Co-founder Henry Samueli tends to think broadly, a characteristic
that has served him well in industry, but almost cost him tenure
electrical engineering professor at UCLA.
photography by Flynn Larsen
a perfect world,sleek and electrical engineer
would be synonymous. But, in the real world, geek (sleek's
distant relative) is the usual, and unfortunate, adjective.
why Henry Samueli must live in a perfect world. Everything about
this electrical engineering professor turned corporate chieftain
says sleek: from his hand-tailored Italian suit and crisp white
shirt to the streamlined modern lines of his executive office, complete
with a built-in tropical fish tank. It's a rarefied world,
brought to life by the spectacular success of Broadcom Corporation,
the $26 billion silicon chip designer and manufacturer based in
Irvine, California, that Samueli co-founded in 1991.
yet, for all that sleekness, the 46-year-old Samueli is decidedly
soft-spoken, thoughtful, reserveduntil the conversation turns
to his passion in life: engineering. I've always wanted
to be an engineer, Samueli says. And that's no exaggeration.
Ever since the seventh grade, when he convinced his shop teacher
that he could build a shortwave radio from a kit (and make it work!),
engineering has been his calling. I was fascinated by that
radio and I realized that was my career: I had to figure out how
decades later, that fascination still holds firm. And even as the
stakes have risen, time and again he has proven adept at not just
figuring out how things work, but actually making them work. So
much so that today Samueli possesses the rare combination of a man
with a vision, the academic foundation to support his ideas, and
the substantial capital to make his vision come true. Considering
that two engineering schools at major universities bear his name,
it shouldn't come as a surprise that engineering education
is at the center of that vision.
began his own engineering education in earnest in 1971 at the age
of 16 when he enrolled as a freshman at the University of California
at Los Angeles. Always a good student, he had skipped two school
semesters growing up, one in the sixth grade and the other in the
eighth grade. But even for the young, focused hyper-achiever (he
missed only one class during his entire undergraduate career), the
idea that the engineering school where he studied would someday
be named after him would have been entirely absurd. In no small
part, that's because Samueli went to UCLA by default: the university
was cheap and he could live at home in West Hollywood with his parents,
who couldn't afford to send him away.
thrived at UCLA, going straight through to earn his bachelor's
(magna cum laude), master's, and Ph.D., all in electrical engineering,
from the school. After completing his doctoral thesis on communications
technology, Samueli landed a job at TRW in nearby Redondo Beach.
Ironically, his penchant for staying close to home had a dramatic
impact on the course of his career.
It was the
early 1980's and Southern California was the hub of the defense
communications industry, with TRW, Hughes, Rockwell, and Lockheed
the spokes. Being in Southern California, I ended up in a
military communications company and that's what propelled me
to go in that direction, and everything else followed from there,
Samueli says. If I was at Stanford, I would be doing microprocessors
or something completely different like that.
At TRW, Samueli
worked with the best minds and on the newest technologies in the
field. In particular, he applied his skills to making circuit boards
for high-speed military satellite and radio communications systems
that would later become known as broadband communications.
That experience at TRW, as well as the technology he helped develop
there, would go on to shape the rest of his career, in private industry
as well as in academia.
at TRW, Samueli also taught part time at UCLA until 1985, when he
was offered a tenure-track position in the electrical engineering
department. He jumped at the opportunity to teach full time. Being
a professor is one of the most rewarding professional careers there
is, he says, because you are working with bright minds,
hard-working kids who are eager to learn.
By all accounts, Samueli was a successful academician. He published
more than 100 papers, established a vibrant research program, and
received a distinguished teaching award. Even so, having spent five
years in private industry, Samueli didn't exactly fit into
the typical academic mold and gaining tenure proved difficult.
made tenure, he admits. Why? Because while at TRW he learned
the importance of a broad scope when dealing with systems as a whole.
But in academia, he found that specialists, with their narrow disciplines
and knowledge, ruled the roost.
the university was only for specialists, Samueli explains.
Having a Ph.D. meant you were a specialist with very narrow
and very deep knowledge in one topic. And so here I come trying
to be broad and more systems-oriented and there was a lot of resistance
to that. So I broke the model and I think now it's commonly
recognized that being broad in scope has enormous value and that
breadth of knowledge is just as important as depth of knowledge.
Samueli encountered resistance to his willingness to put his faith
in long-term projects rather than looking for a quick turnaround.
As he puts it, If you look for short-term successes you can't
really have the impact you would like. That's one of the problems
with the university because you are under this time pressure to
get tenure, so people try to get things that are quick and easy
rather than investing in the long haul, which is what I chose to
do. So it put me at risk, but fortunately I squeaked by and the
rest is history.
commenced full force when Henry Nicholas, a young chip designer
and fellow TRW colleague, became the first Ph.D. student to join
Samueli's research project at UCLA. Because both had worked
on defense communications technology, that's where they turned
their attention: developing high-speed (broadband) communications
chips before there was even a commercial market for them. As is
often the case with major successes, they happened to be in the
right place at the right time.
end of the Cold War and the ensuing shakeout from defense conversion
sent the Southern California economy into a tailspin in the early
1990s, the time proved to be propitious for the coming communications
boom in the private sector. Having worked on broadband communications
for the military, and extending that research at UCLA for commercial
applications, Samueli and his team were years ahead of anybody else
in the field. And also in demand.
We were doing exciting work at UCLA and producing such interesting
results that were way ahead of what anybody in the industry was
doing, Samueli recalls, that companies were literally
asking us to take this technology and commercialize it because they
needed it. That's just what he and Nicholas did when
they founded Broadcom in 1991.
On its face,
Broadcom is a chip company. The core of its business is making silicon
chips that process vast amounts of data at incredible speeds. But
rather than designing chips for a single system, the company links
systems (such as voice, data, and video networks) through broadband
semiconductors. Because Broadcom's chips accomplish both those
tasks at the same time, it is, in industry jargon, a systems-on-a-chip
company. We are a systems company that happens to sell the
system in the form of a chip, Samueli explains.
It also happens
to be the leading maker of those chips, which are in more than 80
percent of all cable modems, digital cable TV set-top boxes, and
local area network switches. That makes Broadcom wildly successful,
ranking No. 1 on Barron's top 500 companies list last year,
in part because it is one of the relatively small number of
Internet players that is actually generating profits. Analysts
predict that Broadcom will soon reach $1 billion in annual sales.
success, however, has not shielded the company from the vicissitudes
of a turbulent technology market. Last summer, its stock performance
roughly followed the same upward trajectoryand corresponding
decline as the rest of the technology sector. The stock peaked at
nearly $300 per share in August (vaulting Samueli and Nicholasworth
$10 billion eachto number 18 on the Forbes list of richest
Americans), before plummeting to less than $100 a share. (The two
are currently worth about $3 billion each.)
all, Samueli has remained at the core of the company's operations.
His official title at Broadcom is chief technical officerthe
technology guru. In practice, he is the Wizard of Oz- like master
responsible for pulling the right levers and pushing for the best
product that will keep the company ahead of the competition.
company, he's also seen as mentor-in-chief, a role he has carried
with him from the classroom. While co-founder and CEO Nicholas is
well known for his brash negotiating style and hot temper, Samueli
quietly coaxes his employees.
you are dealing internally with people, you have to be the more
compassionate, open-door, come in and tell me your problems kind
of person, which is what I am, he says. And like any good
leader, his philosophy is to provide the right environment, the
best tools, and his personal vision for the future and let his charges
always here to listen, to help, but bottom line is you have to be
self-managing and self-motivated. I'm not a hard-driving guy
that's going to be on top of them all the time, he says,
snapping his fingers in quick succession. But they know what
my vision is, what I want, what my expectations are, and they are
smart enough to figure out how to get it done. And it works. Because
people really do
appreciate being empowered to do things on their own.
surprisingly, that same philosophy of empowering people to do for
themselvesguides Samueli in his latest incarnation as philanthropist-in-chief.
Call it goal-oriented giving. And having amassed considerable personal
wealth, Samueli canand hasmade a big impact. He and
his wife, Susan, who have three daughters ranging in age from six
to 15, have established the Samueli Foundation, with three full-time
staffers to sift through the voluminous requests that come in. But
education is always priority number one.
pretty broad in our gift-giving but focused as well, Samueli
says. Education is always top of our list, so even when we
give to other causes, there has to be some tie-in to education or
contributions have been to engineering schools: $30 million to UCLA
and $20 million to UC Irvine, both of which have named their schools
in his honor. But more than just in name, Samueli is seeking to
leave his personal imprint on the schools as well. It's an
impact that goes to the core of engineering education and harkens
back to his experiences at UCLA: to create a cadre of more well-rounded
engineers with a broad base of knowledge as opposed to just specialists.
Personally, I think my greatest strength as an engineer is
the breadth of my knowledge base, Samueli opines. That broad
knowledge base has served him well throughout his career, and he
would like to see that as a focus of the engineering curriculum.
I don't advocate eliminating specialty areas; you still
need the specialists. But you also need the broad systems guy and
the systems faculty members, he says. Unfortunately for UCLA,
although he remains on the faculty, he has been on leave since 1995
and has no plans to return to full-time teaching. He does give lectures
goal of his giving is to build a critical mass of talent that local
companies can draw from. If that sounds a little self-serving that's
because it is, and Samueli isn't shy about admitting as much.
I'd say there's a reasonable amount of self-interest
involved, he acknowledges. I'm trying to build
a strong regional university network to produce the talent that
companies like Broadcom need.
By beefing up local universities, he hopes to cement Southern California
as the center of the communications technology industry. Recipients
of his largesse are happy to oblige. Frank Wazzan, dean of UCLA's
engineering school (yes, the Henry Samueli School of Engineering
and Applied Science), recently wrote that Samueli's contribution
enhances our school's increasingly significant role in the
development of the Southern California region as one of the nation's
high-tech business hubs.
To Henry Samueli,
that must just about equal a perfect world.
Brindley is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.
: What should engineering schools be doing to serve the
needs of local technology companies?
Samueli: First of all, it's just pure numbers.
We need more of the same. We're not producing enough
graduates in engineering and information technology, period.
So even if graduates are not being produced in exactly our
field, it doesn't matter. In general, we need to increase
the number of engineers. Even if all the schools stay at
the status quo and produce the same number of engineers,
we're still falling short on our side because our requirements
are growing. They need to expand their programs to meet
the demands of the economy.
: But how do you encourage students to go into engineering
programs to begin with?
Samueli : We need to make sure we continue investing
in the future and creating that next generation of student
population and hopefully it will trickle down to K-12 as
well. We have the best at the university level but we don't
have the best at the K-12 level. But if we keep promoting
the greatness of the university systems and the high-tech
fields around here, that message will start trickling down
and get kids more excited about getting into these fields.
: You had a natural inclination to become an engineer.
How do you foster that in students?
Samueli : It's very hard. I think that the tendency
to go into one field or another is sort of an inner desire.
It's not something that someone can impose upon you.
So the question is: Can we steer kids toward the technology
fields and get them excited at an early age? Because I think
once they are teenagers, it's too late.
you can get them when they are in kindergarten and say,
Gee, don't you like playing on the computer and
like tinkering and building? And find the kids who
really do like it and make sure you don't miss out
on the ones with that leaning. The key is findingat
a very young agewhere the tendencies lie and then
steer them where they are appropriately inclined.
: You have three young daughters. Are they interested in
Samueli : No, and I don't push it, absolutely
do not push it on them because it will not work. That's
fine. As long as they do what they are happy with and give
it their best, that's all that I care about.