Meet Debra Bell of Micron Technology

With over 90 issued U.S. patents, Debra Bell champions creativity and innovation as Vice President of DRAM Engineering at Micron Technology. Bell began her journey with Micron upon completing her BSc in electrical engineering 23 years ago and completed her MSc in the same subject while working for the company.  

TOPICS Senior Editor Julia Bergström met with Fry at the Ghost Island Media recording studio in late August to discuss female leadership, transparency in the apparel industry, and the importance of stepping out of one’s comfort zone. An abridged version of their conversation follows. Listen to the full interview on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

You’re the Vice President for DRAM Engineering at Micron. What does your job entail? 

Micron Technology creates memory chips, which are used in all technology, from phones and computers to cars. Product engineers take memory chips from prototype to high-volume manufacturing, which means we do whatever needs to be done – we can debug design, we work with the manufacturing sites, we work with our customers to figure out what they need, ultimately, to get those products to what the customer actually wants. 

Micron is going to produce its most advanced DRAM chips in Taiwan. What makes Taiwan an attractive location for this type of investment and production? 

Taiwan has some real superpowers. One of them is its decades of history with semiconductors, which has established a baseline and developed a pipeline of talent. We’ve got universities and curriculums that are very focused on semiconductors here.  

Another one is that Taiwan benefits by having a relatively small geographical footprint with a huge supply chain. Think about what it takes to create a memory chip – you need virtually all the elements on the periodic table. And that means you have to get it all into the factories. Taiwan has this whole ecosystem where if something changes, meeting with suppliers and local vendors to address needs is an incredibly speedy process. That’s really pretty unique to Taiwan. This unique position is why Micron is Taiwan’s biggest foreign investor and the biggest foreign employer. 

What trends in the tech industry should we be paying attention to? 

Generative AI will allow us to really venture into things we haven’t done before. We’ll see things like truly personalized medicine or personal digital assistants who know you better than your spouse. One thing I’m looking forward to is real-time translation. I really think that generative AI will unlock things in terms of technology that we can’t even imagine.  

Of course, every new technology is somewhat of a double-edged sword. There are good things and bad things about everything. I think it is important for us to pay attention to what the downsides are, because there will inevitably be some. But I also think, based on how we’ve adopted technology in the past, that we tend to get more benefits than disadvantages. As long as we’re aware of the downsides and mitigate them as much as we can, I don’t think we need to worry about AI taking over the world. 

You’re currently leading a global team across the Asia Pacific region and the United States. How do you manage and lead a team of people from such diverse backgrounds and mindsets? 

One of the key aspects is creating a vision. You also need to accept that in addition to cultural differences, people generally think about and approach things differently. Giving team members the freedom to solve things or to approach things in a way they are comfortable with is key. As long as we have a vision that we can all buy into, we can free people up to turn the vision into reality the way they think is best.  

If the leader takes care of the team, the team will take care of the mission. Setting the direction, helping the team understand it and buy into it, and then helping with whatever members need to do to get it done works universally.  

What are some challenges and opportunities you’ve experienced as a woman in a male-dominated industry? Do you see any opportunities for more women to be included in your sector? 

As a woman in tech, I would from very early on get called to speak with students and women considering a STEM-related career. And in my early days, I found being a woman to be beneficial. People would remember me and be willing to help.  

As I progressed in my career, I discovered that it’s actually a double-edged sword. If you’re the only woman or the only person of a certain ethnicity, age group, or sexual orientation, you stand out, and you become a representative of that group. And that is both an opportunity and a challenge. Often, it means that what people remember about me is amplified, whether what they remember is something good or bad. Being aware of your position and doing what you can to leverage it becomes more important. 

You’re heavily involved in diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at both Micron and within your industry. Why are these initiatives important to you? What would you like to say to women to encourage them to get into tech? 

Promoting different perspectives when setting goals or taking on challenges is incredibly important. If we all think the same way, we’re limited to one approach. But if we bring different viewpoints to the table, we open up a number of solutions. Sometimes, luck might lead us to the best solution using one approach, but that won’t work for all challenges.  

Diverse perspectives offer various ways to tackle problems. When different people collaborate, something remarkable often happens, and the final solution typically transcends what any single group could have devised independently. It’s superior to any individual “best” solution because it benefits from collective wisdom.  

What I’d like to convey to women is that they can bring immense value to the semiconductor industry. Often, when I speak with female students in STEM, I tell them that engineering, by definition, is a form of creativity. We’re not just solving problems – we’re creating technology that has never existed before. Being the driving force behind innovation and creating something entirely new is where the most significant contributions lie. So, if you yearn for creativity, this is a fantastic space to be in. 

Have you had any mentor figures who helped you in your career? What lessons did they teach you that you still use today? 

I’ve had a lot of mentors along the way, and two of the key lessons they taught me revolved around confidence and a willingness to try new things. The first one may sound a bit cliché, but my first mentor was my mom.  

When I was a kid, I had a conversation with my grandpa, who had served in the Canadian/British Navy. He asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I said I wanted to be the captain of a ship. Although he was supportive of women, my grandpa explained that women couldn’t become captains in the Navy. My mom got upset and told my grandpa, “Don’t you ever tell her she can’t do something because she’s a girl.” That message stuck with me like glue. I don’t know why it resonated so deeply, but from that moment on, I was convinced that my gender wouldn’t limit my aspirations. 

When I began my journey at Micron, another mentor entered my life – Kevin, a brilliant technologist. Every time we saw each other in the hallway, he would jokingly ask, “Hey, Deb, where’s your patent?” I’d reply, “Come on, Kevin, I’ve only been here for three months. I don’t have enough experience for that yet.” But he would insist that I did, and he’d tell me that at Micron, there’s no minimum time or experience level required to innovate.  

Over time, his words started to make sense. Maybe he was right – maybe I should give it a shot. So, I set aside some time to work on making something better. Eventually, that effort resulted in my first patent. It was all because Kevin believed in me and convinced me to believe in myself. 

What do you do in your spare time to relax and recharge?  

I get fairly charged at work, but when I’m not at work, I love to travel. One of the great things about living in different areas is that I can also visit other places nearby. I also love to read, and I mainly read “brain candy,” or books that are pure entertainment, not necessarily educational or edifying. Lastly, I love trying different food, and that’s something I enjoy about living in Taiwan – there’s great food everywhere.