Internationally renowned as Father of Pentium Chip, Vinod Dham was keen to become a Physicist and had even enrolled for the B.Sc. Physics programme at Delhi University and when at the eleventh hour his elder brother advised him to pursue engineering instead. His brother told him about the financial merits of doing engineering over pure physics and persuaded him to take up engineering as a career option. Eventually, Dham joined the Electrical Engineering Department of Delhi College of Engineering (DCE) in 1966 and began his tryst with destiny.
“Professional success for me has meant building a compelling product, technology, or a start-up. I attribute my success to my ability to ‘connect the dots’ in developing a competitive business strategy, building a world-class team, and putting in a laser-like focus on executing that strategy for winning in the marketplace.”
“It took me about a year to get my bearings. I enjoyed the hands on classes in lathe, smithy, welding, etc., during the first year. I almost failed my surveying practical exam in Civil Engineering in the first year as I accidentally knocked off the theodolite. I also recall that I was not very athletic and hated the NCC (National Cadet Corps) – it was a compulsory training to prepare college youth for employment in the Indian Armed Forces. The third year was toughest and most demanding, with over a dozen subjects and half a dozen practicals, and never ending set of exams! Even though we were being groomed for Electrical Engineering and Electronics, we had to study subjects ranging from Fluid Mechanics and Strength of Materials to Refrigeration and Heat Engines. Computer Science courses were not offered at DCE back then.
One incident I particularly remember happened in the third year, when we all panicked after reviewing our final exam paper in Electrical Engineering Materials. This subject was taught by Dr. R. C. Narayanan, who was then the head of our Electrical Engineering Department and had followed Deckard’s book for that course. The questions were asked in a manner that most of us could not answer. Only when we were given more choices to answer those questions did we all get through the surprise exam. I was not very fond of heavy electrical taught in the electrical engineering and my real interest in learning sparked only starting in my fourth year, as we began to study subjects related to electronics engineering,” he reminisced.
Dham further acknowledges that DCE laid the foundation for basic understanding of math, science, and engineering that enabled one to build further knowledge on it, and equipped one for selflearning as technologies continue to evolve at a rapid pace.
After graduating from DCE, he worked for Continental Devices India Limited (CDIL), Delhi and discovered his passion for semiconductors. He further realized that he needed a deeper understanding of the physics behind the behaviour of the semiconductor devices, for which he decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Engineering at the University of Cincinnati (UC), United States.
“I was excited about joining UC as they gave me a free scholarship and a Research Assistantship for $325 per month as a graduate student. I was more impressed by the fact that UC had a highly advanced semiconductor,” said Dham., who landed in the US with mere $8 in his pocket. Back in 1975, the Government of India allowed foreign travellers to exchange rupees for only up to eight dollars. One could also get additional $20 from RBI, by showing proof that they were going abroad as a student. Unfortunately Dham could not collect the $20. “So I left with $8, hoping I would collect $325 on arrival to pay for my stay on campus. It turned out that the $325 monthly assistantship pay was only available starting at the end of the first month of doing the research. Upon learning that I had only $8 with me, the foreign student office advanced me a $125 interest free loan from their petty cash to survive the first two weeks – which barely paid for my rent and health insurance leaving little money for food. I gradually paid back the loan over a period of five months by returning $25 per month,” he recalled.
After completing his Master’s in 1977, Dham joined NCR Corporation based in Dayton, Ohio, as it had approached UC for assistance and Dham was only student in his class with prior work experience in semiconductors. At NCR, he was involved in developing new types of non-volatile memories, a crucial component used in a point of sale terminal to store crucial sale and inventory data in retail stores. While making a presentation for NCR at a workshop in California, Dham was spotted by Intel and he was offered a job. Dham joined the company in 1979 to work with their non-volatile memory team and was one of the co-inventors of Intel’s first flash memory (ETOX), realizing little that he was soon going to write history!
“I discovered that I enjoyed being closer to business and not just R & D therefore I created an opportunity in 1986 to work in Intel’s microprocessor group by initially adding value in helping improve the yield on Intel’s first 32-bit microprocessor (i386).
“The best thing that happened to me was joining Intel and the best thing that happened to me was leaving Intel… I decided to step out to experience the thrill of building startups and experience what turned out to be most exhilarating and growing experience of my career.”
Subsequently, I took over the i486 microprocessor development midstream and launched i486 and a family of fourth generation microprocessors managing a multibillion dollar i486 business as the General Manager. Subsequently, I stepped out to lead the development of the Pentium Processor and managed its launch and ramp up as well as the derivative family (higher performance cost reduction P54C and multimedia version P55C) as the Vice President of Pentium Processor Division,” he informed.
After spending 16 years at Intel and working on three generations of Intel’s microprocessors and leading the Pentium program during Intel’s golden era, Dham did something which was least expected, he resigned! As he has famously said, “The best thing that happened to me was joining Intel and the best thing that happened to me was leaving Intel…I decided to step out to experience the thrill of building startups and experience what turned out to be most exhilarating and growing experience of my career.” After leaving Intel, the former DCEite joined an eight year old start-up called NexGen that was trying to build an Intel software compatible microprocessor but with a proprietary Bus and chipsets. NexGen was soon bought over by Intel’s competitor Advanced Micro Devices for $800m.
He then headed a nascent start-up, Silicon Spice, which was involved in building a multi-channel VOIP technology for the emerging voice industry based on the Internet protocol. It was eventually taken over by Broadcom in 2000 for $1.2 Billion and Dham once again began to explore new terrains. According to him, “I felt that it was a payback time, having been educated for a mere $3 per month at DCE, I was eager to give back my service and experience to the budding engineers and entrepreneurs in India. I initially set up a cross-border incubator where we incubated four chip/ hardware companies for Indian and global markets. Discovering that India was not yet ready for product and technology driven start-ups, in 2006 I founded a cross-border India-focused venture fund, NEA-IndoUS Ventures (co-branded initially with New Enterprise Associates), to invest in start-ups to address the needs of India’s growing consumer class.” The firm was later rebranded as IndoUS Venture Partners and focussed on investing in early stage Indian companies across sectors including mobile technology, telecom, knowledge process outsourcing, on-line commerce, etc. Presently, he is involved as the Executive Managing Director of the Company.
Vinod Dham Favourite Quotes
“You know, if you are here in Silicon Valley 10 to 15 years and you have not stepped out and done a start-up, there’s something wrong with you,” – Wharton
“Speed was God for us when we designed Pentium. All we did was to build the fastest BMW or Lamborghini equivalent of a chip, and you were a hero. Now, it’s more like building an efficient Prius or a Nano. It may not go very fast but consumes less power,” Economic Times, Nov 16, 2010.
“To stay globally competitive the nation must do better at steering its youth toward engineering careers,” Wall Street Journal .
“There is nothing except maybe Excel spreadsheets that you can’t do on a cell phone….The ubiquitous device that you won’t leave home without is the cell phone,” Venturebeat July 3, 2008)
Dham’s journey has not been without its own share of ups and downs. “I have continuously taken risks in my career and in the process reinvented myself many times. I recount many setbacks on the way to invention of Intel’s flash technology, ramp-up of Intel’s 386 microprocessor, a setback in i486 ramp due to late discovery of a bug and recall of Pentium Processor due to a rare bug. Before tasting success at NexGen and Silicon Spice, we experienced many hurdles. Even as a Venture Capitalist, we are surrounded with many failures amidst some great successes. In fact, there was no success that I recall that had not stepped through many setbacks before,” he said, adding “Professional success for me has meant building a compelling product, technology, or a start-up. I attribute my success to my ability to ‘connect the dots’ in developing a competitive business strategy, building a world-class team, and putting in a laser-like focus on executing that strategy for winning in the marketplace.”
Message to Youth
Discover your passion and pursue it relentlessly. Don’t be afraid to fail, failure is just a stepping stone to success.