Jim Doran has worked in Germany, Japan and the United States building fabs for Advanced Micro Devices Inc.--and now for Spansion, the flash company spun out of AMD and Fujitsu. Doran sat down with EE Times editor-at-large David Lammers at Spansion's Austin, Texas, fab recently to discuss cultural differences in engineering.
EE Times: Was the chip industry always so international?
Jim Doran: In this industry, particularly in technology development, we've always had a huge mix of people from lots of different nations. That is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity, because not all people think the same way. It's like building a puzzle, and everybody has a different-shaped piece of the puzzle.
EET: Did you join Advanced Micro Devices right out of college?
Doran: No, I joined AMD in 1990, after working at Intel. I was hired to start up AMD's submicron technology center. On my first day, [AMD founder] Jerry Sanders came in and showed me a headline in the San Jose Mercury News that said "AMD: Late in CMOS." He said, "You see this?' Your job is to make sure I never see another headline like this again!"
EET: Yeah, competition is tough in this industry. Is the U.S. engineer a driven animal who works too hard?
Doran: This industry is an interesting mix of business, science and people. We all deal with electrons that move around in the same way, but there is a huge difference in how companies get value out of their asset base--company to company.
When I joined AMD they wanted to build this new submicron facility, and they just knew they wanted to run it differently. Back in the late 1980s, there was a silo mentality in the industry. So we eliminated the job titles, like engineers and techs, and grouped people by what they had to do. We couldn't throw money at the problem but we gave the groups the people, capital and engineering tools they needed. Organizationally, you need to give people skills in how to work together in teams. That way, you can enable groups to do more with less.
EET: You've lived in eastern Germany and spent time at the flash fabs in northeastern Japan. Are there big differences in how engineers work in those places?
Doran: Engineers all work hard. It is more a function of how involved they are in the goal they are trying to achieve. How productive they are depends more on that than on whether they are working in Germany, Japan or California.
When I was working in Dresden to bring up the fab there, someone from outside of Germany asked me how I was dealing with the problem that the East German engineers were lazy. I was stunned, because these people were working night and day, sometimes 24 hours at a stretch. I am a pretty active kind of guy, and I was having trouble keeping up with them. Well, some people had heard that these guys were accustomed to the Communist system. I just told them that that didn't [jibe with] my observations--so I learned to never believe the stereotypes. They can lead you to believe something that is not true.
A lot of cultures have reputations for hard work, such as Japan. But I think it is more a function of the company culture than an innate cultural thing.
EET:Maybe the East Germans felt some relief that they were free of Communism?
Doran: Yes! For the East Germans there was that extra burst of energy, because many people doubted that they could get the job done there in Dresden.
EET:I read somewhere that in Germany, there is a rule for everything. Is Germany constrained by overly strict rules on business?
Doran: Yes, I think it is. Wherever you are, it's a bad thing to have an entitlement mentality. I try to treat every day as a new opportunity. I've never been so confident, inside myself, as to think that I'm owed anything. And I think that is a healthy attitude. What you did yesterday doesn't entitle you to anything. What matters in today's global environment is right now. You have to ask yourself, 'What did I do today? What did I bring to my company or group today?' In today's global economy, you have to get out of any entitlement realm, because in reality you are not protected--it comes down to what you accomplish today in the world. Anybody who tries to protect you from that is doomed to fail.
EET: Has Europe gone too far in protecting its workers?
Doran: In some of these European environments, the pendulum has swung too far. You ultimately end up competing with these other companies based in Asia or America, anyway. At some point you have to trust your people. The market is the great equalizer, and you have to compete with the companies that are successful. And by the way, they are not successful because they are draconian with their employees, because the companies that manage to get their managers and employees on the same wavelength are the ones that succeed. Regulating things ultimately is not going to work. Countries should enable their companies to compete.
EET: How about software? Is Japan up to snuff on software?
Doran: I think they are behind in software, and we are dealing with that as we do the planning work for our factory. AMD has a set of tools that helps you run a factory better. The original birthplace was within AMD here in Austin, and then we took it to the next level in Dresden. And we'll take it to the next level when we build our 300-mm flash fab in Japan. Many Japanese engineers tend to do things very manually, with a lot of paperwork, putting things on boards and so on. That's a rifle shot area where they have a lot to learn. That's an example of where I can take that hard-working culture, match it with our fab software tools and blow the doors off, building a world-class flash factory.
EET:There does seem to be a pride over things that originate in Japan. Are the Japanese you work with stubborn?
Doran: I can tell you, it often does take a longer time to get our Japanese colleagues to accept a new or radical idea. Any culture has pride and wants to be successful, and wants to build on that success. So yes, their first choice tends to be resistance. The other side of that is, once you do get an idea accepted, there is going to be a march-to-the-goal-line kind of thing, in a very dedicated way. You have to spend more time up front building consensus in Japan, but once you do, by my observation, then you just have to get out of the way.
EET: Do you do benchmarking between the Austin fab and the ones in Japan?
Doran: At first it was hard because we had different ways to measure everything for all the metrics, not just line yield, but even simple things like cycle times or labor productivity. You can't just send a report over and get the answer--we had to send the right teams of people over and get people on both sides to understand there was an opportunity to learn.
Now we have weekly yield meetings on key problems, but we had to break down those initial barriers on culture and communications. Once you do, you can take the best of one group and the best of the other group to get higher productivity. That should be easier now that we are all part of one company [Spansion].
EET: Do you think Washington needs to get more involved in the semiconductor industry?
Doran: The answer is yes. The problems of collaboration have largely been successfully addressed by the research consortia, such as International Sematech. I tend to be a government-hands-off kind of guy, but having said that, there are two areas I'm worried ab out. One is access to capital. Other countries have been much more aggressive in that area. Germany is an example, and so is--certainly--China, with the foundries they are setting up. A lot of countries have realized that is one way to take those operations away from the United States. They find companies that don't have access to two or three billion dollars, and they find ways to get them the capital.
The United States needs to get more aggressive, otherwise there are not going to be any of these plants in the United States at some point.
Number two is the educational gap. In China, Taiwan and India, there are more engineers coming out of their educational systems. A lot of our brightest kids are not in the engineering pipeline--not as much as in the past.