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Iterating on the cutting edge: Talking with Broadcom CIO Bill Miller

When Bill Miller joined Broadcom Corp. as CIO in April 2012 he was looking for an IT challenge. His new employer didn't disappoint. A major provider of semiconductor products for wired and wireless communications, the Irvine, Calif.-based company estimates that 99.98% of Internet traffic crosses at least one Broadcom chip. Approximately 77% of Broadcom's 11,000 employees worldwide are engineers and computer scientists. IT has to be on its toes, acknowledged Miller. "I have a very knowledgeable community." In this CIO Innovator video interview filmed at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass., SearchCIO Executive Editor Linda Tucci talked to Broadcom CIO Miller about the high-wire act of balancing IT stability and innovation. Hint: An appetite for calculated risks and information sharing is essential.

You're at a company where three-quarters of the employees are engineers -- what is it like working at a place where there is so much technical expertise?

Bill Miller: Well, it is a lot of fun. It presents its unique challenges in a sense that engineers tend to be perfectionists. To some degree they know what they want, they know what the tools should be. They are IT experts themselves. Most of our engineers are either electrical engineers, computer engineers or computer scientists. Part of what we do is we develop silicon with complex simulation tools and design tools, but we also generate a lot of software that supports the products and provides for developer tool kits.

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I have a very knowledgeable community in the space that I operate in. They are very opinionated, and they will tell us so. On the other hand, in some regards, it is almost easier working with engineers because they understand the evolutionary process, the development process. So they understand that not everything works the first time you try to roll it out. As they develop new products, they have to test and validate that those products work. They debug products, and they go through generational versions or revisions of technology. So they are a little more understanding and a little more willing to take a little risk to try some things to get the benefit on the upside.

At the CEO panel this morning there was a lot of discussion about balancing innovation with the stability that IT is expected to provide to a company. How do you do that?

Miller: It's a great question. You need stability in certain processes. And you need a repetitive integrity in those processes, certainly when it comes down to things like the financial close process and certain HR processes that you want to be consistent across your employee base. You need high reliability. You need very high reliability, and you can only do so much innovation.

On the technology side you can afford a little more innovation, a little more risk, so to speak. Because you're constantly innovating, you're constantly pushing the envelope and testing products and testing yourself against those limits. So, engineers are more willing to do that, take corrective action, iterate through, and move forward.

Can you give an example of an IT-inspired innovation that brought business value to Broadcom over the past year?

Miller: Yeah. I think we've done some things that are very interesting. We've continued to evolve our compute grid. Our compute grid is the environment that allows engineers to log in and run simulations on complex circuits.

What we've continued to do is work with other semiconductor firms, and we have tech-sharing sessions with those firms, other leading companies, in sort of a nondisclosure format, where IT people will sit with IT people. And we'll take best practices and tune that grid to provide higher degrees of uptime and availability. So engineers can submit jobs from anywhere in the world reliably. If one system goes down, they fail over to another system, and they're never without resources, which is a very important to us.

How Broadcom is leveraging the cloud

You're going to speak at the big data, analytics and cloud panel that's coming right up. What are the challenges with the convergence of these three technologies?

Miller: Well, in some cases they converge and in some cases they don't. I think for us, we have a foot in all of these. Cloud, for example, we use for multiple services that we employ for our employees. We use cloud  in the CRM and sales space. We use cloud for our HR system and HR tools, where they make a lot more sense than trying to develop that on our own internally in the business. We also use cloud in the sense that we use collocated data centers.

We do none of the bricks and mortar in our data centers. We provide the compute resources, but not the infrastructure, because there are people in the world that are far better at that than us. So we do embrace cloud at that level.

In terms of data -- the convergence of big data -- those data centers hold tremendous amounts of storage. When our engineers simulate semiconductor circuits, you have to remember, some of these chips have 2.5 billion transistors on them. Incredibly complex chips. In the simulation runs -- to validate that those circuits will perform the way an engineer believes they will perform, requires tremendous amounts of storage as we go through these chip life cycles.

We have very large data centers, lots of data, and there's a lot of metadata around those engineering runs. Things such as 'Did the job succeed, how long did it take, and how many runs were made?'  -- all of that rich information can be used to help us determine what the real cost and life cycle of a chip development was, so that we can look forward in future designs and determine what the resources will be. So, we look at big data very differently than, maybe, a retail company would look at big data.

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