When people think about invention, they tend to envision a single individual toiling away in obscurity. That’s so far from reality it pains me. Invention doesn’t happen in a vacuum; more often, it’s the result of teamwork. That’s been true since at least Thomas Edison founded the world’s first industrial research and development labs. For Intel’s Inventor of the Year, senior principal engineer Vinodh Gopal, effective teamwork is essential.
His work has resulted in 170 patents in the U.S. alone and spans a wide range of technologies including instruction sets, processor architecture, accelerators, algorithms, memory, storage, and interconnects. Gopal joined the company in 2002 and was recognized for the long-term impact of his inventions. For example, he and his team helped invent and introduce features into processors that have made encryption — which used to be cost-prohibitive — essentially free.
“Vinodh’s inventions have been used by every single person who has been on the internet. Among many other impacts, his advances in cryptography have made web transactions safer and more secure,” said Intel Fellow Martin G. Dixon.
It was an honor interviewing him about his insights, which are applicable to all inventors.
What do you do? I work in the Data Center Group at Intel in a smaller group known as the Systems Innovation Lab. We look at data problems our customers have or that we anticipate they will have, as well as opportunities we identify based on our understanding of the industry, trends within it, and the ecosystem at large. We ask, what are ideal solutions for providing good compelling features on all of our products?
More specifically, our small diverse team includes experts in software and hardware. We look at problems from concept to customer interaction and feedback all the way down to the nitty gritty of having to design the actual circuits and implement them into products. We are in some senses a vertical team. We focus on a few key areas that are critical, like cryptography, data integrity, compression, and analytics — those that bubble up to the top in terms of extreme importance to industry.
From there, we’re basically connected with pretty much the entire company. We’re not a product team. The way most large companies are organized is into teams and groups based on products. We have a different model. The fact that we’re a central sort of group allows us to have a much broader impact.
Which invention are you most proud of, and why? In 2000, I joined a group that was developing cryptographic accelerators for network processors, and in particular was looking to develop a programmable processor specialized for public key encryption, from scratch. Architecting this processor was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity where we had to tackle some aspect of nearly everything, including designing huge multipliers and arithmetic circuits, all of the register-files and local memories with low-latency and high throughput interconnect fabrics, an extensible instruction-set customized for large-integer arithmetic as well as all the algorithms (software and firmware) for RSA, Diffie-Hellman, and Elliptic curve cryptography.
This modular accelerator has been scaled to many generations of products and is an essential ingredient in all of Intel’s high-performance cryptographic processors. I got my first (and very large number of) patents on these math processors and learned a lot about innovation and patents during those formative years.
Do solutions evolve from individuals or do you ideate in a team? There’s no one formula; it always depends on the problem. But we pretty much work on everything as a team. That’s very core to our values.
Here’s a typical example of our approach. Initially, we might be looking at an industry trend where there’s an opportunity for innovation and some cool features. We do all of that upfront research to try to understand what the value might be and what the opportunity looks like. From there, we come up with not too far-fetched ideas. When one sounds compelling, we begin speaking with the right people to move it long, like members from architecture and strategic planning. We figure out the right time to influence the product line.
We work very hands-on and with whomever we need to in order to be successful. We don’t write up a spec and hand it off. We try to find out from each team how much they want us to be involved. Do they just want the basic idea and they’ll take it from there? Our model is very flexible.
It sounds a bit like you sell the benefit of an idea first. That’s a good observation. I like to think of what our team does as disciplined innovation. We are always thinking about what makes the most business sense, what will have the greatest impact. We usually start there, with the why. You could easily spend your entire day having fun looking at all kinds of cool things, just for exploration.
However, we focus our efforts on customer feedback. We try to predict what they’ll be thinking about next. Talking to customers about pain points often makes think, “You didn’t actually say this, but a couple of years from now, you are also going to want to solve that.” We start with very practical problems. This also helps provide rationale for why we are pursuing the idea.
I don’t know how many folks you’ve spoken to who work at large companies, but to get people to do things, you must be able to influence them. The innovation piece is just one part; the project only ends when the innovation becomes real. My job is not done until I see that idea implemented and shipped.
How large is your team? I have a very small core team that has varied over the years, but is about a half dozen people. From there we branch out, and probably each work with a couple dozen other people from product teams. That’s the model we like to have. Part of why I think we have been so successful is our small size. We’ve built a level of trust, which is so critical. You can be very efficient in your day when you have that. We don’t have a lot of formal meetings, things like that.
You also have to have people who share the same spirit of innovation. It’s hard for one person to carry that type of energy. You feed off of others. So, it’s vital to have a team that is small, shares values, and has a can-do attitude.
At least three members that I work with today I’ve worked with for 15 years. Some left to work for other teams for a few years, but they came back.
What traits do you look for in a team member? A lot of people like to make a team based on skills and talent. My team really considers attitude. We want to know if the individual is positive, has a growth mindset, and the ability to work well with others. We highly value teamwork and trust. Like that saying: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go in a team. We embrace that.
What do you do to be able to see the future? I don’t know that I would say that I see the future. I try to predict the future. I think we’re more right than wrong. It’s a combination of things. Most of us spend a good bit of time reading technical articles that are published, including blogs from tech companies. We also read academic papers from research universities. Sometimes university professors contact us and sometimes we call for proposals and ask them to share the ideas they’re working on.
Being able to have conversations with our customers is a huge part. For us, since we’re not part of the research labs at Intel, but are instead in the Data Center, we have a lot of interactions with our customers on an ongoing basis. We show them, this is what we are thinking of generally. Being in on those conversations really gets you thinking. It’s not just what they say, it’s frankly what they don’t say. Their perspective is different, and frames how they view the same problems. That helps us relook at what we’re doing.
Sometimes predicting the future is easier. For example, if you include a feature to address the biggest problem today, you can guess what people are going to want next. We don’t even wait for them to tell us! We’re off to the races trying to figure out what to do and how to do it. When they do ask us about it, we’re already well into having researched the best ways.
When do you decide it’s time to file a patent? I’ve been doing this for a number of years. In my opinion, we used to file a patent application a little late in the process. What I’ve begun doing recently personally — and this may not be the greatest way of doing things — is pushing to be super early to file. And I do not file many provisional patent applications (PPAs). We can get a broad patent issued almost as quickly as we can turn around a provisional. I know that sounds a little weird because you can always do a PPA first. We used to wait until all sorts of details were known, for simulations to be run, for everything to be perfect, until we would start to write an application. You don’t need to do that. If you can get the invention within 95% accuracy, you can save yourself six or nine months.
When did you first discover you were an inventor? Wow, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know that there’s a particular time that I began thinking of myself as an inventor. I’ve always been fascinated by math, science, and technology. Growing up, I enjoyed working on puzzles. That’s what drives me — working on hard problems. I probably didn’t know what being an inventor meant in my early days.
Do you invent in your spare time? When I go home, yes, I wonder about things. I’m always looking for ways to do things better. I volunteer with a lot of kids, including with FIRST Robotics competitions and Lego leagues. I’m more of a coach and a mentor; I try to get them to come up with their own crazy ideas. To me, invention is more of a habit and a way of looking at things. Am I working on gadgets in my basement at home on the weekends and filing a patent application? Definitely not. I tinker on and off, but not with anything serious enough for me to put major effort into.
What is your advice for inventors? When people in my company reach out, I try to mentor them. My broad message to budding inventors is: I was like you one day. Keep the traits of invention alive within yourself. Question things. Have the passion. Be intellectually curious. Look for opportunities to do hard, cool things. Look harder! You will find lots of opportunities to do really great things.
Everyone has great ideas. You just need to be able to persist, to work on them and have fun. No matter what your role is, you can always be doing things better — you can make the world a better place for everyone. It’s not just about patents; think about people and processes.
Inventors are going to provide a lot of value in our future. People who are good at invention are going to be valued and sought out. And, it’s a lot of fun. Everyone can do it, and they should.
For me, the key takeaways for inventors are obvious.
Listen to your audience so you can design products that they want.
Put the right team together — one whose perspectives are diverse enough to produce the best solutions.
And determine how you will market said products early on.