The semiconductor industry has been in the news a lot lately with historic demands for electronics plaguing the consumer landscape throughout the pandemic. On today’s CXO of the Future Podcast, I’ve invited Chris Allan onboard to give us perspective on what it’s like being a senior IT leader in the industry – he is the Corporate Vice President, Business Systems and Analytics, Applied Global Services, at Applied Materials.
Listen to the podcast here:
Chris grew up in York, a beautiful and ancient city, originally built by the Romans and the Vikings.
“For anybody who’s interested, please Google The Four Yorkshiremen, by Monty Python. It’s hilarious and will give you some insight into my upbringing.”
Chris started his career at an old British company, Vickers, which made ships, tanks, and all sorts of machinery, including laser range finders. He started off as a field engineer in the instrumentation division, which gave him the opportunity to travel the world and learn about customer problems. He was able to take on a huge variety of roles ranging from service management, applications management, tech support management, contact centers, product support services, marketing, business engagements, training groups, IT groups, and IT relationship management.
Going through several different functional groups helped him become proficient at understanding the needs of the business:
- What’s it like to be on the frontline in front of the customer?
- What’s it like in one of these clean rooms in which they operated?
- What are the marketing guys worrying about? Time to market versus time to profitability?
- What are the new product introduction guys worried about?
When a position became available on the West Coast, he visited California several times and thought it would be like a really nice place to live. He went to work for BioRad and from there, Tencor, which merged with KLA to become KLA-Tencor, where he stayed another 17 years prior to joining Applied Materials. He’s been there now for eight years and continues to focus on the specific needs of the business.
In his current role in Applied Global Services, for example, they’re building out systems for their field organization. They have over 6,000 field people and another thousand install engineers. The environment those employees are working in (in their customers’ facilities–the clean rooms) is challenging. They have to wear bunny suits and latex gloves. Their customers are very strict about IP protection, and they have to respect that. In a lot of these environments if a laptop goes into that secure facility, it doesn’t come out. And if it comes out, it comes out wiped clean.
“Of the many wonderful ideas that we have here in headquarters, I need to determine what will work, what won’t, and the barriers to adoption, etc. So, I have to understand the work of our technical folks in the field, know the dynamics of the customer and what’s important to them, and help us build the right products, the right solutions, and the right technologies to enable this workforce. And that’s the charter of my group–to enable scalable, supportable, enterprise-worthy systems, processes and policies that enable profitable growth. It’s all about profitable growth.”
Semiconductor Industry Challenges
The demand for electronics, whether it’s for flat panel screens, computers, telecommuting, network, etc. has really skyrocketed during COVID–and that has been great for their business, because pretty much no chip gets made without Applied Materials. They continue to grow like crazy with huge backlogs, which has been very challenging. There are many headwinds, especially supply chain headwinds, but they’re in a very strong position in the industry today.
“I think we have to challenge ourselves constantly and think differently, which can be very radical right now. But at the same time, we need to be very pragmatic. With programming execution, it’s not enough for it to work in the lab, and it’s not enough for it to work on one site, or one customer environment. It’s got to work anywhere in the world, every day, every time. We rely on program planning and management tools to ensure that even the radical ideas go through a model so we can go into a project with eyes wide open. We know the risks, we know the costs, we know the potential benefits.”
“I have this phrase that I’ve used with my team several times, which is ‘Take what you like. Leave the rest.’ As we observe other leaders, we see things that impress us, and other things we can’t relate to. I encourage my team to build their own personal brand based on what they observe, can relate to, and adopt naturally.”
Chris likes to create a team that works well together:
Be more like the elephant than the hippo. Listen more than you talk. The worst sound any leader can hear is silence because it means people have stopped talking because you’ve stopped listening.
Feedback is a gift. If you’re in an executive review and receive feedback, say ‘Thank you’, because your leadership cares enough about you to give you that feedback.
Does the team feel comfortable challenging you? Because if they don’t, then there’s something that you’re missing. Chris wants his team to feel safe enough to say: ‘Chris, hold on a minute. Can we talk about this?’ If somebody feels brave enough to challenge their leadership in a meeting, it should be appreciated, and they should be thanked for raising their voice. Then it’s possible to talk about concerns and come to a conclusion. You have to publicly accept any criticism, even going as far as thanking the person for giving you that feedback publicly. Otherwise, it’s all talk and no action.
Applied Materials invests in a lot of change management. They try to make sure that all the great stuff that they’re doing, whether it’s in headquarters or the regions, is shared with the user community, and they have a team that is dedicated to getting feedback from their stakeholders and customers.
When it comes to innovation, Chris finds that it’s very difficult for people to switch between operational excellence one hour, and strategic innovation in the next. It takes time. So, he feels very fortunate that they have a culture at Applied Materials that encourages this strategic planning process.
“We dedicate days and weeks to think strategically about the future, about what’s working, what’s not working, what technologies are available, and where we should invest. We spend an enormous amount of time doing this every year. And the way you measure that activity versus the way you measure operational excellence is completely different. We have two groups—the first is focused on the next horizon of technology and innovation, and the other is focused on operational excellence. During our strategy planning, we bring those two groups together. It’s a great learning opportunity for operational folks to see where the company is going, where the technologies fit, and gain insight into how they can help.”
Chris recently spent a day with their AR/VR team–immersed and trying the technologies–and looking at how they could fit into the business or be better leveraged. It’s a massively underutilized technology that Chris thinks could be more widely applied within their business and the industry as a whole, and the model Applied Materials uses to help people experience that next horizon, enables these realizations.
Advice for Startups
Chris’ team always has an eye out for new technologies. They have a ventures group within Applied Materials as well, which is doing investment into materials, engineering technologies, and other things that they can’t talk about! But it’s very exciting. Also, from the IT perspective, there’s always innovation going on around data science, networking, and other technologies that get the team excited.
“I would advise any vendor or startup to get to know me, my company, and my business before you knock on my door. Try and become familiar with the sorts of problems we have. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting a knock on the door with somebody saying, ‘Chris, tell me all your problems because I’m trying to sell you something.’ So, try and do your homework ahead of time. Our business is complex and sometimes dysfunctional. If you come in knowing that environment and knowing our B2B environment, it helps us determine whether something will fit or not.”
AR/VR is certainly one of the areas they are excited about. Data is on the front of everybody’s mind at the moment and they’re very interested in all of the actionable insights that they can get from their data. A startup with data science experience who understands the physics of what’s happening with Applied Materials’ equipment and tools, and one who also understands the business operations of their customers, would be a good fit for them. That combination is a powerful skill set now. Data science still feels like the Wild West–the structure, the governance that controls the standards, the drag and drop. Everybody is handling data of one sort or another these days, and everyone talks about hiring people that are digitally competent and data savvy, but the tools are needed as well, because data scientists are expensive!
“We had an executive many years ago who used to say, ‘Everybody is in sales.’ Well, that’s true. But guess what? Everybody is in IT too. We can’t go a day without interacting with some sort of information technology, whether it’s through programs like Microsoft or products like laptops and phones. Everyone is in IT. And the value is the business value that’s derived from it. The key is that these are not IT systems–they are business systems and they’re there for a business result.”
Chris Allan is corporate vice president of Applied Global Services (AGS) Business Systems and Analytics. He is responsible for AGS Business Systems, Support and Processes for AGS. Under his leadership, in addition to overseeing the Global Customer Contact (GCC), Digital Service Tools, Knowledge Management, Technical Training, Technical and Software Support (TSE / SSE) his team is developing global and scalable enterprise-worthy systems and processes to profitably grow the AGS business.
Mr. Allan is a 25-year veteran of the semiconductor capital equipment industry and came to Applied from KLA-Tencor. He brings experience leading successful teams in Field Service, Technical Support, New Product Introduction, eDiagnostics, Service Marketing, Knowledge Management, CRM and Information Technology. Previously, he worked in the bio-science industry for medical research equipment companies such as Bio-Rad Laboratories, Inc. and Vickers Instruments Limited.