Ledbetter: Were there times when you were frustrated and discouraged
with what you were trying to do and, if so, how did you get past that?
Lam: Yes. In fact, . . . the first
year, even the first two years of Lam Research, were relatively - I
wouldn't say easy - but more predictable. Because it involved technical
things like designing the equipment, producing the prototype and
testing, and making it a shippable product in the first couple of years.
We got the first order a year and a half
into the beginning of Lam Research, and I was very happy. We literally
popped a champagne bottle, you know, for the first order.
The tough things, however, came in the
follow-on orders. Because once we got out in the marketplace, our
competitors knew about it. So, now they put all their guns aiming at me,
and I was still struggling to get up, you know, get the company going.
And they were so experienced in many different ways, particularly in
sales. So I was having a hard time.
Plus, during the recession years, '80,
'81 and '82, most companies were holding up buying capital equipment.
Capital equipment was always the first one to be shut off whenever they
see a downturn in the economy. They would use whatever they've already
The thing that helped the company was
that I was introduced to someone who was much stronger, much more
experienced in sales. So between Roger Emerick, who now is the chairman
and CEO of Lam, and myself, who complemented him in technology, in
marketing, in certain aspects of customer supports and field service,
the two of us really got the company going, particularly in 1983, and
then we took the company public in 1984. And, of course, Lam Research
now is a world-recognized leader, and with over $1 billion in sales.
Ledbetter: What advice do you have about college for young people?
Lam: Well, to some extent, I think, it
depends on the field that you choose to go in. For example, if you're
interested in engineering, there are probably 10, 20, 30 good colleges,
colleges which are particularly good in engineering. If you happen to
like, say, chemistry, there are also a lot of schools which are good in
I have seen a lot of people who came out
of top colleges. They thought they were so great because these colleges
have great reputations and name. And they thought they had learned all
there is to learn. Literally. They stopped learning. After they got the
advanced degree. And there was the most unfortunate thing. So, really,
you make what you are rather than the college itself.
Ledbetter: How will technology change education? Do you feel that it
has already, or that it's not done enough to help the education system
in this country?
Lam: That is a very tough question to
answer. I must say that I have not really got down to the classroom
One of the things I did notice is that
the use of computers in school has become so common now. I think that's
very good. Even in my son's high school, they have computer rooms for
them to edit the newspaper and for them to do all kinds of things.
But schools tend to be always one or two
steps behind industry.
That's why I continue to emphasize
learning is a lifelong thing. You just learn different things in
different environments for different objectives.
Gemperlein: Do you think the high-tech community has done enough to
help people who are poor and help social causes?
Lam: In Silicon Valley? In general?
Probably not. I hope that that will change, and I think it is changing
in some ways for the better. Every time there is an economic downturn,
and there are a number of them, because business seems to come in cycles
. . . the source of funding to non-profits to help kids and other
community needs tends to be shut off.
What I hope to see happen is that each
and every company in Silicon Valley would set aside a small percentage
of their profits dedicated for community needs. Using that as a source
of funding for non-profits. Many non-profits today are struggling,
because the earlier reliance on government funding has stopped. So now
they have to turn to businesses for more help, and businesses are not
quite ready to step up to the plate.
But if a small percentage tied to net
profit can be set aside, in each company, for purpose of funding
non-profits, I think that would provide a little more steady, more
predictable, more reliable and dependable source for non-profits,
including helping with poor children and poor families.
Gemperlein: Can you tell us what you're working on now? Or what you're
Lam: It's not been announced yet,
Joyce. I'd like to keep it under wraps for a little longer.
Gemperlein: Do you think technology drives a wedge deeper between
haves and have-nots? Or is there some way it's going to help race
relations and poor people and rich people get along better?
Lam: I don't believe I'm able to answer
that question well. I think that when technology first came into
existence, there could be some problems like that. As computers are
getting less and less expensive, there are ways to get around that. But
it always happens in the early stages of the new technology being used
by a lot of people, there are always going to be those issues that
society has to face as a result. But over time, it will be solved, I
Gemperlein: What do you know now that you wish you'd have known when
you were Sandra's age?
Lam: When I started Lam Research, I
suddenly realized a major dimension in life that I had ignored, which is
to develop people skills. Develop my intuition.
One of the things that I did which most
other people don't do is, I somehow shut off my intuition and followed
very rigorous rules of analytical approach. In that sense, I had done
well in engineering. But I think at a small price, because I had to
learn some new things that I never learned.
And if I had not learned fast enough,
then I think it could affect my ability to do more. Because those are
two different dimensions. So I would advise youngsters, young people, to
try to see the balance. On the one hand, it's very important to get an
interest in science and technology.
But in the end, it has to serve mankind.
It has to. There's a dimension where you eventually have to deal with,
that is with the people, not just things, not just designs and
prototypes and numbers, but also people, their needs and their wants,
and how do you use science to better our life as a whole?
David K. Lam says his analytical approach
to business wasn't enough to get his company off the ground - it also required developing