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Taiwanese EE blazes to China with belief in Chinese innovation

Posted: 29 Oct 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:huang zhaonan? conexant systems inc?

Conexant's Zhaonan: China enterprises show more creativity.
Huang Zhaonan has a career path coveted by many people. He has a Master's Degree in Electrical Engineering, a PhD in Computer Science, a private business he started, and finally, a job as senior executive in a well-known IT company, Conexant Systems Inc. However, he is now moving from the United States to China, with belief that China holds more potential for growth than anywhere else and that Chinese innovation can be the fuel for that potential. Let's go through his rich experience and get a taste of his passion for excellence.

Huang was born in Taiwan, and showed a huge interest in history during his high school years. However, under the prodding of his father, Huang went down the path of IT industry. Upon getting a degree in Electrical Engineering from Taiwan University, he went on to study at the University of California and obtained a Masteral degree in Electrical Engineering and a PhD in Computer Science. As to why he went to the United States for higher education, Huang said that Taiwan's IC design industry was still in its infancy in the early 1980s, and his desire to know how things work under the hood made him decide to study IC design in the United States. His thesis in PhD was on hardware architectures.

The strong academic background helped him a lot in building his own business later on. Huang had worked in CPU and DSP designs. From 1989 to 1994, he worked at Silicon Systems Inc. (SSI) and Texas Instruments, and had been assigned the job of chief project supervisor where he was responsible for the development of DVD chips. Later, he held the position of CEO at Sigmax Technology. With these solid experiences, he began to think about starting his own business, that was when he, along with a partner, created an IC design house with an initial investment of $1 million.

Working at his startup firm, Huang frequently ran a 7:00am to midnight schedule. Besides working hard at R&D, he also had to worry about the business operation. His great passion gave him tremendous satisfaction, which in turn made him forget the heavy pressure.

Such work not only gave him rich experiences in IC design, but also allowed him to gain a thorough understanding of business management and operations. Huang said that the biggest insight in business was that formulating a sound organizational structure is vital to its success.

Two kinds of enterprise

Huang decided to sell the business when it was performing well but did not disclose the specific reason behind his decision. Maybe it was due to the endless search for technical excellence, or maybe it was for further development, or perhaps more importantly, for longer survival of the company he created. He just admitted that he got a good price, and stated that, "For a start-up company, ROI for its investors is definitely important, but we should also protect the interests of folks who run the business."

It is quite common in the United States for small businesses to be acquired by a larger company when it grows to a certain proportion. Therefore, Huang exhibited no regret when he recalled this part of his career.

As to the difference between running his own business and working for a big corporation, Huang said that the former afforded him more flexibility and freedom, so that he could choose what product to develop. He also admitted that the return is also higher when he ran his own company.

However, he also went through all sorts of worries such as insufficient cash flow and revenue streams. When it came to market research and source of information, his company also paled in comparison with larger corporations, which also enjoyed relatively lower risk of operation. As a result, an individual can leverage the resources in this kind of organization to put his own ideas into practice, especially as a member of the management team.

In 1999, Huang joined Conexant Systems Inc., an IT company in the United States, that focuses on digital cameras and CMOS sensor related IC designs. Later, he became vice president for engineering in the Broadband Communications Division at Conexant. In October 2000, he went to Shanghai and took on the additional role of general manager and chairman at Conexant Communications Technology (Shanghai) Company, responsible for product development in the Greater China region (mainland China and Taiwan), business development for products made in the United States, and operations management. Huang considers the move to Shanghai as finding a new career goal in his '40s.

According to Huang, the branch in Shanghai deals mainly with technical issues in response to localization needs in the Chinese market such as writing drivers for ADSL devices under the popular Linux platform. With the growth of Shanghai and the Yangtze river delta region into an industrial hub of IC design in China, the U.S. headquarters is planning to set up IC design business in Shanghai, so that the whole range of broadband products can be developed there locally. Huang said that the two important justifications for his decision were the abundant human resources and much lower labor cost in China, where engineers can become productive after some brief training.

Huang played an important role in formulating these development strategies in China. He analyzed information collected from numerous sources and submitted a proposal to the headquarters, which, after some discussion, lead to the final decision.

As chairman and managing director of the Shanghai branch, Huang's job includes three key functions such as overall technological decision making, market research of mainland China, and management of technical staff. Concerning the third function. He commented that, "Apart from managing these people, I also try to present them challenges and training opportunities." In Huang's opinion, most Chinese engineers had received sound education in fundamentals, and are made of quality stuff.

With the business expansion of the Broadband Communications Division, Conexant needs to hire more local talents. Huang feels that attracting the right people requires certain techniques, and, according to his decade long experience in management and product development. Huang pays special attention to the following aspects: technical competence; problem solving skills and ways of thinking; and attitude towards work. The people he chose include both experienced engineers and newly graduated college students, reflecting his principle of selecting talents based on overall quality.

Gap between the west and east

Huang said that his life went through three stages: more than 20 years in Taiwan, up to 20 years in the United States, and from now on, in China. This kind of diverse experience helped him gain insight into the difference between the West and the East in terms of politics, economy, and culture.

According to Huang, government agencies in the United States are very efficient. Take business registration as an example. An application submitted in the morning can be granted in the afternoon. In China, however, the registration of a foreign business has to pass through seven or eight offices and the process may take over two months. In the United States, business dealings follow strict standards; in contrast, there are no hard-and-fast rules in China. For example, it is quite difficult to take legal actions against breach-of-contract, and personal connections have too much influence on business deals. "As a foreign business, our company always strictly follows international business standards, and I consider this a far-sighted practice," said Huang. He believes that after China joined the WTO, the business environment in China will see a change for the better.

In the minds of many people, China's electronics manufacturers are weak in innovation, but Huang pointed out that, "for historical reasons, we have been forced into a Western style learning environment in which programming languages and hardware systems are all from the West. It is like using a foreign language to tackle a problem, which invariantly hinders innovation. He thinks that with the development of the IT industry in China, local enterprises have shown more and more creativity. Take Haier for example, it introduced a washer that can clean potatoes and can find wide applications in the rural market. No vendor in the West or Japan had the vision to do this. Moreover, there are communications companies like Huawei and Zhongxing, which, in response to local requirements, developed a special kind of ADSL broadband access device that can connect to both external broadband network and residential area network.

Huang spends about a quarter of his time in the United States every year. He grows nostalgic when talking of Taiwan, saying, "Taiwan has its human touch and special culture, which Shanghai lacks." Nevertheless, he still gets very excited about the opportunities in Shanghai (and China), and the adrenaline in his early years seems to rush back.

- Melody Zhao

Electronic Engineering Times - China

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