Maxim Integrated’s Karthi Gopalan on What Led Her to Assume a Leadership Role

6 months ago by Ingrid Fadelli

After spending years developing semiconductors, Karthi Gopalan is now leading a team of designers at an established integrated circuit manufacturer. In this interview, she shares some of the highlights of her path towards becoming a business leader in the EE Industry.

Most devices on the market today, including smartphones, smartwatches, and self-driving cars, are based on integrated circuits (ICs); small electronic chips that can have a variety of functions. Among other things, ICs can serve as amplifiers, oscillators, microprocessors, and computer memory systems.

Maxim Integrated is a company specialised in the design, manufacturing, and distribution of analogue and mixed-signal ICs, currently based in San Jose (California). The chips developed by Maxim can be integrated within a variety of electronic devices, of a variety of sizes and shapes.

The company’s ultimate mission is to develop ICs that can fuel technological innovation, allowing device manufacturers to create increasingly faster, smarter, secure and energy-efficient technologies. Karthi Gopalan runs of Maxim’s business units specialised in designing ICs for mobile devices, including smartphones, consumer tech, computers, and wearable devices.

Interestingly, as a child, Karthi dreamed of being an astronaut, but her aspirations gradually shifted to electronics engineering. She was born and raised in Southern India, but she decided to move to the U.S. shortly after completing her bachelor’s degree in engineering. After moving to the U.S. and obtaining a degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University, she started working at an electronics company in Silicon Valley, where her main responsibility was designing ICs.

Karthi has been specialised in the design of semiconductors and ICs ever since. At Maxim, she started off as a design engineer, but she was eventually offered to lead one of the company’s business units. In the fourth of a series of interviews with established women at Maxim, she talks about her inspiring professional journey, highlighting some of the key values and experiences that encouraged her to strive for continuous growth in her work.

 

A headshot of Karthi Gopalan, director of business management for mobile power products.

Karthi Gopalan, director of Business Management for Mobile Power products at Maxim Integrated.

 

Ingrid Fadelli: Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and your key responsibilities at Maxim?

Karthi Gopalan: I grew up in India where I completed a bachelor’s degree in engineering, called Electronics and Communication. I then pursued a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering at Purdue University. Go Boiler Makers!

I started my career as a Mixed Signal Designer at National Semiconductor. After many years in design, I moved into business development. Currently, I manage Multi-Function Power within the Mobile Power Business Unit at Maxim Integrated. We build power management integrated circuits for the consumer world, which encompasses a few exciting markets, such as wearables, hearables, gaming, AR/VR, smartphones, consumer IoT based on vision/graphic processing, machine learning and AI.

 

IF: What inspired you to enter the engineering field and electrical engineering in particular?

KG: Growing up in a small southern Indian hamlet that could be called the NASA of India, I was often surrounded by scientists. My father, a science major himself, raised me to be an athlete. While my mother made sure that, in the long run, I had a fallback plan.

In those days, racquet sports had no future in India, so she kept me focused on STEM-based education. The fallback plan ended up being more exciting to me, as when I was younger I was introverted and shy.

The occasional Spielberg movies we got to watch, the Isaac Asimov’s, Arthur C. Clarke’s, and Tintins that we borrowed from our community library also fuelled my grand dream of becoming an astronaut (cosmonaut to be precise—the next Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma). This eventually led to the practical goal of getting a technical degree.

The small utopian hamlet I grew up in had very little wealth and was cut out from the main city. People rode to work in bicycles or motorised scooters and mopeds; there were hardly any cars on the road. What it had in abundance was this aspirational energy to build a better tomorrow, fuelled by tech and knowledge.

We went to a government school that provided us with free schooling. The way we were encouraged to embrace our dreams was incredibly special. There was a time, as I juggled and struggled between sports and education, when I had a lineup of ‘cheerleaders’. My badminton coaches encouraged me to study hard, while my school teachers would show up at the local tournaments to cheer me on. It was a society that was very open to new ideas and change. I wish every child got to experience this.

Little did I know back then that in a decade or so, some of these ‘cheerleaders’ of mine would become known as the greatest technologists and coaches that India has ever produced.

 

IF: What was your professional journey like and how did you get to where you are now? What challenges, if any, did you have to overcome? 

KG: My professional journey had its fair share of variety, even if it has it has only been rooted in the semiconductor world. Challenges and setbacks are what I remember best, as each came with a lesson. If you build emotional flexibility, this allows for constant reinvention.

At some point, my job changed into more of a leadership role. As I don’t have an MBA, I never really sought out a leadership role, but I guess I always had a drive to give my best in whatever I do. This mindset might derive from my background in sports, as sports taught me that when there is a problem one should just solve it and move forward. I think people saw this aspect in me and started scaling me up towards a leadership role.

Overall, my professional journey happened naturally. I didn’t ask for these changes, but they happened, mainly because of my sporting mindset. And how was the journey? There were times when it was fabulous, but I noticed that the times when I made the biggest leaps were when I faced the biggest failures.

 

IF: Did you feel like your B.S. and M.S. in electrical and electronics engineering prepared you for your current role or are there some additional skills that you feel you learned directly on the job?

KG: Schooling does teach you discipline and offers you a general framework to apply in your work.

A degree from a top school did have its benefits for me. I only attended one job interview and said yes when they offered me the role. The workplace ended up being my game-changing university, especially on the business development front. I never went to B-School.

My mentors at work and my customers (accompanying travel) ended up being my greatest teachers and influencers.

 

IF: What was it like for you to enter into a design engineer role directly after university?

KG: At National Semiconductor, I joined a team that was around for two decades as a cohesive unit. In retrospect, this was the best decision ever.

If given a choice, join a group of all-stars and preferably team players. You do not only get to work on the choicest projects but also have the opportunity to make mistakes, as your team is there to catch you. To date, the joy of taping out bug-free silicon is unrivalled for me.

 

IF: How was your experience developing products for major manufacturers, such as Infineon and TI? How do you typically anticipate the products that will be useful to electrical engineers in the industry’s current state, as well as in the future?

KG: Invest in the right themes. Economic independence across a large swathe of the population has led to consumption independence.

There is a democratisation of technology. There are over a billion devices on the edge today and the numbers are still increasing exponentially. One must stay close to the top themes that are likely to continue fueling our industry, such as high-performance computing, AI, gaming, 5G, or autonomous vehicles. I am glad to be at the forefront of this push, wherein my products even make ‘vision processing on the go’ a reality.

 

IF: What do you feel are the key challenges currently faced within the EE industry and how could these be overcome?

KG: On the market front let me address two major trends that are driving us to accelerate our innovation in certain areas.

This decade, the consumer landscape demands semi-customisation, with customers preferring to showcase their individuality. Creative new products are increasingly favoured by younger generations; products that not only pack functionality but also integrate beauty, smallest form factor and comfort. According to Nielsen data, close to 64% of consumers try new products because of their packaging.

Consumer needs are rapidly evolving and this is directly translating into product life cycles shortening to not more than two years.

This is leading to a fresh set of challenges, as it implies that semiconductor companies that can come up with differentiated strategic technology addressing the above have the edge over the rest.

Device manufacturers that prioritise stand out performance and looks will gravitate towards them. If this innovation has multigenerational staying power via inherent scalability, both parties will thrive and will end up sweeping the market segment that is currently in constant pursuit of the integration of style and performance.

 

IF: What aspects of working in this field do you enjoy the most and find most gratifying?

KG: Silicon is the second most abundant and vital element in the Earth’s crust, after Oxygen. Similarly, my industry is the most ubiquitous and essential element in the technology domain. Many people, especially young generations entering the market, don’t realise this.

Even closer to home, in a region called Silicon Valley, all the buzz and attention is seldom on the Silicon portion. At most social and professional gatherings in this valley, I am not only the sole woman engineer but also the odd semiconductor professional.

The spotlight continues to be on the software side. I often jest and say, "silicon has left the Valley." The new moniker ought to be AppValley or Software Valley. That said, there is a lot one can do when his or her industry is considered to be the backbone of technology. Being in the shadow comes with a lot of opportunities.

For instance, this industry has taken me to every nook and corner of the world for over a decade. I have been driven in bulletproof range rovers to tiny homes that double as offices on the outskirts of Sao Paulo. I have taken the sleekest ride, (via Shinkasen, the Japanese word for ‘train’), to some of the most stunning offices—which Marie Kondo would have definitely approved of.

I have driven up and down the corridors of Bundesautobahn 7 (the longest German Autobahn), cuddled Pandas in Chendu to my heart’s content, sat across future Nobel laureate contenders at Fraunhofer while guiding them on ‘what’s next’, to presenting my current product roadmap to the inventor of Bluetooth technology and his brilliant colleagues.

The kid who grew up in the outskirts of Old City Hyderabad, with one Bus (#TSRTC 102) connecting her to the outer world, couldn’t have conjured this career that puts her in front of some of the greatest minds of the world.

Whenever I face an insurmountable professional task or feel down and out, I remind myself of this kitschy tapestry of a journey with my ever-supportive colleagues. An ear to ear smile automatically cracks through. It is a humbling, heady, and gratifying experience.

 

IF: Considering that women make up approximately 18% of the engineering workforce, could you tell us a little bit about your experience working as a female engineer, particularly in the field of electrical engineering?

KG: It is given that I am the only woman in the room, even during my vast travels. On a day-to-day basis, I can’t afford to dwell on the gender parity, or lack of it, in my field. I volunteer my time to support and mentor female engineers in the valley through organisations such as Fountain Blue.

Some tips for women as individuals would be: learn to scale, take on the hard problems, breathe, get used to being rejected, approach a given task with determination, tenacity, and above all, enthusiasm.

You have to be authentic to who you are. I have an eagerness and earnestness for people around me to succeed. I have realised not to let this go; you find what makes you tick. Above all, who you work for is more important than where you work. If you have the option, please choose wisely.

The main tip to remember when you are driving a large project is to first immerse yourself into your idea or vision. You can’t onboard people if you don’t believe in the vision.

Create a long-term plan for the people involved. Where will this path take them? Setting the context matters. Connecting people to your vision is key to a project’s execution. People want to see this connection. What role do they play? How does it fit into their career plan? If done right, hopefully, one’s gender becomes immaterial.

 

IF: What are your hopes for your future professional development and for the development of the electronics engineering industry at large?

KG: In terms of my professional development, my Achilles’ heel is that I never think about what I want. Regardless of where I am in life, I normally think about the role I have at that moment and what I can do with it, as well as the people around me and what I can do for them.

When it comes to managing teams, my aspiration would be to help the people who work for me and I would ultimately want them to go way ahead of me. I like lifting people up and helping others grow. My greatest professional aspiration would be to take on a role where I can do that.

I like to be in the decision/making seat because it gives me the ability to encourage others and promote their growth.

From a technological standpoint, although I enjoy what we do, I also find joy in making electronics more accessible to a lot more people, presenting them to others and getting them on board with new technologies. Maybe one day I would also like to take on a role where technology is used for a good cause.

In terms of my hopes for the electrical engineering industry at large, I would like to see the development of higher server density packs and a lot more electronics of varying sizes.

I hope that we can continue innovating, creating cutting-edge electronics that are smaller and more energy-efficient. I think that it is important for us to come up with ideas and concepts that make technology easier for the consumers out there to use.

I would personally love to be part of that wave. The semiconductor world that is expected to eventually play a bigger role in applications such as AI, language translation, and vision processing.

 

IF: Before we conclude the interview, would you like to share any ongoing projects that you’re personally involved in with our readers?

KG: On the personal front, I have once had the privilege to start mentoring an 8-year-old child who enjoys playing around with her Raspberry pie kit. Today, at the age of 11, she is seen as a world-leading female tech disruptor. The day in which the mentee will become my mentor may not be far.

She first launched CoderBunnyz, a board game that teaches kids how to code. Keeping up with the fast-changing times, she has now launched CoderMindz, her latest game, which teaches children AI concepts.

Samaira Mehta is on a mission to get a billion kids to handle a world that will be dominated by AI. The passion and sincerity with which she goes about running her company are not just inspiring kids but also very experienced CEOs. She is a Silicon Valley kid reaching out to the world.

 


Karthi and her team are currently working on new power management ICs designed to be integrated within small electronic devices, such as headphones, smartwatches, and GPS trackers. The chips that they are designing, which are some of the smallest in the world, could eventually serve as the backbone of several innovative technological tools.

If you want to find out more about some of the power electronics developed by Karthi and her team, you can visit the Maxim Integrated website’s power management IC section.

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