When you were 17, what did you want to be?
I'm not sure I had a really clear idea of what I wanted to be. I knew I wanted to be in some kind of successful job. I wanted to be in a white-collar business, because my parents never came close to that. I wanted to wear a suit and tie. That was always the image of success that I learned from television, from commercials and movies, from watching my friends' parents who had engineering jobs or business jobs. So I knew I wanted to do something like that. And I thought it was probably going to be in some type of technology. I always had a predilection for science and math. I would sit in French class in high school, working on my chemistry homework. But I really didn't know what I wanted to do.
I applied mostly to schools that had contacted me about playing football and getting a scholarship. I would ask myself, “Does that school sound interesting? Is it in an area I like? Okay, I'll consider it.” And obviously, everyone knew schools like Brown and Yale were good schools. I also applied to Holy Cross, Boston College, and University of Maryland.
I had weekend visits at both Brown and Yale. I had the Yale visit first, so I drove to New Haven. I stayed with a host from the team and he took me around; I met the coaches and went to a couple of classes and some parties. And I just felt really uncomfortable, coming from my very deep blue-collar background. At a place like Yale, it was very intimidating and I just felt a little awkward.
When I went to Brown, it was the same deal, staying with a guy from the team. But I met several people who just sat down and talked to me. And that made all the difference in the world to a nervous 17-year-old. It just felt like such a simple fit. So, it was a somewhat arbitrary decision, but it was based on stuff that was important to me.
How did you choose your major?
It was kind of funny. Like I said, I knew it would be something to do with science. One of the football coaches said, "Have you decided what you're majoring in yet?" And I said, "No." And he said, "You oughta think about material science. That's a really great major. You can get a really good job doing that." I don’t think my coach knew the difference between a material scientist and a hot dog vendor, but he must have known somebody who did it, and he was an authority figure, a role model of sorts.
I knew chemistry and material science were pretty interlinked. I thought it was pretty close to what I liked to study, so I chose it on that basis. And as I got more into it, I really liked it. As I got more exposed to electronic materials and semiconductors, I just found that fascinating. That was still really early in the era of computer chips. And it's gone way beyond anything I ever dreamed of when I was in college in the 1970's.
I'll get a little geeky here for a second. We're actually bumping up against fundamental physics limits now. One of the big Taiwan foundries, PSMC, just broke ground on a seven nanometer fab facility. When I started working in Silicon Valley 30 years ago, we were at one micron, or a thousand nanometers. I think, by the time you get to one to two nanometers, it’s going to be theoretically impossible to shrink further. When you look at technology in general today, we’re really entering a science fiction age. I've always been a very technologically inclined person. It changes the nature of people in the world, and I think we're in the golden age right now.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
After college, I decided to go to graduate school. I knew how to solve problems and do homework sets and read textbooks, but we had relatively little hands-on experience actually doing engineering work. I felt like I needed to know more before I could really be productive.
I had accepted a research fellowship at UCLA, and I was kind of excited about going to California and moving across the country. And then one of my professors at Brown, who had done his graduate work at MIT, said, "MIT's got a fantastic material science department. Did you think about applying there?" I said, "No. It never really occurred to me." And he said, "Well, I can introduce you to a couple of the professors up there, if you want to."
I knew MIT; I grew up not far from it. I actually went to their library in high school to research my science fair project. It was so close to me, I had just sort of looked beyond it. So I was accepted there in a really interesting research topic, with a very well regarded professor whom I'd be working under. And it was kind of nice to stay closer to home. So I ended up backing out of the UCLA gig and going to MIT.
The formal name of the group I worked in was electronic materials. I would describe it as the applied physics of semiconducting materials. We were fundamentally trying to correlate the properties of the different semiconducting crystals that we were growing and processing, with their operating characteristics as a device. It's a huge area of research, very fascinating. And it was at an interesting time because it was still very much in the hyper-growth phase, so there was lots of change, lots of new opportunities to create new things.
My thesis title was Electrochemical Growth of Gallium Arsenic Crystals and Characterization of their Electrical Material Properties. Or something equally dry.
There wasn't a lot of premium put on poetic thesis titles. But it represented five years of fairly intense work, the finishing touches of which I was completing when you were born.
After I finished my Ph.D., we moved to Florida and I went to work at Harris developing new device structures and process technologies that could be used in satellites and missile nose cones, basically environments that were extremely aggressive and stressful for the devices. Lots of radiation, gamma particles, and neutrons that can just completely destroy an electrical chip. It was interesting.
After about two years, I had figured out a couple things: first, Central Florida was not really my cup of tea; and then the other frustration was, at that stage of my life, I wanted to do big things, I wanted to move quickly and attack problems with energy and aggressiveness. And a defense contractor in the middle of Florida is the antithesis of that. Things tend to move very slowly, there’s more bureaucracy. So that was a bit frustrating.
When I came to Silicon Valley, it was exactly the opposite. It was like, run as fast as you can. Build this new device and when you're done with that, we'll let somebody else figure out how to put it into production. Go build another one. You were really encouraged and rewarded for keeping a fast pace towards innovation. Which is exactly what I was looking for.
When I first got out [to California], I worked for a company called Integrated Device Technology, which is still around, developing and implementing new process technology. I did that for a few years, and then I had the opportunity to move into a marketing management position. They wanted somebody who was very R&D focused to help market the products, because it was really complicated to articulate what their benefits were. I got that opportunity because people thought I talked well, and I understood the technology.
I did that for a couple of years and had a lot of fun. And it gave me a different perspective on the business side of technology actually. It's all business - building a better mousetrap won't necessarily draw the world to your door. A lot of engineers never really gain that perspective. But I got that exposure and it really got me going in a different direction.
Then I did a stint as an engineer at a startup. I got to see a small company that was really trying to gain traction and establish their presence, and the challenges that they faced. I left after about a year, because the company was really struggling. And I had an opportunity to go work for a market research firm called Dataquest. And that was like the last link in the chain.
At Dataquest, we were trying to predict technology trends and then analyze how those trends would affect the industries that they were built into. We’d sell those forecasts to companies in those spaces. That was a really great experience, because it taught me how to look for and anticipate trends. And that’s vitally important in a startup and in the finance area, because you're investing in companies that haven't really demonstrated themselves. The venture capitalists that can see those trends are like artists.
We had a lot of clients at Dataquest who worked on Wall Street. I got to know a few of them, and I sort of looked at them and said, “I'm helping to give these guys the ideas and tools to make them look smarter. Maybe I should skip the middleman.” So I went to work for a company called Hambrecht & Quist, and that was the first job I took on Wall Street. That was a big jump.
At H&Q, I was an equities research analyst, or a stock analyst. I had to cover 15-20 companies in the semiconductor industry and research the companies, compare what they were doing to what I thought industry trends were going to do, and then make recommendations on those stocks based on how well they were executing. The other part of it was helping to pick companies to develop as clients. We wanted to find companies a few years before an IPO and develop a relationship with them, so that when it was time to do their initial public offering, they would look to us as their banker.
I stayed at H&Q for about three years, and then I ended up going to Union Bank of Switzerland. I was there for just a couple of years before they were acquired by Credit Suisse and the two companies were consolidated. I then took a job at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette. That only lasted for about a year before I got recruited away by Bear Stearns, where I ended up spending about four years.
And then, after Bear Stearns, I made the decision to focus exclusively on investment banking. I went to a firm in San Francisco, Instream Partners, that was connected with a couple of my former competitors, and I spent about three years working with them. It was a good firm, but it wasn't a particularly tech-focused firm and they weren’t doing a lot of things that I personally found interesting.
So, at the beginning of 2007, I went off and started my own company with a former client who I had worked with at Instream. It was just the two of us for the first few years, and today we've built it up to six bankers. We really wanted to focus exclusively on technology, so I get to use my technology background and I get to be creative in terms of how we make a deal work for somebody.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
Well, I probably wouldn’t have gotten my Ph.D. I don't think I really did a lot with it. I probably would have gotten a master's degree and then gone straight into an MBA program. And I probably would have cut the first seven years of my work experience short, because I wouldn't have spent so much time in a research lab.
But, on the other hand, maybe it did actually serve me well. Because I think I was able to see things a little more clearly compared to a lot of my competitors. And the way we run our company today, we don't try to solve technical problems for our clients - they're better at that than we are - but we do have to dig in pretty deep to understand what the synergies are going to be between our client companies and the potential partners.
I mean, I’ll try to avoid the obvious clichés here. Everybody wants to do something that they love, that they have passion for. And there has to be some of that. You don't ever want to be in a job just for the paycheck - that's a dreary way to go through life. But I think you also have to recognize that you're probably going to change directions, at least a couple of times, if not many times. So I wouldn't get too hung up on whether you've found the perfect fit for you. Because that may be the perfect fit for you at age 21, but it may be a terrible fit for you at age 30. You’ve got to be flexible. Find something that's interesting and do the best you can at it. But don't be afraid of trying new things.