Courtesy of Faezeh Gholami
In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Faezeh Gholami, a lead subsystem hardware architect and Senior IBM Quantum Ambassador at IBM. Gholami has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering with a focus on optical communication from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), USA, and a micro-MBA from the Rady School of Management at UCSD. Before coming to IBM, she worked in startups focusing on integrated hardware design.
Gholami is an IEEE and Optica Senior Member and the former chair of the Optica Fiber Optics Technology Technical Group. She is an advocate for building the pipeline for women in engineering and technology through engagements in the Society of Women Engineers and IBM Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
During summer breaks, my parents would sometimes take us to the university as a fun day with them at work. Whether I was wandering in my father’s chemistry lab with his students or spending a day at the IT lab that my mother managed, I had the unique opportunity to get exposed to different fields of engineering and science. Those trips sparked a sense of curiosity about how the world around me worked, and I grew a deep interest in discovering and creating.
If your ten-years-younger self was looking at your career now, what would he/she be most surprised by?
Ten years ago would almost be in the middle of my Ph.D. studies at UCSD. I think my younger self would be most surprised to see how different my area of expertise is at IBM today compared to my research topic at UCSD. As students, we may think that we need to find a job that closely matches our background or a specific field, but education equips us with problem-solving and learning skills, which are essential tools in today’s ever-changing technology environment.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
I would encourage them not to be afraid of reaching out to colleagues or leaders whose careers they find inspiring. I have learned that most leaders welcome others seeking their advice and enjoy guiding other professionals in their journey. I also encourage them to volunteer at different organizations or for a cause that they are passionate about. Helping others fulfill their goals is rewarding, and it is also a great way to grow one’s network.
What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made, and why?
During product launches and all-hands meetings at Luxtera, one of the startups I worked at in San Diego, I realized that I had little knowledge about the business side. I learned through a friend about the micro-MBA program at the Rady School of Management at UCSD. Having graduated already, I wasn’t sure if the program would consider my application because it was mainly open to current Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers, but I applied. To my surprise, I got accepted as my cover letter had made an impact on the committee.
Alongside the short courses, the program gave me a unique opportunity to meet many leaders in the area, in a small group setting for coffee chats. [These leaders] shared their diverse journeys with the students. These discussions opened my eyes to a whole new set of career possibilities for a photonics Ph.D. graduate.
Describe a major turning point in your career. Was there a specific action/accomplishment that got you there?
We moved to the east coast in 2016 for my husband’s job, and we were hoping to use the transition as an opportunity to change career paths. I took a few months’ break to look back at my career, give myself time and explore what other options are available to someone with my background aside from an individual contributor. I am lucky to have a supportive partner who encouraged me to keep exploring and not feel pressured until I had clarity. My network of friends and family helped connect me with a wide range of professionals, from consultants and professors to entrepreneurs. Those discussions were highly influential in guiding me on my next step.
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
Embracing challenges and seeking opportunities that require learning new skills has been the theme of my career. I have taken on roles or projects [for which] I had little background on the specifics but mainly had a high-level understanding of the fundamental science behind it. In every step, I had to learn from my team and my peers and through self-study.
What is one piece of advice that you’ve found particularly helpful in your career?
“Looking for opportunities at times of change” is one of the many pieces of advice my mentor, Marie Cole, a Distinguished Engineer at IBM, gave me. This piece of advice has been very impactful on my decision-making process during my career, and I try to pass it on to all my mentees.
What have you learned by being a mentor to others, and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?
I truly believe mentoring is a two-way street, and it benefits mentors as much as those they are helping. I have learned resilience from my P-TECH mentees, and my mentees have helped me be a better team lead. My mentors have impacted my career in many ways as well; they have enabled me to acquire new skills, helped me grow my network and navigate through different career options, or guided me on how to overcome challenging situations.
At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?
I am looking forward to broadening my reach and impact by engaging more in professional societies and the professional network within IBM.
Outside of work, what is your favorite thing to do in your free time, and why?
I enjoy hiking and backpacking, as I love exploring nature, which I find the source of inspiration for many human inventions.