Driving Innovation in a Complex Business Environment

Dr. Ashwin Ballal, CIO, KLA Tencor | Tuesday, 02 June 2015, 10:30 IST

KLA Tencor (NASDAQ: KLAC) is a provider of process control and yield management solutions and partners with customers around the world to develop state-of-the-art inspection and metrology technologies. Founded in the year 1976, the firm has a market cap of $11.28 billion.

Today, the semiconductor industry faces its most complex era to date. Concerns relating to Moore?s Law, EUV and the transition to 450mm manufacturing have posed recent challenges?moving scientific problems to engineering challenges. The need of the hour is to sort out as to how the industry can harness the innovation that drove this industry several decades ago, the ways business leaders can foster and drive such innovation among teams. More than ever, innovation must be driven by talent as well as the adoption of disruptive technologies.

Consumers are using more silicon than ever. In fact, in 2014, the semiconductor industry will produce more transistors in one year than grains of rice produced by mankind from 10,000 B.C. -2011. Since the first integrated circuit was created more than 50 years ago, the idea of transistors on silicon becoming the building blocks for processors has transformed nearly every facet of daily life. From smartphones and tablets, to televisions and refrigerators, the role ICs play is unavoidable. As CIO of KLA-Tencor Corporation, a leading supplier of process control and yield management solutions for the semiconductor industry, I am constantly focused on IC technology, as we are dependent on chips to power our daily devices.

In my position, the staggering pace of technology still inspires me and challenges me every day. As a company, KLA-Tencor is a key enabler for the digital age. The ?magic behind the gadget,? our technology touches nearly every chip in mobile device market. As innovators fueling this market, we are also tasked every day to collaborate and innovate through technology? thus enabling our customers in their development of next generation devices.

Disruptive Technology

The role of CIO can be challenging. Aside from strategic planning and roadmap development, effectively running IT operations, driving cost efficiencies, deploying new systems and managing enterprise risk are all on my to-do list on any given day. At KLA-Tencor, I am responsible for all global information systems and most digital assets for over 6,000 employees worldwide. Every day I am confronted with the challenge of managing efficiencies, enabling productivity, collaboration, and driving innovation all concurrently.

As the complexity of our business increases and our global infrastructure and technology grows, the ability to meet these challenges in a conventional way is not enough. I have turned to embracing alternative disruptive ideas and concepts, such as cognitive computing, to help generate new ways of learning, problem solving and collaborating with our engineering and product teams. One exciting example we have implemented is harvesting petabytes of structured and unstructured data to generate new insights for our product engineering teams to rapidly solve complex customer problems, and to lend to analytic perspectives for next generation tool development. Another example, designed for our field service engineers, has been providing them with a social computing platform for more efficient, real-time communication to be able to remedy customer problems quickly.

I have even embraced the "disruptive" philosophy in my personal life, as well. As a young man in India, I wanted a change and a new perspective. To achieve that, I had to disrupt my normal way of life and go beyond my comfort zone. I believe it is this feeling that drives you to be better and shapes your learning experience. When I arrived to the U.S. at the age of 22, I was incredibly uncomfortable. If it wasn?t the Midwest winters while interning at General Motors, then it was adapting to a new culture and building a new life. Along the way, I experienced many failures, which was unnerving. However, I persevered by harnessing that energy and feedback, and I used it to move forward. Arriving in Silicon Valley after several different jobs and professional focuses, I am reassured that each experience and transition afforded me incredible opportunity. To this day, in the competitive and highly intellectual environment that comprises the Silicon Valley tech industry, I have learned how to thrive and endure despite facing adversity and many uncomfortable experiences.


I am passionate about driving an innovative culture, and am amazed at what motivates people and the leadership qualities required. I strongly believe that uncompromising integrity, drive, and intellectual curiosity are essential for a leader.

Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) education is another area of great interest to me. STEM professions are not being properly promoted to our young adults?63 percent of teens have never considered a career in STEM. Nor are they properly prepared for science and math courses when they reach college. As the semiconductor industry confronts a shallow pool of available talent due to qualified graduates, I am concerned that we will soon face an uphill battle filling the ranks of scientists, engineers and mathematicians that are needed to drive the next generation of technology that will extend Moore?s Law.

Innovation on the Open Road

IT is evolving. No longer can you just be a backend support centric department. Technology trends such as social, mobile, analytics and cloud are now at the forefront and impacting not only our company, but our customers as well. For KLA-Tencor, IT is very much a part of the company?s overall strategy on driving growth and innovation. We have built an incredible team that is diverse and dynamic by welcoming new college graduates and their fresh ideas. The blending of traditional and new IT structures has proved to be very beneficial?not only are we addressing incremental problems, but we are also tackling the larger, big-picture problems for our customers in a collaborative fashion.

There is no better time to be a CIO than today. So much so, that a new acronym moniker, Career In Overdrive, might be more appropriate. There is an exciting convergence of change, talent and disruptive technology underway that is paving the road for continued innovation. For those leaders who can adopt and foster this convergence, the future will be bright.

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