A mathematician who went on to become an executive leader in the semiconductor industry, Dr. Nien-Tsu Shen '76 MA taught at UC Davis and Rider University before going on to work in Silicon Valley. An award-winning leader and mentor to other professionals in her field, she recently retired from her position as Vice President of Quality at Skyworks Solutions Inc., the industry's leading wireless semiconductor company focused on radio frequency (RF) and complete cellular system solutions for mobile communications applications.
In this Alumni Spotlight Q&A, Dr. Shen shares what drew her to pursue her master’s degree in mathematics at UC Santa Barbara, her passion for problem solving, and her advice for other young professionals seeking to pursue a career in the industry.
What drew you to choose UCSB for your graduate studies?
The Math department has always had a good reputation for its diversity of research fields and strong faculty. In addition, how could anyone resist the beautiful location?! When I received a TA-ship from UCSB, the decision was easy to make.
What was your graduate school research focus? What was it like working with your mentors and colleagues at your department?
At UCSB, my goal was to obtain a Ph.D. and my research focus was Operator Theory. My adviser was Professor John Ernest. I picked a specific problem to solve for my Ph.D. thesis. However, one presentation from an outside person indicated that the same problem was already solved by him. It was the pre-internet era. Communications did not happen in real time and the information of other people's researches was often scarce. We usually learned about a new theorem after it was published in some mathematical journal. Working on a topic without much information of other researchers' progress was commonplace. Since I just started to look into the problem, it was evident that I needed to look for a different challenge for my thesis. This in fact prompted my transfer to Purdue. Three years later, I finished my Ph.D. there in the field of C*-algebra.
While a graduate student of the Math department at UCSB, I thoroughly enjoyed working with various professors and fellow graduate students. The department was very international in the sense that it had faculty, staff and students from all over the world. Everybody was open minded, very helpful and friendly not only in the academic aspect but also everyday life. We foreign students were included in academic as well as social activities. We were able to integrate into the department and the school in a painless manner. UCSB provided us a stimulating and joyful environment.
When did you first realize your fascination for your chosen discipline?
Ever since I was a young child, I did well in math. I had always loved the purity of logical deduction or analytical thinking, and the joy in such pursuit. For a long time, I enjoyed mathematics as much as physics. During the last year in high school, we had to ponder seriously about picking a field to focus on once we entered a university. It then became clear that I loved math more. (I often joked about being lazy in picking math since it didn't require any lab work!)
What did you enjoy most as a student at UCSB?
It is hard for me to just pick one thing that I enjoyed at UCSB. I certainly loved the academic challenges that graduate studies presented. It took us to a very different level of intellectual pursuit. Having to explain mathematics to others in English as a teaching assistant definitely honed my language skills. My colleagues as well as students in my classes were quite helpful in teaching me to speak in a colloquial fashion. By my third year, I was asked to teach my own courses. In addition to mathematics related areas, various cultural activities on campus widened my horizons. I could summarize it in saying that what I enjoyed the most was the opportunities to learn and grow, on multiple levels.
What do you love most about your work?
My work consisted of two different professions. After I obtained my Ph.D., I taught in the math department of UC Davis. Joining my husband in New Jersey the following year, I went to teach at Rider College. When our family moved to the Silicon Valley, I entered the semiconductor industry. Teaching math was a natural extension from years of studying and performing research in this field. Since I loved math, teaching it to others and trying to make them love this subject was quite gratifying. Working in the semiconductor industry was equally challenging and rewarding. Mathematicians love problem solving. My job in the private sector was about preventing problems from happening, resolving issues as they occurred, and in general improving the business processes. Again, the essence of my work was problem solving. In additional to this aspect, I enjoyed working with other people. For me to be successful, I needed to work with and influence others. This part could be quite difficult at times. Then again, it became problem solving and I loved it.
At this point in your life, what is the most important advice you can give to someone who hopes to succeed in your chosen discipline/career path?
In order to be successful in any profession, you have to give it 200 percent. You can't do that unless you really love it. My advice to people has always been: follow your heart. Don't enter a field just because of the perceived monetary return. It may not happen. Don't accept a job because of the title. It may go away. Ask yourself if it is the right job for you. How do you know that? You know it is right if you are enthusiastic to go to work every morning, despite of the bad weather or the headaches awaiting at work.
I shall focus on my career in the high world. I entered it because I liked being at the forefront of technological advancement. This choice doesn't work for everybody. Many of my ex-colleagues said that semiconductor industry wasn't for the fainthearted. Once more, I stress the point that one must enjoy the job in order to be successful.
I started my industry career as a manager and stayed on the managerial ladder. Some people want to be managers because they believe it is a reflection of authority and importance. Don't be lured into taking a management position due to such illusion. Management is not glamorous, it is hard work. Ask yourself whether you have the aptitude for it. Do you enjoy mentoring and cultivating people? Are you a good listener? Do you know clearly the distinction between empathy and sympathy? And most importantly, can you deliver hard messages? Can you handle layoffs when the business is down? Can you discipline employees when necessary to the point of letting them go? The list goes on and on but you get the gist of it.
I can't place enough emphasis on doing what your heart desires. You will succeed only if your heart and soul is in what you do.
What drives you?
Growing up in an academic environment with two professors for parents, it was natural for me to follow their footsteps. While teaching at Rider College in New Jersey, some graduate students in my class brought me "real world" problems from their work. Working with them on these problems opened the doors to a whole new world for me. The data wasn't collected in an ideal manner. It was not pragmatic, in the sense of time and resources, to do so. So what useful information and conclusions could we get out of such situation? It was a kind of challenge that I never faced before and it intrigued me a lot. From their information, I made some assumptions and drew certain conclusions. Later I was told that the results were quite helpful and they asked for more collaborative work. Such experience made me want to explore the "real world" outside the ivory tower. When our family moved to the Silicon Valley, I focused on job opportunities in the private sector. It was by chance that I entered the semiconductor industry. The advanced technological development and fast working pace further attracted me. It was by my own decision that I stayed in this industry for 29 years.
I could say that at work I was driven to do more and better by a sense of duty and honor, and the satisfaction of being part of high tech. However, I believe the real driver is the joy of solving problems.