Please tell us about your work
Semiconductor invention is a methodical process, a complex dance that marries sophisticated design to the atomic features on each chip.
Intel plots those steps carefully, and each time it shrinks the circuits on its microprocessors, it pauses a year to give designers time to learn the dance.
Not this time. For its newest mobile chips, emerging this spring, the company has stopped waltzing. This time, Intel is getting jiggy with it.
Playing catch-up in the mobile market, the company ordered its engineers to do everything at once: leap ahead in mobile processor design and move onto smaller circuitry.
Intel handed the task of designing those new processors to Rani Borkar, an emphatic, high-tempo engineer who runs the company’s architecture group in Hillsboro.
Accustomed to leading the field in chip technology, Borkar began the project two years ago knowing she was way behind. Intel had already been shut out of the market for smartphones and was facing a similar fate in tablets.
What did you study?
I did my Master’s degree in physics from the University of Mumbai, India followed by master’s degree in electrical engineering from the Oregon Graduate Institute
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
The daughter of a nurse and a railway administrator, Borkar, 52, grew up outside Mumbai, India, dreaming of a career as a doctor, inspired by her mother’s dinnertime tales of drama from the hospital.
But Borkar didn’t get into medical school, and instead developed an interest in astrophysics. She worked for a time at the prestigious Nehru Planetarium, then moved to the U.S. to study at Louisiana State University.
Baton Rouge, swampy and remote, was a sleepy disappointment compared with bustling Mumbai. So after just a few months there, she changed course and headed west to study electrical engineering at the Oregon Graduate Institute.
Her future husband, a physics classmate from India, was an Intel engineer in Hillsboro. As they became reacquainted, he would speak of his work — then stop, saying “You wouldn’t understand.”
“I started taking VLSI (semiconductor) classes just to show him,” Borkar said, grinning at the memory. “You won’t understand? I will show you!”
Tell us about your career path
And she did. Borkar began her own career at Intel in 1988 and climbed the corporate ladder, joining the ranks of the chipmaker’s top executives in 2011. She oversees a team of hundreds of engineers working in Hillsboro and around the world in a division that goes by the unwieldy name of the Intel Architecture Development Group-a, more often just “IDGa.”
The two new processors out this spring, code-named Silvermont and Haswell, represent a high point in Borkar’s career, and a bit of a departure.
Rani Borkar led the design of Intel’s processors, which are more energy-efficient and responsive than their predecessors:
“I’ve been here 25 years,” she said. “I haven’t done a program of this magnitude this fast.”
And, Borkar acknowledges, Intel didn’t really have a choice.
Intel is the world’s largest chipmaker, a $53 billion company that dominates the market for microprocessors in PCs and corporate servers. In the emerging market for mobile technology, though, Intel has stumbled again and again.
The company sold off its own mobile processor business in 2006, the year before Apple released the first iPhone. As smartphones, and then tablets, surged in popularity, Intel simply had no microprocessor to meet the demand for nimble, energy-efficient computing.
So Apple, Samsung and all the other smartphone-makers chose designs from Intel rival ARM Holdings. Manufacturers picked ARM again three years later when the iPad hit the market, followed closely by other tablets.
“When people told me you have to do this change of direction, I was building a traditional PC,” Borkar recalled.
So she and the entire company switched course. Intel sought to make its new processors smarter, not stronger.
It envisioned mobile chips that used half the energy of prior Intel models, and a lightweight processor for PCs that’s more responsive, taking its cues from the advances made in mobile devices.
How does your day look like?
Decisions about the new designs are made on whiteboards in indistinguishable, windowless Hillsboro conference rooms. There, under pale, fluorescent lights, engineers hash out what’s desirable, and what’s possible, in a confrontational style that’s characteristically Intel.
“Sometimes you’ll see me having a roaring fight with a technical guy,” Borkar said.
All that barking notwithstanding, she said, they aren’t really fighting. It’s Borkar’s way of exploring an idea and challenging assumptions, to ensure that both she and her engineers have thought through where they’re going, and how they’ll get there.
“I’m not doing the day-to-day work at the computer, but yet, as an engineering lead if you don’t stay on your toes, these people are really smart,” she said. “They will not respect you.”
Borkar performs the same reality check on the home front. Whenever she brings home a new tablet design to test it out, her husband and two sons are the first ones to play with it. There, she said, her title as an Intel vice president buys her no special consideration.
“You’re just the mom and the wife at home,” Borkar said. “So if they think you’ve created a piece of crap they’ll tell you.”
Back at Intel’s Jones Farm campus in Hillsboro, inside one of those anonymous conference rooms, Borkar sat with six other engineers late last month and walked through the presentation Intel will make this coming week at a trade show in Taiwan when it formally unveils a new PC processor.