Quantum computing just got its first developer certification. Time to start studying?

Developer working on laptop

Candidates will have to prove during the test that they can create and execute quantum computing programs using IBM’s Qiskit.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Developers can now be officially quantum-certified. IBM has unveiled a quantum developer certification which it says, once devs have passed the 60-question test, will act as proof of at least some of the skills required to build and run quantum programs.

The certification, unsurprisingly, focuses on IBM’s own quantum computing software development kit (SDK), Qiskit, which is an open-source platform based on Python scripts that enables developers to carry out a range of quantum experiments, from prototyping quantum algorithms to executing code on cloud-based quantum devices.

Candidates to the new certification will have to prove during the test that they can create and execute quantum computing programs on IBM computers and simulators using Qiskit. This means that developers should know how to leverage the platform to define and execute quantum circuits, implement single and multi-qubit gates, and write quantum programs.

“To date, Qiskit has been downloaded over 500,000 times, and is the most popular quantum programming SDK,” Abe Asfaw, global lead for quantum education and open science at IBM, tells ZDNet. “This is why our developer certification leverages Qiskit, giving developers today the ability to showcase their skills in the most popular quantum programming SDK.”

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As Asfaw notes, developers are increasingly looking to quantum to expand their set of skills. Not only out of interest: the quantum computing industry is expected to become a $65 billion market by 2030, with many new jobs to be created along the way. If the number of Qiskit downloads indicates anything, it is certainly the case that a growing number of developers are preparing for the opportunities that quantum computing is on the verge of unlocking.

On the employers’ side, too, the appeal of investing in quantum skills is becoming apparent. With quantum computers predicted to furiously accelerate value creation in industries ranging from drug discovery to finance, many companies are already trying to understand the why and the how of quantum, to better identify where the technology might eventually serve business interests.

Quantum computers, however, are fundamentally different from classical devices. Instead of using the conventional bits that are found our all-too-familiar laptops, quantum computers aim to leverage the complex behavior of particles of matter taken at their smallest scale, using qubits, to enable more, and exponentially faster, computations – a huge boom in compute power that is hotly anticipated in practically every industry.

Working a quantum computer, therefore, requires an understanding of the underlying physics that give qubits their special properties. In other words, shoving classical algorithms into quantum devices won’t exactly cut it; rather, companies are finding that they should invest in a workforce that has specialist knowledge of the new tools at hand. That’s where things get tricky, according to Asfaw.

“Our certification is a first in the quantum industry,” he says. “We made it available because we learned throughout our ongoing efforts in workforce development that there are no avenues for standardized quantum computing skills that employers can use in their hiring process. We have also found that developers are interested in showcasing their skills through certifications that are broadly accepted in the industry.”

In effect, for all the interest that quantum is already garnering, the technology is still emergent. With most of the expertise being shared only between a few thousand quantum physicists and engineers worldwide, there is little general understanding of what constitutes a valuable quantum candidate.

The field is so nascent that a group of 50 researchers recently gathered for a symposium with the aim of urgently redefining graduate education in quantum, to make sure that curricula were adapted to the skills needed within industry.

Recent research carried out across different companies recruiting in the quantum field showed that employers typically look at academic backgrounds, as well as practical experience and skills, to make a decision when hiring. The bottom-line, however, is that the rapid growth of interest in quantum is not matched with a clear understanding of what should be expected of a future quantum workforce.

“The focus right now is on preparing the workforce and skillsets so that businesses have an opportunity to leverage quantum computing in the future,” Chirag Dekate, research lead for quantum at analysis firm Gartner, tells ZDNet. “But at the moment, it’s a scattershot. One of the questions that always comes across from IT leaders is: ‘How do I go about creating a quantum group?'”

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In many cases, they don’t know where to start: according to Dekate, a certification like the one IBM unveiled will go a long way in pointing out to employers that a candidate has the ability to identify business-relevant problems and map them to the quantum space.

Although adapted specifically for Qiskit, many of the competencies that are required to pass IBM’s quantum developer certification exam are reflective of a wider understanding of quantum computing. Candidates will be quizzed on their ability to represent qubit states, on their knowledge of backends, or on how well they can plot data, plot a density matrix or plot a gate map with error rates; they will be required to know what stands behind the exotic-sounding but quantum-staple Block spheres, Pauli matrices and Bell states.

If anything, for most employers, the new certification will add some flavor to a CV, by indicating that an applicant has solid understanding of the building blocks of quantum computing. “This is a great start towards helping developers show their foundational skills,” Rhonda Wittels, vice president of engineering at Aliro Quantum, tells ZDNet. “A developer having this certificate on their CV is a plus that would make hiring that engineer more attractive.”

It is hard to know, of course, how many more boxes the certification will tick on a candidate’s job application – on top of “basic understanding” and “extra motivation”, that is. And while it is impossible to design a test that will reflect all of the capabilities that might be required by quantum computing, IBM’s new initiative does show some limitations.

The quantum computing ecosystem, in effect, is multi-faceted and in constant evolution: different companies focus on developing different types of hardware, ranging from superconducting processors to trapped ions devices, through photonic quantum computers and even silicon-based qubits.

Itamar Sivan, the CEO of Quantum Machines, a start-up that develops control systems for quantum computers, explains that the certification’s heavy focus on Qiskit, therefore, makes it less relevant to those working on different types of hardware.

“The focus is limited to a single programming language that is mostly applicable to circuits that run superconducting qubit quantum processors, and more specifically run on IBM quantum computers only,” Sivan tells ZDNet. “For companies, like Quantum Machines, that work closely with quantum and classical hardware, intimate knowledge of Qiskit is a good basis, but will have limited value for the daily work of our R&D team.”

It remains, says Sivan, that given the difficulty of gauging basic aptitudes in the quantum field, the certification will be a welcome first step toward demonstrating that a candidate is competent. The industry is just getting started, he continued, and IBM’s initiative is only likely to be followed by more tests and certifications that will eventually cover the needs of the entire quantum community.

Big Blue, for its part, is keen to continue catching up with the pace of quantum growth. “This is the first of many certifications that we plan to build and make available for developers worldwide,” Asfaw says. “In upcoming certifications, we will build on these skills to industry-specific application areas.” Expect some optimization, chemistry, or finance-ready quantum developers to be appearing in job searches soon.

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