IIT Madras. MIT. 100 patents. 3 keywords that provide a hint of Dr Manish Kothari’s professional journey. Possessing more than 20 years of technology management experience, Dr Kothari has recently taken up the challenge to head Silicon Labs’ wireless development centre in India. Electronics For You connected with him to find out his plans to take on the leadership role, how he maintains a work-life balance, and his vision for Silicon Labs India team.
Q. You have an impressive hundred patents to your name. What’s the secret of success behind that?
A. As I look back, I think it was really just a desire to always keep learning and make things better. I’m always looking for continuous improvement and the lessons learnt while doing that, and that is the mantra I follow. In every project I’m involved in, I look at what went well, what didn’t go well, and this has given me an opportunity to understand how things can be better. Also, I have always been keen on the end-use cases and understanding how differently a particular technology can be used. I read consumer blogs of my products to find out what people are writing about them and read Amazon reviews to find out what the consumer likes or dislikes in a product, and that always gives me an opportunity to keep learning and improving.
I believe that having the mindset of wanting to keep learning just gives you that needed impetus. In terms of innovation, I think everybody can innovate. But of course, sometimes you tend to be lucky and be at the right place when the right innovation is being discovered. While these factors do exist, we all have to be humble enough to recognise this. We must also acknowledge when there is an innovation that could have done better, especially when you realise that the customer is not happy, or the usage for which you built your product is different from how the customer is using it. Innovation is all about doing things for the first time, so if you can come up with an improvement for the first time, that can also become an innovation on its own. And if you stick to the desire to make improvements, you will always come up with something, whether patentable or not.
Q. What would be your advice to innovators who also want to file a patent? Is it only tied in with the organisation they are working with, or can they do it individually or with their academia?
A. I have never really mulled over whether my innovations can be patented or not because there is no certainty to it. I’ve always focused on looking at things deeper. If there is a certain problem on which I’m burning a lot of power, I focus on figuring out how it can be solved better. If I come up with something new during that process, then the determination has to occur to find out whether it is patentable or not.
As a company, there are several mechanisms to figure out if you should be patenting something. It is also important to note that when you patent something, you are essentially disclosing that technology to everyone, and then figuring out if there is any way you can hold it from being illegally used. So, while there are a lot of mechanisms, I don’t believe that focusing on getting patents is the way to go about it. I’ve never focused on getting a patent in a specific case because it depends on a lot of factors, and I don’t think it’s worth worrying about.
Moreover, in an organisation, a lot of your ideas work better when you take an interdisciplinary approach. For instance, in order to increase the number of patents in a structured way, I have participated in a lot of brown-bag sessions where hardware engineers, system engineers, or power engineers would come together and discuss the areas where significant innovations can happen and brainstorm on them. I have seen amazing innovations come up when you bring different disciplines together because if someone working on hardware receives inputs from someone in software, they have an outsider’s perspective which gives them an opportunity to make something. So, as you bring these different thought processes together, new ideas emerge which definitely help when someone is trying to innovate.
Patents are the by-products of the improvements you strive to make. You cannot force them because there are no shortcuts. As you focus on these little improvements, it is just something that happens.
Q. How would you define your leadership style?
A. My management philosophy is grounded in humility (I know that I don’t know everything and there’s something to learn from everyone), reliability, accountability, integrity, a thirst for learning, and respect for everyone. The technology industry can be a very intense environment, so I seek to inspire, empower, and motivate teams by setting the same standards for myself as I do for my teams and work with a sincere focus to help ensure successful outcomes. Work-life balance starts with all of us enjoying the work we do, and I am always mindful about making the office a fun place to be.
Q. As a leader, is there a way to motivate people within an organisation to focus on improving, or is it left to each individual’s ethos? How do you drive it?
A. There are two things that we do as an organisation. The first is having the mentality of being best in class. When you’re best in class, you’re always measuring yourself in all vectors like your position among competitors, in terms of customer satisfaction, in operational efficiency, and so on. As a leader, when you follow the mechanism of dissecting what you have done and how you could have done it better, and applying the lessons learnt from it, you have objective and subjective measures that you drive in the organisation that motivates people to follow the same.
We also have a reward mechanism that drives the whole engine of continuous improvement.
I’m a big believer that if you believe in continuous improvement and lessons learnt by measuring yourself in an objective way and trying to find out what you can do to better yourself when you find out that you are not doing your best in any vector.
If you have that attitude of ‘we don’t rest until we are the best’ organisationally, the only way to get there is through continuous improvement, because progress is by and large an incremental step. It is a marathon and not a sprint. You have to keep at it, which is when innovations come up. There can be factors when making a product that might make you doubt the end-result that might occur, but if the consumer wants something, you have to find out how to win over those factors.
I think it is important to institutionalise this thought-process at any level that allows that, and then have the training and an incentive mechanism to enable that.
Q. Generally, the system of organisational promotions is that the higher one goes, the more responsibility one gets. But there are people who really don’t want managerial roles but at the same time have the ambition to go higher. What would your advice be to people who are faced with this dilemma of whether they should continue doing what they love or take up this new challenge?
A. In engineering, I don’t think it matters if you’re doing a managerial role or a role where you are leading projects, you still have to work as a team. You have to be updated with the technology. You need to have the ability to dial down to one-foot level of detail, should there be a requirement, and also dial up to a thousand-feet level. No one person can make an engineering product. A software developer or an ASIC designer may have the technical knowledge to develop a product but may be leading a team of 10-40 people to do it. It is a technical execution, but it does require motivating the team to come together and work. There is no getting around the fact that you have to work as a team and learn how to execute it together.
These qualities are needed in engineering because engineering decisions are always about trade-offs. I have realised that there is no one formula that can work when you’re trying to find a solution to a problem. You’re always trying to find a solution in the constraints of time, schedule, cost, etc. You cannot always put in a formula and expect a unique answer because a unique answer is a constraint. So, as an engineer, if you have an idea, you have to convince your team. You need to have the ability to communicate and convince. Teamwork and leadership is part and parcel of working in engineering.
In any technology company, you have a technical ladder and a management ladder that you can grow in. But even as you grow on your technical ladder, when they give you a product, you are still expected to run with a team of people. You may not be managing them, but you will still have to motivate them, figure out how to divide the task, and make sure that you hand over something to team members that best aligns with their skills.
Now, what comes in the managerial ladder is that when you manage people directly, you are also responsible for their career development. It is not just about managing projects when you’re managing people, it is also about taking care of their dreams and their aspirations because they have entrusted that to you. You have to figure out if that attracts you because that is something you have to take very seriously. But I think that management is an exciting vector because it is a people-involving skill. It can be time consuming and draining, but it is rewarding as well.
But even if you move over to management, it doesn’t mean that you forget technology. Because, as a manager, if a project is running behind and you have to make a decision, you need to be able to look at the pros and cons, analyse it and then make a call. You can’t do that if you’re completely detached from the technology. You really need to be connected with the technology, regardless of hardware or software. You need to know enough so that you can dial up and down.
Q. There is a lot of talk about work-life balance getting disrupted. Are there any initiatives at your end to make sure work-life balance is not compromised? And then how do you handle the fact that somebody wants to get into the flow and forget the number of hours they are working? Do you leave it to the individual?
A. I believe that work-life balance starts with enjoying your work. I think that if the workplace is a fun place to be, you are not frustrated because you enjoy what you’re doing and don’t carry that back home. That, to me, is foundational. You need to make sure that you’re in an organisation that allows that, and we certainly strive to do that. The workplace needs to be a fun place. People should enjoy the people they are working with.
There’s also the element of modulating the number of work hours, which is an important aspect of work-life balance, and I think that there is a level to which the company plays a role in determining that, especially in terms of how they distribute the workload and plan projects. It is a collective partnership between the company and the individual.
If the project needs the input of five people but the company squeezes in only two people to do it, then that obviously is a problem right from the design stage. Any project or development you do always has some uncertainties that you cannot plan for. There is always a discovery based learning, which is important to recognise in the planning phase.
You never know what might happen when you’re doing something new, and when that hits you may have to spend more hours. I have also been in similar situations where I’ve hit a roadblock while I’m in the middle of a project and spent weekends or pulled all-nighters to get around it.
But the point is, do you let that become a habit? If yes, then that will not work out well.
As a company, you need to figure out how to give certain teams a little bit of breather if it went through a rough patch. First, you need to be appreciative of their efforts and not act like you expect them to do that.
Also, there’s always some discovery based learning that can come out depending on the kind of project you are working on. So, you need to be aware of that right before you begin and then plan accordingly so that in the planning stage itself you’re taking it into account.
Even if you do the best, you’ll always hit road bumps. You may also face new challenges which might require you to accelerate on your schedule. But if you keep an eye on the teams that are going through these stress times, you have to again come back to the lessons learnt and plan better next time.
Also, with most employees working from home, you have to be aware of things like the challenges one faces when a couple are both working and have a kid who is not going to school. If you are aware of that, which we at Silicon Labs are, you’ll be mindful of not calling meetings during lunch hours and also be mindful of how many hours of calls you have.
In terms of one’s own time management, I think a personal aspect that is important is how you modulate your time with your family and friends. My advice is to always take out time for the things that you enjoy doing outside work. You may not be married or have kids right now, but you will, at some point in the future. So, you must get into the discipline of modulating your time well, because sometimes you get into a flow when you are enjoying your work.
There are little tweaks you can make in your schedule like taking a break once every four or six months.
The technology industry is highly competitive. You come up with something and your competitor may come up with something better. This factor will always remain, but it is important that you do not let it dictate your whole life.
My hope is that when the pandemic is over and kids are back in school, we will still have some level of flexible work-from-home options. I see that as a part of work-life balance too. If someone is not productive in the morning as they have to take care of their kid but are more productive in the evening, then I believe that they should have the flexibility to work then. So, I hope that we can have a mechanism where if somebody says that they work better in the morning, we can ensure that they can finish work in the morning instead of staying in the office till 6PM and grinding their way through the traffic. We’re always about getting the work done and empowering you to manage your time.
Q. What made you opt for this role and the accompanying challenge?
A. Silicon Labs is uniquely positioned to disrupt the industry as these ‘not so simple’ wireless end nodes leverage AI and machine learning to become more intelligent (and powerful) over time. And history is on our side. After all, technology disruptions typically occur from the bottom up, as detailed in the famous book Innovator’s Dilemma. We are only limited by our imagination, as the saying goes, and I consider myself fortunate to be part of this incredible journey of disruption where Silicon Labs is right at the forefront.
The Hyderabad development centre is Silicon Labs’ fastest-growing site, playing an important and strategic role in helping the company as a whole to meet the huge demand for Silicon Labs’ solutions.
I am excited about the challenge I have set for myself to build a world-class development centre here that embodies Silicon Labs’ culture and engineering best practices, with a highly motivated and talented team that has a passion for execution, innovation, collaboration, integrity, and fun. Another key goal is to become an industry-leading technology centre of excellence for Wi-Fi, including Wi-Fi 6.
Q. What do you mean by ‘not so simple’ wireless, and how does it affect design engineers and the end-product?
A. When people look at an IoT product, they think it is simply switching a light bulb on or off. So, when I say ‘not so simple’ wireless, it is important to understand that it is not that simple.
It is tiny but if you break it down, it performs a variety of complex functions. It has a communication function, it performs sense and control, and so on. When you think about the elements of these simple products, they have a lot of the things that a smartphone has today. These products are also becoming intelligent. For instance, when you think of an environment where you can talk to a bulb through Alexa, it needs to detect voice and the keywords, and then start inferencing. When all of these several functions are packed into a tiny ASIC, which has to last on a coin-cell battery, it is not so simple.
You can think of Silicon Labs in the IoT space in the same sense of what smartphones did in innovations to disrupt what happened in the PCs. You will see a lot of these nodes getting more powerful and intelligent over time. As they get more powerful, more and more functions would occur at your node. It is also important to note that when you have this device, which is packed with mixed signal, analogue, RF, along with compute, AI etc, in one ASIC, it is not easy to design.
If you look at a smartphone, the RF chip is separate from the digital chip, and there are various reasons for it. One is obviously the cost benefit, but also because it is difficult to build since analogue tends to be very sensitive to noise, and so on.
That is what I mean when I say ‘not-so-simple,’ although people only think of the use-case. Turning a light bulb on is not simple when you think about what goes into that function. It is the same case with a lock that has to work for a year on battery life and has to work reliably at the same time. You don’t want a lock which is easily hackable, and anybody can open it with a few clicks. So, the security requirements are another big aspect. In fact, in IoT, the security requirements are even more stringent because the more touch points you have as you connect more devices, the more are the opportunities for attack.
Q. How are you uniquely positioned to disrupt the industry, given your goal to become the Intel of end nodes?
A. I believe that it is the mindset of working on end nodes where the use cases are very different. Any disruption in the industry does not happen on the flip of a switch, it happens over time. Being in the industry where we are now a pure play IoT company, we have this really unique opportunity to disrupt over time.
Our budget is one tenth of what you may have for a smartphone. As these end nodes slowly become powerful, there will be a time when our ASICs become powerful enough to go into a smartphone but with a much lower power budget, because that’s how disruptions occur. You need to start at the bottom. You may think that something is too simple for something to come out of it, but then realise that it has much greater potential that can be tapped into.
So, while bigger chip companies are coming down from higher notes and settling to lower ones, we are tapping the right nodes and trying to broaden the horizon by focusing on only this market, while they instead have to maintain their existing markets.
To a major company, this is a very low performance job that does not align with their business and the technical capabilities that they have. There’s no reason why they cannot do what other companies can, but it is incredibly hard for them since they were focused on one thing previously and built that competence over time.
It’s not only your revival capabilities but also awareness of the market. By working on these lower end nodes and working with coin-cell battery requirements, you build capabilities over time while learning from your customers. I see it as exciting development in the IoT space, and I believe that you will see a large amount of innovation coming from that space in the next decade.
The use cases will grow, we still have a lot more to catch up because we are focusing on older process nodes. When that happens, we will get enough capability to do even other different things, and that will create new markets or even disrupt existing markets, which is what usually happens. I think this is the law of nature and maybe someday, someone might come and disrupt Silicon Labs as well. I am excited about what the future holds for us.
Q. Are you trying to replace an entire IoT device with an ASIC?
A. Yes, right now we are at the end node ASIC stage. Our goal is: What Intel is to PCs, Silicon Labs is to end nodes. We do all the functions to the end nodes, we will do sense control, inferencing. While Amazon Echos are thin Edge and local data centres are thick Edge, you can think of us as a micro-Edge today in terms of the technical capability of inferencing that we can do today. The idea is to make end nodes more powerful over time. It will not always be centralised where everything goes to a cloud. There are always going to be use-cases, even for latency, cost, privacy, security, that require decision making, and we wish to be that—the Intel of end nodes.
Q. How do you see the open source phenomena taking place in the chip design and component design space? Do you see that as an enabler or a threat where it may just disrupt the game totally?
A. I personally view it as an enabler. It’s always good to have a competition, and I think it makes you better. I would say that open source has unique advantages and disadvantages.
If you’re a business, you have to figure out how to make money because that’s the main priority. But there are people who are recognising that there are techniques and mechanisms even with open source, whether in hardware or software, to drive your business and drive differentiation. If you can drive differentiation and value to the customer, people will adapt even if you are using an open source architecture. All it means is that there are different licensing terms when compared to others.
You still have to build products, and that is just a component that has to sit inside your product. A processor by itself cannot do much if your memory architecture is not good enough. I have seen that whether you licence IP or not, there are still opportunities for you to innovate because the system is so complex. They all have to work together, and you have to make it better over time. There are always improvements that are going on. I pursue it more as an opportunity, even though it is always a threat. My mindset is to find out how to convert it into an opportunity because it’s a revolution that you cannot stop. I think that all of us have to embrace it and convert that into an opportunity.