An Interview with David Lam
Photo of David Lam

Interview by Jill Wolfson, San Jose Mercury News; and Sandra Ledbetter
Lincoln High School

Interview photos by Len Lahman, San Jose Mercury News

Transcribed by Jean Ricket, Tech Museum volunteer

Sandra Ledbetter

David K. Lam, 53, is now a technology and business advisor in the semiconductor equipment industry, but is known for founding Lam Research in 1980. That company introduced the industry's first microprocessor-controlled single-wafer plasma etcher for production.

Before founding Lam Research, he worked for Hewlett-Packard, Xerox and Texas Instruments. He also engineered the turnaround of Link Technologies, a computer-terminal company that was sold to Wyse Technology in 1987. Lam also led software development and marketing at ExpertEdge before forming his consulting business.

Lam Research
in the News

Lam Research will hire OnTrak's Chairman James Bagley as the company's new CEO, as part of an acquisition deal of San Jose-based OnTrak Systems. Current Lam CEO Roger Emerick will remain with Lam as Co-Chairman.

March 1997

Lam, who was born in China and grew up in Vietnam and Hong Kong, spoke with writer Joyce Gemperlein and student Sandra Ledbetter.

Ledbetter :   What did you want to become when you were a child?
Lam :   It's a very interesting question because it has some cultural content in it. When we were children, all we wanted to do was please our parents, and our parents had very tough requirements on doing well in school. So what we wanted to do was whatever they wanted us to do. And as a young child perhaps, my objective was to do well in school and, hopefully, to go to college. And not a whole lot beyond that, unfortunately.
Gemperlein :   Could you describe where you when you were growing up?
Lam :   I was growing up South Vietnam. And my father was a business person. My early years were surrounded by a lot of civil war within South Vietnam. And we had learned to duck under the bed when we heard machine guns in the streets because of some insurgencies within the country. The beginning of a civil war. Later on, the French decided to move away, and the Americans decided to come in. And that became what is known as the Vietnam War.

When we were children, all we wanted to do was please our parents, and our parents had very tough requirements on doing well in school. So what we wanted to do was whatever they wanted us to do

So, as a child, I think the safety was always one thing very much in my mind, and the other thing was to do well in school. Now, regarding what we were going to grow up to be. . . I thought I might be a medical doctor because one of my best friends of my father decided that I had the temperament to be a good doctor. And then other times, he thought that I . . .would grow up to be a diplomat. I was neither! I chose to go into science and technology.

Ledbetter :   Were you a good student, and especially good at science?
Lam :   Actually, I was good all the way through junior high., and even the early parts of high school. And then I got distracted into other things. Not anything bad, just not being well focused in school work. So when I graduated from high school I wasn't at the top of my class. I probably was in the top 50 percent. But, with that, you couldn't get into a really top college.
Gemperlein :   Was this in Vietnam?
Lam :   No. I finished all my high school and part of junior high in Hong Kong. When my parents decided that (Vietnam) was too dangerous a place for us to stay and grow up, my father decided to send all brothers and sisters there (to Hong Kong). That was in about 1956. That was the time when the war began to expand.

The French had pulled out of Vietnam totally, and it was getting a little bit dangerous. Not only because the war appeared to be moving, getting worse, but also as someone who's approaching, I was probably 13, 14 or 15, . . .well, you can be drafted when you reach 15. So that was a war that my father didn't want me to be a part of, I guess. I didn't know the exact reason; they just shipped us out one day.

Gemperlein :   Did they stay behind?
Lam :   Yes. So I didn't get to see my parents very often. Maybe a few times a year when I was 13. So I learned to be independent, learned to survive in a new environment. Hong Kong was, to me, an extraordinarily complex society compared to the very simple life of South Vietnam. So I was very scared. I had no friends. So I began to learn how to make friends, how to survive as a youngster. In a way, thinking back, that had trained me to be a little bit more adventurous perhaps. Because I don't always have the close protection of a home environment, close to home.

When you are learning, if you stop and think about how a little child learns to walk, he stumbles many times, hitting himself, hurting himself, before he really learns how to walk. And you can apply the same metaphor to life.

My parents made efforts to see us a few times a year, and we always looked forward to that. And, later on, they were able to spend more time in Hong Kong where I went to school So that helped. And then when I . .. I finished high school, and I came out, I was on my own again. I came out to Canada first. No friends. And very different environment.

Ledbetter :   What was your favorite subject in elementary, middle, and high school?
Lam    Actually, I liked all of them. I had no strong preference, dislikes. Likes or dislikes. I really liked all of them. I did like school. My preference began to develop only when I was in high school. I didn't have that kind of exposure that a typical American student would have. You have so many things to do.

Like, I look at my son. He is in journalism; he is in debate and speech; and . . .he has a lot more activities outside of the classroom. When I was growing up, we didn't have that. So we were very focused on classes. So when I was in high school, I began to take interest in science.

I did well in math and science but . . .I wasn't at the top.