A Conversation with Paul Jacobs on Education, Autonomous Driving, and More

Welcome to the first in a planned series of interviews with innovators, inventors and influencers, many of whom I’m fortunate to know personally, some of whom I’m speaking with in-depth for the first time.

The following conversation is with Paul Jacobs, the former Executive Chairman of Qualcomm and current CEO of wireless technology start-up XCom Labs Inc. I have the privilege of being a colleague of Paul’s at the Jacobs Institute, whose mission “to educate students who understand both the under-the-hood details that make something work and the big-picture context that makes something matter” is part of what makes both Paul and I tick.

Jack: You’re a donor to education as a part of your philanthropic efforts and the Jacobs Foundation. You’ve been generous in founding the Jacobs Institute serving as its Chairman. Can you tell us what motivated your generosity to Jacobs and the students it serves? 

Paul: My parents taught me that it’s important to give back to the communities of which you’re a part; obviously, UC Berkeley was a huge part of my life, so when the opportunity arose, I seized it.  The Jacobs Institute was born from my interest in the convergence of design and engineering, and of the rise of engineering as a global profession, requiring the ability to work in interdisciplinary teams.  I also realized that a lot of kids went into engineering because of their interest in math and science but didn’t necessarily get the opportunity to build something and as a result, many were losing interest and dropping out. I have always felt pride when I built something, I found it motivating in my studies and in my career, and I was confident that the students would feel the same way. That was the real motivator of the founding of the Jacobs Institute: to provide students with an opportunity to build and by so doing, keep them in engineering. 

Jack: You’re also a UC Berkeley Alumni MS EECS ’86, PHD ‘89 and you were the same class as I. I’m also an EECS completing my undergrad in ’86 although we didn’t know each other back then. Such people as Steve Wozniak were in my class at Berkeley. What about a Berkeley grad gives them career edge? Is it the rigorous academic program with quality grads? How does this dovetail with your donations there?   I can tell you Berkeley utterly changed my life.   

Paul: I have a very strong point of view about Berkeley because I believe that it’s the combination of University of California at Berkeley and the People’s Republic of Berkeley, that that combination is what help changed my life too. I grew up in La Jolla, CA, which is a pretty homogeneous kind of environment and I really wanted something that would widen my perspective. When I came to Berkeley and walked down Telegraph Avenue I thought, oh my, I’m really in a different world here! I literally spend the first probably month and a half in culture shock. I think that that ability to have a wide world view and be accepting of diversity – both through experiencing the town and through the insights of the faculty and the UC Berkeley community – is crucial to becoming an independent thinker. And of course you know, it’s not like getting through Berkeley is that easy either. So it teaches you to be independent in a lot of aspects of your life.  

Going back to the previous question. I didn’t help create the Institute just to make things; it had to be combined with the rigorous academic program, with the incredibly high quality people that are at Berkeley. The end result:  theory and practice together turn out great engineers. 

Jack: Your son is a current Cal Berkeley engineering student. Cal has a tough program and it’s exclusive. From observations you’ve made of your son’s experience there, has Cal challenged him? 

Paul: The program’s been tough and he’s had to learn that what was easy for him in high school wasn’t necessarily going to be as easy in college. He attended a good high school, but it’s just not the same level of competition. The sheer volume of information that students have to absorb and be able to demonstrate their ability to use is formidable. I would guess his experience was similar to most of every freshman class at Cal Berkeley, which after all, is filled with kids who were stellar students in high school: when he first arrived, college was much more challenging than he’d anticipated. Since he first arrived, he’s developed his understanding of what he needs to do for the grades he wants and is capable of; he’s enjoying it more and is now at the stage where he’s focusing in on a specific area for deeper study. 

Jack: Your father, Irwin Jacobs, co-founded Qualcomm, of which you are also the former chairman. My reading indicates that Qualcomm’s secret sauce was the alterations to standard satellite communications. How did Qualcomm enter into the cellular market coming from satellite and what was Qualcomm’s secret sauce? 

Paul: The previous company that my father founded was very much focused on using digital communication for applications in industries that could afford to do so, which at that time was primarily space and military, involving a lot of satellite work. The first project at Qualcomm to become a major commercial success was a satellite system for long haul trucks.  Driving home from a meeting to pitch a CDMA based satellite system, my father and a colleague spotted a cell tower by a freeway and thought, with some modifications, the technology they were considering for the satellite system could be used for digital cellular phones.  After that it was a matter of a whole lot of hard work. He and his colleagues had these great ideas and those great ideas were very attractive to a lot of engineering people, who just loved “the elegant solution” as we said back then. 

The key to Qualcomm’s success has always been the willingness to look at a problem from a different angle; I’ve strived to continue what my father (and I – I was involved from the beginning) started, improving the capacity of cellular system. I started as an engineer working on speech compression algorithms for the cellular system, working with standards bodies and realizing that the standards aren’t necessarily about what the best technology is, but rather about who could create consortiums with other companies, to get your partners to agree to align with your objectives. 

Qualcomm’s key transition was making the leap from military and space communications, in his previous company Linkabit, to consumer and commercial applications of digital communications. It all comes back to being willing to learn new things, to innovate in your models and challenge conventional wisdom. 

Jack: You are an ambitious man, Paul. Since leaving Qualcomm you’ve embarked on a new venture. Can you describe this venture and what excites you about this?  

Paul: When I left Qualcomm, I originally was thinking about taking the company private and it was because I felt that there wasn’t enough focus on innovation. There was increasing pressure from the financial markets for short term results and I thought that the company would be better suited to be private, so that long term innovation projects could be funded. Because the current management team was investing less in leading edge technologies, some of the senior technical folks that I had worked with over the years inventing new wireless technologies were becoming frustrated, and so a number of them came over to work with me at XCom, to continue to build high performance wireless systems. It’s an exciting time – there’s a lot of talk about 5G but the question is, what are the real applications and what are the real performance characteristics of the system that you need? That’s  what we’re focused on; we’re a little bit over a year into it and we have some great technology we’re working on, some cool stuff in the lab and great partners as well, It’s an opportunity to keep doing what we love to do: build technology that becomes global, changes all our lives, which we know is possible because we’ve done it before. Many of us have been involved in this field for thirty years.  

One of my favorite sayings is that the best way to predict the future is to invent it; our tagline at XCom is #keepinventing. 

Jack: Any thoughts about connected vehicles and cellular technology you’d like to share with this audience? 

Paul: Most cars are getting connected these days, whether it’s because the manufacturer wants to be able to monitor the car, or the entertainment aspect, there is pressure on the industry for vehicles to be more connected, to have increased capabilities. My company is looking at aspects of automotive right now as use cases for high performance wireless systems – there is tremendous opportunity in the automotive space, really interesting opportunities for engineers to work on.  

There’s a lot of hype around autonomous vehicles, which to be honest, we all know how new technologies get a high amount of hype even before they’re ready for prime time, which can be concerning. In particular – what happens when we give the driver more and more assistance, resulting in it becoming difficult for the driver, the human being, to remain vigilant? There’s a bit of an uncanny valley, where you get to certain degree of driver assistance, the driver gets too used to it, becomes distracted too easily, too used to the car reacting for them, and therefore can’t take control again in a case where they need to act quickly to avoid a bad situation. So it seems like fully autonomous vehicles will come later than originally expected. 

Connectivity may help solve some of the issues that hinder the deployment of autonomous vehicles.  If cars can coordinate with each other and with infrastructure, with low latency  connectivity, then responding to tough issues won’t depend only on the computation and sensing that can be done by an individual vehicle. Cars can share their locations and intended directions and provide information about road conditions ahead.  The key for this to work is widespread deployment of connectivity in vehicles, which is already underway.   

Jack: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Paul! I’m excited to see what you and your colleagues at XCom accomplish in 2020.

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