Wednesday, December 7, 2022

“I Became An Accidental Engineer”

By Sudeshna Das, consulting editor at EFY

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Hailing from a middle-class, partition-affected family, reaching the USA only with eight dollars in his pocket, building a multi-billion dollar business as the ‘Father of the Pentium Chips,’ Vinod Dham—an Indian-American engineer, entrepreneur, and venture capitalist—continues his fearless journey. In a conversation with Sudeshna Das, consulting editor at EFY, he shares the story of his life.

Born in Pune, Maharashtra, Vinod Dham comes from a partition-affected, middle-class family. His parents shifted to India with three sons and one daughter from Rawalpindi, now in Pakistan, to escape the post-partition crisis. Vinod was the fourth son, who was born in free India, in 1950.

Vinod’s father was a civilian in the Army, in-charge of the supply chains, such as spare parts for army equipment. His mother was a homemaker.

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Vinod’s siblings were also well established in their professional life. His eldest brother did his MBA and was a banker in Delhi. He retired as GM at Union Bank of India. His second eldest brother was a physician and retired as Air Marshal in the Indian Air Force. He also served as the dean of the Armed Forces Medical College, Pune. Vinod’s third brother was an accountant and his sister had a master’s degree.

Vinod mentions his mother as a big inspiration. He explains how supportive his mother was in encouraging him to higher study in the USA even after the death of his father. Vinod recalls asking her, “Do you want me to go?” She replied without blinking, “You must go. It is your destiny. It will ‘make’ you. I will manage. Don’t worry about me.” It was a powerful message for Vinod. “She could have stopped me and I would have stopped in a second, but she did not,” he explains.

“My mother was the biggest hero in the whole family in my mind. She was the glue that kept the family together, nurturing, loving, confidence-building, believed in faith and therefore taught us that and some great values that have come in handy all my life. When I look back and try to pick a person who has inspired my life, it invariably comes down to my mom.”
—Vinod Dham

Looking back at the early years

Vinod recalls himself as a “quite a fearless person” since his school days. His school was far away from home, and he used to take a train to go to school along with his sister. He would invariably try to step into the train while it had already started moving. He vividly remembers how fellow passengers saved him once when he was almost going to fall through the tracks. Perhaps, that is an indication of his risk-taking nature. The same nature led him to explore and reach new heights in life, be it in the form of moving to a new country with eight dollars in his pocket or taking the risk of leading some huge projects.

Vinod Dham ranked sixth among the Top 25 Executives in computing industry
Vinod Dham ranked sixth among the Top 25 Executives in computing industry

While describing his school days, Vinod recalls, “Not only was I fearless, but also pretty outgoing and extrovert. I had the reputation of a troublemaker. I got into trouble quite a few times with the principal—even for things I had not done. Once, somebody had put some black coal tar on some spots on a statue. It was a horrific thing and the entire school was shocked. I was not involved in that activity, but somebody mentioned my name as the offender. I could not convince my teachers about my innocence, so I was forced to apologise in front of the whole school for something which was done by someone else. I had to even convince my sister, who was a student of the same school, about my innocence. This incident left a deep scar on my mind.”

This awful experience helped Vinod learn something important for the rest of his life. He took the lesson to be fair with any complaint made to him. He makes it a point to assess a situation rather patiently and empathetically than being judgmental quickly.

There is an interesting anecdote about Vinod’s opting for an engineering course after completing his twelfth standard in CBSE in 1966. He narrates, “ I really had no interest in engineering at all. I did well in my higher secondary CBSE exam and was interested in physics, because back in the mid-60s, there was a lot of talk about space programmes.

Russia had sent a cosmonaut into space in a spacecraft. America was trying to take a step further and land a man on the Moon. On weekends, I would go to Connaught Place (in New Delhi) and pick up old books on physics, space science, etc, from the booksellers selling on the floor of the corridor between the inner and outer circles of Connaught Place. They used to sell those books at a price as low as one rupee to five rupees. Those were the only books that I could afford to buy then. However, I developed my interest in physics by reading those books and enrolled in Delhi University to pursue graduation with Physics Honours. My brother, a physician, convinced me to become an engineer because he thought an engineering degree might lead me to a more rewarding career than a Physics Honours degree. So, I became an accidental engineer. Looking back, I’m glad that I am, because I got certain opportunities. I found my passion in semiconductors, which is also related to physics. I came to America and did my master’s degree in solid state physics, which was basically the physics of semiconductors. So, eventually, I ended up doing what I wanted to. Though itt took a little bit of a detour for me to get there.”

Given the delay in the decision to pursue an engineering degree, only a handful of colleges were available for admission. Eventually, Vinod got admitted to the Delhi College of Engineering for a BE degree in Electrical Engineering. “I felt lucky to get admission in electrical engineering, but I didn’t particularly care about electrical engineering. I didn’t find the course interesting because there was not much physics to talk about. However, in the fourth and final year, the college decided to start teaching electronics as an elective. Fortunately, I was among the thirty students who were selected for this new course. A professor from Illinois came to teach electronics engineering, and subjects such as communications, microwaves and related stuff were taught and I found them very interesting. I thoroughly enjoyed those last two years of my college and really learned a lot,” Vinod explains.

“I think entrepreneurship is probably the most challenging job, as there are nine hundred and ninety-nine reasons for failure. If you still want to succeed, you have to be a little bit crazy to do this. But if you succeed, it’s very exhilarating and rewarding. Once you have tasted the fruits of entrepreneurial success, you will never go back to being anybody but your own boss, pursuing new ideas, and backing innovative startups.”
—Vinod Dham

Being part of an engineering institute, where students boasting much higher grades came in from all over the country, Vinod felt out of place in the initial days. At the end of the first year, there was a common exam for all the new students to select those who would qualify for a merit scholarship. Vinod decided not to take that exam, for fear of not doing well.

Vinod says, “Therefore, on the day of the exam, I decided to skip college. My father asked me why I was not going to college. I told him I didn’t want to embarrass myself because the other students were expecting very high scores. Since the exam was optional, he urged me to take it as there was no downside. When the results came out, I was pleasantly surprised to outdo those I was afraid were way ahead of me. This helped build my confidence sky-high. I felt I could climb the ladder of life as successfully as anybody else. That was really a game changer for me!”

Intel CEO Andy Grove with Vinod Dham who lead Intel to the top with his leadership on 486 and Pentium processors
Intel CEO Andy Grove with Vinod Dham who lead Intel to the top with his leadership on 486 and Pentium processors

Vinod broke the stereotype of a good student repeatedly throughout his educational life. For example, he did not attend classes that were not interesting enough for him. He remembers one instance where his professor made a joke of him by saying, “Mr Dham, you’re early for the next class,” when Vinod attempted to enter the class towards the end.

However, the impact of not attending classes went far beyond the joke as Vinod had to face the same professor in the final examination. In spite of all his answers being correct, he received poor marks. The professor explained that Vinod did not deserve good marks because of his poor attendance. He says, “See, I was not judged on merit or knowledge, I was judged based on my lack of discipline for not attending classes. So, this has stuck with me and I actually use it as a lesson in my life.“

Soon after completing his engineering degree in 1971, Vinod began his professional journey. He mentions, “Believe it or not, none of the big Indian companies like TCS or Wipro—or similar multinationals like Nvidia, AMD, Broadcom, and Intel—offering thousands of jobs in electronics today, existed in India at that time. The word startup did not even exist in the vocabulary of India. The few companies that existed in this sector were either Philips, which was basically selling radios in India, or Televista, which used to make television, or one or two similar ones. So, I had only a few options. However, an invisible hand has always guided me in my life. Somehow, I met a young man who was my brother’s friend. He recommended my name to his company and, finally, I got a job.”

Vinod began his career with Delhi based semiconductor (transistors and diodes) manufacturer Continental Devices India Limited, one of India’s only private silicon semiconductor companies at that time, who had collaborated with Teradyne Semiconductor Company, USA. The company was established in 1969 by Gurpreet Singh, an alumnus of the London School of Economics.

While remembering Gurpreet Singh, Vinod mentions Singh’s hosting Robert Noyce, the co-founder of Intel, at his home. He recalls, “The saddest story Sardarji told me was that he took Intel founder in 1969-70 to the then Department of Electronics, Government of India, as he wanted to start building chips in India. However, the Indian government told Bob Noyce that he could build only 200,000 chips per year. We all know, that a fab produces millions of chips per year! Moreover, it is ridiculous to put a limit on chip production, because the more you make, the cheaper you make, and the better you make.

“Bob Noyce went to Hong Kong to build a factory and India missed the semicon opportunity just because of the license raj or an inappropriate regulatory environment in India. We missed the bus in a big way, for a long time. I was hurt to learn this little-known tidbit about how we missed an opportunity. Had we capitalised on it then, it would have put India ahead of Taiwan and China, and we would have been one of the foremost countries along with the US.”

Intel CEO Andy Grove with the Pentium Team key contributors lead by Vinod Dham
Intel CEO Andy Grove with the Pentium Team key contributors lead by Vinod Dham

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