In a new series we’re calling Innovators @ Qualcomm, or IQ, we’re getting to know some of the very talented people that work at Qualcomm.
Today, we’re profiling Serafin Diaz, vice president of engineering at Qualcomm Technologies. Diaz grew up in La Paz, Baja, Mexico where he developed an early fascination of electronics and how things work. He’s put that inquisitive nature to good use in his almost-20 years with the company, working on a variety of projects, from designing and executing test cases for cellular systems to field testing EV-DO to starting and leading R&D in augmented reality (AR) and computer vision.
We chatted with Diaz about his history with the company he’s loved since before he was actually an employee, the road to next-level connectivity and experiences, and why he wants to set a good example for the Latino community.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
OnQ: You’ve been with the Qualcomm organization for almost 20 years. Tell us about your first job with the company.
Serafin Diaz: After school, I got a job with Northern Telecom (Nortel). I had been working there for a bit more than a year when I was selected to work on a big project with this new company named Qualcomm. I came to San Diego to work with Qualcomm on Sprint’s first deployment of wireless CDMA technology. So I worked with the company but wasn’t an employee. I went back to Dallas, and I realized I really wanted to be here. Less than a year later, I was.
OnQ: As a new employee, what did they have you working on?
Diaz: I worked on the first 2G data services technology — before data was important. I did that for a couple of years. Then, because I had fairly strong software, testing, and validation skills, I was asked to lead a team. We created one of the first [automation] platforms. After that project, I decided I wanted to be close to research, and my manager told me that a small team was being assembled to create a new wireless technology. It was CDMA2000 1xEV-DO, often referred to as EV-DO, the first high-speed internet connection. That’s when I moved to corporate research. I worked on EV-DO for many years, almost from the very beginning, until the technology was deployed. I even followed the technology to Korea.
OnQ: How long were you in Korea?
Diaz: A year. When I came back, I transitioned fully to what is called system engineering. I started working on Voice over IP (VoIP), and after that, video telephony, which was brand new on cellular networks. Then, I got heavily involved in our innovation engine efforts. We were looking to the future and trying to figure out what the mobile device may need, and that’s how I ended up starting Qualcomm’s first Augmented Reality and Computer Vision research program.
OnQ: So you’ve been working in augmented reality for how long?
Diaz: Augmented reality (AR) and computer vision (CV) technologies for 9 years.
OnQ: I think that may surprise people, because so many see AR as a new technology.
Diaz: No, AR has been around for many decades. The truth is that now all the planets are aligned. The technology is here, and we’re responsible for a big part of that. Things are about to happen. So I’m very optimistic about AR, VR, and computer vision. I think they’re going to change a lot of things.
OnQ: And now we’re calling these different “realities” XR, right?
Diaz: That’s correct. We’re using the umbrella term, XR, or extended reality. And from my point of view, VR, AR, MR (mixed reality), and everything in between are names for slightly different use cases, but underneath, a good amount of the technology is pretty much the same.
OnQ: How would you describe XR?
Diaz: I liken it to the way the cell phone changed the world and the way we interact with information. XR takes it one step further to where the system is so smart that it’s able to establish the context you’re in and present you with information before you even ask.
One of the main channels for humans to consume information is through vision. Our goal is to move toward a device, which you can wear like your glasses, that’s going to present, when needed, all of that information directly to your eyes, seamlessly.
OnQ: What are some of the challenges your team faces, working in XR?
Diaz: Well, it’s really, really hard for computers to understand the same level of detail about the environment around us as humans do, and these systems tend to be large and very computationally expensive. One of our challenges is trying to make that complex computer vision technology low cost and able to work seamlessly on our devices. Also, at the end of the day, it needs to be very, very low power. You wouldn’t use — or pay for — a very cool augmented reality system if it ran for only half an hour. So we need to get to the point where it can run for a full day.
OnQ: What do you consider one of your biggest breakthroughs?
Diaz: Breakthroughs depend on how you look at them. They can be relatively small but very significant. I remember an early conversation with the DSP (digital signal processing) team when we realized that the DSP had a lot of the processing power needed to run computer vision. It was just lacking some instructions. While it was really good for 16-bit processing, it wasn’t for 8-bit processing, and most of the images for computer vision are 8 bit. That realization began affecting the DSP roadmap.
Another was a demonstration that we did, which was very significant to us. The U.S. is one of the few countries that uses the same size bills for currency. So what happens when a blind person tries to differentiate between denominations? We made an application that lets you point your phone at a bill, and it will identify the bill and respond with, “10 dollars” if it’s a $10 bill. So, here you’ve augmented something not only with vision but with sound. We were able to show how people other than our traditional customers can benefit from this technology.
OnQ: When do you think people are really going to start using XR?
Diaz: In my personal opinion, I think it could happen within five to seven years — if we’re patient and if every company, including Qualcomm, who is invested in this technology keeps moving it forward.
OnQ: How does Qualcomm differentiate itself in this space?
Diaz: Many big companies have actually realized that this technology can be extremely disruptive and important. One advantage we have is that we’re very good at solving highly computational, difficult problems. As I said earlier, this technology is going to be successful when it lasts all day long. That means it needs to be very low power, and that’s something we know how to do. We have very smart, talented people here who have built high performing, low power hardware for other use cases, and we can utilize those skills here.
OnQ: Speaking of those “smart, talented people,” do you think its diverse workforce impacts the company’s culture and the products it makes?
Diaz: When I was at my university, I realized that probably 70 percent of the people were from other parts of the country. It was a very good experience for me because I came to understand that even though most of us were Mexican, we all thought a little bit differently. We all approached problems from different angles. When I got to Qualcomm, I started noticing the experience repeated itself. People from different places and cultures using different thinking and procedures to attack a problem and get to a solution. I think that makes for a very powerful recipe.
OnQ: Do you participate in any of Qualcomm’s employee networks?
Diaz: I’ve been attending LatinQ meetings lately. I’d like to get more active, especially with newcomers to the company.
OnQ: What would you want newcomers, or people considering a job here, to know about Qualcomm?
Diaz: Actually, every time I talk to someone about this, I tell them the same things. One is that you’re going to work with very smart people, great people. Then, I talk about what my work life has been here. I’ve done so many different things, from system integrations to field testing to research in voice and video telephony to computer vision. I worked hard, and after paying my dues, I could pretty much decide what I wanted to do. That’s an opportunity you don’t get in many other places.
OnQ: Did you always know that you wanted to be an engineer?
Diaz: Pretty much. I was the kind of kid that waited for toys to break so I could take them apart and see what was inside. It got to the point that I couldn’t wait anymore. I just needed to take everything apart. There was a point in a high school where I realized it was going to be engineering for me.
OnQ: Who encouraged you? Have you had mentors?
Diaz: My dad was a strong influence, a very strong influence. He always told us that we could study anything, be anything. He just encouraged us to be one of the best. When my brother, sister, and I started expressing curiosity about a field, he’d find a way to introduce us to someone in that field and have us spend a few days with them. A friend of his who had an electronics workshop hosted me for a week.
OnQ: It sounds like you’ve always been on this path. But if you could give your younger self advice, what would it be?
Diaz: I consider myself lucky, because the message my father gave me was very clear: Do whatever you want, just be good at it. I think it goes back to that: Do what you enjoy; do what you want. That’s what I would say. My dad also encouraged me to further my education. These are the things I’ll tell my children. And if I could talk to my 20-something self, I’d encourage him not to go back to Dallas. I’d say go back to San Diego, to Qualcomm, as fast as you can.
OnQ: You knew you wanted to be here.
Diaz: Yes. It was the place to be. Very nice company. Very smart people. I remember one night early on when I was working here but not yet an employee. It was very late and I was running a test case, and this person came up to me and started asking me questions. He was very polite, very curious. So I answered the questions, and all the while I was thinking “Who is this person?” At that time, Qualcomm badges had your name and employee number. I looked for his, and when I spotted it, I saw that it said: Irwin Jacobs, 1.
OnQ: That’s a great story.
Diaz: He’s a great person. Very smart. I sat there thinking about how much I wanted to work for this guy.
Fun FAQs About: Serafin Diaz
What’s your favorite thing about working at Qualcomm? Qualcomm is a great place, and I have the opportunity to interact and work with nice, smart people that challenge me.
What one word best describes you? Patient. At least that’s what people tell me.
What book is on your nightstand? Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Describe it in one sentence. VR takes over the world.
Favorite place? After 20 years here, I think of San Diego as my home. So, San Diego, Torrey Pines specifically.
What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Family
If you weren’t a vice president of engineering for Qualcomm, what would you be doing? I’d be a fish farmer. If not that, a professor. I’ve thought about that a lot. I think the Latino community, all young people really, need strong examples to follow, and I’d like to be that.