David K. Lam, 53, is now a technology and
business adviser in the semiconductor equipment industry, but is known
for founding Lam Research Corp. in 1980. Lam Research introduced the
industry's first microprocessor-controlled single-wafer plasma etcher
for semiconductor production.
Before founding Lam Research, he worked
for Hewlett-Packard Co., Xerox Corp. and Texas Instruments Inc. He also
engineered the turnaround of Link Technologies, a computer-terminal
company that was sold to Wyse Technology Inc. in 1987. Lam also led
software development and marketing at ExpertEdge before forming his
Lam, who was born in China and grew up in
Vietnam and Hong Kong, spoke with writer Joyce Gemperlein and student
Sandra Ledbetter .
Ledbetter: What did you want to become when you were a child?
Lam: It's a very interesting question
because it has some cultural content in it. When we were children, all
we wanted to do was please our parents, and our parents had very tough
requirements on doing well in school. So what we wanted to do was
whatever they wanted us to do. And as a young child perhaps, my
objective was to do well in school and, hopefully, to go to college. And
not a whole lot beyond that, unfortunately.
Gemperlein: Could you describe where
you lived when you were growing up?
Lam: I was growing up in South Vietnam.
And my father was a business person. My early years were surrounded by a
lot of civil war within South Vietnam. And we had learned to duck under
the bed when we heard machine guns in the streets because of some
insurgencies within the country. The beginning of a civil war. Later on,
the French decided to move away, and the Americans decided to come in.
And that became what is known as the Vietnam War. So, as a child, I
think the safety was always one thing very much in my mind, and the
other thing was to do well in school . . .
I finished all my high school and part of
junior high in Hong Kong. When my parents decided that (Vietnam) was too
dangerous a place for us to stay and grow up, my father decided to send
all brothers and sisters there (to Hong Kong). That was in about 1956.
That was the time when the war began to expand.
Gemperlein: Did they stay behind?
Yes. So I didn't get to see my parents very often. Maybe a few times a
year when I was 13. So I learned to be
independent, learned to survive in a new environment. Hong Kong
was, to me, an extraordinarily complex society compared to the very
simple life of South Vietnam. So I was very scared. I had no friends. So
I began to learn how to make friends, how to survive as a youngster. In
a way, thinking back, that had trained me to be a little bit more
adventurous perhaps. Because I didn't always have the close protection
of a home environment.
Gemperlein: What was, perhaps, the biggest mistake you made in your
life or a life experience that you've related to your children to help
them in their lives in business?
Lam: Well, one of the biggest mistakes,
perhaps one kind of sticks in my mind. This is going to be a bit
embarrassing to say because, if my son happened to hear this, he would
probably kind of find it (that way).
I don't think I have told him exactly.
This was the ninth grade. My son had just joined the speech and debate
team. He wanted to do a good speech; he wrote up his entire speech, the
very first one. And he showed it to me. And I used to participate in
speech, too, in high school. I looked at it and I said, 'Gosh, how could
you write some junk like that?' And I must have said something extremely
critical and very discouraging. And I said, 'You've got to rewrite this
He went back to his room and kind of
closed the door. So I followed in with him and sat next to his bed, and
he was crying. So I said, 'What's the matter?' He said, 'I thought you
would be proud of me.' And right around that time, I realized I made
some terrible mistakes. Because by being a good parent, I was overly
critical. Actually, the speech was not too bad for someone who wrote it
for the first time. So I felt very, very embarrassed, so I helped him to
kind of rewrite some part of it. And, for the next three years, he never
showed me any of his speeches again. I later on found out . . . he had
moved up in speech all the way to the very top and became the school's
top speech performer. And only when he was getting to grade 12, I sat
down with him one day. I said: 'You know, way back when you were in
ninth grade . . .' and I recounted the incident. I said, 'You know one
thing. We became parents overnight; doesn't mean that we are very good
at it. Just because we had a child doesn't mean that we have learned all
of the things. And, not only that, as you grow up, the needs are
different. The way we deal with you is very different, and I remember I
made some terrible mistakes a few years ago when you were in ninth
And I said, 'I hope that you don't hold
any grudge against me.' He said, 'Oh, no, no, no.' And I know he just
said that. But that's good enough. He said he remembered the incident,
but it's OK now. Two weeks later, he came by my little study. He said,
'Dad, would you like to take a look at this?' So I know that I closed
that chapter. He went on to do very well later on.