CE 190

This fall Jack will be teaching Electric Vehicle technology at UC Berkeley again. The course is a comprehensive technical breakdown of the physics of electric vehicles.

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