Ina Fried

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Interview: Broadcom’s Henry Samueli on the Jr. High Science Project That Started It All

Broadcom’s Henry Samueli is getting an award for pulling off some of the toughest feats in engineering, and he says he owes it all to a junior high school shop class.

This week, Samueli will be honored with the Marconi Prize, one of the top engineering awards in the world. In a recent interview, Samueli spoke to AllThingsD about the award, his career and where he sees things headed. Here is an edited transcript of the interview:

AllThingsD: What does winning the award mean to you?

Samueli: It’s obviously a huge honor, and I’m very humbled and flattered by it. It’s a recognition of the accomplishments not only of me personally, but the whole team at Broadcom. It makes me feel good about my early work as a researcher at UCLA.

You got into the business, if you will, taking a shop class. Can you talk about that first radio project?

It’s somewhat disappointing that we don’t do that much any more. I don’t think any of the kids in middle school are required or even have these kinds of courses to take any more — hands-on and practical courses. The three that were offered in my junior high school were wood shop, metal shop and electric shop. These kinds of projects are so stimulating for kids.

My personal experience of a hands-on class like that, it was this electric shop class in the seventh grade. The teacher gave us a fairly simple little project to build. It’s called a crystal radio. I felt that was too easy, and I wanted something a little more challenging. I was browsing through these catalogs, and found this shortwave radio that looked fascinating. I asked him if I could build it.

He said no initially, because it was way too hard. I kept after him, and kept begging him. He finally allowed me to do it as a class project, so I spent the entire semester — literally 15 weeks or 20 weeks — building this thing. Night after night, sitting on my living-room carpet with a soldering iron and all the instructions laid out on the floor. At the end of the semester, I finished it.

I plugged it in, and it worked. We were all pretty amazed that, first time out, the thing worked without any issues.

It really had a huge impact on me, and struck my curiosity in ways I can’t really describe. It made me focus the rest of my educational career on figuring out how that worked, and that meant becoming an electrical engineer.

That’s the power of hands-on projects when you are at an age, like in middle school, where it can have a huge impact on your life. That’s what kids need today.

Broadcom, and you personally, have done stuff to encourage that, right?

I think the Broadcom Masters Program is the biggest project, where Broadcom funds a nationwide science fair. Locally, we also help out the schools in giving summer classes to the teachers, to teach them how to conduct these science fairs, and how to motivate kids to build science-fair projects. There’s a whole national competition in Washington, D.C., where the 30 finalists come together, and eventually the winners are announced, and a grand prize given, and the kids visit the White House.

When you graduated and were teaching at UCLA, did you think you would stay in academics, or did you always imagine yourself starting a company?

I never thought I would be starting a company. When I finished my Ph.D. — I went straight through school. I got my bachelor’s, master’s degree and PhD at UCLA in rapid succession — I went to work in industry at TRW. I spent five years there and, quite frankly, I thought I’d spend my career working at TRW. It was fascinating work. I was well paid. I was happy there.

The opportunity to come back and teach presented itself, first as a part-time lecturer. I was asked to come back by my thesis adviser. It gradually built into a full-time offer. That opportunity was too good to turn down. So I left TRW. I actually was pretty sad to leave, and then at UCLA, I figured I’d be a professor for the rest of my life. The pay wasn’t as good as I was making in industry, but the enjoyment of the work was unbelievable, working with these young, bright students.

Broadcom kind of happened.

I did a lot of consulting work. I worked for a company called PairGain Technologies, which were ex-TRW folks. They asked me to consult one day a week. That was my first exposure to what a start-up was like.

Henry Nicholas — who was my first PhD student, and also a colleague at TRW — decided to start the company. We had both been at PairGain, working there, so we both had the experience, and decided it was worth diving in, so we tried it.

We had no grand vision of this big, gigantic company. We just thought it would be really interesting to get a few projects going.

I thought I could still do that while I maintained my professorship at UCLA, which I did for the first few years. The company was founded in 1991, and I didn’t go on a leave of absence from the university until 1995.

Everything kind of happened without a grand plan. These opportunities presented themselves.

What do you think would surprise the you of then — that college professor — about where Broadcom is today?

I think the timing was just so beautiful. That’s something you cannot plan. Everything came together perfectly, literally perfectly. We had this great technology that we had developed out of the military, really. We got this great experience with Department of Defense funding. The commercial market was just at the beginning of this huge thirst and need for broadband communication.

At the time, everyone was connected over these slow, voice-band modems, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We had the technology at the right time, when the market really needed it, and that’s what surprised us the most. People just everywhere wanted it, and we had it.

What has been the toughest point for you professionally? Was it all the SEC stuff, or was there another time that was tougher?

Broadcom really never went through difficult challenges. We were just so lucky with how everything fell into place. We never ran into major problems where we were right at the doorstep of going out of business or anything like that.

We were really in solid shape from the very beginning, and we never overcommitted ourselves. I think that was something that was very smart of us in the beginning. We didn’t over-hire people.

We were always slightly profitable or break-even every year, until we went public and it took off.

How does winning the award compare with winning the Stanley Cup?

I was asked that question by our banker at Morgan Stanley that took us public, Mark Edelstone … They are both very high up there. I rank them both No. 1 — both amazing experiences.

What are the biggest challenges for the communications chip industry, broadly? We hear a lot about spectrum crunch, the limits of Moore’s law …

The industry has matured dramatically from when we started. Back in those days, a small start-up could actually get their arms around building a chip much more easily, because the complexity was so much lower.

We would build chips back then that had 100,000 transistors in them. Now we are building chips that have billions of transistors. It takes a lot more intellectual property that you have to accumulate. It becomes very difficult for a start-up to create a semiconductor company today. To me, that is one of the bigger challenges.

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