After More Than Five Decades in Tech, Ray Zinn Looks Back

Don Tennant

Last week, I wrote a post about Ray Zinn, a technology  industry legend who earlier this year reluctantly gave in to what he calls “acquisition mania.” That painful acquiescence came in the form of selling Micrel, the semiconductor company he founded in Silicon Valley 37 years ago, to a rival. As I noted in that post, “to say Zinn is bitter is probably an overstatement. To say he is disappointed is unquestionably an understatement.” Here’s another unquestionable understatement for you: Zinn has seen a lot.

“If you’ve been around for 52 years, then you have been around as long as I’ve been in the industry,” Zinn said in my recent interview with him. “There’s nobody on Earth, living today, who’s been in the industry longer than I have.” Widely heralded as the longest-serving CEO of a public company in Silicon Valley, Zinn has a perspective that few, if any, others have. I wanted to get a sense of how he thinks the Valley has changed for the better over the years, and when I asked him about that, Zinn’s response left no doubt that he’s a technologist at heart. He spoke with the fascination of someone who, even after all these years, still marvels at the technology:

What we have done is produce technology that I never dreamed, even 20 years ago, that we could do. I had a hard time believing we could actually get much below the wavelength of light. Here we are producing chips now that are subsets of the wavelength of light, meaning down below 10 nanometers—we’re down to seven nanometers, according to IBM. So it’s amazing to me that Silicon Valley, or the semiconductor industry, has managed to allow us to have all of these fantastic devices. The software industry would exist, but it wouldn’t have the capability it has if it weren’t for semiconductors. So the advancement of technology has amazed even me—somebody who’s been in the industry for 52 years. We just keep breaking these barriers that I thought we had.

As you might expect, I also asked Zinn how he feels Silicon Valley has changed for the worse. He was characteristically candid in response:

We have outsourced so much, that at least in Silicon Valley, there are only a couple of fabs left—mine was one of them. So Silicon Valley is losing the manufacturing capability that it once had—there’s virtually no manufacturing being done in Silicon Valley—it’s all outsourced. That means that the technology to make these products is now outside of the U.S. You have countries now, like China and Korea specifically, who only want to have internal sourcing on semiconductors. That, to me, is dangerous. I’m concerned about the future of the industry if we keep migrating our technology outside of the United States. The United States, to me, represents the superpower of the world—it’s the technology giant that provides the products we need. We have moved from a country that used to consume over 70 or 80 percent of semiconductors, to now we’re consuming less than 20 percent. That means those other countries are now consuming more than we are, and that’s a concern. …The other thing is integrity. Integrity, to me, is doing what’s right when nobody’s watching. I think we lack a lot of integrity in the Valley. We tend to hide the bad news, and amplify the good news.


I noted that a lot has been written about sexism in Silicon Valley, so I asked Zinn what needs to be done to fix that problem. His response clearly indicated that he views the issue, and the solution, on a very fundamental level. He said men need to internalize, once and for all, the fact that women aren’t subordinate to them:

To me, the way I view things, women are better than men. Man comes from woman, not the other way around. The way we change [the sexism in Silicon Valley], of course, is we have to get these people to be more respectful of women—not looking at them as being subordinate to men. I’ve been married for 54 years, and I guarantee you I wouldn’t have been married that long if I held the view that my wife is less than I am. I am here because of my wife. My company is because of my wife. She is a great contributor to who I really am. So I would hire a woman any day, to perform any job. People have to believe that women have a place in the industry.

For the past several years, Zinn has been working on a book, scheduled for release in November, titled, “Tough Things First: Leadership Lessons from Silicon Valley's Longest Serving CEO.” I asked Zinn to encapsulate what the concept of “tough things first” is all about, and he explained it this way:

In life, we tend to wait to do the tough things, because we don’t like doing them—we tend to postpone things we don’t want to do. So it’s learning to love the things you hate. The more you’re willing to do the tough things, the more successful you’re going to be, because you get them out of the way, they won’t be nagging at you, and you’ll be more productive. You can probably improve how much you get done in a day by 15 to 20 percent if you do the tough things first. So if you habitually procrastinate, you have to break that habit. It does take work—it takes time and energy. Every morning, I ask myself what I don’t want to do, and that’s the very first thing I do. There’s not a single person on Earth who doesn’t have a list of things he doesn’t want to do.

As for what lies ahead for Zinn, he said he was able to cover a lot in “Tough Things First,” but there’s plenty more to fill a second book:

The fact that I’m a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, I think will be attractive to people who know Silicon Valley. I’ve operated in a very tough environment, and I’ve succeeded over 37 years. But there’s more to come—I’m far from dead. So you’ll see more.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.



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