Real Men Don’t Need Fabs: Part 2 of Our Interview with Marvell CEO Sehat Sutardja

Yesterday we published the first part of an in-depth Q&A with Sehat Sutardja, the notoriously hands-on CEO of Marvell Technology Group. The Santa Clara, CA, company (NASDAQ: MRVL) has spent the last 16 years building power-efficient “mixed-signal” analog and digital chips for devices such as disk drives, cell phones, and portable media players. The first section of the conversation covered themes like Sutardja’s management style, his plans for growing Marvell, and the company’s commitment to supporting the One Laptop Per Child project.

But I also had time during my hour-long meeting with Sutardja back in December to ask about Sutardja’s background. We talked about how he started tinkering with electronics as a child in Indonesia, how he made his way to the United States for a formal education in electrical engineering, why he decided to launch Marvell as a “fabless” chipmaker at a time when that was quite unusual, and why the company embraced the low-power chip architecture known as ARM. Sutardja doesn’t give many interviews, so I didn’t want to let this material go to waste. At the same time, it’s a lot of inside stuff, of interest mainly to shareholders or analysts who follow Marvell closely. So I’ve bundled it up below—think of this as a supplement to yesterday’s main Q&A.

Xconomy: What were the early years at Marvell like? How do you get a new semiconductor company off the ground?

Sehat Sutardja: In order to get a better picture of the business, we have to go back even further in time. I started studying electronics when I was 12 years old, playing with radios, amplifiers, car electronics, ignitions, power supplies, CB radios, almost anything that I could get my hands on in Indonesia. I was really curious, and really hooked into electronics. I never thought that electronics could be a job or a business or something to make money on. My parents were pretty worried. I got my radio repair technician’s certificate when I was 13 years old, and they were thinking, “Oh my goodness, this kid wants to be a technician, a bum. He doesn’t want to become a doctor.” The successful neighbors were all doctors. In Indonesia [being a radio repair technician] is guaranteed to be a miserable and poor life. But I never cared about that, because I was really intrigued about how and why these things work, starting with transistors and more complicated circuits.

Six years later, when I graduated from high school, the path was already set in stone. I said, “I need to continue to study more on electronics. I need to go to the United States.” This was the place to go. This is where those chips were built—by Texas Instruments, by Fairchild, RCA, National Semiconductor, Signetics, Raytheon. I needed to go to college to really learn this. So I got my degree and then worked, and later got my PhD [at Berkeley], finished school, and went into industry.

I realized as soon as I got to industry that the industry had not matured yet. There were still a lot of things that could be done. At the time we initially decided to start a company, we realized that the process technology was getting to a small enough geometry that we could integrate more functions into a single chip. If we had started 10 years earlier, it wouldn’t have been possible to do. For complicated functions, you would have needed five to 10 chips on a circuit board.

On top of this, the [chip] foundries were starting to get more mature. TSMC, the largest chip foundry in the world, was starting to get into 8-inch manufacturing [a reference to the 8-inch diameter of the wafers then used in semiconductor lithography], when the standard had been 6 inches. This was at a time when AMD’s CEO, Jerry Sanders, used to say “Real men have fabs. These fabless guys are nobodies, just boys.” But we thought the time was right, and that we didn’t have to build our own fabs to have access to advanced process technology. All we needed was just … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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