By Pete Carey
San Jose Mercury News.
SANTA CLARA, Calif.
When a glittering glass, steel and concrete building begins to take shape at a busy corner here in Silicon Valley, no one will be watching more closely than Debora Shoquist.
As executive vice president for operations at graphics chipmaker Nvidia, it’s her job to make sure Nvidia’s latest project, a $360 million to $380 million sculptural structure designed by Bay Area architectural firm Gensler, comes in on time and on budget. Her day-to-day responsibilities include manufacturing product and test engineering, foundry operations, the firm’s quality management system and more.
The new building was announced a few years ago but put on hold until the economy improved. During that time, Nvidia worked through several revisions of the design with Gensler. Nvidia even used some of its own technology to make some design decisions and to create an archive of every step of construction that will be used to create a virtual model of the new building.
Shoquist spoke about her work and reflected on her career in the male-dominated tech industry in a recent interview with the San Jose Mercury News. Her comments have been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Tell me about this new building.
A: It’s going to be a 500,000-square-foot building, two floors with a small mezzanine above it and a two-floor garage underneath. The site is very park-like and the building is designed similar to some of the new airports and large buildings.
Q: What’s different about it?
A: There will be a lot of glass. It’s a very open building. It will handle 2,500 work spaces and won’t have any hard-walled offices. Jen-Hsun (CEO and Nvidia founder Jen-Hsun Huang) has a vision of creating a very special place for innovation and creativity. The new generation needs an entirely different workspace, and we want this to be a very high-energy, high-collaborative type of building. There will be casual gathering places where people can work together, maybe on a project.
Q: Aren’t there some challenges building with so much glass?
A: Structurally, no. The challenges are light and heat. But we’ve got a modeling technology called iRay that allows us to look at how the building is going to appear inside at different times of day.
Q: You’re using your own technology to help design the building?
A: Yes. We’re a company that helps visualize design in a lot of different ways. If a gamer has a vision of what they want something to look like, we can give them the tools. BMW and Audi use our materials to take a design from the workstation and create visual image of it. Another element is interior design and architecture. iRay is a technology we acquired when we bought Mental Images (in 2007). They created a way to model a building at different times of day. You could change the lighting or window coverings or time of day and say here’s what your building’s going to look like at 10 at night.
Q: How did iRay change the way you designed the building?
A: Because of what we learned through iRay we reduced the glass.
Q: The roof has a lot of triangular shapes. Is that a thematic concept the architects were working with?
A: In graphics, you’re creating shapes and the shapes are created through many versions of triangles. So a triangle is an important thing to Nvidia. It’s a strong structural shape, yet when you combine many of them you can create an interesting shape. So the theme of graphics turned out to be a hallmark of the building. I wouldn’t say we went nuts and said the building has to be a triangle and has to be made of triangles. It’s loosely a triangular shape.
Q: Are you using any other in-house technology on the project?
A: We’re capturing every aspect of this building with lasers and with drones. So we’re creating a large cloud of data. Right now the technology doesn’t exist to actually use it all. The vision is we’ll be able to watch the building go up, and when it completes, you’ll be able to do a virtual tour, a walk through the building. The very cool thing about it is if we have a problem with the construction at some point, because it all has been captured we’ll be able to peel it back down and see where the problem was.
Q: Your job overlaps technology, gaming and construction, all male-dominated fields. What are the challenges in that environment for the female manager?
A: My whole career has been in manufacturing. It’s a very metric-driven type of activity. I haven’t really found there to be issues because what I do is very black and white.
Q: But you must have been a trailblazer. Were you the only woman in your engineering class?
A: No, there was another one. I had a really good mentor, who was my adviser. He said why don’t you run my lab? It was nothing fancy. We breadboarded circuits, and I ended up leading a lot of the teams. They were all guys. I can’t really say there was ever really a bias.
Q: How about work-life balance? You’ve raised two kids and held down very responsible jobs.
A: You know what, it was different in that day. Both companies I worked for were very respectful of my weekends and the time I left to go home. I went home, did homework, put the kids to bed and then I worked. It wasn’t softening the criteria of what I had to get done but it was providing flexibility. I took my kids to school every morning and had dinner every night. I was a den mom and a Girl Scout mom and a room mom. So I feel like I had the flexibility.
Q: Is it different for women in the valley now?
A: I do think it can be tougher right now. Things are a little tighter and you can be connected 24/7 and are sort of expected to be. I work extremely long hours. It would be hard for me to do this job now with my kids being small. But at that time we didn’t even have bandwidth to the home. You couldn’t do your email at home. You’d do your project and take it back to work. If I had work to do at home, I’d work on Saturday when the kids were in soccer games. There has been a lot discussed about unconscious bias. I think it’s difficult in areas like sales and marketing, anywhere there isn’t a hard metric. For me, either I made the shipments on time or I didn’t.
Q: So, your personal story is a pretty happy one.
A: I’m pretty happy, all in all, as long as this building comes up on time.
Position: Executive vice president, Nvidia
Born and raised: Eureka, Calif.
Previous jobs: Executive vice president, operations, at JDS Uniphase; executive vice president and general manager, desktop storage business, at Quantum; various management roles at Hewlett-Packard
Home: Los Altos, Calif. (Silicon Valley)
Family: Two children
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Santa Clara University; bachelor’s degree, Kansas State University
Five things about Debora Shoquist
1. Her grandfather started a family steel business in the 1940s, which was managed by her father and now her sister.
2. She wanted to be a dental hygienist and majored in biology, planning to transfer to a dental program after two years, but she graduated and went to work in the tech industry.
3. She enjoys time with her family, long-distance walking, skiing and Pilates.
4. Her first job as a semiconductor technician at Varian encouraged her to get a second degree in electrical engineering.
5. She participates each year in the SPCA Walk and Wag, Cancer Society Making Strides, and the Avon 39 Walk to End Breast Cancer.