ST Liew, Vice President of Qualcomm Technologies and President of Qualcomm Taiwan, Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, is a telecommunications veteran with more than 30 years of experience in the industry, working in research and development for Acer and Motorola before joining Qualcomm six years ago.
Liew connected with TOPICS Senior Editor Julia Bergström at the Ghost Island Media recording studio to discuss risk management, the importance of an open mindset, and how scuba diving helps him solve problems. An abridged version of their conversation follows. To listen to the extended podcast version, visit topics.amcham.com.tw/listen.
Your background is in engineering – how has this helped your career as you’ve moved into managerial positions?
After graduating, I spent three years in product engineering because my previous company required it before allowing me to become an R&D engineer. This experience taught me how to solve factory problems and design products with manufacturability in mind. My favorite project was designing walkie-talkies and two-way radios for the police and military.
I’ve found it important to understand not only the technology but also how to communicate it effectively to customers. I transitioned to product management and now define products based on customer needs, and having an engineering background has been invaluable in this role.
What has changed in the telecom and technology sector during your 30 years in the industry? What has stayed the same?
One thing that hasn’t changed is the pace of technological change. It has continued to be shockingly fast, driven by generations of communication technologies and the rapid rate of change in ideas and enabling technologies. Pagers were one-way devices, requiring you to race to a phone and call back the number on your pager. This wasn’t ideal for communication, and humans wanted to be able to interact anytime, anywhere. This aspiration brought us to cellular phones, then smartphones, and now 5G, with 6G and more to come.
My 30 years in the industry have shown me that the ability to communicate enables endless possibilities, not just in communication itself but in everything else that communication enables. At Qualcomm, we pride ourselves on being at the forefront of these changes, taking on the most difficult challenges to bring about a sea change in the technology ecosystem, leading to the multiplication of applications, ideas, and innovations. These experiences have enriched my personal and professional life, and I look forward to seeing what the future brings.
How does Qualcomm work to stay at the forefront of innovation?
As technology has evolved, the problems we solve have become more complex. Still, our team’s accumulated knowledge and experience have allowed us to solve more difficult problems. But it’s not enough to innovate for the sake of innovation – we should also enable an ecosystem that empowers our partners, customers, and society to use these technologies to drive business and new applications.
To this end, Qualcomm focuses on ecosystem enabling. We innovate to help others innovate and drive new ideas and applications for our technologies. This has led to the wide adoption of smartphones by consumers, but it all begins with the design of these devices, the writing of software, and the production of millions of units. This happens because of the enabling tools and technologies that we provide for our customers and consumers.
You’re responsible for Qualcomm in Taiwan, Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. How do you adapt your management style to people from different regions and cultures?
I should start by thanking my parents for instilling in me a global perspective from a young age. My family belongs to a branch of Chinese people who migrated from South China to Southeast Asia in the 19th century, and we have relatives spread all over the world. Growing up, we spoke Chinese dialects, Malay, English, and Thai at home.
This upbringing inspired me to explore the world, and I’ve lived and worked in Malaysia, Singapore, England, and various other places. Managing diverse nationalities and regions has been a common theme throughout my career, and the key to success is to approach each situation with humility and an open mind. Every day, we encounter people with different personalities, cultures, and behaviors, and it’s essential to embrace these differences rather than trying to impose our own expectations.
Having a goal in mind is important, whether it’s a business objective or a personal one. But it’s equally important to adapt to the environment and learn from it. If we approach diverse regions or companies with a fixed mindset, we’ll be disappointed.
Can you share a time when you had to make a difficult decision as a leader? What did you learn from the experience?
Well, I think the most difficult thing for anybody – whether you’re a leader or not – is knowing when to give up. From a young age, we’re taught never to give up, but sometimes giving up is necessary for the eventual success of your vision or goal.
I had one career-limiting experience when I was in charge of designing a new product that was quite revolutionary. It was a smartphone without an antenna, a technological challenge we struggled with for a long time. Despite trying various solutions, we couldn’t solve the problem. But I refused to give up because I wanted the product to be as thin as possible, which almost cost me my job.
Finally, I decided to leave it. It was a difficult call to make, but sometimes you have to ask yourself if you’ve exhausted your team’s technological and innovative capabilities and done everything possible before giving up. Personal emotions, ego, and pride can also cloud your judgment, but it’s important to actively put them aside and focus on tangible data, effects, costs, and actions. I believe that focusing on the tangibility of decision-making is the best thing to do, and it’s something that I continue to practice.
What’s your approach to risk management?
There is an element of risk management that you can never foresee. Every decision you make, every single day, needs to be data-centric. And that comes not just from reading reports and looking at analyses – it comes with a confluence of inputs, signals, and conversations with customers.
When I travel, I like to visit places that have no relation to my technology. For example, I love to go to food markets in Bangkok just to look at the variety of fruits and foods they sell there. I think all these things are signals and trigger points that give you a reading of the market. You can see and sense the generality of the market from various places, not just places that sell smartphones or TV sets, although I do visit those places as well.
Within our company, there’s an abundance of technological analysis, and we do very good work in forward-looking projections. But keeping your senses acutely tuned to everything surrounding the world of business, retail, selling, consumption, and innovation is equally important. Once you’re in touch with these data points, they help you make decisions on a daily basis. And risk management is fundamentally about making daily decisions. The market and the world situation are changing so dynamically, and you have to keep up with the pace of change.
You’re a Co-Chair of AmCham’s Semiconductor Committee. What are some of the issues that you plan to focus on in the upcoming year?
It’s a great honor to be one of AmCham’s three co-chairs in this very new semiconductor committee. My co-chairs, Terry Tsao from SEMI and Rado Wang from Micron, and I have been having a lot of fun with our committee members.
We will continue to work on improving supply chain resilience and work with the government to ensure supply chain security and that the chipset security standard is industrial-based, open, and fair. The second focus is talent. How do we ensure that we have enough talent in Taiwan to bring about continuous progress and the advancement of the semiconductor industry in design, manufacturing, and logistics?
Another subject that we continue to work on is how to ensure that Taiwan remains competitive in manufacturing, making, testing, and exporting semiconductors. We specifically refer to the topics of taxation and drop shipping, and that subject will continue to be one of our highlighted issues in 2023 and perhaps even 2024.
I’m very happy to continue using this mechanism and its platform to help us bridge with government officials, various organizations, and relevant parties to discuss, advocate, and brainstorm solutions to some of these problems. I think AmCham plays a vital role in that perspective, and I want to continue to encourage people to join the Semiconductor Committee.
What do you like to do in your spare time to relax and recharge?
The question of what spare time is can be tricky to answer, but I’ll give you an example. I’m a big scuba diver, and I love diving all over Indonesia, Malaysia, and Taiwan. Some may say that scuba diving is a relaxing sport, but when I dive, I come up with some of the most creative solutions to all sorts of problems. These could be business problems, personal problems, or even just random thoughts. So, to me, there is no real cutoff point between work and spare time. Some might think that this is a bad thing or that I’m a workaholic, but I’m not. I play as hard as I work.
I used to windsurf a lot, but now I’ve shifted my focus to other activities, like roller-skating (which I had to stop after breaking my leg two years ago) and scuba diving. Living in Taipei, the best thing for me to do on weekends is to go on a bicycle ride and just sit and think, doing nothing in particular.