All Systems Go
The senior vice president and general manager of Intel’s Digital Home Group, Kim was born in Korea. In the 1960s, after the Korean War devastated his country, his family left its homeland for California. Kim was 12. “I came here at a young enough age where I was full of optimism in life,” he says. “Coming here, it was a completely different world and I got immersed in U.S. culture immediately. Drastic change became my second nature. I just did things.”
He isn’t exaggerating. Gifted with the ability to grasp complex mathematical and technological concepts at a young age, Kim nonetheless found himself his first year in college short of money and prospects. To help get himself through school that first summer, he packed a backpack and hopped on a plane for Alaska—where he had heard there might be work—with only enough resources to fund a one-way ticket.
“When I landed, I had no place to go to sleep,” Kim recalls. “I called my Mom. ‘Mom I’m in Alaska,’ I told her. ‘What?’” He found himself in a small fishing village, one he describes as heavy in fishing boats and bars, with a few churches smattered into the mix. For the first two weeks he slept on the floor of a church, knocking on every door during the day until he finally got a job—the worst possible one by all accounts—butchering Alaskan King crab. He soon found a better—relatively speaking—job squeezing the eggs out of rotting herring.
It was an inauspicious beginning that belies a now very illustrious career. Kim today is considered one of the brightest minds in the technology world, one currently at the center of a revolution in how our televisions will work, incorporating the unmitigated power of the PC with all the compelling visual and social aspects of television.
“The PC was all about personal empowerment,” Kim says. “What we’re doing is bringing families and friends together by combining the aspects you love about traditional TV.” This includes the ability to search visually and instantly record, as well as run social, video and video conferencing applications.
“And do it in an integrated fashion and make it easy for the industry to support its business through much more targeted, interactive, monetizable advertising,” he adds. “We’re addressing all aspects.”
Kim is singularly adept at embracing and intertwining very different cultures—science and art, the PC and the TV—because he has within himself a deep curiosity and affinity for duality. In college, he majored in physics but minored in British literature. “To me, science was only half the picture,” Kim shares. “I always felt the truth of life is a combination of art and science, not one or the other.”
After graduating from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, Kim got a job as an engineer and soon obtained a Master’s Degree in engineering from UCLA. But he remained unsatisfied until he met a mentor who opened his eyes to the humanities side of running a technological organization. That led to enrollment at Harvard’s business school, where he earned his MBA.
Fortune led him in 1981 to Silicon Valley, where he worked first for Amdahl, inspired by a speech he had heard at Harvard by Gene Amdahl, who had been a scientist at IBM until setting out entrepreneurially on his own. A few years later, bitten by the entrepreneurial bug himself, Kim would join a PC software startup, where he could equally indulge his marketing and engineering skills.
Then, in the late 1990s, he was unexpectedly approached by Korean company Samsung to help turn the company from a low-cost, focused manufacturer to one associated with premium, innovative branded products.
Kim was intrigued by the offer, which appealed to both his personal desire to go back to Korea, which would give his two teenaged kids a life experience, and the challenge of building premium value and premium brands. He spent five years at Samsung, leading the redesign of Samsung’s Nexio handheld device, among other things, and then Intel came calling. For Kim, even more than Samsung, Intel was the perfect company at the perfect time.
“One thing I felt deeply when I was at Samsung was that to push the innovation envelope, especially in the consumer side, you really needed a very advanced technology. You couldn’t just do it with a hand-me-down technology, especially if you want to do a breakthrough innovation,” he says. “Intel struck me as one of those few companies that could deliver the underlying technical foundation for industry to innovate on.”
He also knew that consumer electronics, especially the television space, was one that was very mature. “Going back 70 years, television has always been linear broadcasting, linear playback and even though the Internet and interactivity was taking off in a big way, starting with the PC and then with wireless phones, TV was still very much based on a linear paradigm, a one-way paradigm,” he notes. “I thought this created a great opportunity to take the television foundation to the next era of true interactivity while preserving all the goodness of why people love TV.”
People love TV because it’s easy, it’s simple, it’s immersive and it’s social. The PC is much more of an individual experience. Kim felt that because of that, TV was the next big area of innovation and that previous attempts to get the television experience to pull in some of the power of the PC had failed because no one had been able to solve the underlying technological problems of integrating the two. It took a leader like Kim working for a company like Intel to make a substantial enough investment to build a truly purpose-built, next-generation invention.
“Television required a much more optimized solution, a different technological foundation,” Kim explains.
Thus, in late 2008, Kim’s team at Intel delivered the first System on Chip, powered by 500 million transistors. It’s similar to the Intel microprocessors built into everyday PCs, but it also contains a rich set of features for video and audio processing, and it’s able to handle 3D graphics and more.
“I feel very fortunate,” concludes Kim. “If I just focus on science and the purely technical, it puts me in a box and everything becomes more rigid and linear thinking, whereas art is completely non-linear thinking and much more intuitive. I think you need both to think outside of the box and take some risks.”