With over $10 million in global semiconductor sales and a growing design team in Edinburgh, indie Semiconductor is a Californian company coming to Scotland with a bang. After getting to know their CEO Donald McClymont and find out why they chose Edinburgh, I wanted to find out more about the technology behind the company and how they came to be, so who better to speak to than Chief Technology Officer, Scott Kee.
As CTO, Scott is responsible for the technology decisions and the direction that the company takes. He is a skilled software, analogue and digital engineer, meaning he is involved in all aspects of the designs that indie Semiconductor does. With an impressive background, he is one of two indie semiconductor founders who obtained their Ph.D from the world-renowned Caltech University in California.
Hi Scott! Firstly tell us how you got into electronics and how you got to where you are now?
Growing up I was just a natural engineer, I guess. I was the kind of guy who liked to take things apart and put them back together again, mostly back the way I took them apart but not always. I come from a family of engineers so it was natural I suppose. I liked to take apart electrical stuff, I like music a lot, so amplifiers and guitars, plus I like computers, so both those things combined together pushed me in that direction. Went to school, liked it, and then kept going.
I went to University of Delaware, which was an interesting school at the time because they were attempting to make an ambitious leap from a mid level school to a top-tier school and so they hired a bunch of young engineering professors who were looking for research assistants. There was a great mix; you got these young guys who were really ambitious with lots of great interesting ideas and the sort of older crowds from the traditional days who were more interested in mentoring students and taking them under their wing. It was the perfect combination for me so I decided to go there.
One professor I had been working with at Delaware had got me involved in what was almost borderline applied physics more than electronic engineering projects, which made me an interesting candidate for a group at Caltech. There I met indie Semiconductor co-founder Ichiro Aoki. (This is actually company number 3 for Ichiro, who had founded his first highly successful electronics company whilst still in school in Brazil). Ichiro and I worked well together as engineering buddies.
The work we were doing in school was quite compatible with starting a company, making cellular phone power amplifiers far cheaper and at lower manufacturing costs compared with competing technologies at the time, and in theory could increase integration with other parts of the cellphone, reducing not just cost but size too. We wanted to strike while the iron was hot so we recruited Donald, who at the time was VP of Marketing for Axiom Microdevices (a multimillion dollar electronics company later acquired by Skyworks), and took it from there. We kept adding more customers and adding products and here we are.
Our very first customer as AyDeeKay (indie Semiconductor’s original company name) was actually Ichiro’s previous Brazilian company, and their product is still selling today.
Following this success, what advice would you give to young aspiring engineers? What opportunities are there for them at indie Semiconductor?
It depends on what they are looking for. When I was an engineer all I wanted to do was learn things, build more capabilities and create fun stuff. In terms of what opportunities there are in our company then we’re a flat organisation; everyone, not just the engineers, has full visibility of everything that is going on. The distinction between a design engineer on the implementation side or the technical marketing product specification side of things is less clear in our company as people get to be involved in both.
You find that if you are an engineer in our company, you have more ownership of the product, you’re more likely to be interacting with the customer directly and you are going to be experiencing multiple disciplines, not just one. Participating in multiple disciplines is down to your abilities and your interest but you are at least going to be in much more variety than you might in a larger company where you may be pigeon holed into one particular little work area.
It would be highly attractive for me as a student/ young engineer. It’s sort of down to your personality – how much do you like to see how things are done? A lot of engineers never actually get to hold in their hand the part their design ended up in. For engineers who like to see the customer side of the product and are interested in taking ownership of the product, you get to see the whole thing.
I have found the engineers here are often better rounded, which is compatible with what we are looking for. We are trying to get people to understand how the systems are put together, generate their own specs, directly speak to customers and find out what they want and well-rounded engineers are ideal for that.
Because of the opportunities available in south California, a good percentage of engineers there tend to get specialized; they tend to be better at working in large teams, having somebody tell them what to do and following instructions. Which means that if you hire them in then they wouldn’t be quite right for a company which likes you to work independently and use your initiative. We have been impressed with the quality of engineers here in Scotland for these reasons.
The design team is in Edinburgh with the head office in California. How do you envisage the Scotland team and the US team working together as the team gets bigger?
So far it’s been easy as the disciplines have been split but it’s unlikely that will continue. Right now the bulk of the digital design expertise is in Edinburgh and we are building out our CAD and EDA expertise here too. The genesis of the design centre here was the personal contacts with digital engineers in the area. We needed digital engineers, so that was the solution to the problem and I am glad we have come here and met some very talented people.
In terms of the interaction, we run a large amount of small projects compared to some other companies where you may have a team of say 30 people all working on one project and it’s tightly coordinated. It works pretty well, the chips individually might have a smaller group of people working on them and even those tasks can be segmented fairly easily.
Time Zone is tricky however a large portion of our time is between 5pm and 6pm calls to handle the cross Atlantic difference, a lot can be done via email or various other electronic means, however it hasn’t been a problem so far I have to say.
So tell me what do you love most about being in Scotland?
I like the city, Edinburgh. I like to walk around, it’s very much a walking around city. The verticality is impressive, walking down to the medieval part of the city is great and people are nice here. You can go into the pub and people will just talk to you, it’s a friendly city. The atmosphere here allows you to sit around, meet people and talk. The food’s good too, I can eat a large amount of haggis.
So there you have it, a closer look behind indie Semiconductor’s technology tale. If you would like to join the indie Semiconductor team in Edinburgh or Southern California then contact Ben Hanley on + 44 141 332 4422 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.