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February - 2007 - issue > Cover Feature
The Chip Lady
Vidya Balakrishnan
Thursday, February 1, 2007
Walking down the corridors of the large office at Intel in Oregon, Nivruti Rai’s gaze reflected awe, her hand grasping tightly on to the visitor’s badge. Meandering through cubicles and rooms filled with engineers, this 20-something aspiring engineer was secretly wishing for the visitor’s badge to somehow morph into an Intel employee ID. A job at the largest microprocessor company in the world was her goal. That was all, nothing more.

Today, fifteen years down the line, she is racing through the corridors of Intel India. The visitor’s ID replaced, addressing her as Director CDTGI Chipset Group and acknowledging her as the senior most woman executive at Intel India. (The feat being extra special as she is among the few to have achieved this post in a short span at Intel worldwide.) Steering the development team for laptop computers and mobile platform technologies, she is currently heading the latest Chipset project of the Indian R&D center. With a team of 150 engineers, her goal, like her, has transformed through time and presently is stalled at delivering the project. “For the first time, we (Intel India) are responsible for taping out a cutting edge technology based chipset out of India,” she says animatedly. “With around 85 percent of the work being done from here, it is the biggest responsibility we have handled yet.”

Back in India after working on Intel’s newest addition to the CPU space-45nm generation microarchitecture code-named Nehalem and due for a 2008 release-she is making significant strides on the Chipset project in India. Her tenure as Principal Engineer in Intel Digital Enterprise Group for over three years now, where she made significant contributions in developing and driving the circuit design, creating product architecture and project management methodologies and leading the Project Management for developing CAD design tools, serving as the backbone of being a technical leader.

Having grown within the semiconductor industry ever since her career spun off, she is at her innovative best while narrating her latest endeavor with the silicon chip. Two generations ahead of the Quad core processor, the new chipset, defined by her as ‘Intel’s hottest product in line’, is being designed for laptops. “Through this chipset we are trying to tackle and improve the four vectors- weight, battery power, performance and wireless connectivity- troubling current laptop users,” she explains.

But the team’s goal is not limited to improving existing features. One would not expect so with the competitiveness in the microprocessor market escalating by the day. Higher memory density, Blue Ray facility, additional graphic capabilities, improved monitor display are among the new features the chipset claims to offer. In layman’s terms: The chipset presents the user with the same capabilities as a High Division TV on his laptop and gives at least 30 percent more on battery power.

The impressive list of features have a direct proportion to the impediments and challenges faced by this go-getter. Never having worked on chip processes has meant discovering problems before discovering solutions and efforts to create cutting-edge technology has brought about a high level of stress in her team. Stress and impediments are not new words to Nivruti though. In fact, they go way back to her very first assignment at Intel.

While working on the board manufacturing and configuration division- a purely industrial engineering job that required her to track every little wafer that went into the motherboard, she was consumed by the fear of committing an error. Despite trying to automate things, she went through several sleepless nights and stressful conditions before deciding to move out of the division. “Albeit a good performer, I was aware that my performance could be optimized in some other division. The problem was not with the job, but my capabilities and interest suiting the demand,” she reminiscences.

Walking away from that challenge was hard but the true assessment of the experience came after she stumbled into the CPU division. Here, she leveraged her mathematical expertise. She found herself statistically tracking down the processor, size, performance and power of the application. Starting with the Pentium and P6, she took it on her to accumulate data on past processors and built a system that would be able to predict the future performance of the application. This technical break through was only the start as she soon moved on to density issues in processors, characterizing interconnects, defining what a transistor should look like and creating library cells for attaining the minimal operational voltage.

The entire procedure gave her an overview of the CPU. The advantage of working at higher level in the CPU development enabled her to understand the enire product development cycle, utilizing which she could focus on multiple areas of design process and manufacturing issues in detail.

“It has allowed me to find the problem areas by looking at critical parts of the composition. And because I have worked on the mathematical project that dealt with detecting problems on a CPU, everything else just fell into place,” she explains. In many ways Nivruti’s career too moved from the top-down approach. Be it working with the CPU division and then chipset or moving from Intel’s Oregon office to the Indian subsidiary.

“I thought I had made significant growth in the technical side and was happy to move into the management side of things,” says she. But being technical has helped her leverage her position. Her team now looks up at her as a role model as they believe that they have direction for technical growth as well.

The journey to becoming the leading lady at Intel has been defined by hard work and dedication. Achievement, says Nivruti, comes to those who chase it with all their heart. Starting as an engineer satisfied with just being at Intel, Nivruti carved out her individuality through constant perseverance and intends to keep right at it.

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