It is definitely a non-standard path. For me, it's a journey of technology challenes, passion and self-improvement. I tried my best to dig out the essence and I hope you find it interesting.
I was born in Poland in 1986 in a family, where almost every member was a professional artist this way or another. However, since early days I think I was equally or more fascinated with being able to explain the phenomena around me, not just “seeing” them. My parents and I had countless discussions trying to push me to imagine abstract things. With questions like “what happens on the other side of the black hole?”, they made me feel constantly challenged. Adding the popular at that time TV series “MacGyver”, science and technology seemed like the only direction I would really want to pursue. Unaware of the fact that today’s science is so rich and diverse, I did not know what to put my hands on.
At the age of 12, I built a chemical lab in my room. Unfortunately (or fortunately) the lab was swiftly shut down by my parents, after a couple of less spectacular explosions. Hungry for producing evidence to my curiosity, I began to switch my interests towards physics. Although not by any means safer, it did not at least require me to store toxic substances in my room anymore. I was free to “operate”. Still, experimenting involved breaking things, so soon after I realized, it was less expensive, but not less exciting to explore math and theory. Luckily, I reached the age, where self-discipline was not that much of a problem.
Beginning of studies
My childhood was a product of the East-European suburban ‘90s reality. It was not bad at all! For young people, however, it was not uncommon to think ahead and try to choose studies that would at least not prevent one from getting a job afterwards. In 2005, I got accepted at the Telecommunications and Computer Science programme at the Technical University of Łódź. At that time it was a pioneering programme, where all lectures and exercises were offered in English. For that, I had to learn the language in six months, which I did, but for a price of making my accent closer to a sand paper than Oxford or Cambridge... To my surprise, the studies were not as exciting as I thought they would. As soon as I could, I started searching for more individual track, where I could study physics and get rid of boring subjects such as metrology... Who needs metrology anyway?
That is how I did my first course in quantum physics, which to me was like math on steroids. I loved it! From that moment I knew I had to find a way of combining cool science with not-so-cool engineering. In 2007/08 I spend my student exchange year at Danish Technical University, where I had a full permission to take courses in whatever I wanted. So I did, taking the advanced quantum physics, lasers, antennas, and pretty much everything I was not even vaguely prepared, but too excited to admit it. It was pain, sweat and tears. I passed them… it felt like a black-out, but I still wanted more.
Erasmus Mundus Masters in Photonics
During my short visit in Poland in spring 2008, a kind professors’ assistant told me about the so-called Erasmus Mundus programme, which at that time was offered by five different universities across three countries. I applied. For me, it could only mean two things: more of the kind of sweat I experienced in Denmark (and I liked that) and travel (I liked that too). Either of them was not to be overestimated, but both of them was like a dream.
The first year I spent at the University of Ghent and Vrije Universiteit Brussel, and the second one at the Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan (KTH). The time in Belgium was like a repetition from Denmark, except for that every course was much more in detail, more advanced and more photonics-oriented. It was serious. Especially, I remember one: non-linear and quantum optics, on which I spent probably more time than on all others taken together, learning about phenomena I thought were impossible. Never regretted that choice.
When it finally came to define a master thesis, I was so locked-on “quantum stuff” that the management of the programme chose to define a new topic especially for me. This gift made it possible for me to come across prof. Gunnar Björk, my thesis promoter, who also showed me how a real professional scientific work is done by immediately throwing me into a deep water. Ironically, the work involved as much quantum physics and math as it did… metrology. Either way, the thesis was compressed to less than 30 pages including the table of content, and got awarded a special prize. With this work, I only missed a journal publication by a hair – a similar work just got published. “Bad luck” they call it.
Academic time (PhD)
Having experienced these studies, going further into a PhD programme seemed like the most natural choice. Ironically (again), something from early days started waking up in my mind, which was making me realize how much I missed a hands-on experience. One year earlier, I completed a 5-week internship at Sintef in Oslo. Absolutely “quantum-less”, it was all about hands-on experience, finite-element method modeling and even clean-room. It was perhaps like back to the beginning… prototyping and luckily breaking things was not disallowed anymore. It was encouraged, and even gave me a conrtibution to a journal paper.
My mistake was not to check that the PhD offered at NTNU (Trondheim) as it was nothing like the work I remembered from Sintef. During these 2.5 years of not a day lost on running simulations, programming, experiments and even standalone clean-room experience, I came to conclusion that they did not add to anything concrete. It was not even breaking things. The ideas (USA, China) were there, the project was exciting, something else was missing…
From all the high-level skills and deep-down knowledge something was giving me a subconscious feeling that if I only learned the better code, I would be on overall an even happier person, not to mention a more efficient scientist or engineer. In fact, all researchers do program, but since most of them are the recipients of their own code, the code can rarely be used to build things. Leaving the PhD programme in 2013 I had one goal in mind: be a good programmer, regardless of the profile of the tasks I would program and regardless of what it takes.
Later in 2013 I joined Atmel as an application engineer. Prior to job, I had only one embedded electronic project on my account, which was a moody lamp created for my girlfriend, who is now my beloved wife. Although the lamp was not a substitute for the wedding ring, it somehow got me the job… I still wonder sometimes: how come? I did not even have it with me. Nevermind.
The job came of course with a whole set of new experiences, some welcome to a more extent than the others. The ones I especially welcome was teaching customers about new microcontrollers’ features. It felt a little bit like academia, which involved quite a bit of reverse engineering, and the truth is, there is no better way of learning than to teach others. I liked it. However, to put it mildly, I knew I needed something more… groundbreaking, something that would at least put me in the position I could actively contribute.
With no defined project, once again I decided to create my own opportunity. I requested a trial license of the finite-element method tool that, by that time I got to understand rather well, and used my experience in photonics to create a couple of virtual models of touch screens Atmel was heavily involved in supporting. It was a partly under-the-radar work, supported by my nearest management. Surprisingly (or not), the results got attention and soon after I got promoted to a newly created group known as CTO Technology Group. Managed by dr Gaute Myklebust, I had permission to work on creating these models for the whole business unit while being exempted from mundane meetings and bureaucracy. Honestly, it was like a wind to my sails. It was programming and it was physics… (and no metrology).
Unfortunately for me (and Atmel in my opinion), the good tides have soon come to an end. With company acquisition by Microchip, for me as an R&D engineer, I felt that the only way forward is out. Just about the time, when I had the models up and running, I decided to put myself for redundancy and found myself once again working towards the next opportunity. This time, however, with much more ease. Just before I resigned, I recorded a bunch of tutorial videos on finite-element method modeling an put them on Youtube as a final token. However, I knew I had new directions to go for my software development path and just rubbed my hands.
Already as a part of Atmel, I invested a large portion of my spare time in learning the machine-learning frameworks and for that I had to learn Python too, which I wanted to use for the projects there. Naturally, I continued afterwards with having a full-time privilege. Because I dealt with “math on steroids” in the past, I could describe this process as pleasure that is similar to diving. Frankly, I don’t know why, but maybe it just makes things come into places, which is always a nice experience.
Indeed, it felt like the most obvious thing I could do. Being too occupied with my programming projects, I did not have to wait long for an opportunity to reach me. It was a young start-up company Mode Sensors, just established by three students of the NTNU School of Entrepreneurship. They had a fantastic idea for a medical monitoring device and were on a look out for technical people that could join them.
I joined them. I did, simply as the technical idea seemed almost impossible to create (inter-disciplinary and challenging in every aspect, if you ask me). Today, it is almost over a year since we work together and at the time of writing of this text, we have just demonstrated the first prototype, involving a large portion of custom hardware and sensor design, machine-learning and web-development. We have also grown from a team of four, to a team of 10, also turning our advisors into investors.
Right now, I work as both web-developer, data scientist after handing over my role as a company CTO. In fact, I strongly believe that web-development and machine-learning are really good technology “partners”, and a good data pipeline is probably the key to our technology success, among others of course. Only the time with will tell how it played out, but one thing I am sure of: life means opportunity mixed with difficulty, but as long as we stay active learners, we move forward.
These are the collection of loose observations that seem to work for me every time.
- Time is the most important resource you have. Money can get regenerated, time cannot. Don’t waste it.
- It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission. The larger organization, the more rules. If you really believe in what you’re doing, do it first and then share the results. Asking for permission will never get you started.
- Technical career is like trekking. Sometimes you climb a peak just to get a view on the other peaks, but you don’t stay there. You would often have to descend a peak before you can climb another one.
- Doing technology should be like diving. If you’re really into it, you just enjoy the zero-gravity or neutral buoyancy that comes with it. You can be busy being relaxed.
- Research is like cutting through a new territory. Development is like marking the path. Both are needed to create new routes.
- Start with a problem and use technology to solve it, not the other way round. This is also the fastest way to learn a new skill.
- Don’t neglect the power of documentation. Always document of what you have done. Document the intention and context first.