‘I told him to go and get me a 12-pack of Irish engineers’

Cypress Semiconductor chief TJ Rodgers welcomes our graduates but warns the Government to back off

Mon, Jul 1, 2013, 01:00

Common sense and problem-solving skills have propelled Irish engineers to the top in Silicon Valley, according to chief executive of Cypress Semiconductor TJ Rodgers.

Rodgers has been bringing Irish graduates to California since 1994 and set up a world-class design centre in Cork in 1998. He has about 50 Irish people working for him right now.

He said he would continue to hire Irish people to work in Ireland and the US as he looks for a new generation of world-class engineers and product developers.

“What I find about the Irish guys is they have a certain no-nonsense mentality,” he said. “I have a little bit of Irish in my background and my hometown in Wisconsin, it’s in the hinterland. I have a common, country-folk, business common sense about me and I recognise that right away and that’s what you get with a lot of the Irish guys.”

Rodgers’ love affair with Irish engineers began in 1994 when he hired a young graduate emigrant named Cathal Phelan.

He was rapidly promoted through the company and Rodgers said: “I asked him, ‘are there any more guys like you back in Ireland?’ And he said there are lots of them. So I told him to go and get me a 12-pack. He did that. He took a couple of trips, interviewed people and brought back a dozen Irish guys. Of that first dozen I probably still have seven or eight left and they were all important to us.”

One of those was Morgan Whately, a Dundalk man who Rodgers described as a “renegade” and a “contrarian” who is “unafraid to argue with the boss when he believes he’s right. He’s very self confident.”

Whately is now the design engineering director, heading up one of the company’s most important and financially lucrative divisions.

Entrepreneurial spirit
“One of the problems with the pedigree people,” Rodgers continued, “there is a little bit of an absent-minded professor mentality in that group of people. They may be smart but sometimes the practical thinking is lacking.

“The Irish guys we have, you can give them an ill-defined problem and they’ll come back and talk about how to make things work, not just solve a given problem. They are able to see the broader picture rather than just focusing on a very specific problem.”

The lure of Silicon Valley has drained many talented developers from Ireland and Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said he wants to create an environment that will keep the best and the brightest at home.

However, Rodgers warned against a Government-led strategy to recreate Silicon Valley in Ireland. A small-government advocate, Rodgers insisted the business community needs to be left alone to create the conditions that spawned the entrepreneurial spirit that has made California one of the world’s largest economies.

“The idea of Government supporting that, that concept is not just wrong, it’s backwards,” he said. “It’s anti-right. It doesn’t work anywhere. First of all, government is the antithesis of Silicon Valley, the opposite of what Silicon Valley is about.”

Rodgers described how he pulled out of a successful solar energy company when senior management began looking for government subsidies and supporting environmental, carbon-tax initiatives.

“I’m a big disliker of government. When I saw some fellas having political connections and political lobbying and contributing to campaigns I said, ‘this is no longer for me’, and I left. Government is poison to entrepreneurial activity. Regulatory control, where governments get into the nitty gritty of how corporations are run and subsidise what they want and tax what they don’t want, that is antithetical to entrepreneurial activity. Silicon Valley is a very anti-establishment place.”

He described the early days of Silicon Valley as a landscape where venture capitalists took huge risks, giving vast sums of money to entrepreneurs and leaving them to get on with shaping their business and achieving success.

“If the money comes with strings attached, it will undermine the company because instead of doing what is best for the company, it distracts you into doing what the government wants you to do so you can get the subsidy.”

Wealthy people
“The whole idea that some bullshit government is going to create Silicon Valley is ludicrous. It’s the opposite of right. Exactly the opposite of what you want to do. Just get out of the way and it might grow.”

“You have an excellent education system and therefore a lot of graduates who are technically capable. You have to have wealthy people in this environment, people who have extra money and understand entrepreneurship and can take a risk.”

He said a system of low personal taxation to allow individuals to accumulate so much wealth that they can afford to take risks with large sums of money would help such conditions to prosper.

“If you have wealthy people, who are new money, not old money. If you’ve got the VC side of it, smart people, then you can have the spontaneous growing of an entrepreneurial economy.

“The minute you say you will create a free market by government investing in it, you don’t know what you are talking about.”