Geek of the Week

A love for sci-fi sparked Megan Brown’s STEM path and led to quantum computing at Microsoft

Megan Brown and her cat Apollo. (Photo courtesy of Megan Brown)

Megan Brown grew up in a house where an interest in science and science fiction were highly encouraged. She credits weekly viewings of the television series “Stargate SG-1” as one of the reasons she ended up in STEM.

“If you asked my dad, he’d probably tell you that one of the things he’s most proud of is imbuing my brother and I with a healthy curiosity and a love for science fiction,” Brown said. “As an adult, I’ve continued to be fascinated with emerging technology and accomplishing what previously seemed impossible.”

A program manager at Microsoft working on Azure Quantum, Brown calls the job a dream come true. Our latest Geek of the Week, originally from Montreal, moved to Seattle four years ago and is currently getting her MBA at the University of Washington.

Brown works on Microsoft’s Quantum Development Kit (QDK), which was released in 2017 and intended to empower developers to create quantum applications.

“As an emerging technology, we understand that quantum computing is new territory for most developers and one of our main goals with the QDK is to make quantum computing easier to learn and more accessible,” Brown said.

As a full-stack, open cloud ecosystem for quantum solutions, software, and hardware, Brown calls Azure Quantum a “one-stop-shop” that gives developers the freedom to create their own path to scalable quantum computing.

“Quantum-inspired solutions empower organizations to apply quantum principles to solve problems today, and have demonstrated meaningful speedup over existing classical solutions,” Brown said, citing Microsoft’s work with Case Western Reserve University as an example. Quantum-inspired algorithms enabled a 3x speedup in the time it takes to perform an MRI, or, when optimized for scan precision, a 30 percent increase in precision.

Brown said she’s a big foodie who loves exploring the restaurant scene in Seattle and when she travels. Some of her nerdier tendencies include a deep passion for “Lord of the Rings,” science fiction books, movies and TV shows. She’s currently making her way through “The Expanse” book series and highly recommends it.

Her fluffy cat is named Apollo, after the sci-fi character and the space missions, and if she’d chosen a different career path, it would have been something related to space travel or our understanding of the stars and the universe.

“As long as I can remember I’ve been incredibly fascinated by space,” Brown said. “I think if I hadn’t gotten into computer science I would have wanted to help build rockets or somehow meaningfully contribute to space exploration.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Megan Brown:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I’m a program manager at Microsoft working on Azure Quantum. My main areas of focus are the Quantum Development Kit and the end-to-end developer experience for Azure Quantum. I joined the Microsoft Quantum team a year ago after I excitedly discovered that having a PhD in Physics wasn’t a pre-requisite to working in the quantum domain. It’s important to me to work on products that have real-world impact and that empower their users, and it’s hard to beat the potential of quantum computing on both of those points. From climate change to optimization to chemistry and simulation, quantum computing has the potential to help us solve previously unsolvable problems, and I wanted to be a part of the team making that a reality.

I recently started my MBA at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, where I’m learning additional skills to help me define the product vision and strategy of our developer tools. I love being able to connect what I’m learning about business from my MBA to my day-to-day focus on developers, and aim to use those skills to create a strong foundation for the future of quantum application development.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? One of the most important things I want people to know is that there are opportunities to get involved in quantum today. There’s a common misconception that someone needs to be an expert in quantum mechanics or physics to be able to meaningfully contribute to the domain, and that is not the case! Quantum computing is an emerging technology, but that makes it even more important to have a diverse group of people with different perspectives and backgrounds involved. Specifically, at Microsoft, the Quantum Development Kit is open-source, and we welcome and encourage any contributions to our code base. Contributing to our documentation is another great way to get started with learning about quantum and really adds value to the product by making sure our content is accessible to a wide variety of users.

Where do you find your inspiration? Much of my inspiration comes from our customers and contributors and seeing the impact of the work we do at Microsoft Quantum. One of my favorite and most motivating moments so far on the Quantum team was spending time with attendees at last year’s Microsoft Ignite conference. For many it was the first time they were learning about quantum computing, and seeing their excitement and curiosity was incredibly energizing. I learned recently that we had a high school student contribute to our open source Quantum Katas (designed to teach quantum computing & the Q# programming language), and that they were so excited to be able to be able to contribute and get involved in quantum computing without an advanced degree. I can’t help but smile and feel inspired by stories like that.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? I don’t think I could live without my KitchenAid stand-mixer. I’m an avid baker (my partner has had very mixed feelings about the number of sweets and carbs I’ve been baking him throughout quarantine), and baking without my stand-mixer would make the process much more time consuming. The idea of whisking a meringue by hand makes my wrist and forearm hurt just thinking about it!

(Photo courtesy of Megan Brown)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? My current workspace is a home office that I share with my partner. We were luckily able to deck it out at the beginning of quarantine. Sometimes I’ll bring in one of our kitchen chairs for my cat to sleep on while I work (he’s very needy and spoiled).

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) I recently heard the term “ruthless prioritization” and it really stuck with me. It’s important to efficiently prioritize what tasks need to be accomplished and what balls can drop (and who needs to know what balls are dropping and when). While I most frequently think of prioritization in my work-life, I also find myself applying it outside of work. We all have a finite amount of time and energy that we can contribute across different parts of our lives, and it’s important to prioritize how we spend that energy. Understanding my main priorities has helped me create habits that enable those successes, and not feel so bad when I can’t accomplish everything. Knowing the relative priority and impact of any task or activity helps me understand how much of my energy I should devote to it and the urgency with which it needs to be acted on.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Windows.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Janeway.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Preferably a Tardis, but I’d take a transporter to easily travel the world.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Focus on a technology that would make the world a better place

I once waited in line for … The first “Hobbit” movie. In costume. (Did I mention that I love “Lord of the Rings”?)

Your role models: The first names that come to mind are Amy Nelson (CEO and founder of The Riveter); Krysta Svore (general manager of Quantum Software at Microsoft); and Michelle Obama. All three of these women represent strength and resilience with the work they do and the stories they tell, and care deeply about allyship and making the world a better place.

Greatest game in history: “World of Warcraft” during the Burning Crusade years.

Best gadget ever: Airpods.

First computer: A Windows 98 desktop

Current phone: iPhone XS.

Favorite app: Netflix.

Favorite cause: ACLU, Campaign Zero, Planned Parenthood.

Most important technology of 2020: It’s a tie between contact-tracing technology and remote communication technology/infrastructure (Teams, Zoom, etc.)

Most important technology of 2022: Quantum computing!

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Be fearless! Don’t be afraid to explore something new, even if it seems intimidating. You’ll always benefit from the journey.

Twitter: @bromegasaurus

LinkedIn: Megan Brown

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