Monday, September 18, 2006

Chip Master: Vinod Dham

Just a month ago, Intel introduced their "Dual Core 2" processors and set the market on fire. This reminded me of the time, when an Indian had first introduced the world to fast computing with "Intel Pentium" processor. He is none other then Vinod Dham.

Vinod the father of Pentium processor was born in 1950. His early education was in Pune and Vinod considers himself a Punekar, speaking fluent Marathi. Vinod graduated from the Delhi College of Engineering in 1971 with a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering. After graduation, he worked briefly in Delhi for Continental Devices – a semiconductor company.

In 1975, we went to the US and joined the University of Cincinnati to pursue a Masters in Electrical Engineering (Solid State). Cincinnati, at that time, was a very good school in microelectronics and was widely supported by the semiconductor industry. After his masters, in 1977, Vinod joined the National Cash Register (NCR) at Dayton, Ohio. He was a team member of the NCR’s memory design group. His work at the NCR enabled him to receive many patents.

Vinod's big break came in the form of a presentation on these patents at the IEEE conferenace in Monterrey, California.
He received an offer from Intel to work with them. Vinod joined as a lowly engineer and worked on EPROMS for seven years. Later, he was initiated into the project groups that handled the 386 and 486 chipset.

Vinod worked as a consultant on the 386 project, as he was rejected for a job in that division as the project was on course. When Dham straightened out the problems in production, Intel's fortunes shot up and the bosses was happy. He was then shifted to 486 since his former boss had quit. However 486 was in deep trouble, the chip had been announced to go one up on competitors but there were numerous problems at all levels. "I worked so hard I thought I died, but finally I finished the project in November 1989. I took a month off to India to unwind and came back in January 1990 and was made incharge of 586 or Pentium," says Dham.

The main challenege came in January 1990, when Intel made Vinod the in-charge of developing the 586 or Pentium processor. When the Pentium processor was ready, big customers like IBM and Compaq were happy to use the 486. But, Intel wanted to offer a product that is one generation ahead of competition in the form of the Pentium processor. Hence, Intel had to go out searching for a hardware manufacturing company that will use the Pentium processor. They zeroed on a relatively unknown company called Packard Bell.

Packarad Bell were selling Pentium to CompUSA, Circuit City, Best Buy, Good Guy and all the retail stores. Vinod used to go with the team for demos with 486 and Pentium to show how Pentium was better than 486. The Pentium processor handled the task of providing graphics, audio and video as well as games on a home computer with aplomb. Soon, the Pentium became a big hit and other hardware manufacturers switched over to the Pentium processor. Meanwhile, at Intel, Vinod has risen up the corporate ladder. By the time he quit Intel in 1995, Vinod reached the position of the Vice President of the Intel's Microprocessor Products Group.

"The best thing that happened to me was joining Intel and the best thing that happened to me was leaving Intel," says Dham in one of his crisp sound bytes that make him so popular with journalists.

After 16 years at Intel, Vinod joined Nexgen Inc., a start up as the Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President. When Intel's rival, Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) acquired Nexgen in 1996, Vinod looked after the development of AMD’s famous K6 Processor, which was the world’s fastest personal computer microprocessor. He quit AMD to join a start up – Silicon Spice Inc.

"It has been the best part of my life, building teams, products, raising money, talking to customers and finally selling it to Broadcom, a company which might become tomorrow's Cisco," he says. Silicon Spice has been acquired by Broadcom for $1.2 billion and everybody, including some office staff, have become millionaires.

Later, Vinod joined the board of HelloSoft as an advisor. Vinod is also associated with New Path Ventures LLC (NPV) a California-based venture capital fund, for investments in information technology in India. NPV was founded by Vinod Dham and Tushar Dave. NPV is planning to help incorporate about five companies and invest around $5-10 million each in these entities. These five hybrid Indo-US companies that will focus on chip making, embedded software and system design.

Dham's favourite hobby is carpentry and his favourite TV show is Home Improvement. 'Tool Man' Tim Taylor's Do It Yourself does not quite work. This hi-tech craftsman's chips sure do.

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