Israel's "silicon woman" joins Mellanox

Shlomit Weiss Photo: Yonatan Bloom
Shlomit Weiss Photo: Yonatan Bloom

Shlomit Weiss reflects on 28 years of achievement at Intel and the challenges facing her as senior VP silicon engineering at Mellanox.

Several months ago, Shlomit Weiss decided that she had had enough. Work was no longer any fun. This is no trivial matter for the vice president of chip development at global technology giant Intel, who was responsible for two of the company's biggest breakthroughs in processors. The Sandy Bridge processor, which was her own special project, revolutionized graphics, and when the Skylake processor, the development of which she led two years ago, came out, Intel declared that it was the biggest breakthrough ever in the sector - up to 250% performance, with a very low power - an enormous advantage for the durability of the battery in a PC or tablet, its weight, and so forth. As if that were not enough, Intel has been Weiss's only employers since she finished her studies at Technion Israel Institute of Technology. She grew from job to job, a woman in a field considered rather masculine - silicon development.

"It wasn't that I woke up one morning and said, 'I'm leaving today.' It was a decision that emerged from within me," she told "Globes." "I've worked at a lot of different jobs at Intel, and I decided that I wanted a change, but a significant change, not just a new project called Sandy Bridge or Skylake, both of which I really loved. But I felt that this was too similar, that I wasn't using my full capabilities, that I was no longer enjoying it enough. So I thought that I'd leave and see where there was a good opportunity for me."

Weiss is now the new recruit of Israeli company Mellanox Technologies Ltd. (Nasdaq:MLNX), senior VP silicon engineering, who was brought to the company in order to give it a big boost in design, and also to be on its leading management team in order to help it achieve its growth ambitions. When she left Intel, however, she said that she had no idea what she would do. "I didn't know that it would be Mellanox," she says. "When I left, I had no clear plan that anything in particular would happen. Some people tell me, 'You're brave,' but I don't think of myself as brave. I just decided that I wanted to enjoy myself. I put myself into whatever I do - whatever I do, I give it my all, and I have to feel that I'm enjoying it. Otherwise, it's tough."

"Globes": What did they say when you left?

Weiss: "They weren't happy; I was greatly appreciated in my work. On the other hand, they understood a person's wish for a change."

"Silicon isn't masculine"

Not many women have done what Weiss has - headed large development organizations in the planning center of a product, rather than personnel or marketing, which are more open to women. Asked about this, Weiss laughs: "Silicon isn't masculine; it's very small and delicate." More seriously, she says, "Yes, high tech is a difficult and challenging sector, and maybe more challenging for women or groups with a limited presence in it."

Did you feel these challenges personally?

"Definitely. I had all sorts of experiences like that on the way. In my first management position at Intel, I had a small group of five people, and I spoke with each one of them individually once a week. In one of these meetings, one of them started by saying, supposedly as a joke, 'Wait a minute, I want to understand something. I've been at Intel longer than you have, and I know this block better than you do, and you're a woman, and you're my manager. How can that be?'."

What was your answer?

"I didn't answer him. I got straight to the subject of the meeting, what had to be prepared for the next week, and so forth. Deep inside, however, I told myself, 'I'll show him how that can be.' I didn't mean to start a war against him; I meant that my management would make him see that it was all right for a woman to manage him. To his credit, I'll say that when he left the group, he told me, 'You're the best manager I've ever had.'

"I had more experiences like that. I was at a managers' course in the Philippines. We were assigned two people to a room, and they put me in a room with a man, and they were all men, except for two women. But I'm not telling you this in order to frighten or deter anyone. My attitude was always, 'Here comes another challenge. I'll deal with it, and I'll prove who I am'."

Why are there so few women at the top in high tech?

"Maybe what deters women is that they think they have to be a man in order to succeed in high tech, or in any masculine environment. Maybe they think that they have to be more aggressive, louder, less sensitive, because that's what everyone does, and if you do what everyone else does, you'll succeed. I don't believe in that so much. Everyone should be himself or herself, and learn to work with others."

Do you think that your management is what is referred to as 'feminine management'?

"I don't know what feminine management is, but I'm a sensitive person. This affects the way I manage and the way I work with people - and that's a good influence, although it sometimes makes things hard for me."

Sensitive meaning sensitive to others, or that you take things to heart?

"Both of them. I was once told, 'You're too sensitive; it will be hard for you to manage.' That was at a moment when I had tears in my eyes. Some people are alarmed when they see or feel tears. I get over it and go onward. I don't think that it interferes with management capabilities, just as I don't think that I have to behave like the masculine majority in order to succeed in management or technology or engineering. I do believe that you have to know how to manage each person according to what is suitable for him or her. People aren't all the same, so I don't manage every person working under me the same way. You have to learn to work with other people, but not to be like them."

Would you like to see more women in these sectors?

"I think that in every sector, including high tech, more diversity among people contributes to success in the sector, because a different background and experience gives a different slant on things. More women, haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews), Arabs, and so forth helps achieve progress in technology."

In studies, many girls are anxious about, and even afraid of, mathematics and natural science and technological subjects.

"Technology should be pushed, but the way to push it is to create the right opportunities, remove the fear, and create a suitable environment that will make it possible to learn and enter the technological professions - and then let people decide their direction for themselves. Historically, the beginning between boys and girls was unbalanced. There's a feeling that a boy doesn't have to be afraid of technology, and a girl does. I don't know why that happens. But the more it becomes open, and we see that it's a good and accessible profession, the more it will help progress in the country and in the world. I think that the labels that many girls put on themselves, 'I'm a natural sciences person' or 'I'm not a natural sciences person,' should disappear."

"History was the hardest subject for me"

Weiss, 55, was born in Romania and immigrated to Israel with her family when she was seven. She had no schooling before coming to Israel, because children start first grade in Romania at age seven. When she arrived in Israel, the children her age in Holon had already learned to write, but she was nevertheless put in a first grade class. In the summer at the end of her first year in school ("I remember this like it was yesterday," Weiss says), the school superintendent tested her in order to decide whether to send her to third grade with other children her age or to second grade. Fortunately, the test was in arithmetic, addition and subtraction, which was obviously easy for her - that was always her strongest subject.

She also found the natural sciences and mathematics easy in high school. Weiss says, "History was the most difficult subject for me. I remember everything that has logic in it, but I can't memorize dates and places with no logic."

So with or without a label, you were always very attracted to the natural sciences and mathematics.

"I didn't say that about myself, but I always knew that if it was logical, I felt a connection with it, and if it wasn't, I didn't. I liked Talmud (Jewish religious law), for example."

Weiss was not good in history or embroidery. In retrospect, she always knew what she wanted. She awards a place of respect to gut feelings. She describes her attraction to computers casually: "I was a little bored in the army, so I told myself, 'Why not take a computer course to see what it is?' She took a basic course through the Open University in the evenings after the army, "and it seemed really nice to me - like a logical puzzle."

She decided to study computer science, "and I of course consulted my mother, who told me, 'Study what you enjoy at the best place for that subject.' That's how I happened to study computer science and electrical engineering and computers at the Technion."

She then began the usual round of work interviews, including at Intel. "My first interview at Intel was a disaster," she reveals. "When it was over, they asked whether I wanted to go with them for them for lunch. I told them, 'No thanks, there's no need'."

She was also interviewed by National Semiconductor (a chip company whose plant in Israel later became Tower Semiconductor Ltd. (Nasdaq: TSEM; TASE: TSEM) (marketed as Tower-Jazz)), Elbit Systems Ltd. (Nasdaq: ESLT; TASE: ESLT), and other places. "After a long time, they called from Intel and asked me to come for a second interview. I was sure that it was a mistake. I asked them, 'Are you sure you mean me?'"

She felt comfortable in the second interview, and not long afterwards received job offers from both Intel and National Semiconductor on the very same day. "Friends of mine were already working at Intel, and they were satisfied, so I went to Intel. These decisions come from inside."

Weiss was at Intel for 28 years in a great many positions, including in the US. The best-known areas she dealt with were processors of Intel's Core series, each time a new generation of the processor; Sandy Bridge; and Skylake. Sandy Bridge was the first time that very advanced graphics processing was installed within the processor, while maintaining reasonable power. "It was a difficult project, because there are very different things on the same silicon wafer," she explains, "and it was necessary to integrate different design methods, and even at the personal level - different groups with a different culture and a different language worked on this. Although they were all from the same company, each group had its own culture. In the end, when the chip came out, it was the biggest seller that year (2011)."

By the time Skylake was designed, Weiss already headed an entire organization making processors for stationary and mobile computers. It was a system-on-a-chip that was compatible with all of these devices, which in Intel-ese is called the "world of client." What is special about Skylake sounds simple: very low power with very high performance, which means that it can be used in many more types of computers (including tablets, for example), because it makes it possible to use lightweight batteries and lengthens the period of time between charging.

For the layman, why is this revolutionary?

"Because previously a choice had to be made: either very good performance or low power - you couldn't have both. In principle, each of these things is at the expense of the other.

"I think people understand"

Mellanox cofounder and CEO Eyal Waldman has known Weiss since they studied together at the Technion. "Shlomit attended all the lectures," he says. "I also went to most of them, but Shlomit's notes were much better than mine, and I prepared for a large proportion of the exams with her notebooks, not mine."

Why didn't you hire her much earlier?

Waldman: I realized that Shlomit was working in a group that competed with us, and it therefore didn't feel right to contact her in order to try to recruit her. You don't want to put a person in a place that's not comfortable for him or her. So when I heard that she had left, I realized that this was an opportunity, and I called her two or three days later and said, 'Let's meet.' We started talking, and agreed several weeks later that she would join Mellanox."

Then you put her in a very senior position in place of one of the founders. How did that go down in the company?

"It's true that we're not used to this at Mellanox. Our executives usually grow from within the company, but I think that it's good once in a while to bring people from outside to refresh our way of thinking and bring in outside methodologies."

The bait that Waldman dangled in front of Weiss was his vision, the large influence that Mellanox has acquired as a result of its specialty in rapid connectivity, and its artificial intelligence apps that require huge quantities of information.

"That helped me be enthusiastic," Weiss admits, "and also the fact that this company is in the forefront of technology. That's the place I liked working in at Intel and where I like working now, maybe because it's more difficult and challenging. Secondly, it's a growing company, and I felt that with my experience, I have something to bring, and could grow together with the company. So I became enthused. On a personal level, for me it's being part of the company's management - its leadership. This is something I haven't experienced before - seeing a bigger picture and having a bigger influence on the company's direction."

That brings me to the question of the biggest challenges today in the chip industry. People usually think about more and more miniaturization.

Weiss: "It's miniaturization, but not only that. There are many challenges, such as reaching higher speeds, lowering power - in other words, bridging over the contradictions. The more contradictory characteristics that the product you want to make contains - small with diverse functions, because every function takes up space; speed with low power, and so forth - the more difficult and challenging its design will be. Most chips, each in its field, include more and more contradictory features, and the big challenge is not just to combine them, but to make them all successful, without one of them being good and the other being very inferior."

Is this what puts the spark in your eyes? Doing these difficult and contradictory things?

"I want to do them while seeing the big picture at the same time. I sometimes tell my engineers, 'Did you fall in love with your transistors? Terrific. They have to be good, but in the big picture, they're not the most important part.' Personally, I find myself more and more enjoying seeing the big picture, so I enjoyed it when I got to managing big projects, and I have an opportunity here to see a bigger picture, the entire company, which makes me even more enthusiastic."

Shlomit Weiss

Personal: Single, lives in Haifa

Education: BSc in computer science and MSc in electrical engineering from Technion

Something else: "I really like folk dancing. In folk dancing, I disconnect from everything and get inside the music, even if it was a hard day."

Published by Globes [online], Israel Business News - - on October 10, 2017

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2017

Shlomit Weiss Photo: Yonatan Bloom
Shlomit Weiss Photo: Yonatan Bloom
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