Rice University ECE graduates have been known to make significant contributions in a variety of fields, redefining the limits of what it means to be an electrical or computer engineer. We invite you to get to know our community and read about fellow Owls who share the Rice experience and can offer a viewpoint into the multitude of career options one can pursue “beyond the hedges,” be it industry, academia, non profit or startups.
This month we profile ECE graduate Kiran Mukkavilli, '00 '03. A researcher for Qualcomm, he shares his professional experience, his advice for Rice students, and his interactions with faculty.
Tell us about yourself.
I earned my bachelors in electrical engineering from IIT-Madras and came to Rice for graduate school. In terms of coming to the U.S. for graduate studies, I had talked to people who had attended Rice and I knew what to expect. That made my decision to come to Rice easy. The impression that I got from the people ahead of me was, if you can find a professor in your area of research, this is the best place for you. You don’t get lost the way you would at a large school, and you will have a faculty member who can closely work with you. I am glad it worked out that way when I came here. I have been with Qualcomm research ever since I graduated in 2003. It’s been very rewarding to be at Qualcomm.
In terms of research, I’ve always been someone who wanted to have some practical aspect to the problems that I worked on. I am always looking for a mix where I get to design something and to see that design realized, to actually make it happen. That is something that I find very rewarding. To some extent that’s how I worked on problems at Rice and that’s how I continued at Qualcomm.
At Rice we asked ourselves, “How far along is our design from implementation and what can happen 5 years from now?” That’s the kind of questioning and challenging that took place. We looked at potential bottlenecks past the design and how to get around them. Practical implementation and realization are the aspects of my work that I look forward to.
I think in the middle of grad school I started to lean towards going into a company where I could build things. I am now in a research position. Qualcomm has been known for contributions to cellular communications for 20-25 years. Now it’s much more diverse. There are research groups in communications but there are also groups who are in Multimedia, Computer Vision, Display, Robotics – it’s diverse in anything to do with communications, but also outside that in terms of process development.
Tell me about your current position and what you do at Qualcomm.
My position is part of Qualcomm Research. The research is somewhat unique in the sense that we are looking at problems both in the not-too-distant future, and those that are quite far out too – a processor that is modeled on the human brain and adapts itself continuously, that is several years out there, for example.
There is a good mix of the kind of problems that we look at here and a lot of times I can choose what I’d like to work on. When people are hired on at Qualcomm they get some kind of assignment, then once they spend a couple years here they get a feel for how things operate. It’s somewhat expected that you spend a little bit of time getting accustomed to the place and get an in-depth feel for things that are going on, then you get free hand in picking what you want to work on.
What has been most rewarding about your career?
We think about our projects from concept to completion. We look at the entire system, so it’s not just building a small module. The first project I worked on was building a mobile video delivery system. For this we had to dial up a whole new system and think of how to deploy this network. Even though Qualcomm is a pretty big company, the group I was working with at the time was a diverse, small group, and we were responsible for the entire aspect of getting the system out there, deploying it, getting it standardized, and getting equipment. In a span of 6-7 years, this is much more experience than what I could’ve gotten at a startup. I got to work with every facet of making a system happen. That was something that was truly rewarding.
What is an example of a tough decision you’ve had to make?
I’ve spent about 11 years at Qualcomm and I’ve only worked on two projects in that time, so I would say a time comes when you have to decide to continue with the project you’ve been involved in since the beginning. There are times when the project really takes off, but sometimes you do want to go out and do a different thing. When you do actually say, I’ve worked enough on this and want to move onto the next big thing, that path and questioning is tough. So many interesting things are going on here that you want to be involved in multiple things, and there is only so much you can do at a given point in time.
What was your experience with the Rice faculty like?
The first thing that really struck me, coming from India, was how open the faculty are. They treat graduate students as equals and peers. They are extremely open and interactive, and they listen and value what you have to say. They value your opinion. They are looking first for your opinion in everything, and they encourage people to speak out. People come from different backgrounds, and the faculty know that there are some people that need a bit of encouragement to bring them out of their shell. They are actively looking for these students and trying to make sure that everyone is really contributing at the highest level they can. Dr. Aazhang would take every opportunity to point out what to expect once we step out of grad school. He would say, here at school it’s a very particular environment, but when you leave campus, here’s what to expect. Looking back now at all the things he would say – simple things like how to make slides, make sure to keep things at a high level and practice presentations before conferences – these things went a long way in helping. School is the time you are getting trained and once you leave there is no time-out. You are always learning but the practice is different.
What advice would you give to Rice students based on your experiences?
Something Dr. Aazhang used to insist on was to try to focus on the big picture as much as possible. It’s easy to get pigeonholed into the small problems of a project. It’s applicable to both school and career –take a few steps back and look at the big picture. If you can gain understanding and perspective by looking at an aspect of a problem through a distance, this can make a big difference. Dr. Aazhang and Dr. Sabharwal were very influential in my development in this way.
Favorite Rice memories
I enjoy cricket and follow India’s team. Rice had a cricket club, with the kind of equipment I never got to use in India. Rice didn’t have too many people to play with but it was very generous of Rice to keep us well-funded at that time. There are probably many more people at Rice that play now.
We welcome suggestions of alumni to profile. Please email name, class year and a brief introduction to the individual to Jennifer Hunter or call her at (713) 348-4212.