Meet Robert Li of Synopsys

Synopsys VP of Sales and President of Synopsys Taiwan Robert Li knows business, but it took him a while to get there. Returning to Taiwan with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California in the early 90s, when Taiwan’s ICT industry was really taking off, Li soon found that he could not get by with just the hard skills he’d learned in school. It took founding two companies and an EMBA from National Taiwan University to give him the knowledge and experience he needed to be a leader.

Li set aside some time in March to talk to Taiwan Business TOPICS Deputy Editor Jeremy Olivier about management, leadership, and the future of Taiwan’s high-tech industries.

What got you interested in a career in business? At what point in your life did you make that decision?

I think that the reason I got into business is really because I wanted to own my own company. I was trained as an engineer, and I worked in engineering management and product marketing and sales roles for many years. However, after a while I decided to launch my first startup company. I think that my family background (my father was a small-business owner) also pushed me to make the switch to becoming an entrepreneur.

How has your educational background impacted the course of your career and your approach to management? What did you gain from the Executive MBA from National Taiwan University?

The engineering degrees I received gave me some valuable skills, such as logical thinking and a deductive approach to problem-solving. The engineering management part of my career allowed me to learn about project management.

My salary for the first five years of work after returning to Taiwan from the U.S. was not very high, so I made some extra money teaching part-time at several local universities. I created a lot of teaching materials during that time, which really helped with my presentation and public-speaking skills.

When I launched my first startup, I realized that although I had a strong tech background, I lacked some business operations skills and knowledge. I decided to take the EMBA course at NTU to learn and improve skills like operations management and basic accounting and finance. I noticed a real positive difference after graduating from that program.

A side benefit of the EMBA experience was meeting a lot of like-minded classmates from different industries, many of whom became long-term friends.

You also had entrepreneurial experience as the founder of two companies. How has that influenced the way you operate as a manager?

Being an entrepreneur with a solid tech and engineering background was not necessarily a blessing to me. During the startup phase of my companies, I was a little too focused on the tech side, while my co-founders were from pure sales backgrounds. We ended up having many arguments, which got the companies into trouble, and in the end they did not succeed.

Those experiences taught me a lot. First, having only hard skills is not enough to start and run a business. Business owners need soft skills, like communication and persuasion. Cross-team cooperation and critical thinking are extremely important. Don’t let yourself be influenced by others, think through the whole issue and make the right judgment. Good judgment and business acumen are the most powerful tools to making a business successful.

Secondly, leadership ability is much more important than position power. With position power, you can assign tasks and get people to do what you want. But being a leader means inspiring people to do things they believe are right for the company.

Being an entrepreneur also gave me a lot of insight into how executives think, and about the challenges they are facing. I can empathize with their situation and give them advice. So, another one of my skills is being able to communicate effectively with high-level executives.

You’ve been active in encouraging talent development. What do you consider to be Taiwan’s major strengths and shortcomings in this area?

In my career with Synopsys, I’ve worked in both Taiwan and China. While I was running the operation in Shanghai, I discovered that Chinese engineers are very competitive, yet they learn from each other and pick up new knowledge very quickly – much faster than the typical Taiwanese engineer.

When I returned to Taiwan from China, I felt that the Taiwan engineers on my team had, by default, lots of hard skills. They were strong in terms of product development and quickly responding to market needs. However, just like myself in my early career, they did not have the soft skills necessary to become leaders. This is why I began devoting part of my work to doing leadership training.

I came up with a model – a soft-skills pyramid. The bottom level contains all the basic characteristics needed to be a well-rounded engineer: communication, planning, problem-solving, presentation, and persuasion. The second level is for becoming a manager or director. On this level, you begin building skills in project management, cross-team cooperation, interfacing and engaging with customers, and critical thinking. The third and top level is how to be a leader, an executive. Here, accountability and ownership are the most important qualifications.

I’ve seen a lot of success with this model. Most people don’t want to be instructed; they just need to be reminded of where they can improve. And for these soft skills, they mostly just need practice. The engineers I work with, once I remind them and give them time to practice, usually pick things up right away.

Is Taiwan well-positioned to maintain its competitiveness in the semiconductor industry? What are the main threats it faces and what can be done to overcome these?

Taiwan has the best semiconductor ecosystem in the world. From its well-developed OEM, ODM, and EMS capabilities, to IT design, to manufacturing, to testing and packaging, Taiwan remains at the top of its class in the semiconductor field. In addition, Taiwan has the best semiconductor and IC design talent training of any country.

My company, Synopsys, specializes in electronic design automation (EDA) – we provide the tools to place billions of components on a single microchip. There are only around 100-plus researchers worldwide who are currently researching EDA, and over 50% of them are in Taiwan.

Combined, Taiwan’s amazing semiconductor ecosystem, its world-class training, and its research capacity continue to make it very competitive.

Of course, there are mounting challenges to that competitiveness. The biggest threat right now is from China, which is determined to become self-sufficient in terms of its IC supply chain, and to decouple from those of the U.S. and even Europe. To do this, it is focusing on lifting technology and talent from Taiwan.

To overcome these challenges, not only do we need to better protect our IP rights, we also need to prevent continuing to lose our talent to China. The government might need to take more of a leadership role in determining a strategy. Given that more than 50% of Taiwan’s IC products are sold to China, we need the relationship to be one of cooperation as well as competition.

There are a few ways to start doing this. Beyond IP protection, the government can offer certain tax benefits for local companies. It can also encourage some of these companies to merge or consolidate, which will make our semiconductor environment even stronger. Since Taiwan is a democratic, free society, it cannot take as heavy-handed an approach as China. However, with Taiwan’s existing strengths, a good strategy can really make a difference.

What kinds of opportunities and challenges will the 5G era bring to Taiwanese businesses?

Taiwan companies are known for being very agile and responding quickly to market needs. Therefore, the introduction of 5G will bring new opportunities to Taiwan’s high-tech industries, in areas such as IoT, AI, automotive, and AR/VR, among others. These are all different applications that require different components. Here, I think Taiwan’s well-developed ICT ecosystem will come into play again.

In terms of challenges, Taiwan’s companies are just not big enough. There are a lot of projects that might require a bigger capital investment or stronger market power or position. Taiwan’s industries might need to enter the next round of consolidation to face the big challenges and take advantage of the opportunities.

What do you find is the best way to get “recharged” after a long week of work?

While I like to do some exercise, like jogging, I mostly just love spending time with my family. I have a wife and three daughters, two of whom are studying in the U.S. and one who is still in high school here in Taiwan. For me, family is and will always be the most important part of my life.