Dad’s toolbox was her toy box

  • By The Straits Times
  • Posted 10 months ago
  • Reading Time : a few minutes

Growing up in Hong Kong, Ms Leung Kafai had one favourite toy – her dad’s toolbox. She would play with the many treats in it, from screwdrivers to wrenches.

“I would take things apart, including radios. I might not have been able to fix anything, but I was good at breaking them,” says the 48-year-old design director at Silicon Laboratories in Singapore. “I have always liked knowing how things worked and I was drawn to the applied sciences. I wanted to be a problem solver.”

In 1985, she went to Texas to do a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering at Texas A&M University. She then worked in Texas as a system designer.

Keen to know integrated circuit (IC) chip design better, she studied for a master’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of Texas in Austin.

In 2000, she joined a start-up called Cygnal Integrated Products, which was acquired by Silicon Labs in 2003.

She became a senior engineer, and, when Silicon Labs decided to establish a research and development team in Singapore in 2006, grabbed the chance to lead a microelectronics design team here.

Currently, her team creates the “brains” that allow, for in- stance, battery-powered products to be smaller, smarter and last longer. The ICs they create allow items such as cellphones, fitness trackers and smart appliances to sense when they need to “wake up” and transmit data, and when to “sleep” to save power.

Her team of 20 design engineers, who come from 11 countries, are responsible for all the design phases of the chips.

She is quick to offer that team members are not geeks. “Chip design is a very creative process,” she says, adding that sometimes it is “almost an art form”.

Despite having to collaborate with engineers across several time zones, she says that one of her priorities is to ensure that her team enjoys a good work-life balance. So she organises get-togethers for them and their families.

On her part, she tries to keep work out of the weekends and spends time with friends.

She also gives talks at universities about her work and has plans to conduct workshops to show students how they can have a hand in designing for the future through engineering.

She says: “The semiconductor industry never sleeps. It’s driven by the insatiable demand for more innovative and newer chip designs to meet the evolving needs of the PC, laptop, mobile and the Internet of Things.

“You get the satisfaction of knowing that your innovations have ultimately made the world a better place.”

Image: Ms Leung Kafai, designer director at Silicon Laboratories, conducts the testing of a microchip with a digital phosphor oscilloscope in a testing laboratory. PHOTO: DESMOND LUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

(This article was originally published in The Straits Times)

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