silicon photonics and some about lasers. Every time I browse the books, I discover and understand something new that I previously didn’t understand or hadn’t paid attention to. Besides regularly browsing Google Scholar, I read Optica’s OPN and Physics Today. There are always interesting articles about new things in optics and photonics.
Webinars are also a great professional resource. Webinars are offered by Optica and other professional organizations, like IEEE. Many commercial companies are offering tutorials through webinars. It is a great way to learn something new.
What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made, and why?
The best decision that I made was to turn down a job offer with a nice salary and instead take a postdoctoral position. At that time, I just couldn’t find a job that would be interesting enough for me. Instead, I took a postdoc position at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in the group of Prof. Milos Popovic (now at Boston University). This let led me to my second postdoc at UC San Diego in Prof. Shaya Fainman’s group, and eventually to my current position at Axalume.
Describe a major turning point in your career. Was there a specific action/accomplishment that got you there?
The major turning point in my career was the publication of my first scientific paper in the Journal of Lightwave Technology. The paper was in review for two years and three rounds of review. After it was finally published, I was very excited to join the prestigious club of scientific authors. I published the paper during my master’s studies. This boosted my self-esteem, made me realize that I could become a scientist, and drove me to continue my Ph.D. studies.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
Graduate school is addictive. After tedious undergraduate studies and after a year or two of courses in graduate school, most of the time becomes devoted to research. Academy is the ultimate freedom. Some students (and myself) enjoy this period very much, and sometimes we forget that our goal is to graduate and move on. So, my advice is to do a good job, keep it short and move on. Try to finish your Ph.D. as soon as possible and move on.
How important are leadership roles in career development, and how do you hone your leadership skills?
Developing leadership skills is a very important aspect of a career. In a scientific career (and other careers), one gathers a lot of knowledge and experience. One working person has two arms to put their experience and knowledge to use. One leading person has many arms and heads to put their experience and knowledge to use. It is very important to learn how to lead people to accomplish the tasks and challenges in front of us.
As a scientific or technological leader, you need to strive to understand the technology and ask the correct questions to make the correct decisions. But you must always remember that you are leading people and must pose yourself as an example, and treat them as you would expect others to treat you.
There are different ways to learn leadership. I myself served several years as an officer in the Air Force—at first leading technicians to fix airplanes, and later leading teams to develop new technological systems. As a graduate student, I worked as a teaching assistant, teaching and leading students to succeed. As a senior graduate student, I was given the opportunity to lead and teach a large class of students. I had to work with the students and a group of teaching assistants.
During my career, I kept observing my superiors: my high-rank officers in the military, my professors in the academy, my team leaders and group leaders in the industry. I was always observing and taking notes myself about their leadership style. What I learned, I apply in my current role.
At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?
As an engineer in a startup, I look forward to the startup succeeding. I am looking to launch a product that will make an impact and will be widely used. Eventually, I am looking forward to the company being bought or IPO’ed. In the meantime, I am trying to expand my team, and I am looking forward to leading a larger group of engineers to accomplish greater technical challenges.
If you weren’t in the sciences, what would be your dream career?
My dream career would have been working at Lego, developing new sets. For example, it would have been really fun to build a real digital computer made of Lego bricks. Basically, the switch is the basic component for every logic gate, which is the basic component for a digital processor. It would have been fun to design a working computer made only of Lego bricks. And the ultimate goal would have been to build a Lego laser. I have some ideas for Lego mirrors, but I am still looking for a proper Lego gain material.…