A Vision for Quantum Computing
When Laure Le Bars started her work on quantum computing, it wasn’t even a thing. Back in the nineties, the topic was barely creeping into the tech conversation. But Laure had the right hunch: Today, quantum computing has many applications, and research is exploring its full potential. As for Le Bars, she built and directed labs in Canada and Hungary, and is now Research Project Director at SAP
How did it start with you and quantum computing?
I'm a mathematician, a software engineer – in short, a computer scientist. But I'm not a quantum physicist. I learned some of the basics during my early studies, but that’s it. During the 90s and at the beginning of the 2000s, however, I followed the theory of “quantum bits” in scientific articles, and the first steps to build them. I started to think about what would be possible once quantum computers became a reality.
How did this new topic enter your career path?
Ten years ago, I moved back to Europe as part of SAP Research, after working abroad for more than 20 years. And every time that there was a discussion about what the future could look like, I brought the topic of quantum computing to the table. But I was always met with: "Forget it, it will never fly. And even if it did, this is about hardware. At SAP, we do software." I disagreed. Because from my perspective, this tech had the potential to generate a new and disruptive capacity in certain areas. At every brainstorming workshop, we would be expected to propose new topics for the agenda. And my colleagues would laugh: “Don’t ask Laure. She’ll just bring up that quantum stuff again.” Until in 2016, I got a new boss. He heard my ideas and thought, “Why not?”. Naturally, I jumped on it and dug into the topic.
What happened next?
I got an invitation to Quantum Europe 2016. It was marvelous. For two whole days, I was surrounded by all quantum technologies, not just computing. And for those two days, I understood almost nothing. This wasn’t the science I was familiar with, and quantum physics is counterintuitive. I simply took notes and thought – whoa. I was tired of conferences on Big Data and whatnot; the type of event where you go, you don't listen, and yet you could still repeat what has been said because it’s always the same thing. Here, I realized that I was just scratching the surface of what had been going on for the past 20-30 years. Still, from an SAP point of view, why was this interesting?
Well, it would have given us a different approach to optimization problems. Unstructured databases benefit from that, as well as machine learning; in any situation with several variables but no structure, being able to look at different solutions at the same time is a game-changer. Quantum physics proves that a particle can have more than one state, and in computing, so does the quantum bit. It's not just zero or one sequences, like in classical computing: You can operate on every state in between, and in superposition.
Can you give us an example of how this works?
Take a structured database – like a phonebook ordered from A to Z. If you’re looking for a name that starts with, say, the letter K, you’ll open it in the middle. But you might land on a different section, like M. So you have to flip over to the left side, perhaps try the middle again… There’s a limited number of possibilities, so you will get to K eventually. Still, the bigger the phonebook, the more tiresome it gets. And if your book is not even ordered, you may be forced to try as many times as there are entries in the phonebook – even worse. Now imagine you were able to open every page at the same time. That’s the quantum search. Of course, it’s not so simple, this was just to give you an idea of this different approach.
Which fields can profit from quantum technology?
Any field. In fact, quantum technologies are already part of everyday life: MRI scanning, laser, GPS, metrology, etc.. However, there is still a lot of progress to be made in certain areas, such as quantum communication and quantum computing. When it comes to programming, we shouldn’t merely aim to be quicker or more powerful. We may have to revise it altogether, using different algorithms and logic. It's not like we will replace classical with quantum: They will coexist so that we can take the best out of both. Most SAP programs will probably continue to be sequential, but occasionally, we may need a quantum computer for specific optimization or AI subroutines. Plus, we’re still in research mode. Our findings are far from being ready. But we have to move now, to understand which areas we should explore together with our partners.
We have a lot of research going on. In countries like Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and France, we have been working on these innovations for quite a long time.
Europe is a global leader in this technology. Why do you think that is?
Firstly, we have a lot of research going on. In countries like Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and France, we have been working on these innovations for quite a long time. On the other hand, there are more hardware providers outside Europe than inside, but the German-based SAP provides software for corporations all over the world, running on all sorts of hardware. Besides, we don't want one type of technology to overtake all others, or a single quantum machine to provide everything. We need a plurality of services, both in hardware and software, just like we do in classical computing.
What are the biggest projects at the moment?
There’s the Quantum Internet Alliance, which aims to draw a blueprint of quantum Internet and produce all its physical components for the future. It's driven by QuTech in TU Delft, with Stephanie Wehner as project manager. SAP is building a portion of the security protocol, and this is our small contribution to this technology flagship.
Last year, a group community network arose within the European Quantum Technologies Flagship project. We realized that it was important to create something longer-term than the program itself, so we decided to form the European Quantum Industry Consortium (QuIC), along with other partners. We bring all industries together: SMEs, startups and large industries, as well as academia, RTOs and others. We work on the strategic roadmap, the industry state-of-the-art, and of course, SME funding. I have been elected as president, my experience in setting up and managing labs in different countries is useful here. I think this discussion forum is important, and fosters exchange. Because there are strong innovators in Europe, we would like them to flourish and expand their businesses.
You worked abroad for some years, in Canada and Hungary. What did you take out of this for your career? What experiences do you look back on?
Well, I’m a mathematical spirit. I started by attending an engineering high school in France, software engineering to be precise, where the curriculum included a lot of math. I was two years younger than my classmates, and eventually, I finished my thesis at twenty-three. In the final year of my studies, I got to work at a research center in Montreal. I had intended to stay there for a limited time; while I was completing my diploma, however, I met my Canadian husband. So I found a job there as a technical consultant for an American company. Software for enterprise: precisely my specialty.
I managed to prove that I could be a woman, a young one at that time, with no “Professor Doktor” on my ID card, and still take the lead on something important.
By the time I started as a technical consultant for SAP, I had bigger ideas. There was potential in that city to build a software development laboratory. We had good skills around us, plenty of people immigrating from everywhere. And it wasn’t so expensive there as in Germany. Some people looked at me as though I was crazy, but I held on to my idea. This is perhaps one of the things I'm good at: I had a vision that I was prepared to shape for ten or twenty years. I managed to prove that I could be a woman, a young one at that time, with no “Professor Doktor” on my ID card, and still take the lead on something important. We started with one employee, then ten, up to a lab of five hundred persons. Today, we have SAP labs everywhere, but at the time even Palo Alto was barely open. When we created ours, I had nobody telling me how to do it – which was the way I liked it. I worked there for more than 12 years.
Then SAP decided to build a lab in Central or Eastern Europe. So I raised my hand and said: "I would like to help. I want to do the analysis.” That’s how I ended up in Hungary. I had to do in seven months what had taken me several years in Montreal, and in a country where I initially didn't speak the language. Meanwhile, my family was still in Quebec. For two years, I spent about one week in Canada and one in Hungary, traveling over the weekends. It was tough, especially with the time zones. But an interesting challenge!
When you build something, it can be hard to let it go, right?
It was also difficult for the people in Montreal: They didn't want me to leave. Some of them were crying – and so was I. But I told them: "Look, if I leave and everything collapses, I did a bad job. If I leave and everything keeps running, even if it takes a different shape, I will be proud.”
This is the new concept of leadership. To coordinate, but not to micromanage the people.
Yes, but this is what I've been doing since the beginning of the 90s, when the dominant method was different. The way I manage is always through discussion and consensus, no matter if I’m dealing with a small project or team or the whole lab. It may seem more difficult to work that way, because you can't just say: "I'm the boss, I've decided. Now do what you’re told." Under my watch, we all decide together. But when it's time for execution, people feel engaged, because they’ve contributed to the outcome. This approach takes us much further, and it ultimately saves time.
In Montreal, I had a pretty stable team throughout all those changes and turnovers. Even though we increased by hundreds, the core group stayed the same until I left. When I made my hires, I didn’t care if they were men or women. Or whether they were foreigners: I was a foreigner myself in that country. I wanted to create a software development lab where my colleagues could build a career and projects for themselves, and in my view, putting together a multicultural team was a plus.
Would you say you were a pioneer in terms of diversity?
Today, everybody talks about it. But I experienced it myself before anyone had the word in their mouth. There were different nationalities, languages and cultures, and with different paths behind them. It was more complex than adding different nationalities: there was cultural exchange, there was creativity.
I've got two kids, who are now 31 and 29. I won't say it has been easy every day, but it was normal for me to raise them and use my brain at work.
Today, you’re back in France. From our perspective, your country is becoming a role model in terms of gender equality. Would you agree?
France is no paradise; things are perhaps not so good as in Sweden. But it truly is a positive environment for working women, especially mothers. In Germany, the US and Canada, I felt pushed to make a choice: If you're cultivating a good career, you are considered a bad mother. If you're a good mother, it’s a given that you will stop working or work part-time as an assistant. Many of my colleagues felt guilty about working while their kids were in daycare, but me? No, no way. Whenever I did have doubts, my French education kicked in, as well as my personal upbringing. My parents were not rich, and my grandparents were immigrants in Paris, coming from Brittany. They also spoke a different language: their mother tongue was Breton. They always made it clear to me that I was not one of the privileged, that I had to earn a living. It was not even a question. So, I didn't experience that motherhood schizophrenia. I've got two kids, who are now 31 and 29. I won't say it has been easy every day, but it was normal for me to raise them and use my brain at work.
What would be your advice to younger women who have just started their tech careers?
Simply know your value: Do what you're best at and don't hesitate. Fewer young girls are choosing the scientific path these days, and when they do, they tend to go for medicine. In the 80s, my engineering high school had just as many young women as men. There should be more and more girls in software, I feel like we're going backward.
Certain misconceptions get in people’s way. For one, I don't believe there’s such a thing as feminine values or skills. We are all humans. When people talk to me about feminine intuition... It's not true! It’s all about education. Some people are intuitive, some are not. Some people cultivate it and some don’t. In the same way, there are no gendered subjects: I'm proof of the contrary. This kind of discourse is dangerous, because how do you expect to fight for equality, get equal opportunities, if you base it all on a misconception?
My advice in summary: Learn, go for it, and don’t give up – ever.
This article is part of a content cooperation between FemaleOneZero (F10) and SAP SE. In the newly established “Tech Agenda” category on #F10, we aim to present interesting women from SAP Labs worldwide, publish major interviews with thought leaders and background stories on digitization and innovation.
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