Xilinx’s Brendan Farley: ‘The roll-out of 5G is a growing opportunity’

13 Oct 2020

Brendan Farley of Xilinx. Image: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

Brendan Farley of Xilinx discusses opportunities in 5G infrastructure, the importance of continuous learning, and how a love of computers as a teen led him into a tech career.

Brendan Farley is managing director of Xilinx EMEA and vice-president for wireless engineering. He is based in Ireland, where the semiconductor tech company has its EMEA headquarters and an advanced research, development, engineering and IT centre.

Farley is responsible for a global, multidisciplined team developing key technologies for the deployment of 5G infrastructure. He holds a degree in electronic engineering from Trinity College Dublin and a master’s in technology management from NUI Galway.

‘Good engineers are interested in continuous learning and if the company can facilitate this it brings benefits to both parties’

Describe your role and what you do.

As VP, I manage R&D teams in Ireland, the UK, Germany, US and India that develop advanced microchips used by telecoms operators in 5G base stations. The R&D process is complex – each of our microchips has billions of transistors – so my focus has always been to hire engineers and managers that are experts and leaders in their fields and give them access to the most advanced technology to allow them to be successful in their role.

As managing director, I ensure that all of our key functions – R&D, sales, marketing, HR, IT, finance and legal – are working together effectively. Communication is an important part of this role, keeping EMEA employees informed, motivated and connected back to the management team at Xilinx’s headquarters in California.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

At Xilinx, our formal business goals are agreed to every six months to provide focus. I structure my workday to meet each of my direct staff weekly to review progress, adjust plans and make decisions. I also have a staff meeting to coordinate across the various teams.

Additionally, I host monthly one-to-one meetings to build good relationships with the wider team, understand their current challenges, and identify employees with high potential. I still really enjoy technical discussions and brainstorming and have regular engineering reviews to track progress on key R&D projects.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

5G wireless infrastructure will be required to deliver a 10-fold speed increase to the new 5G handsets, and this will enable exciting new applications in smartphones. However, this performance increase must be achieved with the same or lower cost and power consumption than the previous generation of base stations.

To meet these requirements, we have continued to expand our high-end R&D teams, use the most advanced technology, and develop a very close relationship with our customers and partners.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Our products are used extensively in cellular base stations, and the roll-out of 5G across the world is a growing opportunity. Much of the related R&D activity is based at Xilinx Ireland.

Advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) is another rapidly evolving area where our products are extensively deployed. Our products provide an ideal platform for high-end automobile manufacturers in Europe to support the ongoing transition to fully autonomous cars.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

When I was a teenager, the home microcomputer boom started with brands like ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Atari. I loved all of this and learned how to program. But what I really wanted to understand was how these computers worked, so I decided to study electronic engineering in college.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

I think the most important aspect of the job over the years has been to hire extremely good people who are technically very sharp, have a positive learning attitude and excellent teamwork skills. It can be extremely disruptive and stressful for the rest of the team if you don’t follow this rule, which is something I learned the hard way, more than once.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Good engineers are interested in continuous learning, and if the company can facilitate this it brings benefits to both parties. So, I try to find out where the team member’s interests lie and align their scope of responsibility with the company’s business need.

I think everyone benefits from having clear goals and priorities as well as a good understanding for the business rational. I have learned to be a good delegator, but this is only possible by hiring good people, and ensuring managers feel ownership and satisfaction for the successful completion of projects.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

At Xilinx Ireland, we launched two significant recruitment campaigns in engineering over the last few years. First, we focused on international diversity, as much of the team was made up of Irish engineers at that time. Second, we focused on increasing the ratio of females to males in the team. Because of this strategy, I believe we have a much stronger, more productive and better motivated team, and the team’s external networks are much more extensive than before.

Each year, we run a work experience programme for transition-year students, at which we ensure boys and girls are represented in equal numbers, to encourage them to develop their interest in technology. Role models are important for girls and of course for all young people. 

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

Yes, but not in a formal sense. In my first job, a senior manager recognised some potential and provided me with opportunities for increased responsibility and, critically, to get visibility among the senior managers in the company. Corporate visibility and networking are important, like it or not, as that’s where talented people encounter new, unexpected opportunities and this is one area where an informal mentor or sponsor can make a meaningful difference to your career.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

The first book I would recommend is Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday. The uncontrolled ego can bring on immense stress, very poor decision-making and dysfunctional behaviour. This book teaches you to recognise when your ego is getting in the way, gives insightful examples from historical business and military personalities, and explains why it’s very liberating to focus on the right thing to do rather than the expedient choice.

The second book is The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss. He provides excellent tips to eliminate time wasting in your work life, which gives more time to improve your work-life balance. Ferris encourages the reader to focus on effectiveness by working on the most important tasks and recognising when you are merely being efficient in unimportant tasks. Now I haven’t yet come close to achieving a four-hour work week, but it certainly does help you to value your time and figure out how it’s best spent.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

The calendar manager is essential for organising my time, but I’m quite rigorous in avoiding unnecessary meetings where a short call or email can achieve the same result.

I read and respond to emails in batches about four times a day, as per the advice of Tim Ferriss, and I removed the work email app from my phone many years ago, so I can shut off in the evening.

I have replaced broadcast emails with video recordings which can be streamed on demand to the team. They can post comments, and this has been received positively, especially with Covid-related remote working.

Engineers miss the in-person whiteboard meetings for technical discussion and brainstorming, so we have embraced the latest whiteboard apps and pen tablets to duplicate the experience electronically. And of course, we’re all on Skype, Zoom or Webex for video calls.

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