What problem are you trying to solve?

Posted on Monday, September 26, 2016

uOttawa Innovates – Alumni Perspectives – Hojjat Salemi [ BASc ’83 & MEng ’88 – Electrical Engineering ]

Hojjat Salemi

The rapid arrival of innovative technologies (cloud computing, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, etc.) is changing the industry landscape like never before. Companies that are less than 20 years old (Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) are disruptive organizations with multi‐billion dollar valuations. Although it is a very exciting time to be a university student, it must also be overwhelming to find a path for oneself, given such rapid changes. On top of that, it is also very challenging to compete with members of a global workforce hungry for knowledge and jobs.

In my discussions with university students, I see them struggling with the question of whether they are in the right field of study, and if not, what they should be focusing on.

If you’re also asking yourself these questions, I can assure you that you’re not alone. Even when you begin your career, these questions won’t go away. We are constantly changing, and have a desire for meaning in life. It’s very important to think about the process of finding answers as a journey and remain present, while still enjoying the ride. The following is a list of suggestions that, I hope, will assist you in discovering and zooming in on your areas of interest:

Expand your social circle

It’s natural to hang out with friends who are in the same department or faculty as oneself. My suggestion is to make the effort to reach out to others in different faculties. This is important, as most future technological breakthroughs will be cross‐disciplinary. For example, coming up with a device that controls blood sugar levels in Type 1 diabetic patients, one beyond today’s offerings, falls under the Internet of Things (IoT) and requires the contribution of different disciplines: medicine, electronics, software engineering and security. Finding a bigger social circle in university will allow you to get a broader picture of what the key challenges that each discipline is facing are.

Get to know your professors’ areas of expertise

Take the time to discover your professors’ research backgrounds and industry associations. Get to know their master’s and PhD students and the students’ areas of research. The key here is to find out what problems they are focusing on and why. The result should be insight into their industry links and challenges.

Add to your industry knowledge, bit by bit

Each year, companies spend billions of dollars identifying future trends and disruptive technologies. The information is available through various sources. Publicly listed companies have yearly events that highlight their focus areas and, in most cases, the presentation material is available via their investor relations web page. There are also a number of technology research companies, such as Gartner, Forrester and IDC, that provide detailed insight into all areas related to the impact of technology. Some of their findings are freely available via their websites and can be especially helpful for you to understand industry challenges better.

To demonstrate the above points, here’s an example. Let’s assume that you’re interested in finding out the key challenges that big cloud companies are dealing with. By visiting their websites and gathering information, you can create a picture similar to this, and add more specifics as you inquire and gather more data, to zoom in on a particular area. Let’s assume that you’re interested in GPU acceleration research. By studying the websites and published papers of Intel and NVIDIA (who are both putting a lot of R&D into this area) you can get a better idea as to what area might be a good for you to focus on.

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Keep looking to find the field that’s a good fit for you. Remember, nothing is permanent, keep at it and never quit!


Hojjat Salemi is a Silicon Valley executive with Inphi Corporation. He has been working in the high‐tech field for more than 30 years. His background is in systems and semiconductor IC development. He has worked at numerous high tech companies, such as Cisco Systems, Cortina Systems, Nortel Networks, Mitel, Cortina, FPMX, Skystone Systems and Newbridge. He received his bachelor’s and master’s of engineering at the University of Ottawa. In 2010, he was honoured with the uOttawa 2010 Faculty of Engineering Alumni Award of Excellence.

He also holds a number of patents on topics relating to systems and IC design. Hojjat Salemi suggests the following reading list. These books provide an excellent overview of technology trends in 2016.

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