A Low-Silicon Diet

On March 25, 2014, in Investing, by Dave

After 17 years in the semiconductor (silicon) industry, I am switching to software.  Why?  Many reasons, but one is worth blogging about.  I believe the long-term trend is economic contraction in hardware (silicon), and significant growth in software.

The trends I see are secular trends — a fancy way of saying very long-term. In fact the trends are just a continuation of the trends of the last few decades.  What ever you call it — hardware, silicon, or electronics — continues to be commoditized:

  • DRAM becomes a commodity — 1980s.
  • Storage (hard drives) become commodities — late 80s, early 90s.
  • Chip-sets  – late 90s.
  • Low-end graphics: early 2000
  • Other sub-systems: Ethernet, audio, USB, PCIe, cable-modems, etc.  Early 2000s
  • 64-bit computing — 2004
  • Routers, Cable Modems — late 2000′s
  • Mid-range graphics — late 2000′s, early ’10s
  • SSDs — 2014

The transition from premium product to commodity is a continuum.  A premium product does not become a commodity overnight.  The premium just gradually decreases for a given class of products.  Another was of saying this is that profit margins gradually erode as competing products accelerate the “race to the bottom.”

Today some of the last hold-outs — high-performance, high-reliability computing, and high-end graphics — are showing early signs of diminishing premiums.   Some analog and mix-signal silicon commands premium prices too.  However, the overarching trend is towards lower profit margins.

This tectonic shift in silicon margins will create winners and losers.  Consumers, technology users, and software vendors will tend to be favored.  Hardware suppliers will tend to face headwinds.  Similarly, those who work in software-related fields will tend to benefit, while those working in hardware-related fields will tend to become stuck in a low-growth environment.

Commoditization is not the end of the road.   After all, oil is a commodity that makes billions of dollars per year for companies like XOM.   It simply means that gross profit margins for silicon are likely to fall from 60% to perhaps 30% in the next 5-10 years.

Overall, I expect silicon volume (units) to keep increasing, silicon revenue to modestly increase, while silicon profit and profit margins decrease.  The mantra of “silicon everywhere” is misleading, while the model of cheap silicon everywhere” is quite apt.

Conversely, I see a brighter future in software, app, and web development.  Online retail revenue was about 6.5% in 2013, but the upward trend is strong. Hosting E-business in the cloud will become cheaper as hardware performance increases while hardware cost decreases (and hardware performance/Watt improves).  In this environment of healthy growth, software will differentiate; content will differentiate; and hardware will simply serve.

 

 

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My employer and I are parting ways after nine and a half years together.  It is an amicable separation, and I wish the [unnamed] technology corporation, and especially my soon-to-be coworkers the very best.  I am happy that the severance package is reasonably generous.

I feel a bit bad for my coworkers because they still face the same aggressive schedules but with about 30 fewer engineers.  However, the company is actively working to reduce headcount, and those left behind almost always bear greater burdens on their lives.  Sixty-hour weeks are not uncommon in the tech industry, and over the years I’ve endured the occasional 100-hour week. When that happens, breakfast, lunch, and dinner is brought in because there is no time to eat otherwise.

There was a time when I didn’t mind fifty- and sixty-hour weeks.  But that was when everything was new, exciting, and fun.  That was when I worked at the “old HP”, where almost anything was possible.  In the beginning I learned something new almost daily, and I love learning.

Here is why this “job separation” feels like a good thing:

  1. Severance pay is a nice perk.
  2. I believe my best talents are wasted in my current role.
  3. There is virtually nothing for me to learn in my current role.
  4. The is little chance of me moving to a significantly different role (within the corporation).
  5. I will never get rich working for a large corporation, unless I build it myself.
  6. Going to work feels like stepping into the Matrix.
  7. True creativity is treated like the flu… people avoid it as much as possible.
  8. I am willing to bet on myself and my talents!

I am passionate about creativity and I have largely refused to drink the corporate Kool-Aid.  Pretending to be a Kool-Aid drinker is extremely taxing, and feels disingenuous.

Creativity is more habit than raw talent.  Creativity can be exercised and developed, or it can be quashed and stifled.  Creativity is dangerous to boring people and their boring jobs.  In contrast, creativity is energizing to interesting and open-minded people.

I prefer to use my energy to improve the world in my own unique way, and with my own unique, somewhat flamboyant style.  I can relate from repeated managerial feedback that my style is not appreciated by former employer.  My style is friendly, lively, and centered around humor with a touch of sarcasm.  Liveliness, humor, and particularly sarcasm are not appreciated in my former corporate realm.  What passes for humor is so sanitized that any pre-existing wit is sublimed into the corporate HEPA filter of political correctness, anxiety, self-censorship and banality.  That culture is one reason this [unamed] corporation’s advertisements are so uninspired.

I am managing my own company now.  It is a start-up, and it is my passion.  It is being built around disruptive technology — technology that will make waves in the world of investing. Technology that few will understand, but which produces results that almost anyone can appreciate.  The culture of this new company will be based on a simple idea — be bold.

 

 

 

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It’s hard, but I believe that if you can’t find a job then make a job.  I have been working or in school (or both) since age 11 or 12.  I had a shared a paper route with another paperboy (delivering alternate weeks) for a couple years.  I worked odd jobs while in junior high and high school including painting fences, mowing lawns and babysitting.  In late high school I had summer jobs doing things like HVAC maintenance (as an assistant/gopher), a surveying assistant, and installing Ethernet cable.  I even did freelance work for a small/medium-sized publishing company, producing graphics and slides and sent in over a 2400-baud modem.

I always found a job, because a) I needed the money for college, b) I was willing to take what I could find.

Now that I am a professional I have steady work.   I’ve also continued to be an entrepreneur as I worked.  If I was laid off and couldn’t find work I’d like to believe that I would continue to pursue my entrepreneurial effort.  I’d take part-time work (like I did during my school years) to pay for the basics.

I write this after having returned from an internet entrepreneurial group meetup.  I get to meet and reacquaint with other entrepreneurs at varies levels in the entrepreneurial process, from “haven’t a clue, just getting started” to “been self-employed for 20+ years”.

If your are unemployed, I’d encourage you to consider what job you would like to create for yourself.  Sure, keep applying for “regular” jobs to, and if a good-enough one comes around, take it.  In the mean time apply yourself to developing your own small business.  I recommend something with low start-up costs, and something that you have a passion for.  You may find yourself developing new and valuable skills in the processes…  Discover talents you didn’t know you had.

You may, just may succeed in creating a wonderful business.  Even if you don’t, you will learn more about yourself, your talents and what you really like (and don’t like).  So when you do land that cushy corporate job, you will have a better idea of how to shape your career.  Even after landing that job, you might find yourself dabbling in entrepreneurial enterprises.

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