After eight and a half years at MIT, Lisa Su had earned three degrees in electrical engineering and was eager to get her life started. But before she left Cambridge for her first job at Texas Instruments, her advisor, Dimitri Antoniadis, gave her a bit of career advice. “Stay technical as long as you can,” he told her. “Once you leave it, you’re never going to be able to operate at that same level again.” Su listened, perhaps even nodded, but then went on to prove him wrong.
“People feel like you have to make a choice” between being a serious researcher and a businessperson, says Su. She disagrees. And her meteoric rise at IBM, where she’s now vice president of the semiconductor research and development center, is proof that it’s possible, and in her case even advantageous, to choose not one or the other but both. “I find the ability to go back and forth very useful,” she says. “It is very, very rewarding to be a deep expert in one area. I just feel like that’s one path. I enjoy more being a moderate expert in lots of different areas.”
Su is as comfortable dealing with CEOs as she is having technological discussions with university professors and IBM research fellows. (“I have to convince both the CEOs and the deep-tech folks that we know what we’re talking about,” she says.) And by maintaining her technology expertise even as she has taken on business leadership responsibilities, she has been able to serve as a translator between two very different worlds.
“Sometimes deep technologists find the business and the strategy stuff boring,” she says. “But I don’t.”
In the fall of 1986, Su arrived at MIT from the Bronx High School of Science intending to major in electrical engineering or computer science; after taking “weed-out classes” 6.001 and 6.002, she chose electrical engineering because she found it harder. As a freshman, she landed an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) assignment in Hank Smith’s semiconductor lab in Building 39, making two-inch wafers for his x-ray lithography research. It was pure grunt work, she says, “but as an undergraduate, I didn’t know; it was great.” That UROP experience and summer jobs at Analog Devices got her interested in a technical career in semiconductors. “At the time, I had so many colleagues who were going to Wall Street or taking their technical background and applying it in other fields, it was a pretty big decision to stay more technical,” she says.
As a doctoral candidate, Su was one of the first researchers to look into silicon-on-insulator (SOI) technology, a then unproven technique for increasing transistors’ efficiency by building them atop layers of an insulating material. It was “pretty exciting stuff,” she says. “The application of SOI right now is very important in microprocessors. At the time, it wasn’t so clear what the right application was.”
Today, SOI is used either to boost microchips’ performance by up to 30 percent or to significantly reduce their power requirements. Although Su’s doctoral research turned out to be far reaching, she insists what’s important about a PhD isn’t the project you work on. “It’s not supposed to be job training,” she says. “It’s the confidence that you build. When I graduated from MIT, I felt like I was one of the world’s experts on SOI devices. And that was a great feeling.”