Most of us don’t know who designed India’s first ASIC. And, ironically, the person who designed the ASIC that went into production in tens of thousands didn’t realise it either, until he was told by his peers that it was the first ASIC to be designed produced in volumes. Though he does not say so, he was perhaps one of the persons who persuaded National Semiconductor to establish an R&D lab in India, the first outside the USA for them.
This is K. Krishna Moorthy’s story as told to EFY’s Mukul Yudhveer Singh! He believes in perfect timing like the stroke play in cricket! Right now Krishna is busy planning and scripting the roadmap to make India a semiconductor powerhouse.
Born in a middle-class family, Krishna understood the meaning and importance of working on self for the betterment of others from a very young age. His father had lost his own father at an early age, and Krishna, as far as he remembers, had seen his father work day-and-night to ensure his family was not deprived of any necessities. “My father is a self-made man, and in the process of working on himself for his family’s well-being, he set an example for us and taught the importance of hard work for being successful,” recalls a proud Krishna.
Krishna’s parents, young at 99 and 88, live with him and always saw education as a necessity to excel in life. He and his brother were made clear from childhood that they would not compromise on their education. “That was the safety net for the future,” they taught early in life.
“Our parents told us, everything apart from education can wait. Belonging to a middle-class family, my father kept a purse that was to be used only for education. While luxuries were not always possible, he never let us struggle for necessities. Our mother, like any other mother in those days, managed home and ensured we were well looked after,” says a proud Krishna.
Krishna’s father worked with a rubber company which was a major supplier to leading tyre brands of India. Born in Calcutta (now Kolkota), Krishna moved to Kerala with his parents before the start of his schooling. The change of states presented his father with an opportunity to get Krishna admitted into one of the oldest and the then most reputed schools in India, known as CMS High School, in Kottayam.
“I had the good fortune of studying in one of the oldest schools in India, which was established in 1817. I completed my 12th standard from CMS College, which was run by the same school’s management. Those days the +2 was in colleges, unlike today,” he recalls.
Krishna was one of the brightest students in the school. Always among the toppers in his class, he was also active in sports including cricket and football. His outstanding academic results in the 12th standard helped him get a seat in the engineering stream. “Those days there were no entrance exams, and you were picked on the basis of merit in your 12th standard. How you scored in Physics, Chemistry, and Maths was what mattered the most during those times,” he explains.
Based on his 12th standard results, Krishna got admission to Electronics and Communications engineering degree course in College of Engineering Trivandrum (CET). CET was the only college offering an engineering degree in the E&C stream throughout Kerala then, and only 45 students were selected for the course.
Krishna loves watching sports including cricket, tennis, football, badminton, and chess. However, since his childhood, he has not been able to appreciate sports involving individuals hitting each other like boxing, karate, wrestling, etc. “I still do not like any kind of violence, and that is probably why I chose engineering over a medical degree. I would have had to dissect frogs if I had chosen medicine as a career,” shares Krishna jokingly.
Spirituality while engineering
Krishna likes reading, which also relaxes him. He started reading comics in his childhood and is a big-time fan and follower of the popular Tom and Jerry series even now. However, his life completely changed when he read the book titled ‘You Can Win’ by the motivational speaker and author Shiv Khera. The punchline of the book, ‘Winners Don’t Do Different Things, They Do Things Differently,’ has become the motto of Krishna’s life ever since. He mentioned this phrase at least twenty times during our conversation.
“Early in life I learned important things like the need to have command over the English language to succeed. I learnt that there is always a need for being a good communicator and doing things differently instead of doing different things,” he explains. He understood the importance of being a good communicator by listening to his teachers. He recalls the difference in teaching methods of his teachers. While all of them had a stronghold over the subjects they were teaching, not all had equally good communication skills. Different teachers, in the words of Krishna, were teaching differently.
Krishna has read ‘You Can Win’ more than a dozen times, and every time in a different context. He believes a book can change one’s life. Krishna experienced spirituality also the first time through the book ‘Art of Man Making’ by Swami Chinmayananda ji, which he read by chance during his engineering college days. The best part as a result of being spiritual, as he explains, is the understanding of having less ego so as to be able to learn from anybody.
History is another subject that he seems completely in love with. He probably has read more history books than he has read about Physics, Chemistry, and Math. “Every major event in world history has brought disruptive innovation and birth of new technologies,” says Krishna. In fact, if not an engineer, he would have been in the profession of teaching. Krishna, on an average, reads at least one book every month and currently he is reading ‘Innovation’ by Curtis Carlson and William Wilmot.
“I always believe that the progress in modern-day technology in any country can happen only when academia and industry work very closely. Israel for me is one of the best examples. My eagerness to stay connected with technologists in industries and professors in universities stayed with me always,” says Krishna.
The first job and India’s first ASIC
Krishna’s father saw India struggle for independence. His first paycheck was only fifty rupees, so he taught Krishna the importance of seeking happiness in little things but being ready for everything always.
Krishna recalls how excited his father was on learning about Krishna’s first job with Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL). He was excited not just because it was a PSU job, but also because Krishna was getting a chance to serve his motherland. “I was excited to know that I would be joining the R&D team of BEL as I was and am always fascinated by technology. But my father was more excited than me when I told him I was going to work with BEL,” Krishna smiles.
The year Krishna joined BEL as a probationary engineer was the luckiest year of his life. Not because it was his first job, but more so because of introduction to the best manager he has ever had—P.D. Modak, who retired from BEL after becoming its chairman. Krishna explains, “When you walk out of a college with plenty of theoretical knowledge in hand and land a good job, your hunger for practical knowledge expands. Mr Modak was a leader who had plenty of patience to let me understand electronics from a practical perspective. He would answer all my questions and let me experiment with work despite many mistakes I made.”
“The year I got my first job also happens to be exceptional because I met my spiritual master Swami Chinmayananda ji,” says a satisfied Krishna. “I had the good fortune of coming under the benign grace of Swami Chinmayananda ji when I had just started my professional life,” recalls Krishna. “Swami ji has always taught about practical life. An example of his teaching is, he questions you about what you will do tomorrow morning to be successful in life. Whether he is teaching Bhagavat Geeta or Upanishads, his teachings will always be from the practical and pragmatic point of view. For example, he would talk about making good friends and then tell you how to make them,” says Krishna with great respect visible in his eyes.
Krishna has to his credit the prestige of designing India’s first application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) in 1986. MNC companies like Texas Instruments had just set up their office in India to do software development at that time. MNCs did ASIC and chip design in India much later.
This was also the period when Krishna got attracted to semiconductors more than anything else. The world was talking about ASICs in general. “ASICs were just starting to become prominent around 1982-83. We started talking about ASICs at BEL around 1985. Mr Modak asked me to look at the technology and find ways to bring it and do it in India,” recalls Krishna.
“I designed an ASIC in 1986. Later I came to know that it was the first ever ASIC to be designed in India which went to volume production. One of my colleagues also designed another ASIC alongside, and both our designs went into volume manufacturing in a British fab,” he recalls. He adds, “I am still proud of the fact that I not only worked on the wireless communication systems but I also designed semiconductor ASICs that go into them.”
“The products and solutions I designed under the leadership of Mr Modak remained mainstream in India’s defense sector. We were trying to match the capabilities of India’s defense sector with the capabilities of advanced countries. Even today, when I see how reasonably close we are to such countries in terms of R&D on defense, despite all the limitations we have as a country, it fills my heart with joy and pride,” says Krishna.
Krishna was 39 when he was promoted to the ranks of Deputy General Manager in one of the R&D teams of BEL for Defense Communications. It was a secure job, a job that millions in India pray for day-and-night, but Krishna’s hunger for staying connected to the latest in technology had some other plans for him.
Secure job or no-secure job
The private sector in the 1960s and 1970s was offering a limited number of jobs and electronics was not a priority for any Indian private company then. Competition was also not strong, and most of the people back then wanted to work in government or PSU jobs, which were considered as safe jobs with good perks. However, quitting a secure PSU job, when your career is just hitting the peak, was something more than rare. Quitting a secure PSU job to start innings in the private sector required taking a leap of faith, and Krishna took that leap.
“My job at BEL required me to interact with international OEMs and vendors. What fascinated me during these conversations with them was that they were doing things a little faster and better than we do in India. They were always ahead of the curve. I always wanted to keep learning and working with one of those OEMs was one thing which I thought would help me understand how to stay ahead of the curve,” says Krishna.
He adds, “I always wondered how they stayed ahead of the curve and how they finished things with a little extra class, finesse, and perfection. There was only one way to find out, and I embarked on the journey to seek how they were doing things differently. And it also dawned on me at that time that the major differentiator between India and developed countries in almost all electronics systems including defense was their ability and access to build semiconductor chips for a specific application very well and quickly”
Krishna’s hunger for staying ahead of the curve and bringing the latest to India continues to fuel his actions and reactions. However, his foray into the private sector was not a cakewalk; staying ahead on the curve required him to be more agile than ever before, and attentive and receptive more than he had ever been in his life. “The belief that you can be as good as anybody just by doing things differently has stood by me for my entire life. The thought has always helped me find solutions to even the most difficult of problems,” says Krishna.