Conductor of Xilinx's Irish symphony
Kevin Cooney has worked his way up to be corporate vice-president of the world’s largest provider of high-powered microchips, but he insists the success of the Irish operation is due to its workforce
IF YOU own a digital TV, drive a car with a sophisticated infotainment system or have recently had a CT scan, there is a good chance that the “brain” whirring away inside the device was supplied by Xilinx, a low-key but highly regarded member of the Irish foreign direct investment community for the past 17 years.
Xilinx is the world’s largest provider of high-powered microchips and has recently announced a $50 million (€41 million) expansion of its Irish operations.
The man widely credited with securing this investment is Youghal-born Kevin Cooney, Xilinx corporate vice-president, chief information officer (CIO) and managing director of its Dublin-based European headquarters.
Cooney is the only corporate head of function based outside Xilinx’s headquarters in San Jose, California. And, at 52, he says he is probably the oldest CIO in Silicon Valley . . . and the one with the longest commute.
Cooney comes from a software background and started his working life in Youghal Carpets. He joined Xilinx to oversee its IT when the company set up here in 1995, coming from Digital Equipment Corporation, where he had spent a decade.
He has been in charge of the Irish business since 2004, having worked his way up through a variety of senior management roles in IT and business development.
Xilinx designs and develops programmable logic devices – very powerful microchips used in a broad spread of industrial, scientific and medical device applications, from consumer electronics to mission-critical systems for organisations such as Nasa.
The chips are central to the development of new information and communication technologies globally and are used to manage the interchange and manipulation of digital signals.
When talking about Xilinx, the key word is “programmable”. Its chips can be customised to optimise their functionality and reprogrammed “on the fly” if standards or features change.
With sales in excess of $2.2 billion, Xilinx dominates its industry with a market share of almost 50 per cent. The company employs 3,300 people worldwide, has 20,000 customers and 2,500 patents. It has traded on the Nasdaq since 1990.
“We are all about faster time to market and increased design flexibility,” Cooney says. “We operate in an ‘innovate or die’ world where we must continually develop leadership products that are flawlessly executed and meet our customers’ wants and needs.”
Xilinx was set up in Silicon Valley in 1984 by semiconductor engineers Bernard Vonderschmitt, Ross Freeman and Jim Barnett. It was Freeman’s mould-breaking idea for a computer chip with programmable “open gates” that set the company on its path.
At the time, Freeman’s idea was greeted with some scepticism by the semiconductor industry, not least because it depended on the extensive use of expensive transistors. But Freeman was convinced that the cost of transistors would fall, making his pioneering field-programmable gate arrays an attractive alternative to custom chips.
History proved him right. Even today, programmable logic devices are one of the fastest growing segments of the semiconductor industry.
Cooney is clearly delighted by the expansion of the Irish operation – which is adding 60 high-calibre jobs to the existing workforce of around 280. However, he declines to accept any plaudits for it.
“Nothing like this happens unless there is a team of capable people. One individual doesn’t make it work,” he says. “Somebody has to be at the head of the posse and it so happens that in this case that’s me. The reality is that Xilinx as a company is not investing in Kevin Cooney. It is investing in the team in Ireland and across Europe and in the skills and capabilities of the people here.”
Xilinx could have put its investment anywhere as it has strong links with other regions, most notably Asia. The company pioneered the “fabless” operating model which means it outsources all of its chip fabrication and the company’s manufacturing, assembly and test partners are all based in Singapore. However, when it came to the most recent investment decision, the company decided there was a robust business case for choosing Ireland.