PhD in hand, Su spent a year at Texas Instruments before joining IBM in 1995. At Big Blue, she got assigned to a project looking into how to replace semiconductors’ traditional aluminum interconnects with speedier copper ones, without having copper impurities contaminate the chips during production. “My specialty was not in copper,” she says, “but I migrated to where the problems were.” Su worked with IBM design teams to hammer out the details of the device design. Once she thought the technology was mature, she was ready to move on and told her boss she wanted a new assignment. “I remember very clearly, he told me, ‘Nope, you’re not done until we’re shipping products,’” she recalls.
“It’s very easy to just stop before the end, because you think that all of the innovation is done,” she says. “You’re not going to write new patents in those last few months, but you’re going to learn an incredible amount of practical knowledge.” Su says the last six months before a product ships are the toughest, because that’s when you recognize – and have to address – all of the second-, third-, and fourth-order problems. “Those are the things you can’t learn in books,” she insists. The work paid off when IBM introduced copper chips that are 10 to 20 percent faster than conventional chips made with aluminum.
Once the copper chips did ship, Su got tapped to serve as technical assistant for Lou Gerstner, IBM’s chairman and CEO. “I got lucky,” says Su. She had been at IBM for only five years, but Gerstner wanted a different kind of technical sidekick, someone newer to the business and thus closer to new technologies. In the process of showing him what she calls “a few of the latest technology tricks,” Su got to see firsthand how he approached leading a large organization – and to find out what else a CEO thinks about. Gerstner thought a lot about the competition, she says.
“Lou was very interested in the technology itself; he wanted to understand it,” says Su. “So part of my job was to translate the deep technology into something that could be understood at a business level.”
The expected path for Su, upon completing her one-year assignment with Gerstner, would’ve been to go back and run a larger research organization within IBM. But she didn’t want to follow the usual career path; she wanted to learn more about the business and instead took on the role of director of emerging products. (“I was basically director of myself – there was no one else in the group,” she says.) In looking for ways to apply technology beyond PCs and servers, IBM had zeroed in on the game-machine industry, which was still dominated by 300-megahertz devices. Su soon found herself representing IBM in a collaboration with Sony and Toshiba to create next-generation chips for gaming and other applications that would last for the next 10 years. Ken Kutaragi, CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment, charged the collaborators with improving the performance of game machine processors by a factor of 1,000. He wanted power, performance, and the right price. “To tell you the truth, we came back with some evolutionary solutions, and he basically said, ‘Nah, not interested,’” Su recalls. “And we’d have to rip that up and go back to the drawing board. It took us a couple of tries.”