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Alumni Profile: Cain Found Practical Tools He Needed to Succeed at DSSC

January 15, 2009

Bill Cain (E'85, '86, '90) found himself in an interesting position entering his senior year as an ECE undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon. Having grown up in a largely blue-collar family in a working class suburb of Pittsburgh, he wasn't quite sure what engineers actually did for a living. How he discovered the answer would help lay the foundation for nearly 20 years of success and innovation in the data storage and information technology industry.

Like any good Carnegie Mellon student, Cain decided on a practical, hands-on approach to solving his problem. A senior project, it seemed, would be just the thing to help him decide what to do with the rest of his life. He visited a few faculty members, and Mark Kryder — then director of the Magnetics Technology Center (now the Data Storage Systems Center) — had some funding available for a project on films for magnetoresistive heads.

"I thought that was pretty interesting stuff and decided that I would like to go on and get a graduate degree in that area," said Cain, who is now vice president of technology for Western Digital. After applying to a few other universities and looking at the faculty and projects available, he made his decision. "It was really most compelling to stay and work with Mark."

Cain's work with Kryder centered on thin films for use in recording heads, mainly magnetoresistive sensors. He focused specifically on a technology called exchange coupling, a way to bias the films. Magnetoresistive heads weren't yet shipping in products, and Cain enjoyed performing such novel research. But it was really the hands-on experience the center's relationship with industry afforded that made all the difference.

"The thing I was actually able to do that was unique and a lot of fun was that I had a sponsorship with Eastman Kodak," Cain said. The company had a center in San Diego that created high-speed tape systems for medical recording, and they helped Cain fabricate functioning heads that could be put into a tape drive to read and write data. "I was not only able to create these films, but then I was able to do some patterning and create head structures on little wafers in our clean room at Carnegie Mellon," he said. The wafers were then shipped to San Diego, where they became finished recording heads he could study.

Cain's hands-on research experience positioned him for a career at the forefront of data storage technology, beginning with a research role at IBM — the first company to actually market a product containing the micromagnetic films Cain had studied at Carnegie Mellon. During his two years with IBM, he worked on finding practical applications for giant magnetoresistive films. In fact, the team he was part of tested and fabricated the very first giant magnetoresistive heads.

Research was great, but Cain's interest in implementing technology eventually caught up with him. After two years with IBM, Cain met a co-worker at a training class who made tape heads in IBM's manufacturing operations. Knowing Cain had knowledge in the area, he asked for help with a problem they were having depositing the magnetic films on tape heads. Cain helped solve the problem, which the manufacturing team appreciated.

"I really liked that," Cain said, "I liked doing things again that made a bottom-line difference. I worked on a problem that helped get product out the door."

His renewed interest in making a practical difference led to a career change and a new position at Read-Rite that put him closer to the company's end product. After a few years, he moved on to CenStor, working on perpendicular recording heads. Then he joined the media company Akashic, where he was senior director for new product development and learned about the media side of the business.

Cain found his current home at Western Digital in 1998, when he took a position responsible for analyzing WD's worldwide failure analysis activity. WD was dedicated to finding the root cause of failure for one of its products, and Cain used his background in heads and media to oversee teams that were performing failure analysis on the drives. He put together a worldwide failure analysis tracking tool that WD still uses today.

After spending time as a drive program manager, coordinating the development of new hard drive products for WD, Cain took on his current challenge: vice president of technology. He's responsible for the technology of WD's future projects, and his organization includes teams that work on delivering the next hard drive product. "We've been the team that's helped enable the past three mobile drive products, the last three aerial density points," Cain said. "WD has really led the market in the mobile space. The team that I have has delivered that product to a point where our program team can get it to the factory in a matter of just a few months."

Cain also looks to the future of magnetic recording, searching for the technologies that will enable hard drives in the next two to five years. But he's still dedicated to being close to the end product. In fact, he routinely visits with customers to make sure WD is working on key initiatives that meet their needs and to talk about the future of hard drive technology — a subject he's passionate about.

"I believe in the data storage industry, I think it's an exciting place to be," he said. "There is such an incredible demand for digitized content and places to store it, and the data storage industry is going to be able to provide the mechanism that stores those key memories. Your photos are digital. Your music's digital. Your video content's digital. It's a great place to be and I really enjoy working in the business."

Cain's also happy that his experience in data storage began at Carnegie Mellon.

"The knowledge that I gained at Carnegie Mellon has been integral to my career growth. I still do the types of work that I did back in the 1980s when I was working on my PhD thesis. It's the problem-solving skills, it's the fundamental technology, the magnetics, the physics of magnetism and micromagnetics — it's still the same today as it was then."

Cain credits the DSSC's contact with industrial sponsors for giving him the kind of practical knowledge and connections he needed to be successful in business.

"Obviously I have a PhD — I've seen it — but I often think of the folks who have a PhD as being super-experts in one area with a tremendous amount of depth and analysis in a specific scientific topic," Cain said. "I never really saw myself as that. I was probably a little more practical and looking for the implementation. That was one of the unique things about the center. It had great interaction with the industrial sponsors."

Thanks to the center's emphasis on teaching the fundamentals and encouraging practical solutions to problem-solving, Cain no longer wonders what an engineer does. He is one.

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