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In pursuit of Quantum Computing

- By Kiran Johns

Just like every student my age, I too was really confused about which career/course to take. Well, like many students in Kerala, I too ended up in an Engineering college. Engineering was one of my options along with physics. The physics geek in me was influenced by the Big Bang Theory episodes. Before joining engineering, I skipped a year to prepare for JEE. Though I performed well for the model examinations, I couldn't crack JEE. Since I had a rank of 1960 for KEAM, I joined MACE and I wanted to stay as a day scholar. MACE is the best institute near Muvattupuzha.

To be honest, I was very depressed during the first semester where I was that kid who aimed for an IIT, and realising that I failed at one thing I’m good at, but when I think about it, everything happened for the best. The turning point in my life was when I met a senior in college, Mathew Varghese, who later became my mentor/best friend. Mathew was an inspiration for me, a final-year student who had multiple achievements in his kitty, from visiting Silicon Valley to launching two start-ups. When I joined college I had some knowledge of web development, but it was Mathew who gave me my first real project to work on which helped me learn a lot about what was happening outside the wall of academics, and even pushed me to come out of my comfort zones.

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So halfway through semester one, I saw that I needed to get out of the 9-4 classroom cycle, and I needed to do something that would differentiate me from the rest of the engineering undergrads in Kerala. Hence, I began experimenting in various fields in Computer Science. Google was there to handhold me. Since I knew a bit of web development, I started learning Python, Django and began doing small projects. My brother Melvin, who was an expert, too helped me, along with my senior Ashwin Joseph. I started taking part in activities outside college too by attending Hackathons where I met some wonderful people with similar interests. That's how I met Yadav, a final year student at TIST. Yadav introduced me to the Mozilla Community in Kerala. By the second semester, I learnt the importance of communities. Frankly, I learnt that “you grow only when your community grows”, and I began doing what Mathew Varghese did for me: helping out people who had trouble starting off.

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Fast forward to May 2019, I realized there is no point in keep building websites; anyone can do that’s when the physics nerd inside me came alive. I went through an old blog of mine on Quantum Computing Click here to read my blog. It was basically a Wikipedia page at that time although I never really understood what I wrote back then, I began reading more and more on QC. It was the beginning of a new journey.

First I searched for experts in the field, and when I couldn't find a single person, there came Mathew Varghese to the rescue. He told me that if you can’t find an expert, learn on your own. I learnt about Qiskit and IBMQ and started experimenting with it. I also met a QC researcher, Simsarul, who helped me get some resources to learn on my own.

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Later, I built a website for myself and began writing blogs on Quantum Computing, hoping that it could help others who faced the same troubles. I also started reading on Cheminformatics and made a simple Flask App to render images of Organic Compounds from SMILE Strings (another incomplete project to the list). Meanwhile, I emailed Qiskit to know if they had any mentors who could help me with QC and that's how I got introduced to Maddy. She helped me learn more about Qiskit and by September she told me about the Qiskit Advocates Program, which supports people who are active in the Quantum Computing Community.

To be an advocate I had to pass a test on Quantum Computing and Qiskit. I already had written some blogs on my website and had contributed to Qiskit on GitHub. So on October 18 2019 I received an email that I got accepted into the programme. I was over the moon and they also sent me a cool backpack along with this letter.

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The best thing about life is that it’s full of surprises, just as the quotes from Forrest Gump “My mama always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get’ ”, sometimes you get lucky other times you don’t, but you gotta keep on trying, keep knocking at every door, you don’t know which one is going to open for you. That’s an advice that I give to my friends, you got nothing to lose, I failed at countless internship applications, scholarship applications and other applications that I filled up but you gotta get that fire burning up. My English teacher in Class XII used to say, “If you can't do it, then no one can”, it’s still a quote that keeps on motivating me.

At this point, I am really thankful that I had my parents to support me in whatever decision I made and extremely glad I had a mentor who guided me all through my first year. I’m also happy to share that I also got invited to attend Qiskit Camp organised by IBM Research. I was also chosen for the Microsoft Student Partners Program. In my first year of engineering, I experimented with all the choices I had, now I’m focusing just a few choices that I think that’ll suit me the best

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We know that you love to study physics, but Quantum Computing (QC) is not everyone's cup of tea. Why did you select QC?

I love Physics, Computer Science and Quantum Computing. If combined, it's like a beautiful fusion. It’s actually really fun connecting maths, physics and computer science.

What are the career options if you focus on QC? How hard is it to study it or what are the technicalities involved?

Career options in QC include QC Algorithms Researchers, Software Developers, Hardware Engineers, etc. Learning QC is not that difficult actually, it’s really easy if you’re interested in it, you just need some base in linear algebra and some knowledge about Quantum Mechanics to get you started.

In the article, you have stressed the importance of communities. Perhaps, your first foray was into Mozilla Community in Kerala. How does it work and why a techie should be in communities?

Communities play a huge role in developing a person. Mozilla Kerala is one of the communities that has helped me a lot in developing my soft skills. We get to meet and interact with a lot of people, exchange ideas with them. Volunteering with Mozilla has helped me improve my speaking and presentation skills. I believe that's it’s not just your technical skills that matter, you need to learn how to organize meetups, events and handle things on your own. It doesn’t actually have to be a structured community, even a few friends learning together can help you a lot, you keep pushing each other and developing each other’s skills, you learn a lot by teaching others what you know.

Can you tell more about Qiskit? Elaborate, please.

Qiskit is an open-source Quantum Programming Framework developed by IBM. With Qiskit, you can create Quantum Programs and run them on real Quantum Computers and on simulators. The Qiskit Community has lots of people who contribute a lot to quantum computing. There’s a link to the slack group on the website Joining will be a great way to get started with QC.

What are your career plans? Any plans to move abroad and study/research further?

My current plan is to do a Master’s in Quantum Computing and then go for an MBA. It might seem weird but I like management too. Just like that old IIT dream, IQC, Canada and London Business School are the institutes that I dream of.

Suggest some of the best courses/colleges for research in physics/QC.

There are QC courses on edX by Delft University of Technology, there’s also a this is one of the best resources available Youtube playlist on Quantum Machine Learning, The Qiskit Textbook is also one of the best resources to get started too. IQC-University of Waterloo, Delft University are great institutes to pursue QC. There’s also Initiative on Quantum Technology at the IISc in Bengaluru.

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