Most of us don’t know who designed India’s first ASIC. And, ironically, the person who designed the ASIC that went into production in tens of thousands didn’t realise it either, until he was told by his peers that it was the first ASIC to be designed produced in volumes. Though he does not say so, he was perhaps one of the persons who persuaded National Semiconductor to establish an R&D lab in India, the first outside the USA for them.
This is K. Krishna Moorthy’s story as told to EFY’s Mukul Yudhveer Singh! He believes in perfect timing like the stroke play in cricket! Right now Krishna is busy planning and scripting the roadmap to make India a semiconductor powerhouse.
K. Krishna Moorthy, CEO, India Electronics &, Semiconductor Association (IESA)
Born in a middle-class family, Krishna understood the meaning and importance of working on self for the betterment of others from a very young age. His father had lost his own father at an early age, and Krishna, as far as he remembers, had seen his father work day-and-night to ensure his family was not deprived of any necessities. “My father is a self-made man, and in the process of working on himself for his family’s well-being, he set an example for us and taught the importance of hard work for being successful,” recalls a proud Krishna.
Krishna’s parents, young at 99 and 88, live with him and always saw education as a necessity to excel in life. He and his brother were made clear from childhood that they would not compromise on their education. “That was the safety net for the future,” they taught early in life.
“Our parents told us, everything apart from education can wait. Belonging to a middle-class family, my father kept a purse that was to be used only for education. While luxuries were not always possible, he never let us struggle for necessities. Our mother, like any other mother in those days, managed home and ensured we were well looked after,” says a proud Krishna.
Krishna’s Parents: Mr Krishna Iyer and Mrs Krishna Ambal
Krishna’s father worked with a rubber company which was a major supplier to leading tyre brands of India. Born in Calcutta (now Kolkota), Krishna moved to Kerala with his parents before the start of his schooling. The change of states presented his father with an opportunity to get Krishna admitted into one of the oldest and the then most reputed schools in India, known as CMS High School, in Kottayam.
“I had the good fortune of studying in one of the oldest schools in India, which was established in 1817. I completed my 12th standard from CMS College, which was run by the same school’s management. Those days the +2 was in colleges, unlike today,” he recalls.
Krishna was one of the brightest students in the school. Always among the toppers in his class, he was also active in sports including cricket and football. His outstanding academic results in the 12th standard helped him get a seat in the engineering stream. “Those days there were no entrance exams, and you were picked on the basis of merit in your 12th standard. How you scored in Physics, Chemistry, and Maths was what mattered the most during those times,” he explains.
Based on his 12th standard results, Krishna got admission to Electronics and Communications engineering degree course in College of Engineering Trivandrum (CET). CET was the only college offering an engineering degree in the E&C stream throughout Kerala then, and only 45 students were selected for the course.
Krishna loves watching sports including cricket, tennis, football, badminton, and chess. However, since his childhood, he has not been able to appreciate sports involving individuals hitting each other like boxing, karate, wrestling, etc. “I still do not like any kind of violence, and that is probably why I chose engineering over a medical degree. I would have had to dissect frogs if I had chosen medicine as a career,” shares Krishna jokingly.
Spirituality while engineering
Krishna likes reading, which also relaxes him. He started reading comics in his childhood and is a big-time fan and follower of the popular Tom and Jerry series even now. However, his life completely changed when he read the book titled ‘You Can Win’ by the motivational speaker and author Shiv Khera. The punchline of the book, ‘Winners Don’t Do Different Things, They Do Things Differently,’ has become the motto of Krishna’s life ever since. He mentioned this phrase at least twenty times during our conversation.
“Early in life I learned important things like the need to have command over the English language to succeed. I learnt that there is always a need for being a good communicator and doing things differently instead of doing different things,” he explains. He understood the importance of being a good communicator by listening to his teachers. He recalls the difference in teaching methods of his teachers. While all of them had a stronghold over the subjects they were teaching, not all had equally good communication skills. Different teachers, in the words of Krishna, were teaching differently.
Krishna has read ‘You Can Win’ more than a dozen times, and every time in a different context. He believes a book can change one’s life. Krishna experienced spirituality also the first time through the book ‘Art of Man Making’ by Swami Chinmayananda ji, which he read by chance during his engineering college days. The best part as a result of being spiritual, as he explains, is the understanding of having less ego so as to be able to learn from anybody.
History is another subject that he seems completely in love with. He probably has read more history books than he has read about Physics, Chemistry, and Math. “Every major event in world history has brought disruptive innovation and birth of new technologies,” says Krishna. In fact, if not an engineer, he would have been in the profession of teaching. Krishna, on an average, reads at least one book every month and currently he is reading ‘Innovation’ by Curtis Carlson and William Wilmot.
“I always believe that the progress in modern-day technology in any country can happen only when academia and industry work very closely. Israel for me is one of the best examples. My eagerness to stay connected with technologists in industries and professors in universities stayed with me always,” says Krishna.
The first job and India’s first ASIC
Krishna’s father saw India struggle for independence. His first paycheck was only fifty rupees, so he taught Krishna the importance of seeking happiness in little things but being ready for everything always.
Krishna recalls how excited his father was on learning about Krishna’s first job with Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL). He was excited not just because it was a PSU job, but also because Krishna was getting a chance to serve his motherland. “I was excited to know that I would be joining the R&D team of BEL as I was and am always fascinated by technology. But my father was more excited than me when I told him I was going to work with BEL,” Krishna smiles.
The year Krishna joined BEL as a probationary engineer was the luckiest year of his life. Not because it was his first job, but more so because of introduction to the best manager he has ever had—P.D. Modak, who retired from BEL after becoming its chairman. Krishna explains, “When you walk out of a college with plenty of theoretical knowledge in hand and land a good job, your hunger for practical knowledge expands. Mr Modak was a leader who had plenty of patience to let me understand electronics from a practical perspective. He would answer all my questions and let me experiment with work despite many mistakes I made.”
“The year I got my first job also happens to be exceptional because I met my spiritual master Swami Chinmayananda ji,” says a satisfied Krishna. “I had the good fortune of coming under the benign grace of Swami Chinmayananda ji when I had just started my professional life,” recalls Krishna. “Swami ji has always taught about practical life. An example of his teaching is, he questions you about what you will do tomorrow morning to be successful in life. Whether he is teaching Bhagavat Geeta or Upanishads, his teachings will always be from the practical and pragmatic point of view. For example, he would talk about making good friends and then tell you how to make them,” says Krishna with great respect visible in his eyes.
Krishna has to his credit the prestige of designing India’s first application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) in 1986. MNC companies like Texas Instruments had just set up their office in India to do software development at that time. MNCs did ASIC and chip design in India much later.
This was also the period when Krishna got attracted to semiconductors more than anything else. The world was talking about ASICs in general. “ASICs were just starting to become prominent around 1982-83. We started talking about ASICs at BEL around 1985. Mr Modak asked me to look at the technology and find ways to bring it and do it in India,” recalls Krishna.
“I designed an ASIC in 1986. Later I came to know that it was the first ever ASIC to be designed in India which went to volume production. One of my colleagues also designed another ASIC alongside, and both our designs went into volume manufacturing in a British fab,” he recalls. He adds, “I am still proud of the fact that I not only worked on the wireless communication systems but I also designed semiconductor ASICs that go into them.”
“The products and solutions I designed under the leadership of Mr Modak remained mainstream in India’s defense sector. We were trying to match the capabilities of India’s defense sector with the capabilities of advanced countries. Even today, when I see how reasonably close we are to such countries in terms of R&D on defense, despite all the limitations we have as a country, it fills my heart with joy and pride,” says Krishna.
Krishna was 39 when he was promoted to the ranks of Deputy General Manager in one of the R&D teams of BEL for Defense Communications. It was a secure job, a job that millions in India pray for day-and-night, but Krishna’s hunger for staying connected to the latest in technology had some other plans for him.
Secure job or no-secure job
The private sector in the 1960s and 1970s was offering a limited number of jobs and electronics was not a priority for any Indian private company then. Competition was also not strong, and most of the people back then wanted to work in government or PSU jobs, which were considered as safe jobs with good perks. However, quitting a secure PSU job, when your career is just hitting the peak, was something more than rare. Quitting a secure PSU job to start innings in the private sector required taking a leap of faith, and Krishna took that leap.
“My job at BEL required me to interact with international OEMs and vendors. What fascinated me during these conversations with them was that they were doing things a little faster and better than we do in India. They were always ahead of the curve. I always wanted to keep learning and working with one of those OEMs was one thing which I thought would help me understand how to stay ahead of the curve,” says Krishna.
He adds, “I always wondered how they stayed ahead of the curve and how they finished things with a little extra class, finesse, and perfection. There was only one way to find out, and I embarked on the journey to seek how they were doing things differently. And it also dawned on me at that time that the major differentiator between India and developed countries in almost all electronics systems including defense was their ability and access to build semiconductor chips for a specific application very well and quickly”
Krishna’s hunger for staying ahead of the curve and bringing the latest to India continues to fuel his actions and reactions. However, his foray into the private sector was not a cakewalk; staying ahead on the curve required him to be more agile than ever before, and attentive and receptive more than he had ever been in his life. “The belief that you can be as good as anybody just by doing things differently has stood by me for my entire life. The thought has always helped me find solutions to even the most difficult of problems,” says Krishna.
It’s about India
Leaving behind everything including your peers and the work you have done during the last two decades is challenging. But embarking on a journey that will require more from you than what you have done in the past is certainly a peril of a task. Krishna knew he was landing himself in a world full of new challenges while accepting a job in the private sector and starting his innings with National Semiconductor as their director of engineering.
“Stepping into a multinational company meant meeting expectations which were set pretty high. It was definitely a challenge. But the biggest of challenges bring along the biggest of opportunities,” says Krishna. He adds, “I was not working on semiconductor designs full time, and the new responsibility required me to work on the same more than on anything else.”
But Krishna seemed to have already prepared for the task ahead in order to stay on the front of the curve by attending a diploma course from Indian Institute of Science (IISc). He got the diploma in IC Design at a time of his career when most others were busy enjoying the perks of their professional life. Krishna’s hunger for knowledge, knowingly or unknowingly, had helped him in preparing for the future.
“IISc had a collaboration programme with University of Delft back then, and under this collaboration they were running a semiconductor design course, and as I was encouraged to attend the same, I did,” remembers Krishna.
Krishna devoted more than 16 hours a day to his new innings with National Semiconductor for the first six months. He says this much time was needed to learn about the semiconductor design in advanced technology nodes, and as he had joined an organisation that was way ahead on the curve, he wanted to make sure that he proved to be an asset to them.
“The technology you can understand quickly but the technique and practices is what takes time to develop. The tools and methodologies I was assigned at National Semiconductor were entirely different from what I had done at BEL. Understanding all these tools and their capabilities was the biggest challenge, a challenge that awarded me with knowledge that is a gift for a lifetime,” he says.
He adds, “I met some of the brightest minds from India and from the world at National Semiconductor. As a team we were able to produce extraordinary results, and National Semiconductor’s India team grew from 30 to more than 100. As a major accomplishment I also saw National Semiconductor establish an R&D lab (NS Labs) outside the United States, and this lab was established in India.”
Krishna was promoted as the Managing Director of National Semiconductor’s India Design Center in August 2005, and this lab was established in India around 2008. This was probably one of the first research labs in semiconductor from a biggie like National Semiconductor in the country.
It was in December 2011 that Krishna’s innings with Rambus Chip Technologies started in India. He had joined the company in the capacity of MD for its India Design Center. Rambus Technologies in 2015 promoted Krishna to the ranks of Corporate Vice President. “From designing systems in BEL to semiconductor chips in National Semiconductor to high-end IP development in Rambus, it was a journey that helped me to touch all aspects of Electronics System Design & Manufacturing (ESDM) very closely. Learning at Rambus was immense. Rambus is a company that always developed IPs which the world needed 2-3 years later. They set the new future specifications and built IPs for those specs which then become the de-facto industry standard in course of time. Rubbing shoulders with the thought leaders in some of the technologies that are used widely today was memorable,” says Krishna.
In the same year, 2015, when he became the VP at Rambus, he also got selected to be the Vice Chairman of IESA, the organisation that he is the CEO & President of today. Krishna was the Chairman of IESA in 2016 as well. He had been in touch with IESA since his working with National Semiconductor days, which gave him a chance to contribute to the cause of IESA as a full-time member.
Krishna and the team at National Semiconductor were also responsible for establishing the first advanced VLSI lab at IIT Kharagpur along with collaboration with a couple of other leading MNC companies. As the industry started reaping benefits of the advanced VLSI lab in the form of much more capable engineers coming out whom they wanted to hire, Krishna and the National Semiconductor team started becoming more and more known in the semiconductor industry.
“That sort of established a rapport with many of the semiconductor companies. I was a regular to IESA events, and when the nominations and the selection process happened, the members asked to nominate my name. Once selected for Vice Chairman, you get elevated to being Chairman during the next year,” explains Krishna.
Today, Krishna is working to bring up and foster an environment for the growth of semiconductor industry in India through IESA. Everything he has done in his professional life, from designing systems and ASICs in BEL to understanding semiconductors and ecosystem at National Semiconductor and Rambus, are being leveraged towards the growth of electronics and semiconductors in the country. The likes of Tata Group announcing their foray into the semiconductor domain recently probably says that it is time for India to get into semiconductor manufacturing, now that we are well entrenched in design.
But being a leader comes with a price, a price that you have to pay every day by trying to balance your work and life, and a price that you pay in saying no to favours to colleagues! “Work life balance becomes a very big challenge when you’re working for a multinational company. Your day starts depending on the organisation and its location. Practically, you are following the Sun, that is, 6 AM to almost midnight. But it is not the same every day,” says Krishna.
He adds, “You have to be clear about the priorities. You have to be clear about work on work-days and clear about family on non-work days. There is no ideal solution but being clear about your priorities is what’s the best you can do. There will always be work-life challenges, and upwards you move towards bigger responsibilities like being a managing director, bigger the challenges will become in terms of work-life balance.”
UCLA MS graduation of Krishna’s son Aswath
Not the only balance
Work-life balance is not the only balance that Krishna has to take care of as he is also the CEO of IESA, which simply means that he also has to live up to the expectations of all players in India’s electronics and semiconductors industry, be it MNCs, Indian corporates, incubators, startups, or MSMEs. For example, when representing to the government for a new policy, he has to ensure that IESA represents the need for growth opportunities for all, without alienating or aggrieving any of the member groups in IESA. We are in a time period when it is believed that being in India now and being in the electronics industry is once in a lifetime of opportunities.
Moreover, the government of India has shown keen interest in establishing a local ecosystem for fostering the semiconductor industry, and Krishna heading IESA needs to make sure that the requests of the industry are placed on the government’s table with accuracy, pragmatism, and transparency for favourable consideration. “It is of utmost importance to set the right expectations when you are talking to your industry members. You have to clearly convey to the industry about the policy making mechanisms and how they work. And likewise, clearly articulate to the government the shortterm and long-term policy interventions needed for this sector. That is the first step,” explains Krishna about how he positions the industry association IESA.
He does not shy away from praising the central government and some state governments for the way these have functioned in the last five to six years. He is of the view that the central government has accelerated work on many fronts including semiconductors during the last five years. So also, many state governments. “We are not a country with infinite resources and the governments have to assign priorities where it makes maximum impact. All of us need to understand this,” says Krishna.
“The present government instead of making the industry work in sync with it has started working in sync with the industry. It has already started going more than half-way. The biggest change that I feel is happening is that instead of the industry getting into a monologue with the government, there is a healthy dialogue happening between the two. Both sides approach each other with respect and clear understanding that there will be problems to understand and solve, and a sense of optimism has filled the air,” says Krishna.
And now comes the second biggest challenge, the challenge of saying no to those seeking favours. Krishna says, “Yes, people ask for favours. There are two ways of saying no. First you, from the very beginning, should create an environment around you which tells people that you are a no-nonsense guy. They should get the message that any favours asked that are ethically not correct or are favours which will only benefit a few and not the industry at large that you represent, will not get any ears,” says Krishna. He adds, “This is one practice I have followed from as early as my days with BEL. Once people know the kind of person you are, they will not come near you asking for favours.”
But what about saying no to things which are ethical and compliant to the laws of the land but still can’t be done due to some reason? Krishna says, “The best way is to sit across with the persons involved and explain to them why it can’t be done. One should never underestimate the power of dialogue. Always convey your thoughts and reasons to the parties involved in a round table, face-to-face.”
Round the clock support
There has been someone standing tall with Krishna during all the greats he has achieved and all the tough times he has gone through. This person was the strongest pillar in his success when he switched careers from the central PSU job to private sector. Krishna got married to Subhalakshmi when he was 29.
It was an arranged marriage, but the two families knew each other earlier. Like Krishna, Mrs Moorthy is also an Electronics and Communications engineer. She was also among the top 45 students who got admission to the degree course in CET, Trivandrum. As a matter of fact, there are four engineers living under the same roof in Krishna’s home. His son Aswath and daughter-in-law Bhavya, now settled abroad, are also engineers.
K. Krishna Moorthy with his wife Shubhalakshmi, son Aswath, and daughter-in-law Bhavya
Mrs Moorthy, as Krishna explains, has been the biggest source of support in his life. “My transition from a PSU to a private company demanded a lot of time at work and, as always, at that time she took great care of me, Some less known facts about K. Krishna Moorthy Favourite Actress – Sridevi Favourite Actor – Clint Eastwood Favourite Movie – Mackenna’s Gold Favourite Song – Kabhi Kabhi Mere Dil Mein Khayal Aata Hai Favourite Musician – Dr K.J. Yesudas Favourite Leader – Tie Between Mrs. Indira Gandhi and Mr. Narendra Modi (different era and different challenges) Veg or Non-Veg – Vegetarian Favourite Food – Dosa Cars or Bikes – Cars Car I drive – Honda City Dream Car – BMW Favourite Book(s) – ‘Art of man making’ by Swami Chinmayananda ji and ‘You Can Win’ by Shiv Khera our son, and my entire family. If not for her I would not have been able to concentrate as much as I did on my work,” Krishna explains.
Mrs Moorthy recently retired from the post of deputy director from ISRO. She has been a highly accomplished space scientist in her entire professional life, and even then, she has been able to support her husband at every junction and road. “The first gift I bought for her was something I think was the most romantic thing I have ever done. It was a dress she loved and that made me smile like never before,” shares a blushing Krishna.
Yes, the couple do have healthy arguments around what are the better ways of doing work efficiently, be at home or in the field of electronics. Most of the times, as Krishna tells us, Mrs Moorthy comes out as a winner. The couple is possibly the only one to have been honoured with IEEE Technologist of the Year award by IEEE Bangalore. While Krishna got the award in 2019, Mrs Moorthy bagged the award in 2020. Mrs Moorthy is also an accomplished Carnatic vocalist and a high-grade artist of All India Radio, Bangalore, and is very prominent in the music concert circles in India and abroad.
Krishna’s son Aswath did his engineering from BITS Pilani and completed MS in Microelectronics from UCLA California before working with Infineon for four-and-a-half years. He then completed his MBA from the Kellogg School of Management, Chicago, United States, and is now working with Amazon as a senior product manager. Krishna is proud of how his son had made the most out of his educational life. “I studied the book on analogue circuits written by Mr Rezavi of UCLA and my son was taught by Mr Rezavi himself at UCLA,” muses Krishna. His daughter-in-law, Bhavya, is a software engineer specialised in Cloud Computing as well as a trained classical Bharatanatyam dancer.
“The whole career and many milestones in life are a great thing. What’s better is the kind of relationship I have been able to build in my entire life. When I celebrated my son’s marriage two years back, I had classmates from my school and engineering college, and colleagues from BEL, National, Rambus, and IESA attending that marriage. These are the kind of relationships I am happy to have invested time to build on, the relationships that stay with you for eternity,” says a grateful Krishna.
When Krishna decided to call it quits from the corporate world last year, not only the team at Rambus gave him a grand farewell, the erstwhile National Semiconductor colleagues, the company he had quit almost ten years ago, also requested him to be a part of a grand lunch that they had organised in his honour. “I was overwhelmed and speechless,” says an emotional Krishna.
“Now in my fourth and final professional innings, I can say that India is already a semiconductor design leader with most of the MNCs who-is-who in semiconductors leveraging India’s design talent to design for the world. Now I have a simple aim, and that is to make India the electronics and semiconductor manufacturing powerhouse of the world and manufacture for the world. By the turn of this decade, it will be a trillion dollar digital economy we are talking about. It has to happen. By 2025, India will be the third largest consumer of electronic products in the world and the fifth largest manufacturer of electronics, as per industry reports. Just think of the millions of jobs it will create and the economic force multiplier it is poised to become. Personally, I can’t think of anything better than a platform like IESA to help this ecosystem and fuel that dream, and am delighted to be its CEO to give back to the industry and further its cause,” concludes Krishna.