“You Can’t Run A Company Based on Hearsay”: A Rare Interview with Marvell’s Hands-On CEO, Sehat Sutardja

1/19/11Follow @wroush

Marvell Technology Group (NASDAQ: MRVL) is one of Silicon Valley’s unsung success stories. The chip design firm’s low-power electronics are found inside key media and computing devices from disk drives and smartphones to network controllers and Blu-ray players. But it wasn’t until after I’d won an interview with co-founder, CEO, and de facto chief engineer Sehat Sutardja that I realized how lucky I was to get an up-close look at this company. Sutardja, a Berkeley-trained electrical-engineering PhD, who’s known for his creative touch with everything from to project schedules to chip layouts, sets aside time for only five press meetings per year, company spokesman Daniel Yoo told me.

But while Sutardja spends less time in the limelight than many other Silicon Valley CEOs, it would be a mistake to overlook his company. In just 16 years, Marvell has evolved from a tiny maker of hard disk controllers—a market it still dominates—into a behemoth with $3 billion in annual revenues from a range of so-called “mixed-signal” technologies, meaning chips designed to handle a combination of analog and digital functions. Traditionally, building mixed-signal semiconductor devices required expensive materials and complex manufacturing techniques. Marvell’s genius, and Sutardja’s, has been finding cheap, scalable ways to build these devices using everyday CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) fabrication methods.

Today the company builds products for storage, switching, network, communications, cellular, and Wi-Fi applications, including many “system-on-a-chip” devices with embedded central processing units to provide more control. Its Armada processors, built around the low-power microarchitecture known as ARM, are used in e-readers, smartphones, portable game consoles, and set-top boxes, and are envisioned as the foundation for a new generation of inexpensive tablet computers.

But the company builds absolutely none of this stuff on its own: It was one of the first “fabless” chipmakers in Silicon Valley, keeping its own staff busy with design, engineering, and sales while outsourcing manufacturing, assembly, and packaging to fabs in Taiwan and elsewhere. That’s a widespread practice now, but back when Marvell was getting started in the mid-1990s, Sutardja says, one of its key challenges was convincing disk-drive manufacturers that the company could deliver real products, despite its lack of fabrication facilities.

Sutardja and his co-founders—his wife Weili Dai and his brother Pantas Sutardja—attracted some unwanted media attention back in 2008, when the SEC accused Marvell and a number of other Silicon Valley firms of backdating options grants in order to offer more competitive compensation packages to employees. Marvell eventually settled the case, admitting no wrongdoing but paying a $10 million fine. And while the Sutardjas themselves hadn’t profited from the alleged backdating, Dai agreed to step down as the company’s chief operating officer.

Since then, according to Yoo, Dai has remained actively involved at the company, taking the lead in creating Marvell’s Moby platform, a reference design for a new family of tablet computers intended for classroom and educational use. Marvell hasn’t yet found an equipment manufacturer to build an actual Moby tablet. But the work it’s doing to integrate low-power processors, display controllers, and wireless chips could eventually bear fruit in the form of … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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