Vinod Dham

Inventor and “Father of the Pentium chip”

Santa Clara, CA

Born in Pune, Vinod Dham’s story is one of creation, inspiration and genius. Dham was born in 1950, shortly after the partition of India and Pakistan. He received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1971 from then, Delhi College of Engineering. Upon graduation, he briefly worked for the only private semiconductor company that existed in India – Continental Devices, which was collaborating with Teledyne Semiconductor in California, then. It was here, a field that he describes as a combination physics, chemistry, mathematics and mechanical drawing, that he found his true calling. Dham spent four years at Continental Devices. He then, continued to feed this passion and decided to pursue electrical engineering, this time for his master’s degree at the University of Cincinnati. Here, he focused on solid-state sciences, silicon germanium, and compound transistors.

In 1977, Dham began working for National Cash Register (NCR Corporation) in Dayton, Ohio. NCR is a hardware and software company that specializes in designing ATM machines, self-service kiosks, sale terminals, scanners, etc. At NCR, Dham was a member of the memory design group. Under the guidance of his mentor, Murray Trudel, they worked on a ‘non-volatile memory’ – a technology which had the ability of storing data even when the power was off. Not long after he met Bill Johnson, a director at Intel, at an IEEE conference in Monterrey, California.  He persuaded Dham to come work at Intel, where he ended up working for 16 years.

At Intel, Dham served in a variety of roles. His prior experience prepared him well and directly led to his first project – Intel’s flash memory business. Along with two of his colleagues, they invented a business that is worth billions of dollars today. Dham confesses how he never envisioned a whole new market with memory in cell phones. Their goal was simple; to compete with and replace an existing chip with a superior option. His success with flash memory saw him leaving R&D and joining Intel’s business with customers. Dham saw himself as more of a general manger, someone in the decision-making process, as opposed to always being in a white coat in a lab. At that point, Intel was in a self-determined crisis. Motorola already had its 32-bit chip out and Intel was facing severe manufacturing issues. As the chief technologist, Dham found a solution within 9 months. The Intel leadership rewarded him with by giving him more responsibility. He not only oversaw the new versions of the 386, but also drove the 486, before finally moving onto the Pentium.

Pentium was big. It started as a break-off from the conventional market. In the early stages of its development, Intel contemplated many existing architectures; Intel’s in-house architecture (X86), Sun Microsystems’ SPARC, IBM’s PowerPC (used in all Macintosh products back then). Moreover, Microsoft and Compaq joined forces with MIPS (Millions of Instructions Per Second), to build a processor that would be more cost-effective and deliver higher performance than Intel’s counterpart. This threatened the very existence of Intel. So, in fact, Pentium’s development was the much more challenging than that of any of its predecessors. And even after its production and release, the challenges kept mounting.

Just like with any other microprocessor or operating system, Pentium was found to have bugs and issues. What was different for Intel was that for the first time Intel was being treated as a consumer company and not a chip company. Most people still don’t know what a ‘semiconductor’ or ‘chip’ is. Or what it does. But because of Intel’s “Pentium” branding-campaigns, the spotlight was directly on them. What many perceived as a huge obstacle, Intel knew of this possibility while discussing branding strategies. Bugs and issues were expected and Intel stood by their brand unconditionally. They were prompt to address concerns and provide easy solutions to their customers. Dham recalls how the first and most important goal was to keep customers ‘delighted’. The ‘Pentium’ and ‘Intel Inside’ campaigns put Intel on the world stage. It was the first time that not just the supplier, but the supplier’s supplier was being held responsible and accountable. Perhaps inadvertently, but Dham’s chip and branding strategy made Intel a truly global brand. Even though by 1993, Intel chips were powering almost 90% of the computers, consumers didn’t realize who or what Intel was or does. Dham ended up shaking the whole computer market. Everyone wanted to birth the “next Pentium”.

Dham left Intel in 1995. He gravitated towards the idea of building something against all odds. He went on to learn about and maneuver around the venture capital world. He confidently invested in India’s growth, which is already paying dividends. Today, he is leading efforts to nurture entrepreneurs, invest, and make a difference in areas like energy and biotech. And that, in a nutshell, is Vinod Dham. Always improving. Always looking to reinvent the wheel. Unbeknownst to many, his chip improved millions of lives across the world, but even that didn’t satisfy him. I don’t have a poetic ending for you here. And I’m glad I don’t, for Dham’s constant strive for inventing and surpassing himself is an ode in itself.

 

References

“Vinod Dham.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 24 July 2016. Web. 1 Nov. 2016.

“Vinod Dham Profile.” Iloveindia. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2016.

Takahashi, Dean. “Interview with Vinod Dham, Father of the Pentium, on a Life in Technology and Venture Investing.” VentureBeat. N.p., 03 July 2008. Web. 4 Nov. 2016.

Asia-PacificIndia. “When Speed Was King: Vinod Dham and the Birth of the Pentium.”Knowledge@Wharton. N.p., 20 Mar. 2008. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

Pyne, Saikat. “Exclusive: The ‘Father of Pentium Processor’ Vinod Dham Talks about Startups and Where India Is Headed.” Business Insider. Business Insider India, 10 Feb. 2016. Web. 6 Nov. 2016.

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