Intel turns sand to gold

The company's tiny microprocessing chips are essential in a host of electronic products, but the way it treats its employees is just as essential to its success.

By
May 23, 2009 22:03
Intel turns sand to gold

intel israel 224 88. (photo credit: Intel [file])

 
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Employees are required to take courses on the company's "culture" and safety rules; applicants are offered no position without the chance to negotiate a contract; fabrication employees work 12-hour shifts; and the staff bulletin is framed as recommended reading material next to the toilets. Just voted the best workplace in the country, Intel-Israel offers its employees so much (even more psychologically than materially) that people would give their right arms to work here. At a time when hundreds of thousands are either worried about dismissal or distraught about not being fairly compensated, the developer and manufacturer of advanced microprocessor chips is doing something (or many things) right. Intel Corporation - established in Santa Clara, California, 41 years ago - is the world's largest producer of silicon microprocessors, with AMD lagging far behind. Your personal computer, car, digital camera, cellphone, refrigerator and many other electronic devices probably have tiny Intel chips inside, and the company has captured 80 percent of the world market. The latest chip has 700 million transistors - quite a distance from the 10,000 of a quarter century ago. Just seven years after the company was founded, it launched in Israel its first development and manufacturing center outside the US. Identified as having people with initiative, imagination and creativity, Jerusalem, Kiryat Gat, Petah Tikva, Haifa, Yakum and Yokneam became sites for research & development centers and fabrication plants; some 6,500 lucky people are Intel Israel employees (among 85,000 around the world). "We have developed breakthroughs in Israel that have changed the face of computerization," said Maxine Fassberg, Intel vice president for the technology and manufacturing group and general manager of Intel Israel in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post in her Kiryat Gat office. "The world of computers is developing and changing, and today we in Israel are developing and manufacturing network and communication products as well as microprocessors - in parallel to spearheading the mobile domain in Intel Corporation." AMONG THE technologies developed here are MMX, which constitutes the basis of the Pentium processor, platforms for Intel Centrino mobile computers and the Intel Core 2 Duo processor. In addition, the first fast Ethernet and first wireless LAN (local area network) were developed here. Fassberg, who came to Jerusalem from South Africa in 1975, was a teacher in the ORT College on the Hebrew University campus, received a master's degree in applied chemistry at Hebrew University and worked as a chemistry and physics teacher in the capital's Rene Cassin high school. She married Dr. Joseph Fassberg, a Jerusalem physician, and they have two adult children, Guy and Liat. "In 1982, the Jerusalem Municipality's education department was opening a new school in a northern suburb, and I applied to be the principal. But when I went for an interview, all the other applicants were men. I was told: 'You're much too young; come back in 20 years.' I am sure it was not an anti-woman thing, but an age thing," said Fassberg (whose office is a cubicle like that of many of her employees; she also has no special table in the cafeteria and flies tourist class). "So I went back to what I was doing. In 1983, Intel Israel was hiring engineers after deciding to open its factory in Jerusalem. Many of my friends were hired, and one suggested I send in my curriculum vitae. I didn't even know what Intel was about, but as friends were doing it, I did too. It kind of happened to me; it wasn't planned." SHE BEGAN as a lithography engineer in Jerusalem's Fab(rication) 8 startup; "they thought it was about printing involving chemicals and light." Then she became an engineering manager at Fab 18 in 1995. Fassberg was advanced to Fab 18 factory manager along with Alex Kornhauser and was responsible for construction of the advanced Fab 28 manufacturing facility in Kiryat Gat that opened last year and employs 2,000. And she became an Intel Corporation VP. "Very few of the new employees had worked in the industry before," she noted. "Experts were scarce. Even today in Intel, you don't learn fabrication; you come and train on the job. But for research and development, the staff are engineers; it's different. When we hire people, we look for a basic knowledge of science. We prefer people able to solve problems and think for themselves. Getting the right answer is not as important as knowing how to deal with problems, work in teams, have good communication and being sociable." Thorough personal interviews determine who is hired. The "culture" of Intel is visible everywhere. Everything is immaculate - and not only in the huge clean rooms where technicians who make the chips are covered from tip to toe in white overalls, leaving only eyes behind protective glasses peeking out. Robot devices transport the pieces of silicon from one station to another, and each chip takes five to seven weeks from its earliest to latest stage of production. Employees are required to work - standing up and moving about - for 12-hour shifts over four days, with four days off. But they are not slaves; there are many breaks for food and chat in gleaming cafeterias. And then they can work out in the plant's fitness room, get checked by the doctor in the clinic or plan a vacation with the in-house travel agent. Thus the company seems to have struck an admirable balance between making use of Israelis' talent at improvisation and teaching them the self discipline they generally lack. "I am always asked to give lectures on how we hire, manage employees and deal with diversity," says Fassberg. Staffers are fairly paid, but the fact that they are valued as contributing individuals and can advance is a major component of what makes Intel the desired workplace it is. "Being a desired workplace comes from having harmony among different aspects," noted Fassberg. "People have challenging things to do, good working conditions, employment stability and an open dialogue with management. In fact, we don't have many levels of management." INTEL-ISRAEL, she continued, has fired people in the past, but Fassberg would prefer to shorten the work day, reduce pay or deploy those whose jobs are eliminated to other parts of the company. The company was much better prepared than others for the current global economic crisis, as during the past couple of years, when it set up business units, it tried to do more with fewer people and manage budgets more stringently. Non-production employees don't use a time clock but tote up what they did during the month. The company is very strict about work safety, ethics that are regarded as norms and environmental protection. Workers are also strongly encouraged to do volunteer work. "We are heavily invested in the communities in which we operate," explains Fassberg, "because that is where we live. Some employees work in schools as volunteers on their own time. Their children study there, and they think they can make these institutions better. Volunteering is not an edict. From the feedback I get, it makes people feel better and get a perspective of themselves." Other volunteers clean up beaches or parks. "Israelis like to be outside and improve things. This fits into Intel's value system," she continued. Intel does much to improve science education and bring Jews and Arabs together. Youths of all backgrounds are contestants in the Intel Young Scientists Competition held annually on Albert Einstein's birthday in March; winners are sent to World Intel's competition, and Israeli teens have always performed well. Her company has had a "unique and fruitful relationship with Israeli governments," she stressed. The state has given the company financial incentives to build facilities in the periphery and in Jerusalem, and Intel has invested a total of $7 billion in projects that employ thousands of people and provide livings for many more. If Israel's various governments were to ask Fassberg for advice - which they almost never have - she would urge serious investments in education and science. "I'm very worried about general level of education in this country. We have to be investing in people, as we have no other natural resources. We have a matriculation system that ensures those who get to university have a good education, and the universities are very good, but the budget cuts to higher education are very worrisome." The Intel Israel general manager suggests that "there are too many lawyers in this country, so the financial burden should be greater on students who want to be lawyers. The same tuition fees should not be charged for all fields. Business administration should not be at a bachelor's degree level. Students need to learn basic science or other subjects, and later they can go for a graduate degree in business administration." In addition, she suggested, "the state should not subsidize any field that does not raise productivity. We need theaters, culture, literature and Jewish philosophy, as many Israelis are growing up ignorant and have to be well rounded. Students should pay tuition according to the need for their services." Asked how Intel prepares itself for changes in the market and the variety of products in which its microprocessors and other products are used, she says: "the aim is to make them as fast, efficient and reliable as possible. It's only much later in the planning cycle when we decide what to build at a given time." Intel operates on two principles. "We learn to run lines much faster than anyone so we can respond to customer demand. The natural cadence for refreshing our products is 18 months to two years. During this period, the number of transistors on a chip will double. The second principle is that we must constantly be investing in new generations of chips. None of this happens overnight. It can take 10 years from the thinking stage to the production stage. We must always think ahead." L ast year, microprocessor companies saw a big dip in demand, she said, "but all indicators show that demand is starting to come up again." In these gloomy times, that is good news for Intel Corporation, Intel Israel, the hi-tech industry and Israel itself.

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