Look inside an e-reader, game console, Blu-ray player, TV, or smartphone and odds are you’ll find a cluster of chips designed by Marvell Technology Group Ltd., a 15-year-old Silicon Valley firm. Marvell crafts the CPU as well as the wireless transmitters and receivers, the digital signal processors, the video processors, and even the power management system. Its chips will likely appear in the wave of Android tablets expected to hit the market soon. And the One Laptop per Child organization just announced that its next generation of low-cost computers—the first to finally get below US $100—will rely on Marvell electronics as well.
But Marvell and its quietly intense founder and CEO, Sehat Sutardja, aren’t exactly household names. That doesn’t particularly bother Sutardja. If he’s looking for affirmation of his enormous success, he need only consider the company’s explosive growth, its lineup of innovative, in-demand products, its more than 5000 employees, its R&D and design centers in Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Silicon Valley, South Korea, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland, and Taiwan, and its $3 billion in annual revenues. If Sutardja doesn’t capture media attention like, say, Apple’s Steve Jobs, well, he’s okay with that.
But just as Jobs sets the vision for Apple, Sutardja pours his personality and passions into Marvell. And unlike Jobs, who was not the technological powerhouse of the two Steves that founded Apple, Sehat is an engineer to the core, a genius at circuit design for whom electronics is not only a vocation but also his only recreation.
So far, Sutardja, an IEEE Fellow, and his Marvell cofounders—his wife, Weili Dai, and his brother, Pantas Sutardja—have successfully managed the business as well as the technology. But in a sense it’s been an off-Broadway production—it may be packing the house night after night, but it hasn’t gotten a lot of media attention. Today, however, the company is trying to make the transition to a bigger stage, and Sutardja increasingly finds himself in the spotlight.
Born in Indonesia to Chinese parents in 1961, Sutardja had a fairly ordinary childhood for his time and place. “If it rains,” he recalls, “you go out and dance in the rain. You see butterflies, you chase the butterflies. You see dragonflies, you chase the dragonflies. It was a simple life.”
And then he discovered engineering, and his butterfly-chasing days were over.
It happened on a visit to Singapore, where his younger brother Pantas was living with their grandparents. Sehat was in sixth grade, Pantas in fifth. As boys will do, Sehat started poking through his brother’s possessions, including some DIY books and magazines geared toward electronics hobbyists. He spotted a great project: building a Van de Graaff generator. He and Pantas bought some copper wire at a surplus store and managed to rig together a crude but functional machine.
Back in Indonesia after vacation, Sehat couldn’t stop thinking about the generator. He began constructing a miniature version that he could use to shock people as a prank, scavenging gear from his parents’ auto parts store. The device worked, but its copper contact points oxidized so fast he had to sand them down every few minutes.
After a little research at the local bookstore, he discovered that transistors could replace mechanical switches. “Okay,” he remembers thinking, “I’ll have to learn how to use transistors.” Sehat found a radio repair shop where he could do just that. Within a year he received his radio repair license, a document he seems more proud of than his college diploma. (His wife carries it for him in her purse in case he wants to show it to people. Which he often does.)
Sehat continued to tinker with circuits, and he also kept abreast of new developments in the field. The most interesting news always seemed to be coming from the likes of Fairchild, National, Motorola, and Texas Instruments. His next step was obvious: He had to go to the United States.
One of the few people he knew in the States was the brother of a friend, who happened to be studying at the University of San Francisco, a private school. So Sehat applied there. He arrived in the summer of 1980, only to discover that the math and physics classes were repeats of what he’d already taken in high school. The college didn’t even have an electrical engineering program, he was crushed to learn.