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Dr. Morris Chang: A Conversation with the Chairman

Dr. Morris Chang: A Conversation with the Chairman
by Daniel Nenni on 04-24-2014 at 10:00 pm

There are moments in one’s career that are memorable beyond others, and last night was one of those moments for me, absolutely:

Stanford University President John L. Hennessy will lead a discussion with Stanford Engineering Hero Morris Chang, an innovator and entrepreneur who revolutionized the semiconductor industry by creating the world’s first dedicated silicon foundry, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company or TSMC.

The NVIDIA Auditorium at the Stanford Huang Engineering Center was filled with semiconductor executives, alumni, and students alike. I don’t know how an invitation made its way into my inbox but I am very appreciative. The conversation was engaging to say the least and quite funny at times.

Not surprisingly, NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang did the introduction and shared some personal stories about Morris. This was reminiscent of the discussionthey had at the Computer Museum seven years ago which was used as research for the soon to be best-selling book Paul McLellan and I wrote.

Jen-Hsun started out with, “The world is full of successful people but heroes are rare”which I think fits perfectly. He also pointed out that everybody is in possession of two things: Air and products made from TSMC wafers. Jen-Hsun poked good-hearted fun at Morris but the Chairman had the last laugh, definitely.

The first question from John was if Morris had any idea of the impact TSMC would have on the world. Morris replied that at the time, TSMC was providing a solution that was waiting for a problem since the fabless companies at that time were comfortable with using IDMs for wafer manufacturing. He added that the problems came very quickly and Jen-Hsun was one of those problems! Meaning of course that NVIDIA was a fabless company that was looking for a manufacturing partner with integrity and one they could trust not to compete with them. The laughter in the auditorium acknowledged much more than that of course.

John’s second question was about TSMC’s focus on R&D. This rings true to me as I see Intel and Samsung spending billions of dollars on marketing obfuscation while TSMC focuses on R&D. The financial ratio I would like to see is R&D/marketing spending knowing full well TSMC would shine.

The Chairman responded by pointing out he had 30+ years of semiconductor experience (mostly at TI) before starting TSMC . In his words, “You have to climb to the top of a building and look at all of the available roads before you build a new one.” I have climbed a few buildings myself and find this to be very insightful.

The next question was about the Chairman’s education. Morris spent his first year at Harvard before transferring to MIT to study mechanical engineering. Morris admitted to failing his PhD exam twice at MIT before attending Stanford which again brought laughter. During his career at TI Morris was sent to Stanford to get his PhD in electrical engineering. His career goal was to be CEO, which was not possible at TI, so he joined General Instrument but decided he did not want to be CEO so he founded TSMC.

The next question was about how TSMC was launched. The Taiwan government was instrumental in funding TSMC providing 48% of the required capital. The additional investments came from Philips Semiconductor and Taiwanese investors who knew little or nothing at all about semiconductors. Morris approached Intel, TI, and semiconductor companies from Japan but they all said no. The Chairman’s memory is clear on this, naming people who actually said no such as Craig Barrett who later became Intel’s CEO.

The follow-up question was about Japan and why they are no longer major players in the semiconductor industry. According to the Chairman, Japan failed at the future. Instead of embracing the fabless semiconductor business model and unleashing innovation Japan clung to the IDM model and failed. The rest of course is history as most Japanese semiconductor companies are TSMC customers

The question I had for Morris was if he is working on an autobiography. Morris wrote a book in the 1990s which was quite successful in China. Unfortunately it did not translate well into English so it was not published here. I knew the answer to the question was no before I asked but I wanted to plant the seed anyway. It is a book I would read, absolutely. I would even write it.

When I decided to write a book my first thought was to write one about Dr. Morris Chang and how he unleashed innovation that changed the world. Friends at TSMC however suggested that I instead write about Morris’s life work which resulted in “Fabless: The Transformation of the Semiconductor Industry”, which is now available on Amazon as a paperback or in Kindle and iBook format on SemiWiki.

Morris admitted he still smokes a pipe but sited research that says pipe smokers live longer because it helps your mood (laughter). At the end of the event The Chairman was taking pictures with students so I talked to his wife Sophie. Morris always credits her for her support, and one thing I can tell you is that she is as charming as she is beautiful.

More Articles by Daniel Nenni…..

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