Words of Wisdom from Industry Leaders

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Words of Wisdom from Industry Leaders

By Jonathan Davis, president, SEMI North America

When I was preparing for my role as moderator of the SEMICON West Executive Summit, some of my colleagues advised me to stick to questions about markets, technology and policy issues. While I did cover those issues, I also wanted to ask the panel about their jobs — in the cyclical, technically complex, global industry of semiconductors. So I asked the industry leaders at the Executive Summit: “How is your job different than any other CEO’s job in another big industry, like autos or pharmaceutical manufacturing? What advice do you have for the aspiring executives out there?”

The Executive Summit panel consisted of: Keith Barnes, Verigy; Steve Newberry, Lam Research; Thomas Sonderman, GLOBALFOUNDRIES; Randhir Thakur, Applied Materials; and Rick Wallace (KLA-Tencor). Here are excerpts of what they had to say:

Keith Barnes (Chairman of the Board and CEO, Verigy) talked about his second job out of college at an electronics company which was owned by a pharmaceutical company. Barnes said, “We (the electronic guys) would meet with the pharmaceutical guys. It was astonishing to me— their time frames were 10 to 12 years. Our cycle was 18 months. The pharmaceutical guys couldn’t understand it. You have to make decisions much more rapidly in our field than you do in many others.”

Barnes also mentioned his relatives who are farmers and ranchers. He said, “Once I had a customer and we were just not getting along. We just had nothing in common and he said, “It’s a tough industry” and I said, “It’s not as tough as farming.” And he lit up and he said, “You know anything about farming?” Almost instantly, there was a bond because he was one generation removed from farming. Then he understood what I was talking about.”

Steve Newberry (director, president and CEO, Lam Research) said, “We’re not just a cyclical industry, we’re a super cyclical industry. And we’re very low volume and highly specialized. We make some of the most complicated equipment ever invented by the human species, with incredibly complex processes to make semiconductors that we take for granted. So, I tell people that we are the highest of the “high tech” …there’s incredibly exciting innovation and opportunities that remain in this industry.”

Newberry also talked about some tough industry challenges coming up in terms of new transistor design and interconnects. He said, “This industry has really bright, creative, talented people with a tremendous opportunity to make a difference in terms of contributing to the semiconductor industry— which is the fundamental innovation engine that everything else is built on… What I love about this industry is there’s no text book on how to go about being successful. The industry is great for people who like to demonstrate good judgment, common sense, and think ‘on their feet’ — comfortable making decisions and wanting that level of responsibility. This is a fabulous industry.”

Thomas Sonderman (VP, GLOBALFOUNDRIES) stated that one of the challenges is how global his company is. He emphasized that learning how to understand cultures is very important. He said, “I tell people that I work with to always put yourself “in the shoes” of the person you’re interacting with. All of us are trying to achieve the same thing but we all come at it from a different angle. The ability for GLOBALFOUNDARIES to be successful… frankly, it relies on a lot of technology and economics, but in the end, we also need to integrate these cultures in a way that differentiates us…. You have to be able to interact with lots of different people from lots of different places.”

Sonderman feels that “There’s nothing more addictive than our industry. I think that’s why most of the people that enter it, never leave it unless they are forced to. There’s no better place to be — and when we’re recruiting engineers, that’s part of what we tell them. At universities, people don’t see opportunities in semiconductors like they did 10 or 15 years ago. That’s unfortunate. Because there’s really no better place to exercise your mind — and your roller bag as you’re going through the airports — than in our industry.”

Randhir Thakur (executive VP and GM, Silicon Systems, Applied Materials) agreed with some of the previous comments and said he worked at “one of the best companies on the planet.” He said “You have to be careful because you start to love the challenges and complexity and difficulty and over time you develop the courage to handle them. What do I like about my job and where I work?.. I work with some of the best people, a diverse set of people. You learn a lot and you get to see first hand very complex problems and be a part of the solution.

Thakur summarized with, “My advice is to always look at, and first think of the customer, then the company, then the organization you lead, and then yourself. I think a lot of the priorities and objectives then fall in place and you can have fun in the process — even in the semiconductor industry.”

Rick Wallace (president and CEO, KLA-Tencor; new SEMI BOD chairman) emphasized that, “Three things about this industry make it unique. It is super cyclical, incredibly complex, and unbelievably global for its size. So, if you want to be in this industry, you need to be able to handle those three variables — and if you’re not cut out for it, then you shouldn’t do it.

“While my friends who work in social networking companies in Silicon Valley are creating applications to do ‘food fights’ on Facebook might have cool offices, they’re not doing anything in terms of furthering the revolution we’re going through in terms of technology,” he continued.

Wallace got a laugh when he said, “The last thing I’d tell you is what I tried to tell my Board: As leaders of these companies, we’re never as dumb as we look in downturns and never as smart as we look in up-turns — and so right now it’s nice to have the tail wind behind us!”

In summary, what I learned from these industry leaders is that those who thrive in this industry must appreciate the fast-moving global cyclical nature of a very complex industry. And that the ability to be empathetic is just as important as being able to make tough decisions quickly. As we emerge from the downturn, now, more than ever, I appreciate being at the forefront of this industry. It is truly a privilege.

August 3, 2010