Friday, July 19, 2024

Breathing Through “First-Time Silicon Success”

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No one is born a leader, but the choices we make in life propel us to become a leader. For Chitra Hariharan, an innocent fascination for electronic appliances, which were slowly entering the Indian markets then, pushed her to make it big into the miniaturising world of electronics. With four successful silicon and electronics product startup exits, Chitra has led the chip design ecosystem for 35 years, contributing to almost 125 semiconductor products. She dreamed of making a difference and dared to choose the unconventional path, never giving up on an opportunity—she seized it and ran with it. This is Chitra Hariharan’s story as narrated to EFY’s Yashasvini Razdan.


Born into a lower-middle-class family in South Tamil Nadu to a state government employee father, Rajagopal, and a homemaker mother, Gowri, Chitra had a modest upbringing. Within the confines of their 1HK house, Chitra watched her father shuttle from one place to another, engaging with weavers’ associations, working hard to educate his two daughters.

“Our monthly treat, that Amma bought for us, was a small cream biscuit packet that my sister and I had to share,” she reminisces.

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Being the elder of the two siblings, the burden of responsibilities accompanied by the unflinching sense of duty was inculcated very early on in young Chitra’s mind. While the breadwinner of her family moved from one place to another to educate his daughters, Chitra went on to make the most of every opportunity that came her way.

“I was the regular goody-goody first bencher and liked by all my teachers in school. I wanted to be the best in everything. I knew I had to get a job and I had to work hard to get what I wanted and make things better.”

Happy family

Chitra had set her eyes on the post of a government telephone operator, by aiming for an education in Maths, Science, and Chemistry, the last being her favourite subject. While her father armed her with diligence, her mother taught her ingenuity. “In those days, it was mandatory to choose a hobby class. While other parents sent their kids to dance or music class, my mother, a very enterprising lady even today, knew that for my dream job, I would need to know Hindi, so she sent me to learn a third language at the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha.” Little did she know then that this decision would be the foundation for her to become a strong and effective communicator, skills that are paramount for a leader.

Number one or no one

Tenacious Chitra knew that she would not be a winner unless she was at the top of the scoreboard. Later in life, she continued to give utmost importance to the academic records of all the team members she hired while building her engineering teams.

“Getting into a professional course was incredibly tough. You had to have the perfect academic record. I applied to the Government College of Technology, Coimbatore, hoping to get into one of the Applied Science courses, to secure the job of a telephone operator. With my perfect academic record and incredibly high marks, doors to the engineering course opened. In those days, we did not have any career counselling or any elders to guide us on which subject to choose. All I knew was that a professional engineering course is better than an Applied Sciences course.”

Chitra’s son with his grandfather

Even though Chitra had already paid fees for the latter, being a volleyball player, she grabbed the opportunity thrown at her and went on to apply for the engineering course. But soon enough, another choice lay in front of her. “I got a seat in civil engineering. That was the last thing I wanted to do!”

Fascinated by the Sony record player and Walkman, young Chitra’s eyes used to twinkle at the sight of the shiny screens in electronics product showrooms. “I did not necessarily want to open up those products, but I was always attracted to them. So, I decided, I want to do electronics engineering.” Once she had made up her mind, nothing could stand in her way. As luck would have it, one of her friends wanted to take up civil engineering in the same college. The two exchanged seats, paving the way for Chitra’s chariot into the chip industry.

Chronicles of the cycle

Engineering for a middle-class day scholar from a humble background in 1980 was no mean feat. Every morning, the neighbourhood in South Coimbatore’s Saibaba Colony saw a young girl dressed in a long cotton skirt, ferociously pedalling her way on an ancient, modified men’s bicycle, the front bar chopped off to revamp it into a ladies’ bicycle. Behind her, in the carrier seat, sat a younger demure girl, holding on tightly to a huge container. The rider dropped off her sister at the bus stop and then cycled to her grandmother’s house, filled up the water container and cycled back home, without spilling a single drop.

“After dropping my sister and delivering water for Amma at home, I picked up my bag and cycled back to my college, which was another three-and-a-half kilometres away. My friend Sivakami, another day scholar, sat behind me reading out lecture notes,” recalls Chitra. Sivakami is now a retired General Manager in the telecom circle.

What about the lampooning and the ridicule that college students engaged in? “Who had time to dwell on that! While the hostellers bunked classes and went for movies, being a day scholar, I had to rush to my classes and occupy the first bench to take down all the notes and be the first one in the library to get my hand on the books. I could not afford to be late anywhere,” she quips.

Nerdy Chitra knew that being late to the library meant someone else would get the required books before her. These seeds of punctuality started sprouting, later aiding her in rolling out silicon tape-outs on schedule with successful first-time working silicon.

Team behind 100+ tape-outs

Learning Kannada

As a part of the first four-year batch of engineers, Chitra completed her graduation in 1984, but the joy of a white-collar job in DRDO or Bharat Electronics did not materialise for her. Chitra and her batchmates graduated along with their seniors, further delaying the placements. Recognising her responsibilities towards her family and a younger sister, who was studying medicine, Chitra knew she had to have a job, the day she graduated. Taking up the role of a teacher in her alma mater, Chitra contributed to her family income for two years, till she landed a role in the quality assurance department in the Indian Telephone Industries in Bengaluru.

“A job at ITI was a matter of great prestige but I wasn’t building anything! I wondered what I would even do in quality assurance, but now that I look back at it, this was where I developed an eye for detail—an essential skill in chip design,” says Chitra.

Every morning, the shop floors of the ITI, Bengaluru office saw a lanky 24-year-old girl chatting with an old technician reading a Kannada newspaper. “They had been working for many years on the shop floor. They would not answer the queries of a young girl, who spoke an entirely different language. I had to be one amongst them and the best way in was through the language. I used to stand beside the people reading the newspaper and ask them about the news. Slowly, I picked up words and incorporated them into my vocabulary. I even recognised letters. Till date, people are surprised when they come to know that I can read and write Kannada!” she quips.

While engineers were not expected to go to the shop floor all the time, Chitra established a camaraderie and gained the respect of the technicians who would answer all her inquiries about the workflow and willingly accept her suggestions.

Sailing through love and loss

Throughout her journey at ITI, Chitra donned multiple roles: a senior manager, a daughter, a wife, and a mother. “It was an arranged marriage. While I was busy working, my sister and my father sifted through prospective grooms for me. Even today, whenever there is a big festival or function, my sister, now a doctor, has a brand new saree ready for me because she knows I would not even bother thinking about it,” laughs Chitra. This is the beauty of having a lovely sibling!

The following years saw Chitra undergo various transitions in her personal and professional life. While donning the hat of a wife in 1990, Chitra also transitioned to the Madras VLSI Design Centre of ITI. She needed to move to Chennai to be with her extremely supportive husband Hariharan, who was then a dairy manager of the Aavin milk cooperative in Tamil Nadu, and father-in-law Sankaralingam. The following year, Chitra, who was soon to become a mother, lost her father. “We named our son, Rajagopal, after my father,” she says.

Best Design Team award-winners for Open-Silicon

With the support of her father-in-law and husband, Chitra did not dwell on the loss and quickly took on her duties as a mother while also being a part of the research and design team at ITI. “My father-in-law never let me feel the absence of my father. He encouraged me to go ahead and aim higher. When I moved to the USA to join RealChip Communications, he took on the role of a second mother for my son, and never once let anything come in the way of my career aspirations,” she recalls.

“We had a 30-minute calling card for international calls in those days. There were times when the phone call just got cut while my son was in the middle of narrating an exciting anecdote from school. Those were the moments when the mother’s guilt seeped in, but I consoled myself knowing that my child was safe and loved,” she reminisces.


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Yashasvini Razdan
Yashasvini Razdan
Yashasvini Razdan is a journalist at EFY. She has the rare ability to write both on tech and business aspects of electronics, thanks to an insatiable thirst to know all about technology. Driven by curiosity, she collects hard facts and wields the power of her pen to simplify and disseminate information.

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