A success in Silicon Valley, but still in Lexington

February 20, 2012

After five years in California working for Cypress Semiconductor, Alan Hawse decided in 1996 that he wanted to move back home to Lexington.

The computer chip maker didn’t want to lose Hawse, so it created a research and development facility in Lexington for him to run. Still, Hawse figured that his climb up the corporate ladder was over.

If you want to be a player in Silicon Valley, you have to be in Silicon Valley, right? Not necessarily.

In 2003, Hawse was made vice president of information technology. Last February, he was put in charge of the company’s software-design applications. This month, he was promoted to executive vice president of software development.

Hawse, 43, is now one of a dozen top executives of Cypress, a $3.5 billion company that is one of the world’s leading makers of programmable chips. He oversees about 250 software engineers working in this country, India, China, Turkey and Ukraine.

Hawse plans to create a software-design unit in Lexington, too, “as soon as I find the right person to run it.” That would add about 10 jobs to Cypress’s office at the corner of Main and Mill streets, where about 40 engineers design chips.

“Cypress likes Lexington,” said Hawse, who has degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Kentucky and Georgia Tech. “We attract good people who do good work, and the cost to the company is reasonable.”

For the moment, though, Hawse has bigger tasks on his plate. He said software problems last year delayed the introduction of Cypress’s TrueTouch Gen 4 chip, which brought a new level of precision to touchscreens used in smartphones and many other devices made by such companies as Samsung, Apple and Sony.

That delay caused Cypress’s stock price to take a hit, costing shareholders millions of dollars. “Now, it’s my responsibility to fix,” Hawse said. “It was a crazy year. This year is going to be crazy, too. It’s amazing intellectual stimulation. Everything is new, and the stakes are very high. But I’m an engineer; I’m good at putting stuff together and making it work.”

Software development is essential to Cypress because its chips are programmable. In addition to touchscreens, those chips are used to control such things as touch buttons on appliances and computer peripherals that work through USB connections.

Programmable chips are a big, global business — and getting bigger all the time. People are always creating new uses for chips, as Hawse did when he sought a solution to a problem in his back yard.

Hawse, his wife, Jill, and their two children live in Scott County. Elkhorn Creek runs behind their property, and they never know when the water might be rising so much that it could flood their barn. So, Hawse connected a Cypress chip to a water-pressure sensor to measure the water level and display it online. Now, he can log onto a Web site from anywhere and check the creek’s level.

That has come in handy because Hawse spends a lot of time traveling around the world.

“I spent 100 nights in a hotel last year, which isn’t fun, but it’s part of the job,” he said.

Hawse figures Lexington is a better place to do his new job than at company headquarters in San Jose, Calif. For one thing, this time zone is more convenient for reaching Cypress employees in many other parts of the world at convenient times.

Still, Hawse marvels at his good fortune, and at the changes in business and technology that allow him to be a successful engineer and top executive at one of the world’s top technology companies, yet still get to work in his hometown.

It’s also nice, he adds, to still come to work most days wearing jeans, running shoes and a sweatshirt. And be able to keep a bicycle outside his office so he can squeeze in a 20-mile ride at lunch on a pretty day.

“It’s jaw-droppingly amazing when you think about it,” Hawse said. “I drive down Newtown Pike every day through the amazingly beautiful place where we live, and when I walk though these doors, I’m in Silicon Valley. The ability we have to hire good people here and play with the big boys is amazing.”

To create high-tech economy, focus on the brains

March 29, 2010

April is technology month in Lexington. Local promoters plan to spotlight the high-tech people and companies already here in the hope of attracting more.

Digital technology has given smart people more flexibility about where they live and work. That’s an opportunity for Lexington, a beautiful city with a great quality of life.

The big question is, how can Lexington make the most of that opportunity?

One way to succeed is to identify success and figure out how to replicate it. So I went to see Alan Hawse, vice president of information technology at Cypress Semiconductor, one of the world’s leading designers and manufacturers of the silicon chips at the heart of almost every electronic device.

Cypress is based in San Jose, Calif. Hawse works in Lexington, along with about 40 other Cypress employees who do high-level research and development. The Lexington design center is one of five Cypress has in the United States. Four others are in India, Ireland and Belgium.

Why is this little piece of the Silicon Valley now at Main Street and Mill in Lexington? Because of Hawse.

Hawse, 41, was born and raised in Lexington, attended public schools and studied electrical engineering at the University of Kentucky and Georgia Tech. He joined Cypress in 1991 and worked in the Silicon Valley for five years.

But when it came time to start a family, Hawse and his wife, Jill, who is from Georgetown, wanted to live here. Cypress didn’t want to see a talented employee move on, so it moved with him.

Things have worked out well for both Hawse and his employer. “Cypress loves Lexington because we’ve been able to hire a lot of super-intelligent people who like to live here and do good work,” he said.

Like Hawse, many of the Cypress employees in Lexington are native Kentuckians or UK graduates. “Every time there’s a story written about me,” he said, “I get calls from mothers with kids in the Silicon Valley.”

Hawse, a former Herald-Leader contributing columnist, said the first thing he would do to build Lexington’s high-tech economy would be to compile a list of Kentucky natives and UK grads who are technology industry standouts elsewhere. Call them. Fly out to see them. Ask them whether they have any interest in coming back. If so, ask them what it would take to get them here.

“Lexington has many, many of the good things about big cities and almost none of the drawbacks,” Hawse said. Natural beauty. Good schools. Universities. Little crime. No traffic. Lots of cultural amenities. “I would work at selling those things; play to your strengths and away from your weaknesses,” he said.

“I would promote an intellectual framework that would allow high-tech people everywhere to visualize themselves being here,” Hawse said. “Sometimes, all you have to do is give people a map. Maps have lots of roads on them. They don’t tell you where to go, but they show you where you can go.”

But that’s only a start. Lexington must become known as a place where technology people and companies can grow and succeed. That means more tolerance and diversity, fewer good old boy networks.

Most important of all, Hawse said, it means education. Kentucky must create educational excellence, from preschool to graduate school. Rigorous math and science education must begin in elementary school, and the “gem” students must be nurtured.

Creating educational excellence also means better coordination and pooling of Kentucky’s limited resources. Less overhead. Less bureaucracy. “Here’s a radical idea,” Hawse said. “What if we merged UK and (the University of Louisville)? What about that?”

The problem with traditional economic development strategies, Hawse thinks, is that they are political exercises built around trying to hit home runs — landing the big plant, attracting the big company.

But long-term success, he thinks, comes from steady, continuous improvement. Improving education. Connecting smart people and companies. Creating an entrepreneurial climate that encourages business development and personal success.

“It’s all about the brains and the skills they acquire,” Hawse said. “It’s all about developing the brains, keeping them here and bringing them back here. And bringing new ones here. The brains make it possible.”