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Alumni Profile: Liu Finds More Than a Career in Pittsburgh

May 12, 2009

Pit Southern California against Pittsburgh in almost any competition and California often takes the cake. Weather? Sure. Lifestyle? Often. Proximity to the beach? Of course. But for Francis Liu (E'94), Pittsburgh offered one thing that So Cal couldn't: Carnegie Mellon University.

Liu, who earned his undergraduate degree from the University of California, Irvine, had already been accepted to both UC Irvine and UC San Diego when he learned that he'd also gotten into Carnegie Mellon. Already familiar with UC Irvine — and with a trip to UC San Diego under his belt — he decided to give Pittsburgh a try with a campus visit. That visit sealed the deal on his decision to leave sunny California.

"The whole experience was very special," said Liu, who had a chance to stay with current students and see campus and Pittsburgh through their eyes. More important than the social impact of his visit, though, was the introduction to storage and magnetics that it gave him. Liu really had no background in data storage or magnetics, but he had a talk with Professor Mark Kryder, then director of the Magnetics Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon, that put him on his path to a data storage career. "He was quite charming and convincing about things he had in the center," Liu said. "I was impressed during that trip. It was the big reason I decided to go to Carnegie Mellon."

Once he started his graduate work on campus, Liu focused on using the Kerr microscope to analyze the magnetic domains in recording heads for disk drives, specifically looking at the noise of magnetism. While graduate research is sometimes viewed as more ivory tower than industry-related, Liu actually collaborated with data storage companies to identify and help remedy their noise problems. Companies would send him heads to investigate, and he'd determine the problem and give the company a full report. "This experience was invaluable, because not only was I working on the academic side to understand the fundamental problems, but I was also able to apply that knowledge and solve real problems in industry."

Liu counts that kind of personal interaction with industry as his favorite part of studying at the Magnetics Technology Center (now the DSSC). "From the very beginning, I was able to have a lot of interaction with industrial sponsors through the spring and fall review," he said. "We always had direct access to them; we could talk to them and get their input and understand the relevant, important problems they were facing."

That connection to industry paid off for Liu, who began his data storage career with one of the companies he'd worked with on his PhD research: Read-Rite Corporation. In his first year at Read-Rite, he continued the noise analysis that he'd done at Carnegie Mellon. The next year, he moved on to design work that eventually led to a new position with IBM, where he specialized in drive integration. Liu returned to Read-Rite in 1998 as manager of the advanced recording lab, and eventually moved into a role developing perpendicular head recording technology.

Liu became the senior director of head design when Western Digital bought Read-Rite in 2003, and held two other recording-related jobs before taking on his current role as WD's senior director of advanced technology recording staging. In this position, Liu oversees the corporation's technology roadmap, looking at the technology WD needs two to five years out, and getting those technology stages for future WD products. His current projects include technologies like discrete track media and heat assisted magnetic recording.

While taking advanced concept technology from the drawing board to the assembly line is no small feat, Liu says the thinking and innovation it requires keeps him motivated and excited about his job. He enjoys the interaction — coordinating efforts between the heads, media and products groups in WD's technology division to determine the future of the company's hard drive business — and appreciates the exposure to so many different activities and groups of people.

Another aspect of his position that Liu enjoys is interacting with universities that WD partners with for research and development. The work he does with Carnegie Mellon holds special meaning for him, though, because not long ago he was the student, not the industry representative. And he can remember how important that connection to industry was to him.

"That's part of the reason I keep going back. I was on the receiving end," Liu said. "Now, on the company side, I also like to continue to give back to the university. From the company point of view, we're also gaining a lot. Getting that involved with a university is actually one of the best ways to get things done. So now I understand from a different point of view — from the company point of view — that this is very valuable. And that's why I keep going back and participating in the DSSC's activities."

Liu also notes that, from a technical perspective, his MTC education helped him transition smoothly into a full-time career because he was doing the things he'd learned in graduate school. Those technical skills translated directly into the work he did in 1994 and continues to do today. But he also points out that the connections he made with faculty and his fellow students at the MTC continue to make a difference in his life.

"There are Carnegie Mellon grads all over the industry, including my boss, Bill Cain (E'85, '86, '90)," Liu said. "I was able to get to know a lot of people by my association with Carnegie Mellon. That's very helpful."

One of the most important relationships Liu developed in Pittsburgh has nothing to do with the data storage industry, though. While at the MTC, he actually met the love of his life, Linda, a University of Pittsburgh graduate student who attended his church. The two were married in Pittsburgh, and now have two children, Rachel (10) and Joshua (8).

So despite its colder climate and landlocked borders, Pittsburgh will always have a special place in Liu's heart.



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