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Jim Witham of GaN Systems: “People issues are always number one on the Priority List”

“People issues are always number one on the Priority List.” We’re all busy and with a myriad of things on our ‘to do” list. Successful people know how to keep the ‘to do’ list to the essential and usually have a knack for figuring out which are the most important items to tackle first. My […]

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“People issues are always number one on the Priority List.” We’re all busy and with a myriad of things on our ‘to do” list. Successful people know how to keep the ‘to do’ list to the essential and usually have a knack for figuring out which are the most important items to tackle first. My first boss in Japan gave me a great piece of advice — no matter what seems the most urgent at the time if an employee issue crops-up that immediately becomes your number one priority. Paying attention to people creates loyalty, creates a team — and it’s astounding what people and companies can do when they work together as a team — and disastrous when people issues cause turmoil. From the most senior executive to the most junior technician, address people-issues first.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Witham.

GaN Systems CEO Jim Witham’s career has focused on bringing new technology, like GaN power transistors to the electronics market. Prior to GaN Systems, he held CEO positions at Neoconix and Fultec Semiconductor and senior executive positions at Aegis Semiconductor, Tyco Electronics, and Raychem. As an Engineering Specialist at General Dynamics’ Space System Division during the 1980s, Witham designed fluid systems for the Space Shuttle and was on Mission Control for interplanetary missions.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I come from a family of engineers — my grandparent’s generation designed and built printing presses and aerospace equipment and my parent’s generation were in bridge, canal, and road construction, so I imagine there’s a genetic component to my path. And I’ve always loved team sports — soccer is my biggest passion — so being part of a successful team has always been important. And I was usually Captain of the soccer team, and CEO is also ‘captain of the team’.

I took a pretty typical path from Stanford University engineering degree, to individual contributor design engineer, to engineering leader and then had the decision to remain on a technical path or go onto a management path. I chose to go to Harvard Business School and take the management route. After graduating HBS, a big decision was Investment Banking, Management Consulting, or Industry General Management. I took the GM route as I’ve always like to be building things and to be making tangible items. And I wanted to be in an industry that manufactures in mass — 4 billion things a year, not the 4 rockets per year of my engineering period. That led me to the Silicon Valley and Electronics. First circuit protection with passive components, then circuit protection with semiconductors — with power transistors made of silicon, silicon carbide and GaN. And now, at GaN Systems making 10s of millions every year and on our way to making billions of power transistors every year.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

My company develops and manufactures gallium nitride or GaN power semiconductors — the best performing power transistors ever. They’re better because they switch faster which eliminates power loss and increases efficiency. And they switch at higher frequency, which makes power equipment smaller, lighter, and less costly.

GaN transistors are important because these power semiconductors are used in every, that’s right, every power system — in your cars, your cell phone chargers, and in your solar equipment, data centers, factory floors, and everything else you ‘turn on.’ And the old parts, silicon transistors, have reached their limit. GaN is the material that is transforming all power electronics — solving the persistent and universal problem of energy wasted and materials wasted in power conversion.

And it’s not just power, GaN are essential in sensors. For LiDAR, which are the “eyes” in autonomous vehicles providing a 360-degree view, GaN devices are fast enough to drive the LiDAR lasers to create accurate, cost-effective systems. Also, GaN is making possible smaller and more efficient audio sound systems with notably higher quality audio performance. Once you’ve heard Mozart or Led Zeppelin or Kanye on GaN, you’ll never go back to silicon!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Wow, that’s a hard question. I’ve made lots of mistakes, and the ones I remember the most vividly weren’t funny outcomes.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Critical skills for me as CEO are being a good engineer, being a good strategist, and being a good leader. Early in my career, David Beech taught me how to use a lathe and a milling machine. And, at my first start-up, co-founder Mark Wollen taught me model making and building electronic circuits for measurement, telemetry, and analog-to-digital conversion. Physically building successful designs makes one a better engineer. Professors Bill Sahlman and Michael Porter at Harvard Business School taught me frameworks for analyzing business strategy. And UCLA Prof. Richard Rumelt’s book, Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, tied strategy preparation all together for me. And finally, Gordon Hunter, now Chairman of Littelfuse, taught me how to take a complex technical subject, boil it down to its essence, and then develop an engaging story to explain the issue to employees, to an important customer, or to an investor.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Change is difficult for human beings. Routines get disrupted, uncertainty breeds anxiety, and there are tangible effects too — there are winners and losers, new skills that employees must have or lose their job, some bank accounts go up and some go down, and in some parts of the world, change can even mean life or death. But change can have great benefits — just look what technological change has brought to our lives over the last five, fifty, or five hundred years.

A positive example of technological change is the electric vehicle/renewable energy/climate change revolution that we are undergoing now. The world needs less CO2 in the air and electric vehicles reduce emissions and solar/wind/hydro produce that energy without CO2. That is disruptive change for the benefit of the world.

For a negative example of change — look to the stock market crash of 2008. Some New York City investment bankers changed the way mortgage-backed securities were handled. Subprime housing loans were offered to almost everyone even those who weren’t creditworthy. When the housing market fell, many homeowners defaulted on their loans and the stock market crashed. Change benefited the bankers greatly, but the rest of the world suffered.

Good change versus bad change comes down to value proposition. What value is being created, who gains from that value, and who loses from that value? Is the net sum a positive?

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

“People issues are always number one on the Priority List.” We’re all busy and with a myriad of things on our ‘to do” list. Successful people know how to keep the ‘to do’ list to the essential and usually have a knack for figuring out which are the most important items to tackle first. My first boss in Japan gave me a great piece of advice — no matter what seems the most urgent at the time if an employee issue crops-up that immediately becomes your number one priority. Paying attention to people creates loyalty, creates a team — and it’s astounding what people and companies can do when they work together as a team — and disastrous when people issues cause turmoil. From the most senior executive to the most junior technician, address people-issues first.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

Finding new customers, new applications, new market segments are the lifeblood of a thriving, growing business. So, you are absolutely right that marketing communications is important.

The first point is that there are two types of marcom programs — awareness and lead Generation. Awareness builds the brand and usually big ideas, value propositions, trends — it’s getting the audience to know that your company’s work is important and worth learning about. Lead Generation, then, is about getting interested parties to reach out to you. A good marcom program needs both or Lead Generation will dry up to a trickle.

A second point I’ve found is that in Lead Generation, it is difficult to predetermine what will be successful and the formula is always changing. What that means is a good lead generation program needs several generating programs and good metrics. The metrics are critical because this is the only way I’ve found to separate the good programs from the bad. As an example, many years ago I ran a Direct Mail in China — that’s where we physically mailed a product flyer to engineers using snail mail and included a return mail card for more info. In the US, those direct mail programs had a dismal lead generation rate and were a complete waste of money. But in China, direct mail was new and novel. Everyone opened the mail and our lead generation rates skyrocketed. It was our best Return-on-Investment (ROI) program ever. In a few years, though, the novelty had worn off. The lead generation rate had fallen, and we had to move on to other programs. The lesson? Multiple lead generation methods and metrics for ROI.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

GaN is just at the beginning of its journey and we’re just starting to shake things up. More than a decade ago, GaN was mainly used and tested in university labs, but today GaN has mainstream adoption and commercialization. Think about all the GaN cell phone and computer chargers that you are seeing in Best Buys and other electronics stores, the Formula E race cars increasing their performance with GaN, and the All GaN Car from Toyota.

The future includes taking this basic building block — a superior power transistor — and enabling smaller, more powerful, and more efficient topologies and equipment so that the world uses its materials and its energy efficiently.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

UCLA Professor Richard Rumelt’s book, Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, is the best business strategy book I’ve ever read. His ideas include not only a framework for documenting a company strategy but also a process for developing and arriving at that strategy. He recommends not only articulating what the company will do in the strategy but also what the company will not do. He also has a great list of traps that cause companies to have bad strategy.

The reason why Rumelt’s thinking resonates with me is his approach is like the scientific method that scientists and engineers use to solve problems and less like the historical strategy making used by business people. Don’t just prove that a result correlates to a given variable, but also prove that it does not correlate to other variables. Find two products that behave differently but you thought were made identically and you’re on your way to uncovering the problem — there is something different and you just have to find it. Rumelt gives some valuable tools for the business world to think like the engineering world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Nothing comes to mind.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Water, food, shelter, and healthcare. These are all fundamental human needs. As a society, as a world, we need to band together to make sure that all 7.6 billion human beings have these basic needs fulfilled, whether the individual can provide for themself or the individual needs some help. The world needs movements that cooperate and do good, rather than are divisive and do harm.

How can our readers follow you online?

The best place would be to follow GaN Systems on Twitter (https://twitter.com/GaNSystems), Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/GaNSystemsInc/), LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/company/464979), and/or WeChat (https://gansystems.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/gan-systems-wechat-june2020-1-300×101.png).

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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