Qualcomm’s Vanitha Kumar on talking to your daughters about math [The Women Behind Wireless]

vanitha kumar

Vanitha Kumar knew she wanted to be an engineer from a very young age.

Since high school, the idea that she would be an engineer was pretty much cemented in her brain. From there, she got her bachelors degree in electronics and communication engineering at the PSG College of Technology in India and graduated with a 4.0 GPA from Northeastern University with a masters in Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Following her masters degree, Kumar worked her way up the ranks in the internationally dominant semiconductor and telecom equipment company Qualcomm over the course of 21 years to become vice-president of modem software engineering.

But while that may sound like a simple — if not effortless — process, that doesn’t mean that Kumar’s career in wireless hasn’t had its fair share of challenging moments and learning opportunities.

In this edition of MobileSyrup‘s The Women Behind Wireless series, we speak to Kumar about what challenges her, the best advice she’s received and her views on diversity in the tech industry.

MobileSyrup: When did you first gain an interest in tech?

Vanitha Kumar: I grew up in a traditional middle-class Indian family and pretty much if you follow the stereotype of what a family like this focuses on, it’s a lot of science and math. It’s something you’re expected to be good at. My grandfather, in particular, really encouraged me a lot to participate in math Olympiads.

MS: What was it like when you first joined Qualcomm?

Kumar: I was lucky, even if at that time I didn’t realize it or appreciate it.

CDMA was then known as an emerging technology, we were focusing on the commercialization of CDMA. I worked on the base station side for about three years. The technology at that point was proven, so Qualcomm decided to sell the base station group to Ericsson.

I moved from the base station side to the mobile software side. Then I started working on CDMA2000, an evolution of CDMA that was the starting point of 3G.

Then there was Wimax, UMB and LTE.

MS: Why did LTE win out over UMB, which you initially worked on?

Kumar: LTE had a lot more backers than the others.

The thing with technology is, it can be a very self-fulfilling prophecy, if you put enough energy into, it might work, if not, it won’t work.

UMB didn’t live long enough to stand the test of time. It’s hard to say we did anything wrong by betting on LTE. I still look at LTE as my baby. From the very first line of code, I was there.

I’m not even thinking of 5G as my baby, I’m thinking of it as an evolution of LTE. You build a beautiful house and you think, next I want to do this to my living room, etc.

MS: What is some of the best advice you’ve received in your career?

Kumar: Some of the best advice I’ve received in my career is to believe in myself. I think every time I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve wondered “Should I do that?” or “That’s not my area of expertise” or “That’s not what I have done in the past,” family members or friends or colleagues at work gave me the extra boost saying “No, you can absolutely do it. Just go for it and believe in what you’re capable of.”

That’s pretty much what has kept me going all these years.

MS: What was one of your greatest challenges at work and how did you overcome it?

Kumar: I think for me, the technical skills were something that was very natural for me, because I always considered myself an engineer at heart from the time I was maybe a teenager.

But I was also, as a teenager, very socially awkward. In my family I was a social outcast. I didn’t have very many friends. I didn’t really develop that skill to talk to other people and get them to see things your way and all that. So, for me, when I transitioned into a work environment and eventually had to lead multiple teams, I really had to work a lot on my communication skills, and that’s something I had to do for myself very early on, so I kind of put myself through classes and figured out how to work with [people].

“…How do you harvest the strengths of multiple people and get them going towards a common purpose, even when you have conflicts…”

And not just working with people, but harnessing their full potential. How do you get them to lead effectively on a project? And how do you choose some people with the right skill-set for the right problem? Because you might have someone who is super good at something, but they may not want to either lead a team or be responsible for a huge area or they may not want to be customer facing.

So the question is, how do you harvest the strengths of multiple people and get them going towards a common purpose, even when you have conflicts between different personalities, people from different cultures, people with different beliefs, different backgrounds? And that’s something I really learned to do over the years.

MS: What’s something you wish more people knew about wireless?

Kumar: The commercial wireless systems deployed that enable people to make their voice calls, texts, data etc. is not actually one homogeneous worldwide network.

It actually consists of several generations of wireless standards like GSM, CDMA, WCDMA, LTE, Wi-Fi, all deployed in a heterogeneous fashion and in several RF [radio frequency] bands based on the network operators.

So for a phone bought in one city or country to seamlessly “roam” in another city, network, country to continue to deliver the voice and data services requires enormous work on the standards, device and network sides to make sure all these networks can interwork with each other and a phone can smoothly handover between these various standards and band combinations.

This is one of the biggest challenges we face when we move to newer revisions of existing technologies or new technologies like 5G to make it coexist so seamlessly with existing networks. I view this as one of the most under-appreciated problems by the end users.

MS: What are your thoughts on diversity in the tech industry?

Kumar: I don’t think the tech industry is that diverse at all. Even today, in Qualcomm we don’t have that many engineers who are women or who are African American, so diversity is definitely a challenge.

I have two school-age daughters and so I have started tracking this problem from elementary school.

For the longest time, I thought, oh we’re just not able to get the right engineers, and it’s just a problem in the industry, but actually — though we can definitely do more, have a more inclusive environment and make it really easy for women to stay — I really think the problem is actually in the pipeline and I think the problem starts way back in middle and even elementary school.

“I think the problem starts way back in middle and even elementary school.”

Because I see the conditioning happening in middle school and high school, there are a lot of girls that stay out of math and science because somehow they think “Oh, I’m not that good at it.” Kids get a ‘B’ in English all the time and they don’t think they’re bad in English because they get a ‘B’ but if they get a ‘B’ in math, they think “Oh my god, I must really be stupid. I’m not able to do it.”

Recently I went to one of my kids’ back-to-school night and the math teacher was telling all the parents, “If you guys have a problem with math, please don’t share that with your children. If your children come to you with math, don’t immediately go ‘Oh yeah, math, it’s so hard. I really struggled with this in school, I absolutely hated it.’ If you have your own opinions about math, don’t share that with your children, let them think it’s like any other subject, which if they put effort in it, they can excel.” I thought that was a very interesting point.

MS: How do you engage your daughters in math and science and engineering?

Kumar: Until about eighth grade or so, I work with them on my own math curriculum. Pretty much everyday that I can have something prepared for them — sometimes just as small as 15 minutes or half an hour, but I make sure I kind of keep them with my math time at least five days a week. Now my high schooler is on her own because she doesn’t need that anymore.

I do tell them a lot about what I do and what I make. […] They’re very, very proud to say “My Mom works at Qualcomm, and she does all this.” When we have projects going on in the lab I take them to the lab and show them “Look, these are all the engineers and they’re working on all this stuff.” So they actually have a good idea of what does a hardware engineer do, what does a software engineer do.

The other way I try to get them excited is I coach the math Olympiad team, I’m engaged in the robotics team…I make sure that if anything is telling them anything bad about math and science, I’m talking to them four times as much to [counteract] that.

MS: What do you think of people like James Damore who say there are biological differences that make women not interested in or not good at STEM subjects?

Kumar: I don’t even know what to say. That’s just crazy.

I think a lot of it is just the way girls are groomed. Right from when they are very small…many parents don’t mean to do it, but they get their daughter the Barbie doll and their son a building set. Right from the time they’re little, we tell them, “This is what you should be interested in.”

It’s very wrong to call that biological. I know a lot of engineers who are women and who are very, very smart and I work with a lot of high school kids and I see that the girls are just as smart, just as capable when it comes to solving those challenging problems — it’s just what are we telling them and how society is grooming them. I think society has a big role in it.

“It’s very wrong to call [this issue] biological.”

We’re constantly telling girls this is not what you’re made to do, this is not natural for you, this is not what you should be doing and that really sets a bad precedent.

I was talking to somebody recently who was sending her daughter to a school of pharmacy and I was asking her “Why pharmacy?” and she said, “Oh, it seems like such a good job for a girl…It’s a very light job and she can manage kids and home and making dinner for them.” I’m sure she’s not telling that to her sons.

That’s not the right way of thinking about it. You should tell your daughter, “What are you passionate about? What do you want to do? Go for it, and maybe eventually you will find a spouse you can be supportive in that role and encourage you to pursue your dreams.”

MS: Do you have any particular advice to give to girls or young women aiming to get into the wireless field?

Kumar: Focus on the fundamentals. My daughter said she wanted to come in and see all the different jobs that people do [so] she can decide if she wants to focus on this or that. But to focus on any of that stuff, fundamentals are very important — basic math, physics, chemistry. Elementary, middle school kids should really focus on math, middle school and high school kids should focus on math and science.

Getting into wireless after that is not really harder. They can get into wireless or AI or robotics. But the fundamentals, none of those are an option for them. The first step to get into wireless is to learn the basics.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Images were provided courtesy of Qualcomm.

The Women Behind Wireless is a series of profiles by MobileSyrup that aims to shine a spotlight on veteran women in the wireless industry, and what they’ve contributed to the field. Stay tuned for more profiles in the near future. 

Read more: Huawei’s Dr. Peiying Zhu explains why 4G was a hard sell

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