Archives for the month of: January, 2011

I like reading books during my daily commute to Harvard on the T (or subway). It’s only two stops from Kendall Sq to Harvard Sq, so you might wonder how much I can possibly read. Well, it takes about 15 minutes including the time waiting for the train, so that’s 30 min a day. I would say that’s a pretty big chunk of time, especially when you have nothing else to do other than wondering what music other people are listening to, or starring at your smartphone complaining there’s no 3G connection underground. It’s an environment where you can completely concentrate only on the book because you don’t have anything else to do. At home I easily get distracted by emails, ichat, Celtics games etc.

Nowadays, I’m reading a book titled Three Steps to Yes by Gene Bedell. Gene Bedell is a successful person who had risen to a top executive position at Credit Suisse before joining a startup that was spun off from Credit Suisse. As CEO of the startup he helped grow it to a publicly traded company with over $100M market cap. Gene Bedell is also often mentioned by Vivek Wadhwa as his mentor. Gene Bedell was Vivek Wadhwa’s boss in both Credit Suisse and the spin-off startup.

The book is about “how to sell”. It’s not about how to become the best salesman, but mostly about how to sell your ideas, how to persuade other people to do what you want them to do. The author argues that “selling” isn’t just for salesman, but for everyone who tries to convey what they are thinking to other people. As a graduate student who writes papers and gives presentations to persuade other people that my idea can change the world, and also as someone who is interested in doing a startup, I thought this book would be very helpful. I haven’t finished reading the book yet, but until now I am very satisfied. I’ll leave the book review for a later post, and write more about the importance of learning how to sell and communicate well in this post.

After coming to US, I’ve heard so many times that having good communication skills is extremely important. I have seen many foreign students including myself trying to learn how to write and speak in English more fluently. I agree that is the first step to better communication skills, but that’s far from enough. I think there’s so much more in communication than just being fluent in a language. I think good communication is more about understanding what others think and trying to lead the conversation to make them comfortable while meeting your needs as well. This requires you to learn how to sell, not just speak.

I’ve realized that this is something very important to all grad students, even if one wants to stay in academia to do research for the entire career. Research isn’t done by a lonely genius inside a cave as depicted by Iron Man. In order to do good research, you need to know what other people are doing and what the major problems are in your research community. Otherwise, you might be working to solve a problem that no one is interested in. To find the right problems to work on, researchers write and present papers to fellow researchers in the community to share and build upon each other’s ideas. All this requires good communication skills. You don’t want to be someone who everyone avoids conversations at a conference.

So, how can we learn how to communicate well? I am also trying to figure that out (that’s why I’m reading the book), and I am no master of communication, so the following are just my thoughts from personal experiences that could be far from the right answers. I think the basics of good communication are

  1. predict what others will think before you say something
  2. figure out what others are thinking after you say something
  3. adjust what you say based on your judgement and go back to 1.

Again, these are just my personal thoughts. It might be totally wrong, or it might be something impossible to do perfectly. However, at least everyone I’ve seen who is good at selling and communicating is good at reading other’s minds and reacting quickly. Because people rarely say exactly what they think, you need to carefully ask and guess what the person really means. One example is when VCs reject pitches from startups. They never say in a straight-forward way that “your idea is bad”, but instead say something like “You need more traction. Let’s discuss more after you get more traction”. The VCs have no motivation to say things that might hurt your feelings, so they prefer to sugarcoat whatever they have in mind. Good communication skills could help you hear more about why they really rejected you instead of mere sugarcoated phrases. Example of bad communication in this situation would be saying “I don’t need those sugarcoated phrases. What to you really think of my business plan!!!???” Example of good communication would be…I have yet to figure that out =)

Some people are just gifted and born to be good sellers, but others learn it through practice. I think the best way to learn is simply to talk with a lot of people in a variety of situations. Even better if you have buddies who can tag along and later give you candid feedback on what you said was appropriate or not. I think I learned a lot about communication skills while taking a MBA class at Harvard Business School last summer.

In class, students from the business, law and engineering schools formed groups to come up with business plans using technologies developed at the Harvard Engineering School. I was lucky to have the technology that I developed in lab assigned to our group in class. After several months of work, we presented our business plan to a bunch of people including VCs and professors at the end of the semester. Each group was assigned a small booth with a monitor showing our slides so that people could walk around visiting booths that seemed interesting.

There was a professor our team had met a month ago to get feedback on our business plan. He was very kind and provided us with comments that helped improve our business plan. He had visited our booth to see our final presentation. Everything went well and we got valuable feedback from him.

This was when I said something that I should’ve thought twice before it came out of my mouth. As he was about to leave our booth, I asked him if he would be interested in becoming our advisor for a upcoming business plan competition. I could tell that he was slightly caught off-guard, and I immediately realized I had made a mistake. He said he was busy this semester, but could discuss this more later. After the professor left, my teammates told me that I “put him on the spot” by suddenly asking him to be our team’s advisor in front of our whole team without giving him time to think about it. He was basically forced to not say “no” because all of our team members were standing there waiting for his answer. It would have been much better to say “We are interested in the business competition. Could you provide us with feedback on how we should prepare for that?”. After he gives the feedback, I could say, “Thanks, your feedback is really helpful. Would you mind if we visit you at a later time to discuss more about the competition?”, and then visit him later to ask if he could be our team’s advisor. This way, he would have had much more time to think about our business plan and perhaps think about advising our team if he was interested.

This is an example of a bad communication that was lose-lose for me and the professor. I didn’t get a “yes” from him, and he (presumably) was not happy to be in that situation. He was a very nice professor, and I felt bad that I might have made him startled and disappointed. However, I was extremely lucky to have good friends in our team who were kind enough to point out my mistake. (I think good friends are those who are willing to help you fix your mistakes, rather than praise you just to make you feel good) I sort of let my teammates down by making this mistake, but they gave me a very kind advice — most of the time, it’s better to slowly build up your request to others rather than going straight to the point.

One might think this kind of communication is inefficient because it takes too much time going back and forth. Maybe I was thinking this way too when I asked the professor since that was the fastest way to get his answer. Unfortunately, it was the fastest way to get a “no”. It would be so comfortable for you if you could say everything in a very direct way and have people agree with you all the time. Unfortunately, that’s not how most communications work. I had a lot of time to think about my question before asking it to the professor, whereas he was forced to give an answer right away. Given that good communication is based on two groups understanding each other, I should have given him time to dwell on the question before forcing him to say yes or no on the spot. This isn’t being inefficient or wasting time going back and forth, but allowing people on both sides of the table to have ample time to think about the issue on the table.

The problem for graduate students is that graduate school could be one of the worst places to learn this type of skill, because there aren’t many opportunities to meet and chat with people in a professional setting. Students spend most of their day in front of a computer running simulations or in a lab doing experiments. They are too stressed about getting work done and getting papers out that they don’t have the time to worry about good communication skills. I’m very happy to have advisors who are supportive of students learning communication skills by sending them to conferences and giving them opportunity participate in meetings with industry people (as long as it doesn’t eat into your research time =) ). I learned a tremendous amount on how to network with people when I first went to a major conference in our field. I didn’t know anyone, so I tagged along a senior grad student who had been to a lot of conferences and knew a lot of people. I still get nervous when talking to high-ranked industry people, but also get really thrilled because I can learn so much just by going through that experience and listening to what my advisors and industry people say in certain situations.

Thinking beyond the graduate school environment, I think communication is something we start to learn as babies. We first learn how to speak, go to school and learn to communicate with fellow students and learn how to fit into a group. Kids sometimes get into fights because of misunderstandings, but learn how to get along with others who disagree with you. Going through these experiences is essential in learning how to communicate. (NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote an article arguing that Amy Chua’s way of raising kids fail to teach them how to get along with others, which is more important than getting good grades)

Communication is something that I can only learn through experience. Talking with people that I’m meeting for the first time in a professional setting can be at first daunting and stressful, but it is very exciting to be constantly exposed to new people and conversations. I’ll try to take advantage of opportunities that I have in school to learn how to be a better “seller”. And of course, work hard so that it doesn’t cut into my research time =)

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Last week, a WSJ article titled ‘Why Chinese Moms Are Superior’ lit up a fierce debate on how parents should educate their children. The article was written by a Yale Law professor how came to US a long time ago. Her point was that children need to be forced to learn new things. Children tend to enjoy what they are good at. Since they are not good at anything initially, parents should force them to do some things until they become good and learn how to enjoy those activities. She also claims that children can do things that initially seem impossible when pushed hard enough. She argues that those who give up and say ‘everyone is special in their own way’ are losers and that any children is capable of doing what other children in the same age can do, if the parents force them hard enough.

Apparently, this WSJ article received a flurry of interest in the web, and Vivek Wadhwa also joined the debate by writing an article in BusinessWeek claiming US education system is still better than India or China. (Vivek Wadhwa is an entrepreneur turned professor at Duke doing research on startups. He is also a big advocate on the ‘Startup Visa’, a movement trying to give Visas, and eventually permanent residency to people who want to launch startups in the US. I love his articles in TechCrunch and BusinessWeek.) Then, a much more aggressive article was posted on TechCrunch titled ‘Why American Mothers are Superior’. I think most of you can guess what was posted there. She questions the point of forcing every single child to be mathematical and musical prodigies. She ends by saying “Dr. Chua’s definition of success is to have children who are musical and mathematical prodigies. Mine is to have children who learn well, live well and love well. She’s a success by her standards as I am by mine.”

I’m not a parent (yet), so I don’t know what it’s like to raise children, but my wife and I have talked about these sort of issues several times. I think both articles have valid points — I agree with the Chinese Mom argument that children tend to enjoy what they are good at, but also think forcing them to do something does not help the childrens’ creativity at all. That kind of education could create a math and science whiz with a perfect GPA who can also flawlessly play a Rachmaninoff piece, but who cannot figure out what he is truly passionate about. He might deliver excellent results when ordered to do something, but fail to figure out what he needs to do by himself. I believe that kind of person can be perfect on paper, but might end up not being sure what he wants from his life.

I think giving some amount of breathing room and freedom to children is important. Does that mean there’s nothing that parents can do to educate their children better? Of course not. I think (it’s just thinking, since I haven’t been able to practice it with a real child) parents can educate children by showing, not forcing. My wife and I like reading books after coming home from work. If our children watch us every evening reading something, wouldn’t they gradually want to read books too? (Maybe we should laugh while reading, just to pretend that it’s so much fun haha) I assume children are curious about things that adults do and like to follow when it seems like adults are having a lot of fun. When I was a kid, dinner table conversations were usually focused on issues on government and politics. My parents never forced me to do that, but I started to get interested in reading newspapers and political news earlier than my friends. I even asked my parents how to become a politician when I was in 5th grade. My dad used to watch a lot of Pacers and Hoosier basketball games when we were living in Indiana. Nowadays, I have the TV channel fixed to Celtics games (although I usually work on something else with the TV on). I’m not trying to argue that I received good education from my parents. I’m just trying to say that, from my personal experience, children are largely affected by what they hear and see from their parents. My belief is that if you want your children to do something, you don’t need to force the children, but instead show how much you enjoy doing something.

I guess my wife and I can try to see if this theory is true once we have a baby (maybe 3-4 years later? after we enjoy some more traveling). I think I’ll try to show my children how much I enjoy doing the following.

  • Skiing: young children learn much faster than adults. I hope my children would want to learn how to ski just by watching me skiing. Hope I don’t stumble too hard in front of them.
  • Reading: my wife and I like reading a wide variety of books. I hope my children would be curious what’s written in all those books. I started reading a lot thanks to my brother who liked buying a bunch of books. I think I ended up reading more of them than my brother =)
  • Basketball: I don’t know which city I’m going to be living in, but I really want to take my children to basketball games. Then I don’t need to beg my wife to go with me!
  • Music: it doesn’t matter what kind of instrument. Piano, guitar, violin whatever. I’m really glad that I learned to play the piano at a young age, and see many friends who regret not having learnt any instrument. Would they want to learn music if I start playing my keyboard at home? Maybe that’ll make them hate music altogether.
  • Passion: I wish they be passionate on something, whatever that is. I hope they have something that they strongly desire, and be like “life is full of excitement!”, instead of “oh..whatever…life is full of BS..”.
  • Love: Lastly, but most importantly, I wish they learn how to love and care for others. I hope being a loving father can help them in this matter.

OK. The list got way too longer than I imagined. Maybe I’ll be a way too demanding dad after all =)
I don’t know why I ended up thinking about children when my wife and I certainly have no plan at all (for the time being), but now I find it pretty fun to imagine all these things.

WSJ article on why Dirk Meyer resigned.

It seems the board was upset since early 2010 about Dirk Meyer not focusing on tablet and smartphone processors. I remember reading articles like this where Dirk Meyer is quoted as saying,

I do not foresee that day [when AMD competes with ARM is] coming in the near term. First of all, when we consider which areas to approach, we look at markets, we look at the technology capabilities we have, and we try to find an intersection point that really represents really big opportunities. By far the biggest business opportunity we have got is in PCs and servers. The market for silicon processing content is bigger than the smartphone market. […] The other thing we really like about our core market is that there aren’t that many competitors […]. I would rather focus on the big market, where there’s a small number of competitors,

Supposedly, the board was upset that he wasn’t devoting more resources in low-power processors, and even more upset because he kept on stating publicly about his desire not to compete in the low-power market.

When I read the article back in August 2010, I completely agreed with Dirk Meyer that there’s not as much opportunity in the low-power market as many people would think. The volume might be tremendously high, but there is so much cost-cutting competition between companies that the margin is razor-thin compared to the PC and server market. Even the high-end smartphone processors are usually sold at less than $30, whereas even the cheapest desktop/server processors are sold at over $150 and can get up to $1000. Also count the fact that there are a bunch of established players like TI, Qualcomm, Samsung and Renasas fighting for market share. Even if AMD succeeds in getting a slice of the pie, that might come after a bloody war that will cost them a lot of investment and time. Even a company like Intel whose market cap is 20x larger than AMD can’t quickly get into the smartphone market. Even if they succeed, I doubt they would be the same old Intel racking in cash using their dominance in a high-margin market. They would be just one of the many companies selling smartphone processors at pretty cheap prices. At that point, would they be able to earn enough money to invest in their billion dollar fabs? If not, they will lose their sole differentiator from other processor companies, which is early access to cutting edge process technologies.

My point is that the smartphone processor market might not be that lucrative as it seems. I agree that smartphones and tablets look like the next big thing (maybe the big thing right now), and it seems like a really bad bet to ignore the whole market. However, considering that AMD has been losing money and hasn’t really announced a new processor for the last several year, I think AMD should first learn how to become a company that doesn’t lose money, and then think about long-term visions or whatnot. It’s ridiculous to ask for “a visionary CEO” when you don’t even have the money to execute crazy, wild ideas that could payoff in the future. They should devote all their resources in getting out the Fusion lineup they had planned when they acquired ATI, especially since this is the only advantage they have over Intel.

It’s always fun to read news from the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES). This is where all the big tech companies announce their new gadgets, TVs, eReaders and smartphones. I think this year’s CES was especially interesting. I’m not good at predicting the future, but I’ll bet we’ll say in a few years that 2011 was when the electronics market landscape started to go through a 7.7 earthquake.

The feeling that I got from CES this year is
Everyone’s doing Everything.

  • Tablets, Tablets and Tablets
    Everyone is jumping into the tablet bandwagon that Apple started with the iPad. After Samsung already announced their Galaxy Tab months ago,  Motorola, RIM, Lenovo and Asus all showed their new tablets (HTC is rumored to announce one too). Customers are going to have a really bad headache choosing which tablet to buy. In other words, the vendors are going to have a hard time differentiating themselves. The hardware is going to be pretty much the same with dual-core ARM based processors, the display and size is going to be similar, so maybe software can help differentiate?
  • Windows on ARM
    Microsoft announced that Windows 8 will run on ARM. This means that processors built by TI, Qualcomm, Samsung and others using ARM cores can run Windows as well as Android. Intel and Windows was the definition of a PC for the last 15 years after Windows 95 was announced in 1995. That definition is totally breaking down. Intel is already teaming up with Nokia to run some sort of Linux on their processors, and Windows can now run on any ARM processor designed by all the mobile processor companies like TI, Qualcomm, Samsung, Marvell, Freescale and so on.
  • Nvidia’s Denver project
    To add more confusion to the PC market, Nvidia announced that they will design processors for PCs and servers using ARM cores combined with Nvidia GPUs. PC processor market was dominated by Intel and AMD for the last 20 years, and now it seems any company can license ARM cores and build PC processors that run Windows. At this point, I’m getting confused who’s doing PC and who’s doing mobile. No one company can dominate the market anymore.
  • The future of PC
    Are people going to use PCs anymore? We have smartphones and tablets with dual-core processors with as much horsepower as the processors in laptops several years ago. Maybe we will have quad-core processors in our phones 1-2 years later. Maybe these processors will be fast enough to run PC applications so that users can simply “dock” their phones on a keyboard and large display to use their phones just like a laptop (Motorola showed something like this in CES). I thought the processor and OS inside PCs were going to change, but maybe the real definition of a “personal computer” is going to be tablets or phones or both. Maybe processors are going to be in either mobiles or servers.

Market segments and the players in each segment seemed clearly defined…until this year. It seems like no one really knows what’s really going to happen in the future, so every company is hedging their bets by dipping their toe in every single market they can target.

Giants like Intel and Microsoft enjoyed huge profit margins and revenues thanks to their dominance in a super large market — not any more. They basically had a cash cow that would give them billions of dollars every year as long as they kept doing what they did — not any more. Intel didn’t need to be afraid of wasting money by making absurd acquisition decisions — not any more. Microsoft could easily waste boatloads of money launching products no one used like Kin and Zune without a blink (Bing is burning a lot of money too) — NOT ANY MORE. (follow the links to see how badly industry giants can mess up)

It’s a real pain for companies to come out of their cozy monopoly markets and engage in bloody cost-cutting wars, but customers will be very happy to get their hands on cheap, yet powerful gadgets. With everything changing so fast and everything so unpredictable, it’s an exciting time to be an electrical engineer =)

I was wondering when I would write my first blog post, and I never knew that I would start with a posting on Dirk Meyer’s resignation.

(Disclaimer: I have a tiny bit of share in AMD and I am seriously pissed at the free-falling stock price after Dirk Meyer’s resignation)

I wasn’t upset just because the stock price was going down, but mainly because I thought highly of him for two reasons. First, he is a real tech guy. He spent years at DEC, which was one of the hottest tech companies back in the days (maybe Facebook right now), then came to AMD and led to Opteron server processor that actually took away market share from Intel. He is basically THE EXPERT on microprocessor design. Second reason I like him is that he spent 15 years at AMD. He’s not some CEO who was recruited from another company to do what’s good for the short-term stock price instead of what’s good for the company long-term. He was beefing up fundamental research capabilities at AMD while successfully launching products that were being delayed forever.

So why is the board firing him? Have they already forgot how bad Hector Ruiz messed up the whole company (After stepping down, he even got investigated for insider trading) ? Do they really believe they can find someone better than him? There are several guesses floating around the web.

The board wanted to sell AMD to ATIC, but Dirk Meyer strongly resisted.
This wild guess was posted on Anandtech. The guess is that since the resignation was so abrupt even without any transition period for the new CEO, there should be something really substantial that the board and Dirk Meyer disagreed on. ATIC invested heavily in Global Foundries and is still looking for technologies to invest in, so it could be that they are looking into buying AMD.

The board felt Dirk Meyer was too slow getting into the mobile/tablet market
It would have been perfect if AMD had predicted the rise of tablets 2-3 years ago and prepared for such event. However, this is asking AMD to be perfect. We should remember just two years back, AMD was burning cash while going through endless delays in their laptop, PC and server processor designs. They didn’t have the resources to expand into mobile processor markets, let alone maintain their share in existing PC and server markets. Blaming Dirk Meyer for not entering the mobile market early enough is just BS. It’s almost like blaming an officer for not winning the battle after the officer had successfully led his troops out of a dangerous situation where he was totally outnumbered by the enemy. AMD had very limited resources and it was the right decision to focus on getting the Fusion processors (that was delayed for years) out on the market as soon as possible. AMD is not Intel and they can’t dip their toes in every single market. I agree with Dirk Meyer’s decision that the margin was too low in mobile processors for AMD to devote resources from their already limited pool.

It seems they will look for a new CEO for the next several weeks. Maybe some executive from Intel? (I hope they don’t bring someone like Michael Fister, ex-Intel exec who was brought into Cadence to save the company only to mess it up even further) Hope they can find someone who has a long-term vision of where AMD and processor design should head for.

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