Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Bob Baker: Intel Manufacturing Chief Interview

Posted by Tom Foremski - February 16, 2011

(The secret to understanding Intel is recognizing that its core strength is not in chip design but in its manufacturing prowess. It can ramp up a multi-billion dollar fab in record time and produce hundreds of millions of chips (virtually) glitch free across a network of fabs. It's a stunning achievement especially when you consider that chip fabs represent the most advanced, expensive, and complicated manufacturing systems of our industrial society. Here is a profile of Bob Baker, Intel's top manufacturing executive. It marks his retirement after 32 years at the world's largest chipmaker.)

By Intel Free Press


Q: Bob, you've been at Intel for more than three decades. What was going through your mind when you first entered the doors of Intel?

I was excited to go to work for Gordon Moore, Bob Noyce, and Andy Grove's company. I had followed them through my college years. I was a college grad out of Washington State University in Pullman just excited to move to California.

The first two months at Intel, I had five different bosses. But I was pretty excited until about the eighth week, and then I remember thinking, 'Oh man, what is this place?' [Laughs]

Q: Craig Barrett has said that he wanted to become a forester when he was a child. What did you want to be when you were young?

A ski instructor. I skied with the Mahre brothers, Phil and Steve [1984 Olympians in ski racing], when I grew up in White Pass, Washington. We'd set up bamboo poles and race each other. I was never that good, but I can say that I skied with them.

So I figured, okay, if it's not engineering, I can live on the hill, teach skiing on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and then ski during the week.

Q: So what kept you off the slopes and at Intel for 32 years instead?

Intel allowed me to learn. It was this great technology sandbox. I could go any place in the company and sit down with an engineer and they could tell me about the most magical kind of products or devices or computer systems or software that they were writing. I was always able to find a job that I could find technical passion in, something I could learn about, something new.

It was always on the cutting edge, always a leading technology. We always had the best and brightest people to work with. What better company for a technically oriented engineer or manager to work for?

Q: What's the one thing you are most proud of when you look back?

In the mid-'80s, I was doing contract work because Intel manufacturing wasn't competitive, and we were outsourcing to Mitsubishi and Sanyo and Toshiba. There was this big Japanese semiconductor industry challenge, and, we were asking, "Could America compete?"

TMG's focus to overcome this challenge and become the world's best technology and manufacturing company--and to have played a part in that--is the area where I have the most pride.

Q: Are there similarities between the challenge you face with the tablet and smartphone market to the challenges you faced in manufacturing during the 1980's?

In the mid 1980's, the Japanese companies were leading in quality, technology, output and cost. The lead appeared insurmountable. To overcome their lead took many critical improvements.

First, it took a dedicated team of people--people who had the drive, passion and commitment to be the best, whatever it took. It took continued sustained innovation and continuous improvement over a number of years.

It took a broad spectrum of disciplines working together, and making the right tradeoffs towards a shared vision and outcome. It took achieving and sustaining faster learning rates to outpace a competitor's achievements.

I believe Intel will rise to the challenge and overcome any early lead our competitors have in tablets and handhelds.

Q: Which Intel leader did you learn the most from?

Oh, that's tough. I've learned a lot from a lot of different people. I'd probably say I learned the most from Andy Grove, by watching how he blended execution with strategy, with an understanding of the marketplace, and his thought process for the direction he wanted to take the company. I learned a lot by watching how he handled himself, what he focused on, the energy and passion he brought to the job.

Q: You, Bill Holt and Brian Krzanich have had a unique three-in-the box situation for almost four years. What is the secret to making that work?

The three of us successfully managed TMG because we had clear focus and defined roles and responsibilities. Bill focuses on leading the technology development; Brian focuses on manufacturing output and meeting customers' needs via the factories and the supply chain team. My focus was on creating leadership in the NAND Solutions Group and the NAND manufacturing joint venture with Micron, along with developing new businesses in NBI.

With the day-to-day focus areas clearly defined, we were able to work together on developing and improving the group's culture and organization with common values and shared challenges like "Doing the Ridiculous" to make breakthroughs in performance, which applied to all parts of the TMG organization. This was also based on many years of working together within TMG, which gave us very common experiences over the past 25 years.

Q: What do you plan to do in retirement?

I get some time to spend with my daughter before she heads off to college. There are a couple of nonprofits I'm going to help out within the Phoenix area. I might help out with some small businesses. And I want to travel. I haven't had time to.

I want to go spend three months in the Alps and ski for a winter. I want to see what's different between the Swiss Alps and the Italian Alps and the French Alps and be able to spend enough time to get a sense of the community and not fly in, go to a conference room, then fly out.

So, very atypically, I don't have a plan. I've had a plan and been expected to deliver monthly, weekly, quarterly results for 32 years. Now it's kind of an open-ended list of things that I want to pursue and have enough time to pursue those passions.

I have a motorcycle. I want to go tour without an agenda.

Q: What are your favorite memories of TMG?

My biggest memory is the people. The amazing technicians and engineers and facilities people and planners who make our factories run. The people in Technology Development who take this amazing science and turn it into some engineered process or product.

Q: Any last thoughts?

It's been quite an amazing journey, and having relived it, you get to see that you had some impact on people throughout the years. I'll get notes like one from an engineer in Costa Rica saying, "Do you remember the time you stopped at our little improvement project and you quizzed me for 20 minutes about it?"

Or a technician recounting, "Do you remember the time you were so mad at us in the fab, it was 3 in the morning and the equipment wasn't coming up and we weren't being systematic about the way we did things. I'll never forget that, because you came out at 3 in the morning for the next six days to make sure that we got all the support we needed from the rest of the factory." Those kinds of stories have just been amazing.


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