An Interview with Michael L.
Hackworth
Photo of Michael L. Hackworth

Interview by Jill Wolfson, San Jose Mercury News; and Doug Ricket, Saratoga High School

Interview photos by Len Lahman, San Jose Mercury News

Transcribed by Jean Ricket, Tech Museum volunteer


Doug Ricket

A native of Silicon Valley and a resident of Saratoga, Michael L. Hackworth has served as president and CEO of Cirrus Logic Inc. since January 1985. During his 30-year tenure in the semiconductor industry, he has previously worked at Motorola, Fairchild Semiconductor and Signetics Corp., Inc. in a variety of general management, marketing and sales management positions.

Hackworth attended Serra High School in San Mateo and holds a degree in electrical engineering from Santa Clara University. In 1990, he was named by Ernst and Young as the Semiconductor Entrepreneur of the Year.

Hackworth is active in community activities, including the Engineering Advisory Board and the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, both at Santa Clara University. He is also active with Junior Achievement, The Tech Museum of Innovation and the San Jose Symphony. He has led Cirrus Logic to sponsor such programs as the Santa Clara County Children's Shelter, the Second Harvest Food Bank, the Silicon Valley Charity Ball and Boston's Computer Museum.

He spoke with writer Jill Wolfson and student Doug Ricket.

Wolfson :   Tell me about yourself as a child. Were you the smartest kid in the class? Were you the least likely to succeed?
Hackworth :   In the grade school/high school arena, I was pretty much a solid citizen. I participated in leadership programs; I was a class officer, participated in athletics, participated in the school paper. I was a good student, but not a straight-A student. But I had a good enough grade point average to get into Santa Clara University. I participated in extracurricular activities outside of school; Junior Achievement is one that comes to mind.

I had a great sandbox at home. I had blocks of wood that were different shapes and I used to build roads, bridges, and dams in the sandbox. Through that, I developed an interest in civil engineering.
Wolfson :   Do you remember your Junior Achievement project?
Hackworth :   Junior Achievement is a little different today than when I was a kid. Then, you actually modeled a company and you went off and set up a little workspace. You wrote a very, very simple business plan. I think it was probably a sheet of paper. And then you actually sold stock for, like, ten cents a share. With that, you actually made a product, sold it, and then you went back to the investors and you showed them that you either made a profit or you didn't.

One year, I produced a belt rack. (laughs). It was a block of wood that was varnished and had five hooks on it. The production line was pretty simple. The big deal was getting the wood sawed into the right shape and painting it. The other product I produced was a napkin holder.


I got some wise advice from a priest saying, "Why don't you just go through high school and then step back and ask yourself, do you still want to be a priest?" Well, after that advice, I never asked the question again.

These were not exactly high-tech products. But you could actually understand the problems of manufacturing. All of a sudden, whoops, we don't have a saw. Or, how do we organize the work? It was a terrific experience.

I understood something about what a company was and how it created value. And I understood what it meant to sell stock, raise money, to capitalize a company, and then to be held accountable to the shareholders at the end.

Wolfson :   Did you have an early interest in high technology?
Hackworth :   Originally, I was interested in civil engineering. I had a great sandbox at home. I had blocks of wood that were different shapes and I used to build roads, bridges, and dams in the sandbox. Through that, I developed an interest in civil engineering.

Earlier on, I thought I was going to be a priest, interestingly enough. But I got some wise advice from a priest saying, "Why don't you just go through high school and then step back and ask yourself, do you still want to be a priest?" Well, after that advice, I never asked the question again.


I was sweeping the floors and doing little odd job things. But it was giving me exposure to the electronics industry,

Instead, I became interested in civil engineering. In my junior year of high school, I sprained my ankle during track season, and so I was out. I thought that I might as well go get a job. So I went to what was then the unemployment agency and asked about after-school jobs. They asked me what I wanted to study in college. I said I want to be in engineering, thinking civil engineering and building roads, bridges, and dams. Well, they said that I was something like 23rd on the list, but that none of the people ahead of me want to go to college and be an engineer. This company has an opening for somebody who's going to be an engineer.

I went over there, and it turned out to be an electronics company. I was sweeping the floors and doing little oddjob things. But it was giving me exposure to the electronics industry, which, at that time was really aerospace oriented -- basically missiles and rockets and airplanes.

I ended up working there all through high school, all through five years of college, It was in the course of working there that I shifted my interest to the electronics industry.


The interesting thing is that my engineering career only lasted about 9 months.
Wolfson :   What was it that specifically captured your interest?
Hackworth :   You have to remember that this was the 50s and there weren't a heck of a lot of electronics floating around. There was Hewlett Packard on the one hand and these microwave vacuum tube companies on the other.

I guess the notion of being able to design something was to me very, very fascinating. I just never had any doubts once I started.

The interesting thing is that my engineering career only lasted about 9 months. After school, I had actually already worked for this company for many years. I rapidly became the one person who could go talk to the customers and explain what the product did and answer questions and help them use the product, as well as design it.


I don't think I was ever a very good engineer. But I did have one accomplishment of noteworthiness.

So I suddenly became what we now call an application engineer, a marketing kind of person. I designed a product, then I'd take it to the customer. Then pretty soon, I was just spending time with the customer, and I wasn't doing any more design.

I don't think I was ever a very good engineer. (laughs). But I did have one accomplishment of noteworthiness.

One of the projects I was developing was for the lunar excursion module that went on the moon. There were two what-are-called ladder networks. It was a pretty simple design job, but it was a very accurate, precision thing. And they needed a part number. There was MLH-1, which were my initials, and the MLH-2. There aren't too many engineers who have their initials on the moon. (Laughs).

But that's about it to my short-lived career. I went from there into the applications and marketing.

Ricket :   Have you found a way to keep your interest in the engineering aspect of it, even though you're now dealing more primarily with the managerial part of it?
Hackworth :   When you're in general management, you have to deal with all the different aspects of the company. One of the choices that a general manager can make as they're moving up the ranks is to stay focused in the area where they're comfortable. So if you're a marketing person and you have a general management role, you tend to stay close to the customer and do marketing things. If you're a finance guy and you become general manager, you tend to stay involved with the numbers because you're comfortable with that.

I was always afraid that if I became the general manager and I wasn't working in the areas I was uncomfortable with, I'd get surprised, a nasty surprise. So the area that I was always the least comfortable with would be the technology because that changes very rapidly. If you're not doing real, serious engineering work, then very quickly you become obsolete.

So, as I was promoted into general management kind of roles, I always gravitated to the area that I was the least familiar with, which generally always takes me back to technology. I would just try to understand the programs that the guys were doing. I would ask common-sense questions. I would personally try to understand what they were trying to accomplish, what their obstacles were, what problems they were trying to solve, what kind of help they needed, what the risks were. That's how I try to keep on top of that.


There aren't too many engineers who have their initials on the moon.

In 1989, our V.P. of Engineering said to me, "Mike, this company is focused on making products for personal computers. And you don't have a personal computer. You don't use one." And I said, "I hate the keyboard, because I never learned to type." He said, "Mike, You really can't call yourself a CEO and not use computers."

So I bought one, and I needed an application. There's this company called Quicken that does this checkbook, financial thing. Personally, it was taking a lot of my time on the weekends to straighten out my checkbook and take care of things. The computer turned out to be great. That sucked me in.

Once you have one application that sucks you in and you go through the barrier of learning how to use the thing and understanding the operating system and becoming at least a halfway enthusiastic typist, there's all these other wonderful applications. So it just grew and grew. So the computer now is a very important practical tool for me.

Ricket :   What do you see as the role of technology today, and how its role will be changing in the future?
Hackworth :   Let me answer that question from a semiconductor perspective because that's the industry I've been in for almost 30 years now. The semiconductor industry has been a very powerful force in the world . I'm sure you've heard of Moore's Law -- the finer geometries you can print on a wafer allows you to do more and more things. The fact that each year or two we are able to double what we can put on a chip for approximately the same cost has been such a huge economic engine and a huge improvement in the quality of life. It is unlike anything before it.

I was always afraid that if I became the general manager and I wasn't working in the areas I was uncomfortable with, I'd get surprised, a nasty surprise.

Moore's Law has physical limits. I saw a presentation by a fellow, a professor from Cal Tech, who said at about .015 or .012 microns you run out of electrons. So somewhere before that will be kind of the limit of being able to have this tremendous productivity engine that we've seen over the last 20-30 years.


And I said, "I hate the keyboard, because I never learned to type." He said, "Mike, You really can't call yourself a CEO and not use computers."

But we'll find other very creative things to try to drive that same phenomena forward.

I think that medical science is the next technology area in the 21st century, the kind of impact that electronics and semiconductors have had in the 20th century.

You saw Intel's announcement with the 1 trillion instructions, calculations per second and that's not the end. You can multiply that number by a hundred between now and 2010. You put all that compute power behind the biosciences. There is going to be discovery and learning that is incomprehensible today. It will probably do for the quality of life and the economy what semiconductors did in the 20th century.