Meet Peter Cleveland of TSMC

Washington, D.C.-based Peter Cleveland, Vice President of Global Policy for the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), has an insider’s knowledge of how to frame and convey the interests and benefits of a multinational corporation to a broad audience. Given his many years on Capitol Hill, as well as his experience in the private sector working on technology issues, Cleveland is also intimately familiar with the global semiconductor industry and Taiwan’s key position in it.

In a phone conversation with TOPICS Senior Editor Jeremy Olivier in January, Cleveland discussed his long and varied career in the public and private sectors, the significance of TSMC to the global tech market, and the day-to-day work he does as top liaison between Taiwan’s “silicon shield” and the U.S. government.

What was your experience with Taiwan and its semiconductor industry before joining TSMC?

As a former public servant on Capitol Hill, I was involved in Taiwan-related issues for many years. During my government career of over 16 years, I worked on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – specifically the East Asia subcommittee – and I had the opportunity to visit Taiwan on many occasions. I also got to meet many of the Taiwan representatives to the U.S. over the years, including Fred Chien, Jason Hu, C.C. Chen – who is now Deputy Minister of Economic Affairs – and the current top diplomat, Hsiao Bi-khim. Through this experience, I’ve developed a great fondness for Taiwan and respect for the government officials I’ve had the pleasure to meet and work with.

I went into the semiconductor business about 10 years ago after leaving government, and my position at TSMC started only around 18 months ago. Taiwan has done a terrific job in terms of building a leading chip industry, and TSMC has been one of the key players behind Taiwan’s success in this area.

How did you come to the decision to join TSMC after concluding your decade-long tenure at Intel?

Due to my extensive exposure to Asia and my experience working on Capitol Hill, I had become familiar with several senior corporate leaders at TSMC. I felt that there was a real opportunity to expand my horizons and work for a multinational that was moving the global ICT industry forward in such a positive way. The leadership at the company is modest and thoughtful, and laser-focused on developing and improving the silicon production process. The notion of going on to start their government relations advocacy program – to be a pioneer in this space – was therefore very appealing to me, on both a personal and professional level.

Has your time as a public servant and all of the connections you’ve made in Washington, D.C. and beyond benefited you in your roles at Intel and TSMC?

Without doubt. When you have experience in the government trenches, you understand how lawmakers and regulators and policy officials make decisions. You have more political intuition and more detailed knowledge about what decisionmakers in Brussels or Beijing or Washington, D.C. believe is important. I use that intuition and the knowledge I’ve accumulated to educate and advocate, to help people in government understand TSMC’s value proposition, as well as the impact of their decisions on a company as important and as highly valued as TSMC.

Experience working in government is therefore absolutely crucial. It’s allowed me to have a much better understanding of the risks and rewards officials consider before making decisions regarding export controls, issuing federal incentives for onshoring manufacturing, or taking other statutory or regulatory steps.

What makes IT – and particularly semiconductors – such an attractive industry to work in? What developments have you seen since beginning your career in this area that have excited you?

Semiconductors are the most important technology product in the world. They’re extremely hard to understand and are one of the most difficult products to manufacture. Just think about it: we’re producing a piece of silicon the size of a postage stamp that contains 11 billion transistors, and which has the power to create the voltage and electricity necessary for platforms on handsets, laptops, desktops, and supercomputers.

This fact makes working for such an important company – one that creates a fundamental computing power for so many applications used by industry, governments, and consumers – incredibly exciting and inspiring.

Before working for Intel and eventually TSMC, you previously served as Chief of Staff for California Senator Dianne Feinstein. Why did you decide to make the move to corporate affairs? What knowledge and skills did you need to carry over from politics to your current career?

Policymaking and lawmaking have long been topics of great interest to me and I was always a public servant at heart. At the same time, I didn’t feel the need to do that for my entire career. And because I worked for Senator Feinstein – who is herself a wonderful public servant and an admirable leadership figure in American politics – I was determined to find an industry to work in that made a difference in people’s lives. I wanted to be in a place that was constructive and affirmative and positive, and which contributed to consumer knowledge and edification. And so, technology was a very natural fit for me.

The semiconductor industry had a big presence in Silicon Valley and after spending a decade at Intel, I decided to move on to TSMC due to their global presence and impact. A couple years into this project of establishing a government affairs department, we’re making steady progress, with a growing team that spans several markets around the world.

It’s been extremely gratifying to work for the corporate leaders at the company, including Chairman Mark Liu, CEO C.C. Wei, and Vice President and General Counsel Sylvia Fang. They’re extremely nice and clever and easy to work for, and are dedicated to their mission of producing the very best semiconductor products for customers worldwide.

In your role as Vice President of Global Policy at TSMC, what does a normal day at work look like for you?

Let’s take today as an example. I’m currently being interviewed by an important business organization in Taiwan and in just a couple of hours, I will hop on a call with Congresswoman Debby Lesko of Arizona’s 8th congressional district to discuss TSMC’s pending investment there. Right after that, I will speak with other company representatives to a trade association called SEMI – which represents all the global semiconductor equipment makers – on a few issues related to export controls. That will be followed by another conversation with the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, and then a call with Sylvia Fang – my direct boss – to report on some recent developments.

So, a typical day is packed with talking to lawmakers, working with fellow representatives of industry companies, conferring with industry organizations, and communicating internally with senior officials at TSMC.

What is the importance of having an American voice as liaison for a foreign multinational like TSMC? What are the challenges of articulating and promoting the interests of a foreign company compared to those of a U.S. enterprise like Intel?

TSMC is a multinational corporation that serves marketplaces around the world. Our status as a non-U.S. company is thus not relevant when considering the critical products that we make for consumers and companies worldwide. We’re everybody’s foundry and we try to be proactive in reaching out to key decisionmakers so that they understand that where we’re from is not significant. It’s the work that we do that matters most.

What was TSMC’s basis for choosing Arizona as the site for its planned US$12 billion investment? What advantages will this investment bring the company in the years ahead?

The tech supply chain is a critical issue, one that is now a core focus of industry and government alike. While the majority of TSMC’s manufacturing is still in Taiwan, we wanted to tap into the global talent market – to have operations close to where the resources and many of our key customers are. Arizona was thus a natural fit for TSMC in terms of building out its global capacity. There are over 65 semiconductor companies based in the Phoenix area already – it truly is “semiconductor country” – and there are existing clients and supply chains there, which makes it an ideal location for our planned 5nm wafer fab.

I’m happy to say that the announcement to establish a presence in Phoenix has gone well, and we expect it will take a few more years before our operations there are underway.

If you had one piece of advice for a young professional looking to go into your field, what would that be?

You have to first ask yourself what you’re passionate about. What do you love to do? What interests you? Try to identify that early in your life and then pursue it. Frame your education around it and get to know people in that particular space. Try not to be too prescriptive, but do find something you like well enough that you can do it for 10-12 hours a day. Once you’ve identified that, you’re well on your way to a successful career.