Laura Thomas of ColdQuanta: Wisdom From The Women Leading The Quantum Computing Industry

Authority Magazine
Authority Magazine
Published in
8 min readNov 21, 2021

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We also need to think deeply about the implications of quantum technologies on society. Just as we have seen with the internet, social media, and AI, there will be deep philosophical and societal questions we must answer about how we use, and potentially abuse, the capabilities that quantum brings us. We must begin talking about and creating ethical frameworks for its use now.

As a part of my series about “Women Leading The Quantum Computing Industry”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Thomas.

Laura Thomas is the Senior Director of National Security Solutions for quantum sensing and computing company, ColdQuanta. She is a former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) case officer and Chief of Base who built and led sensitive programs at CIA Headquarters and abroad in multiple, international assignments.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in a small, one-stoplight town in rural North Carolina. My parents took me on vacation a few times to Washington D.C. to see the museums, famous government buildings, and historical sites. They were also very service-oriented. The combination of these two factors made me consider government service and doing something that took me beyond my rural roots. This led me to serving as an intelligence officer with the Central Intelligence Agency and now to working in tech on a transformative technology.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Ray Dalio’s Principles. It came at a time in my life where I had enough experience to have seen these principles in action, from both a positive and negative standpoint — at work, in communities, and in families — but didn’t quite know how to articulate them. Clarity of thought around these principles helped me implement them in my work and life.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” -Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman

I spent a lot of time when I was younger avoiding some deep truths about who I was and how my views were shaped by my environment. I was doing everything “right” according to the plan that my society and family had laid out for me. And this plan wasn’t laid out with malice or the intent to stifle who I was, it was more so everyone stayed in perfect comfort and didn’t have to feel the discomfort of their views being challenged.

It was not okay to be gay in the town where I grew up. It wasn’t okay in my family either. I didn’t even realize I was gay until I was in my early 30s, and I’m still trying to understand how that was.

For someone whose job was to evaluate others and seek the truth at the CIA, it was an internal reckoning to think that I hadn’t really evaluated myself and missed some major truths of my own. Once I realized I was gay, I was only able to hide it for about a year. And I hid it for that long because I knew what was at stake if I came out — hurting a number of people in my life at the time. It takes courage — and for me, some help along the way from others — to truly look inward and no longer confirm to the expectations your family or society has for you.

Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the quantum computing industry? We’d love to hear it.

It is critical for intelligence officers to understand and stay ahead of technological trends. Part of this is asking questions and challenging assumptions on technology.

Around five years ago, I was speaking with one of CIA’s technical experts about encryption schemes and I asked him how long it would take a high-performance computer to break current standards of encryption. He responded with the typical answer — thousands to millions of years. But then he followed it up with, “well, that’s until quantum computing becomes real.” I asked the usual follow-on question, “well when does it become real?” His answer was “maybe in 5 years, maybe in 20 years.”

This got my attention! I went down a long rabbit hole online, watching videos, reading articles, and listening to podcasts about quantum computing. Working at the CIA and trying to discern between truths, lies, and everything in-between has made me a natural skeptic. And once we believe in something, we often spend most of our time justifying why we believe it rather than questioning it. So, I listened to what the skeptics had to say. And watching some of the skeptics’ answers evolve over time was also enlightening — it made me more bullish on the idea that quantum technologies are commercially viable.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?

No, it’s classified — there are numerous national security implications for the technology!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Yes, I attempted to explain quantum entanglement and superposition after reading a couple books and articles and then faced questions one layer deep from an audience that was more technical than I expected. Repeating is not understanding. I learned that my value is translating the benefits of quantum technologies to non-technical people, to include those in policy positions in the government, not explaining the underlying physics of it. While there is an element of deep technical understanding needed to truly evaluate the different modalities of quantum computing, one does not need to know the underlying physics to understand the technological platform shift that quantum can bring to the world.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Yes, a dear mentor who previously served as a senior CIA leader helped me as I was struggling with the question of whether I should leave the CIA. A career at CIA becomes your identity. The idea of leaving that behind and starting something completely new after so many years was scary. I remember she told me, “Laura, you have my permission to leave.” Of course, I didn’t need her permission. But to have someone who has served at the Agency, who understands the identity struggle, and who has had such important impact in her post-government life — it gave me the lift I needed to take that first step.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes, I’m working with the ColdQuanta team to design our go-to-market strategy for our quantum computer. A quantum computer isn’t just a device — it’s an opportunity to fundamentally shape the way we do business, how we tackle the climate crisis, and how we understand our universe. This technology won’t be an incremental improvement, but a platform shift that will underpin many other transformative technologies, such as AI and machine learning, and autonomous vehicles.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The quantum computing industry, as it is today, is such an exciting arena. What are the 3 things that most excite you about the quantum computing industry? Can you explain?

The growing talent pool, growing government funding, and the beginnings of viable roadmaps for the technology.

First, more and more academic programs are focusing on quantum information science and engineering, which means we will have more minds challenging, questioning, and thinking about quantum computing and use quantum effects beyond computing.

Second, there is growing awareness in Congress and with government agencies on the transformational power of this technology, to include its opportunities and threats, which is unlocking important funding streams.

Third, we are just now beginning to see roadmaps for quantum computers with sufficient power and scale to solve very hard problems.

What are the 3 things that concern you about the quantum computing industry? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?

Hype, short-term thinking, and a lack of coordination on quantum ethics.

First, hype because some companies seem to spend just as much on marketing as they do R&D. Overpromising and underdelivering sets the industry back. I’m a rational optimist. We have to provide a vision for what could be and articulate how we get there, but back to the Richard Feynman quote — we can’t fool ourselves about the challenges. We’re much better positioned to overcome challenges when we acknowledge them.

Second, short-term thinking because in both public and private sector, we can get stuck in measuring performance in cycles of 2–4 years in the government, or even a quarter in the private sector. While value creation consists of incremental steps and tactics, long-term value creation can’t be seen if you zoom in too closely on a graph in the short-term. We must have a relentless focus on long-term value creation.

Third, we also need to think deeply about the implications of quantum technologies on society. Just as we have seen with the internet, social media, and AI, there will be deep philosophical and societal questions we must answer about how we use, and potentially abuse, the capabilities that quantum brings us. We must begin talking about and creating ethical frameworks for its use now.

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

No. A cultural shift has to occur and while we’re riding the long, slow wave of it, we aren’t yet at the crest. Tangible things we can do today include companies coming together and offering school-sponsored tours of their facilities for middle and high school girls. Female scientists, engineers, and business leaders in STEM should talk about their work and why they believe it matters to the world. Inspiration won’t be enough, however. We must apply systems thinking and build processes into the everyday function of schools to keep that inspiration alive that also considers the critical aspect what is outside the school’s control — the home and family life.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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