Chatting with Walid Ali-Ahmad was a breath of fresh air. I found him to have a unique ability to simplify complex concepts and explain them clearly.
With a career spanning over a bit less than three decades, Walid has worked for the top three companies in wireless communication chipset development: Mediatek, Qualcomm and Samsung. He describes an exciting journey where there was never a dull moment.
In 1988, Walid graduated with distinction from AUB where he earned his Bachelor degree in Electrical Engineering. He then proceeded to the United States to pursue his Masters of Science and completed his Ph.D in Electrical and Electronics Engineering at the University of Michigan. Today, he is the Vice President of Cellular SoC - RF Systems Engineering at Samsung Electronics.
What can you tell us about your current work?
I currently lead a group of engineers focused on RF-modem system engineering for Samsung LSI’s cellular chipsets that eventually go into Samsung’s Galaxy phones. We’re very focused on RF system architecture and RF-modem algorithms and work on everything from the antenna down to the modem.
What’s the most exciting project you worked on?
The most exciting project was the one at Maxim Integrated Products, the second company I worked for. It takes me back to 1999, when 3G was a big deal as the new emerging cellular standard. At Maxim Integrated Products, I was the lead RF system engineer and I worked with fellow RFIC designers to tackle all the challenges of moving from the incumbent super-heterodyne radio architecture to direct-conversion radio architecture for cellular transceivers. The direct-conversion architecture has since then been the enabler for higher radio integration in cellular SoCs and minimized the use of external front-end filters. Our work at that time resulted in the development of the first low-cost low-power 3G transceiver solution for dual-band cellular applications. Currently at Samsung, the work on 5G chipsets development, with its present and future challenges, reminds me of that exciting 3G time some 20 years ago.
How would you describe your early beginnings?
I was privileged enough to be taught by two excellent teachers: professor Gabriel Rebeiz who was my Ph.D advisor at University of Michigan and professor Fawaz Ulaby who was the founding Director of the NASA-funded Center for Space Terahertz Technology at U of M. I owe them both a lot. Dr. Ulaby offered me the graduate assistantship which allowed me to come from Lebanon to the US. The two of them greatly influenced my career, giving me a strong background in radio technology and applied electromagnetics. When I went to the Bay Area right after my Ph.D, I worked at a company called Anritsu-Wiltron and we were doing high-end high-frequency test equipment back in 1996. I was observing what was happening around me and teaching myself more about the wireless revolution; this was the time when we were moving from 2.5G to 3G radio access technology.
What skills and knowledge helped you get to where you are today?
When I was at AUB, I really enjoyed the technical side of engineering. Doing my PHD at the University of Michigan in the field of millimeter-wave and sub-THz radio systems engineering for satellite and remote sensing applications forced me to become sharp technically and allowed me to lead a project from a technical perspective. The knowledge of how radio systems work from a phone to a Bluetooth headset to a GPS were crucial to my career. Technical difficulties never fade away and if you want to become a strong manager, you need to figure out how to stay in shape technically so you are able to understand and contribute to projects with your engineering team. It makes the relationship between the manager and the engineer more fruitful and helps the manager be sympathetic to his team members and understanding of obstacles that may arise. The key is to drive your team to deliver with excellence without pushing them too hard. Being able to achieve that balance is an important skill!
What are some of the toughest challenges that you have faced?
Some challenges led me to greater success while others pushed me to the brink of failure. They all eventually give you the tough skin that you need to excel. I am not someone who spent years at one company. When I worked at Qualcomm for three and half years, I worked with people who had been there for over 20 years. Moving from one company to another was very rewarding for me because it allowed me to grow professionally and allowed me to bring a diverse set of experiences into each new role. However, you are often faced with people asking more from you and sometimes you have to prove yourself anew, and this pressure required me to strive to be at my best technically throughout my career. Moving from Mediatek as a Senior Technical Director to Qualcomm as a Vice President of Technology marked a transformative period of my life on both a personal and professional level. During that time, I also got married and moved from Singapore to San Diego.
What do you like most about what you do?
The fact that I've seen how cellular technology evolved from 2G when I started working in 1994 makes me love what I do. As a Lebanese-American with my heritage and working in the US, one thing that amazes me is that everything that has been developed in the wireless communications field always started by what NASA or the US Department of Defense have developed: GPS started for the US Army then became commercial. Cell phones were also used initially by the military, and Satellite or millimeter wave communication was restricted to federal use but now you can have that hardware in the palm of your hand.
Can you share a few tough lessons you picked up throughout your career?
The first lesson is that when you jump between companies you always have to invest time in learning the culture and how the company operates. Don’t be complacent by just saying ‘I'm a great engineer, I’m going to go in and change everything’. People have to accept you first and you have to build credibility in any role. No one can join a company and take with them the cachet they built before. The other important lesson I learned was when I was at Mediatek in Asia: one of my managers asked me if I knew Tai Chi. It’s an Asian martial art that is typified by its slow movements and by the use of leverage through the joints based on coordination and relaxation, rather than muscular tension. When you’re in a new environment and focused on change and contribution, you have to move slowly, gain confidence and credibility, and avoid alienating people around you or on the same team.
What advice would you have for young professionals in your field?
We are very well-rewarded in the high-tech field as engineers but that reward doesn't come easy. Any young professional in the high-tech field must stay sharp in their expertise and build on their academic background. I am lucky in that regard because I was a professor in my career, with three years at AUB and as an adjunct professor at University of California San Diego. Teaching requires you to keep a firm grasp on the basic principles of your field. This will take you a long way in the high-tech area.
What excites you about the future of your industry?
Being able to see the contribution of NASA to the area of communications (Satellite to Satellite or Satellite to Land-based radio links). Wireless communications and their evolution certainly excite me as we look beyond 5G towards 6G. Thinking about how far this industry has come from the original bulky cell phone to today’s smartphones shows how limitless the possibilities are in this field, especially as we consider other new applications in AR/VR.