Silicon Valley's Women Engineers

Peek over and around the cubicles at Bay Microsystems and you see the face of Silicon Valley.

The company chairman grew up in Indonesia. The president is from India. The vice president for engineering emigrated from Taiwan. The chief architect left Vietnam in 1984.

The three dozen engineers working to design a cutting-edge chip for the Internet, come from the United States, Taiwan, China, Japan, Malaysia and Iran.

It has been part of the Silicon Valley story forever. Ambitious risk-takers in business and technology have been drawn to this place -- first from around the country and more recently from around the globe. They are pioneers seeking to change the world or their lives or the lives of their families.

And like always, there is more that holds them together than sets them apart. At Bay, it's all about the chip.

``They all got together with one cause: We are going to get this out,'' says Ash Dhar, the president who moved from India in 1977.

And get it out quickly.

It's now late November and the company's engineers still haven't finished their detailed chip design. Originally, they planned to have the plans to the factory by mid-September. Then late September. And now, soon. Just soon.

Tick-tock. Tick-tock.

Company Chairman Rick Bleszynski, who grew up in Indonesia, distills the workers' shared risk to this: ``You can't put out the product, you close the door.''

While Bay's engineers have come from around the world, they speak a common language -- one that's foreign to those outside the trade. They talk of ``and gates,'' ``or gates'' and ``D-flip-flops.'' Water cooler chat involves ``place and route,'' ``PCUs,'' ``FPUs,'' and ``clock trees.''

The engineers share a common culture of speed and secrecy; a culture fueled by coffee, bulk snacks from Costco and nightly carry-in from Bento Box, In-N-Out Burger, Boston Market and Pizza Chicago.

There is the desire to go where no one has gone before and everyone understands that.

``It's the satisfaction, I guess, of building a complicated chip and making it work,'' says Man Trinh, 31, the chip architecture expert from Vietnam. ``I enjoy the challenge.''

Most of those at Bay are industry veterans who've worked for years in Silicon Valley. For many, the move to Bay was a shot at making their mark on the next frontier in semiconductors.

Gilbert Huang, a verification engineer, had been working on chips headed for DVD players when Bay Microsystems came calling.

``I thought it was a good idea to switch my industry from a more mature industry to one that's still pretty new, in its infancy really,'' says Huang, 27, who emigrated from Taiwan.

Joining Bay to design network processors, he says, is what it must have been like to join Intel or Texas Instruments in the beginning.

Veronique Yur, who also grew up in Taiwan, has been fascinated by the Internet since graduate school. In 1993, she figured Silicon Valley was the place to be. She went to work for Bay Networks and 3Com and decided in the spring of 2000 that she could learn the most and learn it the fastest at a start-up.

``The Internet has changed people's lives dramatically,'' she says, ``and hopefully it's a good change for everybody.''

For all of Bay's diversity, Yur is one of two women engineers at the company, a situation she says she's used to. She's been in a small minority since engineering school.

``People, probably, they will trust male engineers more. They'll feel they're a little more capable,'' she says. ``That means a female engineer has to work a little harder to prove they're capable.''

For Goichiro Ono, the decision to leave Japan for Silicon Valley was a tough one. The senior engineer says that when he moved in 1994, it was still unusual for Japanese workers to change jobs. His friends told him he was crazy to move to the United States. Managers said he was betraying them. His boss said he'd never make it in America.

But Ono talked it over with his wife and he thought about Hideo Nomo.

Nomo, a Japanese pitching sensation, was making rumblings about playing in the U.S. big leagues. Japanese fans were outraged. The criticism -- that he was betraying his country and would fail in the bigs -- sounded familiar to Ono. But Nomo stood firm and eventually became an ace for the Dodgers and a national hero back in Japan.

Ono signed with C-Cube, a Milpitas company working on chips for digital video machines. That's where he met Tony Chiang, now Bay's vice president of engineering. When Chiang offered Ono a job at Bay in September 2000, Ono was ready to change jobs again.

``These were serious guys,'' Ono says of his co-workers, ``not guys to do something frivolous.''

No. Bay Microsystems would never be confused with the next wacky Silicon Valley start-up. (Remember those?) There are no frills. The furniture is used. The walls are all but bare.

There are no squirt guns or Coke can pyramids. No Silly Putty or silliness. The one concession to Silicon Valley frivolity: a small golf putting game.

It is telling that Bay has no big blow-out planned to celebrate the day engineers actually finish the detailed chip design. Dhar had wanted to mark the occasion by inviting Intel Chairman Andy Grove, a semiconductor superstar, to address the troops. But Grove declined.

So now Dhar is saying maybe he'll get a cake for the big day.

Then again, that requires that there be a big day, that Bay's engineers actually wrap up the blueprint for their debut chip. It's late November. That goal is proving elusive. And the clock is ticking louder.


Women Engineers in Silicon Valley