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Published: May 26, 2009

 
 

Dov Frohman Leads the Hard Way

One of Frohman’s first assignments at Intel was to troubleshoot a nagging problem in an early semiconductor memory chip known as the 1101. The chip worked fine at room temperature, but it became unstable when exposed to heat and humidity, causing any embedded information to be lost. Without a solution, the chip couldn’t be released — a major hurdle for the young company.

For weeks, Frohman mulled over the problem. At the time, there were basically two kinds of semiconductor memory. Volatile random-access memory (RAM) chips were easily programmable, but had a major flaw: When their power source was turned off, they lost their charge, along with all the information encoded on them. The data encoded on nonvolatile read-only memory (ROM) chips, such as the 1101, was extremely stable. However, programming these chips was a long and arduous task. The data had to be physically embedded on the chip through a process that often took weeks. Once programmed, it was extremely difficult to change.

Frohman developed a hypothesis about why the 1101 chips were becoming unstable in heat and humidity, and devised a solution for it. In the process he made an additional discovery, which he realized could create a revolutionary new kind of semiconductor memory — one that would have the stability of ROM with the re-programmability of RAM. The result was erasable programmable read-only memory, or EPROM, as the technology came to be known. Intel paired EPROM with its new microprocessors in a combination that helped create the foundations for personal computing. Today’s flash memory technology, used in cell phones, digital cameras, and MP3 players, owes its existence to Frohman’s ability to turn disadvantage into opportunity.

A Long-term Vision
The EPROM innovation helped drive Intel’s sales from US$9 million in 1971 to $66 million just two years later. But instead of using his newfound status within the company to jockey for a corner office, Frohman made a surprising announcement: He was leaving the company and moving to Ghana to teach electrical engineering at the University of Kumasi.

Frohman’s announcement came as a shock to his colleagues. Not only was he jumping ship when he was most needed — Grove had expected him to oversee EPROM’s development and manufacturing — he was leaving just as Intel was about to go public, which meant abandoning stock options worth a considerable amount of money. The buzz around Intel’s water coolers was that Dov Frohman had lost his mind. What was he thinking?

What Frohman’s colleagues didn’t realize was that by leaving, he was pursuing a larger vision. Ever since his days at the Technion, he had nurtured a hazy but persistent idea: to bring a new field of innovation and industry back to his home country of Israel. His years in Silicon Valley had focused that vision on the semiconductor business.

“For me, the task of building Intel certainly was important — but only if, over time, it could be a vehicle for me to create something in Israel,” he wrote in Leadership the Hard Way. “I worried that if I devoted myself to the EPROM, I might go down the path of a U.S. management career and that would take me too far away from my vision.”

Frohman’s interlude in Africa gave him breathing space and time to reflect. He also found that Ghana’s rich cultural complexity provided valuable lessons about the type of organization he wanted to create in Israel — one that blended the best aspects of Intel with the unique strengths of Israeli culture. “Many of the Africans I met seemed to balance comfortably multiple identities,” he later wrote. “Kumasi is the capital of the Ashanti people, one of the key ethnic groups in Ghana, and it wasn’t unusual to meet people who took great pride in their Ashanti heritage without feeling any less Ghanaian.” By the time he left Africa 15 months later, Frohman was ready to pursue his vision. Knowing that there was a severe engineering shortage in the semiconductor industry, he returned to Silicon Valley and paid a visit to Intel’s senior management, to whom he aggressively pitched the idea of a small design center in Israel. The center, he suggested, should be located in the northern port city of Haifa, in order to capitalize on the impressive supply of engineers at the Technion. “Once Dov gets an idea, he’s like a bulldog,” says Grove. “He’s not limited by the proverbial box.”

 
 
 
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Resources

  1. Dov Frohman with Robert Howard: Leadership the Hard Way: Why Leadership Can’t be Taught, and How You Can Learn It Anyway (Jossey-Bass, 2008): The founder of Intel Israel articulates his brand of non- conforming risk taking in light of his own story.
  2. Amanda Ripley, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why (Crown, 2008): Based on interviews with survivors of disaster, portrays qualities of the risk-taking leader.
  3. Richard S. Tedlow, Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American (Portfolio, 2006): Highly engaging, authoritative biography of the larger-than-life Intel CEO, champion of innovators and mentor to Frohman.
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