Leonard Hobbs on the Irish Semiconductors Industry, trends and how to have a successful Career

Leonard Hobbs is one of Ireland’s leading technologists in the ICT sector with close to 30 years of experience including that of a large successful global enterprise spanning leading edge research to technology transfer to advanced manufacturing and high volume operations in the US, Europe and Ireland. Has a very strong network with the industry and the broader business and academic community.

We had a quick chat with Leonard to get some insights from his long and successful career working in the semi conductor industry, and then subsequently in the wider field of R&D. Leonard has worked mostly but not exclusively in Ireland and so is well positioned to give his insights into why Ireland has punched above its weight in semi conductors and tech in general globally. 

Firstly Leonard could you give us an overview of your career?

I spent 25 years working at Intel, initially on the technical side, and then the last five or six years doing research before finishing with a two year stint in Public Affairs. I joined Trinity College Dublin as Director of Research and Innovation in May of this year. I took on the role as chairperson at MIDAS Ireland (The Microelectronics Industry Design Association of Ireland) at the end of last year and have been working to broaden its appeal. Initially MIDAS was about micro electronics , but we have extended its remit to now include electronics systems. Companies no longer just sell chips, but rather electronic systems, as they become part of everything we do. With the IoT and the cloud, electronics has come back as the key enabler.

Looking at Ireland, what does it do well?

In the 1980s it was all about the mainframe. Digital Electronics and Amdahl were good examples of US companies doing well in Ireland at this time. Then in the 1990s we saw a next wave of companies, such as Dell and Gateway as the personal computer took over, and this was then followed in the 2000s by the internet companies such as Facebook and Google, and now the ‘born on the internet’ companies such as Airbnbs, Ubers and the rest. In this context Ireland Inc has done very well as the wider digital revolution has progressed. It is a good illustration that Ireland has been able to respond to changing needs, and is adaptable enough to change, and keep adapting to respond to new needs and demands.

What do you see coming next?

It will be the era of ‘internet smart companies’ coming next. It’s hard to know why for sure, but Ireland has done well during these transitions.  Perhaps it is because we’re flexible and because we don’t have a huge ego as a nation, we are quick to adapt, and move in the new direction. For its part, MIDAS has been adaptable, flexible, and willing to change which is important, and we’re good at it!

What sort of recruitment challenges are companies facing?

To fill many of the jobs now, it is common that hires are coming from overseas. There is a global skills shortage, but this was also true even in the 1980s. From our engineering class many of them went to one company in Holland. It is not  unusual to see technical migration, and mobile talent moving around. There just isn’t enough of them there for what is needed. The European Parliament have projected that there will be 7 million job openings in STEM positions in Europe in the next 10 years. There are huge opportunities for jobs in tech and STEM related areas, which exceeds what we can we meet just here in Ireland internally.

How do you make STEM courses appealing to help counter this deficit?

This can be an indicator of whether the economy is doing well or not. Engineering and science courses are often less appealing when things are doing well. This is because when the economy is doing well, more people want to manage the wealth rather than make the wealth. STEM subject are also often considered to be harder at college than non STEM courses.

Looking back at your own career, what tips would you give to others to achieve success?

I think it is important to keep yourself technical, and up to date on the technical side of things. Many businesses tend to hire technical people for a wide range of roles as they feel they will have a better ability to master details and new challenges. It is important to keep learning, and stay up to date.  I’m always worried when banks are hiring theoretical physicists, as you’d hope people like that would be going into roles where they can better use their scientific and technical capabilities. Companies always value the technical people they hire. They are also the ones to be let go last. These people are the ones to create the value to your company, and help to differentiate your offering from the competition.  Stay technical as long as you can & it will provide you with a good platform for your career.

Now that you are working with TCD how do you decide which companies are a good fit to work with on Industry / Academic projects?

We look to make a good match between relevant academics and the companies who are looking to solve a particular problem or explore a new area of science. When the match is there, then magic can happen, when you bring those two parties together. An interesting challenge is that the industry often comes with the attitude that the college has all the answers, and academic can often believe that the industry partner knows exactly what it wants. However it is often not that simple, and so it is an interesting challenge to find the right fit. We do this well at this in Ireland, we’re good at finding the match. We don’t reject any challenge either, but it can take longer to find the right match sometimes.

In general what kind of tech are you excited by?

I’m always excited by technology, it’s part of my dna, and it always has great scope for potential. I’m involved in the Young Scientist Awards every year which is great, and  I’m always excited at seeing and hearing the new ideas the students come up with. Current trends like AR/VR are interesting too, but there is a lot happening at the moment. There is so much going on, and there is no one thing now. Previously the PC drove a lot of innovation, then cell phone, then tablet, but now we  currently haven’t got one device that lifts all boats. Maybe it will be the autonomous car that drives things, but until then, if there is no one product trying to lift all boats, then I see it being more about making things smart, connecting devices to each other and the cloud, this will drive lots of new interesting innovations and inventions.

What sort of impact will AI have on the future of work?

In the 1980s, we had a debate in college, about what we will do with all free time we will have, and that never happened! AI and automation does not reduce the overall number of jobs, rather it changes things. It makes things different, companies have to be able to adapt to change, and  the changes are coming quicker, but you can’t automate everything. Technological advances may provide more time for leisure, or it provides more time to do more things. Technology has enabled people to be more productive and do more things and solve greater problems which is great, and makes for interesting times.

Anything else you’d like to add / we should have asked?

Yes, the Valentia Island Cable project which I am now the chair of, as we try to get UNESCO Heritage status for the historical sites on the island. My great grandfather was from Valentia and worked in the cable station. He left to help set up the  Waterville cable station,  before opening a school in Cork. We visited the island as kids, and I have always been fascinated by the story.  Then while I was at Intel they approached us to support the initiative. I eagerly got involved, and am now the chair of the foundation. It was an epic project that Ireland was involved in,  the risks they took, and their entrepreneurial spirit 150 years ago is a great story to tell and celebrate, and hopefully we will achieve UNESCO status for the site.

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