Knowledge Institute Podcasts
Ahead in the Cloud: Data sharing and American-made microchips with Priya Almelkar
Priya Almelkar, Vice President of IT Manufacturing Operations at Wolfspeed discusses moving to the cloud for analytics. The discussion covers how to keep your data clean, accurate, and up to date in the cloud.
Hosted by Chad Watt, researcher and writer with the Infosys Knowledge Institute.
“We have a very aggressive growth plan. Just being able to open up a brand new manufacturing facility in two years time during the pandemic. I think we have proven how we are going to continue driving that in the market.”
“The decision to go to cloud was all for analytics.”
“Wolfspeed is vertically integrated. We build our own material. So there is not a whole lot of insights that we can get from the market or from other companies. We have to kind of drive it from ground up ourselves.”
“I do not believe that data is more secure on-prem versus in the cloud. But with that, being in cloud, you just have to make sure that you have all the capabilities built in that foundation.”
- Priya Almelkar
- Cree, Inc. pivoted in the last year or two from main led lighting products to focusing on new sorts of semiconductors and microchips for the automotive industry. It took the name Wolfspeed and signed a deal with General Motors to supply chips for electric vehicles.
- Wolfspeed is driving the industry transition from silicon to Silicon Carbide.
- They have built the world’s first, largest, and only 200mm Silicon Carbide fabrication facility in Marcy, New York. It is complemented by their mega materials factory expansion currently underway at Durham, North Carolina headquarters.
- Wolfspeed isn’t looking to migrate any of their on-prem systems into the cloud. But as they are building new capabilities, that's what they will be bringing in the cloud.
- They are in the process of migrating from ERP into SAP and that will be cloud based as well.
- When Priya first started that analytics journey, the reason she decided to go full cloud, even with their ETL capabilities, was because she wanted to prove to the business what business value they can add. And doing it on-prem would have been a longer journey.
- The first capability that Wolfspeed achieved using data in the cloud and the company’s analytics systems was tracking and awareness about when things are gonna be delivered to their customers.
- That data led to insights, showing there were inefficiencies in their processes. The team did a tremendous job in completely turning that around. But to turn that around, they needed to provide that data to the business.
- Wolfspeed is vertically integrated. They build their own material. So there is not a whole lot of insights that they can get from the market or from other companies. They have to drive it from ground up themselves. So next capabilities that they will be deploying will be related to business units.
- If the business is talking about a new use case that they are bringing in, there are some parameters that need to get changed for another use case that was already in place. You have to look at it holistically and you cannot look at it in silo. That’s why the governance process has to work with the business.
- Anything that is their highest IP, remains on-prem. They want to make sure that the tier one applications that actually keep the factory running will always remain on premise. Because this way, if they lose connectivity to the network connection, their factory can continue to run. It's kind of the foundation that Wolfspeed uses to define what goes in and what doesn't go in to the cloud.
- The second aspect of it is governance. Having a foundation for compliance. So, for every single type of data, Wolfspeed goes through that exercise of marking sensitive data and then deciding what goes in the cloud and what doesn’t.
Chad introduces himself and Priya
Priya talks about her background
What about it appealed to you? What made you fall in love with it?
What advice do you have for women pursuing leadership roles in technology?
What did it take for Wolfspeed to win that deal with such a big client?
Even people who don't know much about technology right now have heard about cars and microchips and shortages. What is Wolfspeed doing to make sure that you guys supply what your client and future clients need?
What made the decision to go to the cloud?
What was the first capability specifically?
Did that lead to some new insights?
You've heard the metaphor that data is the new oil. Give me another metaphor. Data is the new oil works in some ways, but what's a better analogy for data in your work?
What are some of the next capabilities you're looking to deploy?
What's involved in maintaining and keeping your data accurate in cloud?
How do you decide what stays on premises? What shifts to the cloud?
Priya and Chad talk about microchips and how the geography of foundries evolving.
How does the CHIPS Act change the landscape for chip making in the US? Does that have impact on Wolfspeed?
How has your shift to data in the cloud changed your approach to cyber security?
If I gave you a magic wand, what's the one data analytics capability you would add to your cloud instantly today?
Chad Watt: Welcome to Ahead in the Cloud where business leaders share what they've learned on their cloud journey. I'm Chad Watt, researcher and writer with the Infosys Knowledge Institute. I'm joined today by Priya Almelkar, Vice President of IT Manufacturing Operations at Wolfspeed, semiconductor company formerly known as Cree. Welcome, Priya.
Priya Almelkar: Thank you. How are you today?
Chad Watt: Doing well. So Cree pivoted in the last year or two from main LED lighting products to focusing on new sorts of semiconductors of microchips for the automotive industry among other things, took the name Wolfspeed and signed a deal with General Motors to supply chips for electric vehicles. Priya, tell me how you got from Jakarta to Oklahoma State to Sprint to putting microchips in the next generation of Chevys.
Priya Almelkar: My parents were in Jakarta. I grew up in Jakarta and there were a few universities that had full education, college education, and in English language. So my dad said to me, "Maybe you need to go to US to finish your degree." Because getting a degree from Jakarta in Indonesian language, I don't know how much work it would be. And I said, "Sure." So I applied to universities and the criteria for us to apply to universities was where it snows the least. So our university had consortium with few universities and we picked Oklahoma because that's where it snowed the least compared to Ohio and few other places within United States. So that's how I landed in Oklahoma. And as soon as I landed, and we are driving from the airport and I'm like, "Oh my God, what have I done?" Because comparing Jakarta metropolitan to Oklahoma was quite the comparison, but it was a great school.
I continued my passion for computers there. So I graduated with a computer science degree and I wanted to go back. Obviously coming from Jakarta metropolitan to Oklahoma, it was great, but I wanted to go back to Asia and I wasn't looking to apply to any jobs or anything like that, but my friends were like, "Hey, you've invested so much money, at least see what you are worth." So I went to a career fair begrudgingly and applied to few positions over there. There were actually only three booths left open in the career fair. I gave my resume to three. I got interview calls from all three, and I got actually a job offers from all three. And then my parents are like, "Well, you have to at least work a year." Well, a year turned 25 years. And that's how my journey started. So I went to work for Sprint. I worked for them for about 10 years and I decided I didn't want to be one of those people that got hired into a company and retired from that company.
So I decided to make a change after 10 years. Went to retail, Payless shoes, and then I decided how much, furthest I can get from retail, and that's when high tech came in, because that is the highest of the high tech. So I went to Global Foundries, I ran their infrastructure and operations, enterprise architecture, and then ended up driving their digital transformation. And that's how I got introduced to Wolfspeed. And I saw how... We were looking to drive analytics capabilities at the time, and that's what drove me to come join Wolfspeed. And also it is the highest of the high tech in terms of innovation. I mean, silicon carbide is the way to go for all the automotive manufacturers, and I love technology. So being on the innovative side of technology is what attracted me to Wolfspeed and I'm loving it.
Chad Watt: What about it appealed to you? What made you fall in love with technology?
Priya Almelkar: So math always came easy to me. In India it was, and even in Indonesia for that matter, you had to pick between the streams that you can go in high school, is math and biology or math and something else. So if you are going to go in science, or otherwise there is options for commerce or arts and things like that. Medical, I would faint at the sight of blood, so that was not an option. But as soon as I got introduced to computers, being able to write a program and see what it can do for you, to me that was something that... I like to see outcomes. I'm a very results-oriented person, so that's what drove me to it, to say that if I can write something and make it do something, I get the result right away. And just the computing power of things to be able to get a machine to do things was just exciting to me. I'm a geek at heart, I admit.
Chad Watt: A geek at heart. What advice do you have for women pursuing leadership roles in technology companies?
Priya Almelkar: I think probably two things. One, be fearless, take risks. And I mean, I've talked to women a few times. I think what makes it easier to take those risks is having some sort of a plan B. So for example, with my career, I wasn't very keen on working here, like I mentioned, right? I wanted to go back to Asia. And so when I started working at Sprint, Sprint was launching this international call centers, and now I'm going to date myself, but it was the time when the lines were getting laid in the ocean. So it was very exciting, a big, big project for Sprint. And I wanted to work on that project. So I went to the director of that team at that time and I said, "I want to work on this project." And he's like, "You just graduated out of school and you want to work on the biggest project that Sprint is doing?
No, think again." And I kept going back to him again and again and I said, you know what? So finally I got to a point because in my back of my mind, I was like, "If I don't do this fine, I will go back home and tell my parents I'm sorry, I got fired." So I went to him and I literally said that to him. I said, "Give me a slice of it. Give me three months. If I don't work out, you fire me." He just got taken aback with me taking that risk. And he's like, okay.
Because he took that risk on me, I worked really hard and I would be there in the office till 4:00 AM, go take a quick nap, take a shower, and come back and be back in the office by 7:00. And I did that for six months straight, but I was able to take that risk and believe in me that I can teach myself. So I would say, take risk. Don't be afraid. If you feel like you can do something, believe in yourself. And what makes it easier is having that plan B. For me, that plan B was I go back home. So that's one of my early learnings I had and I've kept it with me going forward in my career, and that has helped me.
Chad Watt: Wolfspeed landed a pretty significant supply deal with GM. So congrats on that. And then take us through what did it take for Wolfspeed to win that deal with such a big client?
Priya Almelkar: I think our product is amazing. Obviously, we have proven in the market right now building silicon carbide, 200 millimeter chips, we are the only factory and the largest factory in Mohawk Valley that we announced. And I think just proving the capabilities of how much charge it can hold, it is manufactured here in USA, how quickly it can charge. I think our product speaks for itself. And having that background of understanding silicon carbide product coming from Cree and transitioning into Wolfspeed has led us so much further ahead into the market that I think it was a easy decision.
Chad Watt: Even people who don't know much about technology right now have heard about cars and microchips and shortages. What is Wolfspeed doing to make sure that you guys supply what your client and future clients need?
Priya Almelkar: If you're following us, you know that we made the announcement with, we did the inauguration with Mohawk Valley. It's the first largest, like I mentioned, the 200 millimeter silicon carbide manufacturing facility. Just a couple weeks ago we announced another materials factory in Chatham County, North Carolina, a $5 billion investment. So we obviously have proven technology and now we are continuing to expand to make sure that we continue to be the leaders in the market and we have very aggressive growth plans. And I think so far we are continuing on that journey. I mean, just being able to open up a brand new semiconductor manufacturing facility in two years time during the pandemic, I think we have proven how we are going to continue to drive that in the market.
Chad Watt: And at the same time as the company is having all these wins, you Priya are migrating all your data systems from on premises to the cloud. Give me a little context. Why is Wolfspeed, a high tech company, still on prem and what made the decision to go to the cloud?
Priya Almelkar: So the decision to go to cloud was all for analytics. I am not looking to migrate any of our on prem systems into the cloud, but as we are building new capabilities, that's what we are bringing in the cloud. So analytics, our commercial solutions, we are in the process of migrating from our ERP into SAP, HANA, and that is going to be cloud based as well. It's obviously easier to scale. And if you look at where we are with our growth expansion plans, it just makes it so much easier to be able to scale in the cloud. And that's why we made that decision. And when I first started that analytics journey, the reason I decided to go full cloud, even with our ETL capabilities, was I wanted to prove it to the business, what business value we can drive out of that data.
And if I had to do that on prem, that would've taken much longer, it would have been a longer journey. So it made it so much easier to make that decision to go in the cloud. Lot of services come already ready for us to just deploy it if we go in the cloud and we were able to show to the business the value that we could add. We picked what I call a minimum viable product, an MVP to show the business capabilities in terms of how we can ensure that we give early warning to our customers. So proving that came easy with cloud.
Chad Watt: Tell me a little bit more about that minimum viable product. What was that first capability specifically?
Priya Almelkar: The first capability that I picked was wanting to make sure that we can figure out what are with all the supply chain issues, what our wafers end date for production is going to look like, when it is going to come out, so that we can give our customers enough warning as to what date we are going to be able to ship that to them. And if there is delay, we give them information up front. And that is the data we started collecting from the very end. So we started at the back end of the line where it was closest to the customer to collect that data, get that information, and be able to share that with our customers.
Chad Watt: Did that lead to some new insights for the business?
Priya Almelkar: It did. There were inefficiencies in our processes that we were able to see with that data that the team did a tremendous job in completely turning that around. But again, to turn that around, we needed to provide that data to the business first.
Chad Watt: Got it. We're talking about your new data going into the cloud and applying analytics at scale, analytics from systems off the shelf. This is a question I've been asking and toying with. You've heard the metaphor that... It's probably, it's about 15 years old, that data is the new oil. And I think that still works in some ways, but I think it also falls down because oil is not renewable. Oil is something that if I give it to you, I no longer have it. Data is not scarce, data is everywhere. If I have data and I share it to you, I can still have that data. Have a think for a second. Give me another metaphor. Data is the new oil works in some ways, but what's a better analogy for data in your work?
Priya Almelkar: I mean, to me, data has the power to give the insights for the business. So what insights that we are not able to drive without data is what... A capability that it provides. So basically data becomes the new currency in my mind because that's how you are able to bring revenue, add more revenue because of those insights. If you didn't have those insights, you wouldn't be able to take action to do better. So to me, data is a new currency.
Chad Watt: Nice, nice. I like that. You mentioned that the first capability that you've achieved using data in the cloud and your analytics systems was the tracking and awareness about when things are going to be delivered. What are some of the next capabilities you're looking to deploy?
Priya Almelkar: So like I said, we started from the back end of the line, then we kind of took it to the operations. Getting all of that data for the factories, for our materials business to figure out how do we improve efficiencies within the factories? And even for that matter, for our materials business, because materials business is very unique to us. We are particularly integrated, we build our own material. So there is not a whole lot of insights that we can get from the market or from any other companies.
We have to drive it from ground up ourselves. And the next that I am actually applying it is to the business units. So for our power products where we do R and D, that's the next level that we are taking that to. Now the R and D team, we already have many smart data scientists that are already working through that, how we can help them make sure that we give them that data already at their fingertips so that they don't have to invest time into collecting all of that data, aggregating that data, sorting that data, and they can be the true data scientists that they are.
That's where we are taking it now.
Chad Watt: So let's talk a little bit about maintaining and keeping your data clean, accurate, and up to date. What's involved in maintaining and keeping your data accurate in cloud?
Priya Almelkar: I think it's, on prem or cloud, keeping... Having the right governance processes is important. Making sure that you have built the foundation with ensuring that you're going to have processes defined already that will make sure that your data says compliant, making sure that you have the right roles in place, making sure that you are measuring where the people are accessing, understanding and knowing. The analogy that I like to use when you build your house, you know where everything is. A lot of people talk about, "Hey, once I have built a house, I've rented it out. I don't know what people do inside it." But to me it is, even if you have rented your house, you have to know that the pipes work, that there are no leaks that are happening. So that foundation work, I feel like you have to build that upfront.
And then after that, it's the governance process that you establish. And the governance process also gets established upfront that you continue to manage. And I also believe that the governance process has to be done in partnership with the business and not done just by IT team itself. Because if the business is talking about a new use case that they are bringing in, there are some parameters that need to get changed for another use case that was already in place, you have to look at it holistically and you cannot look at it in silo. So that's why I think the governance process has to work with the business.
Chad Watt: How do you decide what stays on premises, what shifts to the cloud?
Priya Almelkar: So anything that is our highest IP, that remains on prem. Also for manufacturing, we want to make sure the tier one applications that actually keep the factory running, that will always remain on premise because I could lose my connectivity to the internet or any network connection, but my factory can continue to operate. It's the foundation that we use to define what goes in and what doesn't go in to the cloud. And the second aspect of it is making sure that you have, as we were talking about governance, within that governance, having a strong foundation for compliance. So we know from data perspective we have defined what data is able to leave our premise is what goes into the cloud. So for every single type of data, we go through that exercise of making sure we mark it, what type of data it is. Is it the IP sensitive, is it... Even for certain policies like privacy sensitive? So all of that data is marked and then the determination is made as to what goes into the cloud.
Chad Watt: So let's talk a little bit more about microchips. As we mentioned, they're in high demand in the auto space and beyond. Wolfspeed is building new foundries, almost the way GM builds automobiles it seems, and US and Europe want to reduce some of their reliance on suppliers in the Pacific Rim. How do you see the geography of foundries evolve?
Priya Almelkar: If you look at what the industry trend has been, a lot of companies are starting to put their factories in US. TSMC even announced they're putting in factory in US. So I think that is where the trajectory is going. But also if we see the history of semiconductor, it has been a very cyclical industry. I don't see that cyclical nature of it going away. Yes, it is in high demand right now. Everyone is trying to catch up. I don't know how long it'll be before it comes to that downturn again, but I think what we will see is definitely lot more growth in US, at least for the next decade. I see a whole lot of growth coming in US and then long term, who knows when that dip will happen, but I think there will be a dip coming in the long term.
Chad Watt: Right. It's always been a cyclical industry. How does the CHIPS Act change the landscape for chip making in the US? Does that have impact on Wolfspeed?
Priya Almelkar: I think every semiconductor manufacturer, and plus we are a US based company. We have no presence in Asia Pacific from our manufacturing standpoint. So definitely I think it's been a blessing to be able to have that act go through. I think it is bringing the emphasis where it needs to be and it is helping us protect the IP, because at the end of the day, how we manufacture is what's important. And if that IP goes out, I think we lose the advantage on it. So I think that that CHIPS Act has been a great blessing for all semiconductor manufacturers, especially ones based on US.
Chad Watt: How has your shift to data in the cloud changed your approach to cybersecurity?
Priya Almelkar: This is something that I always talk to my CISO. Obviously, I think we all know data in the cloud is more secure because they have much more capabilities than what we would ever have on prem to be able to drive the type of services that they do in the cloud. So I do not believe that data is more secure on prem versus in the cloud but with that being in cloud, you just have to make sure that you have all the capabilities built in that foundation. So you have, obviously the data has to be encrypted both in transit as well as RAS. You have to make sure that it has the right role based access, you're doing the audits that you're doing. I think the things that you do in cloud and on prem, to me, they're pretty much the same because you want to protect. And these days with especially semiconductor and silicon carbide, with how much we have been in the news, I think the bad actors are trying to get the data more than ever.
So we have to be highly vigilant. We have been focusing on making sure that our cybersecurity team, our governance risk compliance team are making sure that they are on... Our cybersecurity team is making sure that they can keep up with the upcoming technology. We are hiring more resources there. We are building new capabilities within our new capability center in Northern Ireland. Wolfspeed has built this new IT capability center in Northern Ireland, and we started building a governance and risk compliance team over there that can be dedicated to making sure that we are keeping our data secure and also our applications footprint secure as well.
Chad Watt: If I gave you a magic wand, what's the one data analytics capability you would add to your cloud instantly today?
Priya Almelkar: If I had a magic wand and if it didn't take as long as it takes, I would say being able to share the data between our customers and us, that is one type of data that I would definitely get to as quickly as I can. Because I see a lot of value being driven from it for both customer and us. And I think it's a new trend for semiconductors to... Or new culture, I should say, for semiconductors to be able to get to that point where they feel comfortable sharing their data across. And actually for all of manufacturing, coming from manufacturing background, I feel like that has been a big no-no. But I think now that companies are opening up to be able to share that data.
Chad Watt: I think you just called back to your idea that data is the new currency. Currency is only good if you've circulated it. If you're hoarding it and keeping it in your bank, it's not really creating any value for you. Thank you very much, Priya. Thank you for your time today.
Priya Almelkar: You're very welcome. It was a great pleasure.
Chad Watt: This podcast is part of our collaboration with MIT Tech Review. In partnership with Infosys Cobalt. Visit our content hub on technologyreview.com to learn more about how businesses across the globe are moving from cloud chaos to cloud clarity. Be sure to follow Ahead in the Cloud wherever you get your podcasts. You can find more details in our show notes and transcripts at infosys.com/iki, that's in our podcast section. Thanks to our producers, Catherine Burdette, Christine Calhoun, and Yulia Debari. Dode Bigley is our audio technician. I'm Chad Watt with The Knowledge Institute signing off. Until next time, keep learning and keep sharing.
About Priya Almelkar
Priya Almelkar is VP of IT Product, Manufacturing and R&Ds at Wolfspeed Inc, a leader in silicon carbide semiconductor manufacturing. She has over 20 years of experience leading core IT functions across a variety of verticals, including telecommunication, retail, semiconductor manufacturing, and brings deep expertise in implementing large-scale digital transformations. She is passionate about driving innovation and leading change. Over the years she has worked with many cloud providers to build Analytics capabilities for her organizations and takes every opportunity to share her learnings with larger forums. She has also been recognized with a STEP Ahead award for leadership in Manufacturing.
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