Leaders’ Insights: Donnacha O’Riordan, MCCI

11 Nov 2016

Donnacha O’Riordan, director of MCCI. Image: Donnacha O’Riordan

Donnacha O’Riordan is the director of Microelectronic Circuits Centre Ireland (MCCI).

O’Riordan leads a team of 32 researchers directly and 85 indirectly, through association with the six RPOs that comprise MCCI, a centre hosted by Tyndall National Institute.

He has over 20 years’ experience in the semiconductor industry in both start-up and large EDA and semiconductor companies, both in Ireland and Silicon Valley.

Future Human

Describe your role and what you do.

The Microelectronic Circuits Centre Ireland (MCCI) is an Enterprise Ireland and IDA-funded technology centre focused on microelectronic circuits’ research – that means those circuits that are the interface between the physical world we inhabit and the digital world of [ones and zeros]. So every piece of technology, of electronics, in our lives must at some point interact with the physical world we live in.

As centre director, I lead MCCI and drive its vision and strategic direction. Responsible for the operations – technical, financial and delivery – against KPIs, my goal is to create an international centre of excellence and scale in solid-state circuit design.

MCCI is an industry-led centre that fosters market-focused research at a national and international level. We have 31 industry members and six academic members currently, and this year we have just signed up our first international member.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I’m a big fan of David Allen’s book Getting Things Done – although at this point, I’ve heavily modified and adapted it to the needs of my role.

I like to know my own strengths and weaknesses, then have the right team around me which compliments that. Allen’s book details this. I’m quite fortunate in that I inherited a top class, highly motivated team [that] I know I can trust. This allows me to let them get on with their job, and when things come down the line to me, I know they need to be prioritised.

Allen’s book is a bit dated at this stage, but it goes into how you should organise and prioritise things in your life. For example, in my email inbox, I keep it very bare. Every mail I get goes through four steps:

  1. Do I need to act on the email?
  2. If not, if it’s rubbish, I delete it immediately. If it’s not rubbish, it may be something I need to refer to later.
  3. If it’s something I can act on in under two minutes, like a brief ‘thank you’, I do it on the spot and the email is gone from my inbox.
  4. If it’s not satisfied by any of the above, it’s something I need to act on a little bit down the line.

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

The semiconductor industry has matured – it’s no longer being driven by process technology and scaling. Moore’s law was all about reduced manufacturing sizes of semiconductors, but we’ve hit a wall in physics.

The general emphasis now is moving to design techniques, new architectures, to keep delivering performance.

At the same time, there are ‘mega trends’ in technology like internet of things (IoT), which demand new performance levels in terms of size, power and cost.

It’s probably the most challenging time of my career to date – but also the most exciting and rewarding time.

What are the key sector opportunities youre capitalising on?

Where microelectronics or semiconductors overlap with one another, [which] could be termed non-traditional technology users (from a microelectronics perspective).

That is medtech, biomed, agriculture – making the tools in these areas smart, autonomous and aware of the physical world they are in (whether that’s a field, in a car, or implanted in us).

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

After graduating, I joined an Irish integrated circuit (IC) design start-up and spent most of the next 10 years designing ICs for communications and TV set-top boxes in a number of companies in Ireland and California.

Around [the] mid-2000s, a failed start-up I was involved in called Chips & Systems brought home the importance of solving a customer need – it’s not always about the technology. We built some brilliant solutions, but there was no customer. Nobody needed it.

This led me to a product management role and I began getting much more interested in solving market/customer problems rather than for the sake of technology. Basically now I answer the ‘why?’, not the ‘how?’.

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

See above, the Chips & Systems story.

Roy Jewell, [past] COO at Magma, used to say: “Focus on customer success, and yours will follow commensurately. Otherwise, we have no right to exist.”

How do you get the best out of your team?

Articulate the vision and empower everyone to get there. Mistakes are okay, they’re expected. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not pushing the boundaries hard enough, and you’re not learning.

Everyone knows that they are responsible for their own career development – I’m just the coach.

A priority is ensuring that everyone has a long-term development plan, one that aligns with the needs of the centre. In that way, everyone is engaged and has a vested interest in success.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and whats needed to be more inclusive?

Absolutely. I attended mixed primary and secondary schools that were 50:50 gender split and equally competitive. It wasn’t until university that, for the first time, there were almost no females in my peer group. In electrical engineering, they represented less than 10pc.

That was a long time ago, and there was definitely a culture of ‘boys are good at certain subjects, girls at others’. Things have improved, but there is still a long way to go, and you can see that in the numbers of women in engineering now.

This is a cultural thing, and culture changes slowly. It is changing, however. I can see that in my own daughters and attitudes in school today, attitudes to subject availability and choices [that] girls are making.

CoderDojo is a good example.

Who is your role model and why?

There isn’t any one role model, but I am lucky to have a couple of very good mentors, who will remain nameless.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I don’t get much time to read but the last one was The Sales Acceleration Formula by Mark Roberge. Next up is The Cyber Effect by Dr Mary Aiken.

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

My iPad and iPhone; email; calendar for managing time; MS Office because it’s ubiquitous; Evernote and Penultimate for notes and collaborating; and Feedly for aggregating news sources.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic