The Last Word
Ellie Yieh's Remarkable Journey
By David Lammers
When Ellie Yieh, fresh out of the University of California at Berkeley’s chemical engineering program, joined Applied Materials 30 years ago, the semiconductor industry was poised to make a series of fundamental technology changes. After one year of traveling the world as a customer support engineer, Yieh sought a change that would make her a key player in several of those key technologies.
“Although I was very good at solving problems, people would say to me, ‘I want to talk to your experts.’ They didn’t consider me qualified to answer their technical questions, so I decided to change my job [at Applied],” Yieh told a roomful of female engineers at the recent Women in Semiconductors event, organized by SEMI on the day preceding the Advanced Semiconductor Manufacturing Conference (ASMC 2019) in Saratoga Springs, New York.
She recalled how Dan Maydan and other early Applied Materials technical executives pushed her to overcome obstacles, challenging her to find solutions to difficult problems and to not always take the easy road. One of her roles as corporate VP for advanced product technology development is to manage the process integration work at the Maydan Technology Center in Santa Clara, California. She is also chartered with new product development for Applied Materials’ semiconductor sector.
Yieh, who immigrated from Taiwan when she was 15, is personable, brilliant and determined. She is also confident enough to take risks. However, that confidence is not a singular virtue, held tightly within herself. As she said, experiencing a successful 30-year career “without sharing, is no good.”
Yieh told the 140 female engineers about three lessons she has learned over the past three decades. First, be an expert—but learn everything around the subject as well. “Not just about it, but around it,” she said. “How to keep energized, motivated and win in your career?” To do that she continued to build on her technical competency while learning how to lead the technical teams, influence her customers, and ensure product competitiveness, as well as develop finance and marketing skills.
Secondly, be willing to take on challenges. “Growth and comfort don’t go together,” Yieh said, recalling times when her bosses or human resource managers would present new job opportunities within Applied that would take her out of her comfort zone. Earlier in her career, Yieh said she “didn’t like changes at all. But once people gave me an opportunity, I realized that if I don’t take the job someone else will be telling me what to do, so I might as well just go do it. That forced me to grow.”
Finally, she advised the attendees to “take good care of yourselves, both physically and mentally. If you are serious about your career, you must learn that a career is not a sprint, it is a marathon.” To succeed, a person must eat well, exercise, sleep, build tough skin and maintain a balanced life between work and family. Yieh described a period when her two children were small, her mother was in a hospital in a coma, and she was just beginning a job as the business unit general manager for Applied’s Etch Division, learning to deal with group members who were more senior and experienced than she was. “At the end of each crazy day, I would go to the hospital to see my mother before going home to have dinner with my family and do some more work. I realized then that women have this tremendous ability to stretch themselves. To find peace of mind amid all the chaos that life brings us becomes the ultimate challenge.“
Yieh said that succeeding in the semiconductor equipment industry takes strength. She recalled asking Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. Secretary of State, how to deal with very powerful men. Rice told Yieh to remain true to her principles and not be afraid to walk away.
“I’m a very tough manager, with high standards for myself and my team,” said Yieh. “I had to learn earlier on that my job is to drive the performance of the team, not to make people like me.”
Yieh also told the women engineers to “remember what value you bring,” adding that “I know this may be easy to say, but know and pay special attention to communicating your value. It is key for your career.”
It takes confidence to compete in a tough industry, stand by one’s values, maintain balance and say “no” when required. Yieh has that, to a degree few people of either gender do. Managers today need the confidence to hire and promote women, give them equal opportunities and encourage them to move to the next level when the time is right. As Yieh put it, we “might as well just go do it.”
Ellie Yieh is Corporate Vice President for Advanced Product Technology Development within the New Markets and Alliances organization at Applied Materials. Her biography and a discussion of her work at the Applied Materials Maydan Technology Center is available at http://www.appliedmaterials.com/nanochip/nanochip-fab-solutions/december...
David Lammers is an Austin-based technology journalist.