Derek Aberle serves as president of San Diego-based Qualcomm Incorporated, a world leader in mobile communications, which includes the core technology that is in all modern smartphones. He oversees all business divisions, global market development and marketing groups, formulating and driving key strategies for diversifying and growing the company’s core businesses, as well as new business opportunities. Aberle earned a bachelor’s in business economics from UCSB and a law degree from the University of San Diego School of Law.
Why did you choose to study at UC Santa Barbara?
When I was in high school, I attended a summer volleyball camp at UCSB and got to see the campus. I grew up in the Pasadena area, loved the beach and wanted to stay in Southern California for college. I chose business econ as my major because I always had an interest in business. I worked from the time I was young, as a paper boy, stock boy at a department store, and had my own painting business for awhile. I got into UCSB on a deferred admission program, had to go to city college for a year, and transferred in as a sophomore. A UC education is such a great value.
Describe your job. What do you enjoy most about your work?
It’s very broad based. Every day is different. I frequently interact with investors, media, governments, our customers and of course our employees. One of my responsibilities is the China region so I spend a fair amount of time there. I really enjoy our people. We’ve got incredible people at the company who are very innovative. It’s invigorating to interact with smart people that are constantly creating the next technology that will help transform how we live and work and that we can put into the hands of millions of consumers very quickly.
How has your background as an attorney helped you in your current role?
In law school, they teach you the nuts and bolts of contract, tort, constitutional and other areas of law, but more importantly you learn a different way of thinking. You learn to deconstruct problems, see both sides and formulate arguments and positions. When you negotiate deals, you have your position, the other side has their position and you’re often far apart. You have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and understand their issues and constraints and find creative solutions that you can convince them to accept while also accomplishing your own goals. Seeing both sides and being able to think critically and creatively has helped me negotiate and structure some of the largest, most complex deals in our industry.
What new initiative is Qualcomm involved in?
The next wave of really cool innovation involves how mobile technology is increasingly being used to transform other industries around the world including automotive, Internet of Things (intelligently connecting virtually everything around us) and healthcare. The mobile industry is moving rapidly toward 5G cellular technology which will transform many areas. For example, to achieve the vision of autonomous cars, there will need to be high bandwidth, low latency and highly reliable, wireless connections. Same with healthcare. People talk about tailoring treatment therapies to people’s genomes as smart medicine. By monitoring patient biometric data in near real-time (including with remote, wirelessly connected devices), physicians can get that data off patients and modify care on the fly based on the patient’s needs and behaviors. For example, if you are a diabetic, your caregiver can treat you much more effectively by using a continuous glucose monitor that’s connected to a cellular network, to get data in near real time and send you a text, “Hey, eat something, get up and walk” in order to keep your glucose levels in acceptable ranges. Those types of solutions will transform how medical care is delivered and drastically reduce costs in the system.
Share a challenge you overcame and a career milestone?
At Qualcomm one of the big challenges we faced over the last few years involved an antitrust investigation by the government in China. We were growing our business there quite well but there were aspects of what we were doing with and for our partners in China that weren’t well known and understood by the government and others. Often companies are accused of making money in China without giving back. We were giving back but we needed to be more visible about our contributions. I took the lead in negotiations with the government and in our strategy for resolving the investigation in a way that provided for a sustainable business long term in China. We now have much stronger relationships in China, including with the government, and the value we contribute to the industry is much better understood. It was a multiyear transition for us that I’m pretty proud of. One thing I’ve learned about doing business internationally is that relationships are very important. You need to put in the time to build trust in relationships.
Who are your role models? How important are mentors?
Finding good mentors is a key to the success of your career. I can’t overstate that. I had two mentors that helped me immensely. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. Sometimes you luck into it but you also need to take it upon yourself to look for good mentors, ones that will push you, give you tough feedback that you might not want to hear, but who are also willing to take a risk and give you opportunities. When I first started practicing law, one partner I worked for was tough and, hard to work for, but I learned a lot and pushed him to give me opportunities. He let me take depositions that others might not have given a young lawyer, which pushed me years ahead of my peers. When I came to Qualcomm I had a similar relationship with a great mentor here. These two mentors made a big difference in my career.
What makes you proud to be a Gaucho?
I’ve been very impressed with how UCSB has evolved. UCSB is continuing to invest in faculty and research and build its reputation to become an even stronger, more serious institution. In the past, people referred to it as a party school- I hope it’s still fun. I have three friends who have kids at UCSB now and they all love it and tell me what a great place it is, what a great education they’re getting and how much they enjoy it. That makes me feel proud.
Anything else we haven’t asked that you would like to highlight?
Recently I have been helping a former colleague who is working with a pro bono alliance that is focused on making Southern California the next Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley has become saturated and an expensive place to start a company, but today even if companies come out of universities in SoCal many go to Silicon Valley because that’s where the money is. Or, if they start something in SoCal it later gets funded by Silicon Valley money and they move there. We have tremendous universities and talent in SoCal and it is a much more affordable region to start and grow a company. We just need more top-tier venture capital firms that are located in or focused on SoCal startups. Part of the alliance is focused on encouraging leading universities in SoCal to direct deal flow to SoCal VCs and encourage alumni coming out of these schools to stay in SoCal. Several universities are supporting this initiative and I’m glad that UCSB is one of them.
How did your major in business economics help you in your current career?
At UCSB one job I had was as a clerk for a local law firm. That experience got me interested in going to law school. A lot of legal theory that you learn in law school is supported by economics so my econ degree helped me quite a bit during law school. Also, I tried to take a balanced approach in college, making sure I had fun while at the same time getting a good education. I tell my kids it’s not enough to be smart and work hard to be successful. You have to be able to get along with and motivate people to be a good leader and that’s often an overlooked skill. UCSB is probably a more social school than some others, so I learned early on to balance social life with school and work.
What advice do you have for current UCSB students?
Education is incredibly important- go to the best school and get the best education you can. But that’s not necessarily enough to make somebody successful. It’s also important to be well-rounded and able to form relationships, effectively manage people and remain composed under pressure. Many super smart people become career limited because they can’t get along with people or can’t effectively motivate and lead large teams. It’s hard to teach but is a really important skill.
Kids now are expected to know what they want to do at an early age but you never really know for sure. One thing I’ve done several times in my career is change gears and do something completely different. Push yourself to take risks especially when an interesting opportunity arises. If you just keep doing the safe thing you won’t push yourself to your full potential and may end up unhappy. I started off in litigation, decided after five years that although I was doing well I didn’t really like it so I decided to make a change. At Qualcomm, I had several transitions from transactional legal roles to various business leadership roles; each time I had to learn a totally different skill set and didn’t know if I’d be good at it. Things turned out okay.