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

1/19/11Follow @wroush

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sub-$100 tablets like the planned XO3, a laptop successor planned by the Cambridge, MA-based One Laptop Per Child Foundation (OLPC).

In my hour with Sutardja, I had time to ask the Indonesian native to describe Marvell’s innovation style—both how the company carved out a niche for itself, and why he believes so strongly in centralized, hands-on R&D management. We also talked about OLPC, the role that low-cost computing devices could play in economic development around the world, and Sutardja’s plans for leading Marvell to the next level of growth. That’s all recounted in the edited transcript below.

I also had time to ask Sutardja about his beginnings as an engineer, why he founded Marvell as a fabless semiconductor company, how the company played off its strengths in disk drive controllers to build Ethernet chips and other devices, and why the company is so committed to the ARM architecture. But frankly, that material will be of interest mainly to serious Marvell students and analysts, so I’m going to save it for a supplemental piece tomorrow.

Xconomy: Back in 1995, no one had heard of Marvell. You decided to build chips to control the read channel on disk drives, which were already a commodity business back then. What did you do to make your product stand out?

Sehat Sutardja: When we built our first silicon, we rated it to run at 200 megabits per second [of input/output volume]. That sounds like nothing now, but at the time, people were shipping disk drives that ran at 20 to 30 megabits per second. So we were building a chip that ran at 8 to 10 times the performance of what was shipping at the time. We overshot the target by about three years, not even realizing it. We were clueless—we didn’t have any marketing guys, so we had no idea that nobody needed this. But then Seagate came along and said, “If anybody else uses this first, we are going to be out of business.”

X: What, if anything, does that episode illustrate about how Marvell runs today?

SS: Over the years, whenever we have tried to enter a new business, we have been more successful when we entered by trying to obsolete what is available. Despite the fact that people know us in certain industries, there are always people in new industries who have never heard of Marvell. So if we cannot come up with a differentiating solution, what is the point for them to talk to us?

Also, we have built a lot of knowledge and instinct about what can be combined. Certain things are easier in analog and certain things in digital. When you are in the gray area, the analog guys get confused and the digital guys get confused and nothing happens. Everybody waits until somebody shows them how to do it. So whenever there is this gray area, that’s what we are always good at.

X: You are known for staying very closely involved in engineering decisions inside Marvell. How can you do that and still run a 5,000-person company?

SS: It’s actually closer to 6,000 now. I have come to believe that in semiconductors, you cannot afford not to know what is going on in a technical area. A lot of the things that a CEO has to make decisions on will be stuff that requires taking risks—risks on future investments and which path to take. Once you take a certain path, it’s a year or two of time potentially wasted. If you make too many of those mistakes, you end up going … Next Page »

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

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