Texas Instruments Fellow Duy-Loan Le spent her formative years straddling two countries and two cultures: one ravaged by war and steeped in tradition; the other a golden land of opportunity where innovation ruled.
A refugee from Vietnam who fled to the United States with her family in 1975, Duy-Loan (pronounced Zee-Lon) Le today finds herself bridging two cultures at Texas Instruments Inc. a design team that creates new DSP products, and a manufacturing team that develops new processes. As TI's DSP advanced-technology ramp manager, Le's challenge is to work both sides of the fence in an effort to ramp new products to new processes. The successful ramp of so-called "drive products" allows TI to ultimately migrate the rest of its follow-on product lines to the process. In fact, Duy-Loan managed TI's project to provide chips for Nokia's 3G wireless basestation.
Last year she helped TI migrate its C64X single-core DSP to the 0.13-micron technology node. This year the Dallas-based manufacturer is in the initial phases of introducing 0.09-micron process technology. Managing the transition to advanced processes is part of what keeps TI at the forefront of digital signal processor technology, providing the fuel that enables its chips to outpace the competition.
Le, an EE who holds both a bachelor's degree and an MBA, has had a meteoric rise during her 20 years at TI. She has gone from memory design engineer in 1982 to TI Fellow in 1999, and has 14 patents relating to memory technology to her name (11 more are pending). The first woman to be named a Distinguished Member of the Technical Staff (in 1997), Le has emerged as a role model, especially for young women interested in technology careers, and seems to easily juggle a successful engineering career, roles as wife and mother, and involvement in community work and charities. On top of all that, she has a black belt in tae kwon do, a martial-arts form from Korea.
Hers is not an easy job, nor is it glamorous. In fact, managing across organizations and disciplines is a challenging task that "is hard enough when people report to you, but is three times as hard when they don't," Le told EE Times. The job also requires her to balance the needs of the product team with those of the folks on the manufacturing side.
The balancing act is no less delicate at home. Le said she is all too aware that her job and career goals put limitations on how much time she can spend with her husband, Tuan N. Dao, and two sons Quy-Dan, 8, and Quy-Don, 5.
"There's no secret," she said, in being able to "do it all." It involves making conscious choices each and every day, from setting work priorities to managing who will stay with the children when both she and her husband, an executive in a chemical processing company, have business dinners scheduled.
"There's a price you pay for success, and it depends what price you're willing to pay and what your family is comfortable with," she said.
For Le, that price is being away from her family often. The nature of her job requires that she travel, so her husband spends more time at home with the boys, something for which she is grateful and to which she attributes much of her professional success. She refers to Tuan Dao, who is also Vietnamese, as a "great partner."
Theirs is not a traditional Vietnamese family in which the woman walks several steps behind the man. Rather, the couple have arranged their lives to suit themselves. They waited 10 years to have children, so that Le could set herself up in her career and earn her MBA, instead of giving in to family pressures to produce grandchildren as soon as possible. Le gained her MBA in 1989 from the University of Houston; her bachelor's was awarded by the University of Texas, Austin, in 1982.
Nor do the pair divide household labor according to traditional roles. Instead, they decide who can get a job done fastest. That means Le stays out of the kitchen but takes care of the lawn, the finances and the bill-paying. A live-in housekeeper cleans and helps take care of the boys, a strategy Le describes as using money to "buy time" hiring someone to do chores that would otherwise take time away from family activities.
Most of all Le said she doesn't look back on anything she's done with regret. "Women always feel guilty," she said. But "my kids are healthy, doing well in school, are well-mannered and well-read, write and speak Vietnamese," something that even stay-at-home moms can't always say about their offspring.
What motivates Le is a drive to succeed that her parents, especially her father, instilled in her. Le was born to middle-class parents in Saigon in 1963, and from childhood she was determined to achieve things that were considered unusual for most women in the Vietnamese culture. Because she was physically the strongest of the family's eight children, Le was chosen to help her father with his transportation business. She reports that she learned lot about business from him.
And it was her father who inspired Le to seek higher education, even though traditional Vietnamese shunned education for women. Her father, who worked for the French government in Vietnam before the war and was influenced by Western culture, dreamed of seeing his three oldest daughters become professionals: a doctor, a lawyer and an engineer. Le said she decided early on that she would be the one to be the engineer. (So did her youngest brother, another EE who also works at TI.)
It was that dream that Le carried with her on her nine-day journey from Vietnam to a refugee camp in the Philippines, and then on to Guam, California and finally Houston, where the family would ultimately settle.
During those early years in the United States Le had to grow up fast, going to school and working at home to help care for her younger siblings and her nephew, who had emigrated along with Le's family. Her father had stayed behind in Vietnam, sending the family to the United States in the belief they'd only be gone a short time. It was three years before he was able to escape, reaching the Thailand border by boat.
Challenges don't scare this former refugee who came to the United States eight days before her native country collapsed.
From her days in a U.S. grammar school where she taught herself English so she could move into the appropriate grade, to her rapid rise to the top of the technical ladder at TI, Le has set goals, worked hard and achieved them. She advises others especially young women to do the same.
"Everything starts with a dream," she said, "and you have to think if [engineering] is really what you want to do and if it is what makes you happy."
Asked to identify the two most important days in her life, Le named the day the city of Saigon elected her to receive the moral-education award, a prestigious student honor for her successful study of moral education that she received three days after she turned 11. The other came three days before she turned 37, when she was elected a TI Fellow. Happily her father, the most influential person in her life, was present for both events. He died in 2000.