VINOD DHAM - CEO
B.E. (Electrical), Delhi College of Engineering, 1971
"Living in the Silicon Valley, if you do not do
a startup, then something is wrong with you," says , Vinod Dham, when asked
why he left a high-profile career in Intel after having successfully
completed the Pentium project. "In 1995, I was 45 and facing
a midlife crisis. I could have ridden a Harley Davidson, or gone bungee
jumping or done a startup. Since I am a pretty conservative guy I chose the
last," he laughs.
From the hills near Rawalpindi to the Valley, the Dhams have gone through a fascinating journey. Coming to India during Partition as refugees, Dham's father joined the army as a civilian. Dham was born in Pune (across the railway station in Cowasji Hospital, says Dham) as his father was posted there. His early education was in Pune and Dham considers himself a Puneite, speaking fluent Marathi.
After his bachelors in Electrical Engineering from the Delhi College of Engineering, in 1971, Dham wanted to go abroad and study microelectronics. However, his parents wanted him to be with them in Delhi. " At that time, career and such things did not enter my mind. There was simply no protest, I accepted it," recalls Dham. Yet, he was lucky to be 10 minutes away from a forward-looking entrepreneur, Gurpreet Singh of Continental Devices, who wanted to run a world-class semiconductor company in the outskirts of Delhi. "Though Sardarji, as we used to call him, was not a techie - he was an economist from the London School of Economics - he was very aware that in semiconductors lay the future. He was collecting bright people from places like Berkeley and Stanford. He had met Gordon Moore. Robert Noyce had even come and stayed in his house in Maharani Bagh, in the late '60s, since Noyce wanted Intel to start chip manufacturing in India," says Dham.
Dham wanted to know what went on inside the devices. And so, after convincing his parents, he went to Cincinnati in 1975 to do an MS EE in Solid State Sciences. Cincinnati, at that time, was a very good school in microelectronics with even a fab on campus and was widely supported by the semiconductor industry.
After MS Dham went to Dayton and joined MCR. "It was cold and lonely but I got my green card and work experience. I got some patents from the work I did there. I was presenting it in a IEEE conference in Monterrey, California. The Intel people were also there presenting their work and they said they wanted me to join them. While in Continental Devices I had read about Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce and all that in the technology magazines but they were asking questions like how PhDs would run a business. It was fascinating. Of course, I joined as a lowly engineer. I worked on EPROMS (I was a co-inventor of flash memory) for seven years," recalls Dham.
However, Dham wanted more action and started looking around. At that time, the 386 chip had been designed and had gone for production. Dham wanted to get into microprocessors, he applied for a job in that division but he was rejected since the project was on course. That would not deter a determined Dham. He went nosing around and found that there were problems in production. The fab thought may be it was at fault and was cleaning up its shop, the designers were at tethers end after several redesigns and Dham thought he could lick the problem. He went to the programme manager and told him that he would act as his consultant and need not be given a formal position. When Dham straightened out the problem, Intel's fortunes shot up and the boss was happy. So he made him in charge of 386 and went on to 486 himself. "But 386 was now mature and there was not much excitement." It so turned out that he was then shifted to 486 since his former boss had quit. However 486 was in deep trouble, the fab was ready, the chip had been announced to go one up on competitors but there were numerous problems at all levels. "I worked so hard I thought I died, but finally I finished the project in November 1989. I took a month off to India to unwind and came back in January 1990 and was made incharge of 586 or Pentium," says Dham.
Pentium was a challenge in many ways; 486 was more integration than innovation. Paranoia was absolutely at the top. "It was not easy at that time. The first six months was foundation laying. We also started bringing multi-scalar architecture. I picked Avtar Saini to execute the design. He was a go-getter and executed very well. The whole team did a great job. The biggest challenges came in business. The big customers like IBM and Compaq were very happy selling 486. But we wanted to stay one generation ahead of competition. But, our customers were not ready. Luckily CD-ROM prices crashed and became affordable for home PCs. We had a bus called PCI and we could put graphics, audio and video as well as games on a home computer using Pentium, and then position ourselves ahead of 486. We picked ourselves a new horse called Packard Bell, which nobody in the corporate market had heard of. They started selling to CompUSA, Circuit City, Best Buy, Good Guy and all the retail stores. I used to go with my team to demos with 486 and Pentium to show how Pentium was better than 486. They were getting it only from Packard Bell and they asked Compaq and Dell: "Where is your Pentium machine?" Pentium became a huge success for Intel and Dham left Intel in 1995, riding on its success.
"The best thing that happened to me was joining Intel and the best thing that happened to me was leaving Intel," says Dham in one of his crisp sound bytes that make him so popular with journalists.
He joined Nexgen, which was a startup that was acquired by AMD later. After helping AMD seriously challenge Intel with its vastly popular K6, Dham left AMD and joined Silicon Spice, a startup, as chairman, president and CEO though others had founded it. "It has been the best part of my life, building teams, products, raising money, talking to customers and finally selling it to Broadcom, a company which might become tomorrow's Cisco," he says. Silicon Spice has been acquired by Broadcom for $1.2 billion and everybody, including some office staff, have become millionaires.
Photographs and certificates from Andy Grove and Craig Barret about 386, 486 and Pentium adorn Dham's office walls as well as one from Bill Clinton for being the presidential advisor on minorities. Noticeably his latest chip, Calisto - its very first copy that passed all tests - lies at the feet of a small Ganapati statue on his table.
Dham's favourite hobby is carpentry and his favourite TV show is Home Improvement. 'Tool Man' Tim Taylor's Do It Yourself does not quite work. This hi-tech craftsman's chips sure do.
© Business India, 22 Jan 2001 Issue