August 6, 2009
When Tim Rausch (E'2003) was in high school, he never dreamed he'd one day have a PhD in electrical engineering from Carnegie Mellon. But by walking through doors that life opened for him, Rausch shaped a career in data storage that he would never have considered more than a decade ago.
The story begins as stories often do: with a girl. Rausch, who entered 12th grade as a C student, had the luxury of sitting behind his high school sweetheart in math class. One day, she beat him on a test and turned around to rub it in his face. That was all the motivation he needed. "She never beat me at a math test again," he said. By the time he entered grade 13 (they have that in his native Canada), Rausch was an A student and determined to become a teacher himself.
His newfound academic excellence gave him the confidence — and the conditions required — to apply for a pilot program at the University of Windsor that conferred both a bachelor of science and a bachelor of education in four years. The university only accepted 15 students into the program that year, Rausch among them, and he graduated qualified to teach high school in Ontario. But while he was there, he also discovered that he was a pretty decent physicist. With some encouragement from a professor, he decided to stay at the University of Windsor a little longer and pursue a master's degree in physics, which would allow him to be a high school department head and improve his career prospects.
As luck or fate would have it, Rausch ended up working with a physics professor named Mordechay Schlesinger measuring high-frequency giant magnetoresistance. Schlesinger recognized the talent in his student and encouraged him to go for his PhD. Not only that, he knew just the person Rausch should work with: his son, Ed Schlesinger, who was a professor in Carnegie Mellon's Electrical and Computer Engineering Department and a former director of the Data Storage Systems Center.
"So that's how it happened, how I ended up at the DSSC," Rausch said. "The father said you should work for the son, the son was at Carnegie Mellon, and I ended up going to Carnegie Mellon to do my PhD with Ed Schlesinger."
While Rausch's introduction to the DSSC came from Schlesinger, his introduction to heat-assisted magnetic recording came from ECE Professor and current DSSC Associate Director Jim Bain in the spring of 1999. As part of an information session for prospective grad students starting in the fall, Bain gave a pitch for HAMR and the promise it held for the future of data storage. "I remembered that Jim did such a good job at the time explaining HAMR because I thought, 'Wow, that's really interesting. I want to do that.'" Rausch said. He was sold on HAMR, and began his work with Schlesinger that fall.
It didn't take long for Rausch to make his mark on the DSSC and the data storage field in general. Within a few months of his arrival on campus, he and Schlesinger had brainstormed an optical waveguide for HAMR — a novel idea at the time that would go on to have a major impact on the industry. "Ed Schlesinger's office. October 1999," Rausch said. "We were drawing pictures on the board and Ed said, 'This is a waveguide.' That's how it came to be."
Because his master's degree was in physics — not engineering — Rausch spent much of his first few semesters on campus playing catch up, taking undergraduate courses in electronics to bolster his engineering knowhow. He also spent a lot of his time working on HAMR. "I built a HAMR spin stand, where you can test HAMR heads on media. I did some of the first HAMR recording work, and then I built a simple model to explain the recording physics. Then I verified the model on the spin stand," he said.
During the summer of 2001, another door opened to Rausch when he accepted an internship with Seagate Research in Pittsburgh. He built a spin stand that summer, and at the end of his internship Seagate Research founder and DSSC creator Mark Kryder asked Rausch if he wanted to stay longer and take some data on the spin stand. "They extended my internship for another two semesters until May of 2002," Rausch said. "In 2002, Kryder hired me as a Seagate Research staff member and allowed me to finish my PhD while I was an employee. It was a natural fit and I could continue my work."
Ever since, Rausch has belonged to the Seagate team. He got his start that summer with the first spin stand, built another one and was responsible for nearly all the HAMR spin stand testing until 2007. That year, he took a brief break from HAMR to explore other research opportunities at Seagate, but jumped at the chance to become the company's HAMR technical lead in 2008.
Rausch jokes that his job is to "keep the HAMR wheels on the bus," but in reality he's responsible for ensuring that all of Seagate's HAMR operations move forward smoothly, and that the team hits its deliverables and meets its goals. "What I do is work with a lot of cross-functional groups to make sure nobody's zagged when everybody else has zigged, or vice versa," he said. "I make sure that everyone remains focused on our goals and meeting our timelines, and provide a lot of encouragement and technical support — basically I help out where I can."
He's also responsible for reporting Seagate's HAMR operations data to senior management and assisting in high-level decision-making for the program's future.
Rausch credits his success at Seagate with the opportunities he had to develop his skills and learn at the DSSC. While some of this happened in the classroom, he said the best opportunity he had to learn actually happened in weekly group meetings at the DSSC.
"We used to have group meetings with [professors] Ed Schlesinger, Dan Stancil, Jim Bain and Vijayakumar Bhagavatula. All the graduate students would sit together once a week and eat free Chinese or Indian food while a student would give an update on the work they were doing," Rausch said. "Everybody had a chance to bounce ideas off each other. I probably learned more at that group meeting than in any class I took. We had really smart guys and gals in there who would talk about the projects they were working on in just enough detail that you could understand it and could help contribute to their work. This wasn't textbook stuff. It was cutting-edge research"
Another priceless skill Rausch learned outside of the classroom was how to communicate his work clearly and effectively. "You can be the smartest guy in the world, but if you're not able to communicate the work you're doing in a simple, clear manner, it's almost useless. I think this is probably the most important think I learned from Ed [Schlesinger] — also the science stuff — but all Ed's graduate students have this ability: to take the complicated work they are doing and boil it down to something ... that people who are not experts in the field can understand and appreciate."
Rausch feels so strongly about the importance of clear communication that he urges current DSSC students to hone those skills while they have the chance.
"The most important advice I can offer is to learn to be able to communicate the work you're doing in a way that other people can understand. The data does not always speak for itself and sometimes needs to be put in the context of the big picture. I think if you are very good at communicating your ideas and the work you are doing, you'll go far," he said.
Perhaps another tip he can give current students is to take advantage of opportunities as they arise and not to back down from a challenge. Even though he originally wanted to be a science teacher, that all changed because of opportunities that came his way. First it was Schlesinger's father, then Schlesinger himself. Kryder opened the door for a full-time position at Seagate, and Seagate Senior Vice President of Research and Development Mark Re (E'87) gave him the chance to take on a larger role at the company.
For now, he plans to see HAMR through to its productization. But then he'll wait for the next chance to come along. "I've been fortunate. Opportunities have always presented themselves at just the right time. The trick is to identify them and go through the right door at the right time," he said.
Until then, he remains thankful that his high school sweetheart — now his wife — beat him on that math test all those years ago.
"If she hadn't turned around and rubbed it in my face that she beat me on a math test, I don't know where I'd be."