Alumni Perspective: Dan Leibholz
Corporate Advisory Board member Dan Leibholz credits Brown experiences, in and out of the classroom, for his semiconductor industry success.
Analog Devices, Inc. chief technology officer Dan Leibholz ’86, Sc.M. ’88 has hazy memories of grinding days and nights on College Hill. He started out with an interest in biomedical engineering, but once on campus found his passions piqued by a pair of computer architecture and computer science professors, Dick Bulterman and Thomas Doeppner, at a time when both the Computer Engineering and Computer Science programs at Brown were growing analogously.
As an upperclassman, he discovered that Bulterman’s computer architecture class “really ignited my interest, and ultimately he invited me to work for him over the summer and continue on as a master’s student, so I owe him a debt of gratitude,” Leibholz said. “And Professor Doeppner taught an operating systems class where the class project was to build pieces of an operating system. I got together with two other students and we decided to build an entire operating system. So we spent a crushing amount of hours building these components and putting it together. I think I probably sacrificed some grades in other classes, but I learned so much from that experience and working so closely with other, really talented, students. I learned as much from them as I did from the class. That whole experience was a particularly formative experience in terms of seeing a project through, and learning what it means when you’ve almost bitten off more than you can chew.”
Leibholz, who has served since its formation on Engineering’s Corporate Advisory Board, relishes the time he spent as both undergraduate and master’s student on campus. “I continually reach back and draw from my Brown experiences,” he said. “Diverse teams require thinking about and an understanding of different dimensions of a problem. What ADI (Analog Devices) does is apply technology to these very vastly different domains, so the background that Brown gives, having the opportunity to get some of that grounding and then to think about how the technology is applied, really sets you up to solving these kinds of multi-dimensional problems society is facing.
“I think our biggest challenge is always, how do we train our technologists and leaders of the future? That’s a foundational challenge which runs all the way back through the pipeline of university and high schools and middle schools, so helping work on that pipeline in different levels is something that is really important to me. I think my role (on the CAB) is to provide some input and feedback into how the mission of the School of Engineering aligns with where we see the challenges – painting a picture of what’s happening in industry, so students are well prepared to take on the challenges.”
Leibholz was appointed CTO of ADI in 2019, so he is well prepared to know what these industry challenges are. He began his career in computer architecture design, where he was able to apply the principles he’d learned from Brown in the intricacy of building leading edge technologies. In the early days of his career, Leibholz credits his employer mentors with teaching him how to define a problem (“They say if a problem is well defined, it’s half solved,” he said. “And I’m a complete believer in that.”) and also how to think abstractly - not only about the problem you are trying to solve, but the problem your customer needs to solve. “It’s a couple of levels removed from the specifics of the technical challenge in front of you,” he said. “It’s understanding the impact to the customer. How does this overall solution fit into someone else’s problem and into their realm?
I think going down that path got me more interested in the business side and understanding the range of challenges faced. So I spent about 20 years in the core of the computer industry before starting to extend my focus to other areas that computing and electronics play in healthcare and industry. It’s a broader set of problems out there, so applying the same underlying technologies to solve for different kinds of customers, that just became more and more interesting to me over time.”
Now charged with positioning ADI for sustained technology leadership, Leibholz’s current work includes identifying technology disruptions early and developing the necessary strategies to take advantage of new opportunities; creating innovation ecosystems with customers, research centers and partners; and fostering a culture of innovation and collaboration across its engineering teams. His office is specifically focused on sponsoring research aimed at long-term (more than 10 years out) solutions at leading institutions, developing novel technologies in its own internal incubator (the Analog Garage), creating intellectual property in key focus areas (including cybersecurity), creating engineering design platforms to improve the quality and efficiency of engineering teams, and involving and availing ADI in greater technology sharing through conferences, hackathons and collaboration platforms.
“Research institutions can look to identify and propose solutions to bigger problems, but there’s a role for industry, in terms of providing the technology that can get to those solutions faster,” he said.
The technology behind the digitalization of our lives is a driver of our modern economy. The semiconductor industry itself is worth close to 600 billion dollars (and rising), but leverages ten times that in terms of economic impact when taking into account the information technology, healthcare, communications and automotive industries which rely on the role of the growing complexity of content chips. Recent developments and industry roadmaps show that the rapid advances in sensing and information processing technologies will continue into the future.
For current Brown students, he offers the following advice: “There’s a myriad of opportunities in college to take leadership roles and to be on a team and those are valuable skills to develop - interpersonal skills, communication skills - those are all extremely relevant. Even in my company, we have employee challenges and each time I sponsor one, it seems there’s always a Brown graduate rising to the top. I believe it’s because Brown students think about the bigger problem. They bring teams together, they communicate, they organize a vision of what success looks like, they seek help, and are unafraid to get feedback. That courage to ask questions, and courage to try new things are incredibly important, above and beyond the classroom time.”