“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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nowhere. Many companies that have been in this business longer than we have have made this mistake, where they do not know what’s going on in their own R&D labs. The R&D people can just say whatever the boss wants to hear. “Everything is peachy, we are the leaders.” Okay, nice, maybe for this year, but how about next year? Marketing will say, “Yes, this is the product plan.” But based on what information?

Everybody makes plans based on hearsay. I don’t believe you can run a company based on hearsay. A company has to be run based on real, scientific data. And it’s the job of the CEO. If the CEO is not designing the chip or writing the software, the CEO has to know what people are working on and whether people are on the right path, and make the call if they have to change direction.

X: But if the CEO has to be personally involved in every project, doesn’t that put an upper limit on the number of projects a company can pursue?

SS: It will be fewer, theoretically. But practically, actually, we have more projects than any company twice our size, because [in other companies] there are too many projects that go nowhere.

For Marvell to propagate this culture where the leader needs to be hands on, we could basically create a number of mini-me’s. They don’t have to have as much knowledge as I do. I happen to have a lot of knowledge, so I can make a lot of decisions. But if each vice president has one quarter of my knowledge, and if their knowledge overlaps each other, then the union of this knowledge will not have holes. But if the management has no knowledge, or only PowerPoint knowledge, then when you put things together you have holes everywhere, and when the time comes to make a call, nobody knows how.

X: Marvell is the largest single supporter of the One Laptop Per Child initiative. Why is that project important to the company?

SS: When OLPC started out with a target of a $100 laptop, it was aggressive, but nonetheless reasonable. It was maybe just a few years ahead of its time. But I believe that now it’s possible to build this thing for less than $100. For the first time in the history of mankind, we can now enable billions of people to have access to computing technology for $100 or less. So for the first time in history, we will truly be able to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots, between the poor and the rich. We can’t say the same thing about cars yet—we cannot build a car that costs $500 or $1,000. So the gap has been narrowed drastically.

I’m excited about this because if OLPC’s dream becomes a reality, suddenly we will have billions of additional users in the world, and I am hoping that out of this, maybe one out of a million people happens to be some genius living in a village in the forest, and has access to this knowledge and becomes the next Einstein. If it’s even one in a million, then … Next Page »

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

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