A Big Picture Guy

Broadcom Co-founder Henry Samueli tends to think broadly, a characteristic that has served him well in industry, but almost cost him tenure as an
electrical engineering professor at UCLA.

by David Brindley
photography by Flynn Larsen

In 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.

That's 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.

And yet, for all that sleekness, the 46-year-old Samueli is decidedly soft-spoken, thoughtful, reserved—until 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 it worked.”

Three-and-a-half 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.

Samueli 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.

Samueli 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.

Broadband Birth

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.

While working 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.

“I barely 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.

“Historically, 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.”

Similarly, 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.”

That “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.

Although the 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.

Chips and Dips

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.

That 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 trajectory—and corresponding decline as the rest of the technology sector. The stock peaked at nearly $300 per share in August (vaulting Samueli and Nicholas—worth $10 billion each—to 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.)

Through it all, Samueli has remained at the core of the company's operations. His official title at Broadcom is chief technical officer—the 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.

Within the 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.

“When 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 go.

“I'm 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.”

Giving Something Back
Not surprisingly, that same philosophy of empowering people to do for themselves—guides Samueli in his latest incarnation as philanthropist-in-chief. Call it goal-oriented giving. And having amassed considerable personal wealth, Samueli can—and has—made 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.

“We are 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 self improvement.”

His largest 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 occasionally, however.

Another 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.

David Brindley is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

Q&A with Samueli

Prism : 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.

Prism : 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.

Prism : 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.
If 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 finding—at a very young age—where the tendencies lie and then steer them where they are appropriately inclined.

Prism : You have three young daughters. Are they interested in engineering?
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.