Bleeding edge work at Altera in Penang

  • Over 1,000 R&D engineers contribute between 25 and 30 patents a year
  • Lack of student interest in STEM a concern, better quality teachers the solution

Bleeding edge work at Altera in PenangIT may be among the smallest multinationals in Penang in terms of its global revenue of around US$1.5 billion and headcount of around 3,000, but as a percentage of the overall company, Altera is arguably the largest multinational in Penang.
This is clearly a source of pride for Sofi Osman (pic), managing director and vice-president of Altera Corp (M) Sdn Bhd.
That, and the fact that the team in Penang does “bleeding edge work” for the group. In fact, Sofi likes to walk around the company, which covers 240,000 sq ft and is equipped with state-of-the-art research and development (R&D) facilities, and remind the young engineers he meets about how lucky they are to be working in such a top-class outfit.
The Penang facility houses Altera’s Asia Pacific Manufacturing Management Centre and its largest offshore R&D Technical Centre. Around 20% of the company’s global revenue is pumped back into R&D. Penang regularly contributes between 25 and 30 patents a year.
Established here in 1994 to extend Altera’s leadership in engineering design, more than 1,000 engineers currently work on all aspects of R&D including VLSI (very large scale integrated circuit) design, layout, testing and software development.
Graduates from all over the world use state-of-the-art CAD (computer-aided design) tools to develop multimillion transistors, Programmable Logic Devices and associated software.
As advanced as the work that gets done out of Penang is, Sofi says that there is also a five-year plan put in place to ensure that either Penang or San Jose, where Altera is headquartered, can handle any new product that the company will release.
Currently, products first come out from San Jose before they are picked up in Penang, refined and improved on before being sent to a wafer fab to be made into integrated circuits (ICs).
Despite the deep roots Altera has in Penang, Sofi cautions that as an MNC (multinational corporation), it always keeps its options open, looking for opportunity elsewhere. “We never stay in one place forever.”
That said, and while is may sound ominous, Sofi highlights that Malaysia has many strengths that appeal to MNCs, not least of which is a pro-business government and a population that has cultural diversity built into its fabric.
“We Malaysians are surrounded by diversity as we grow up and that is a strength that we cannot under-estimate as it also makes us easily adaptable and able to work in diverse teams,” he says.
What Sofi is concerned with most is the low levels of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) among Malaysian schoolchildren. With math and science forming the core of engineering, he would like to see a keener interest among schoolchildren in those subjects.
He feels that one of the ways this can be tackled is to make the teaching profession more attractive – the premise being that attracting better quality teachers leads to improved quality of teaching and thus higher learning outcomes among children in what are tough science and math courses.
At the university level, what Altera is looking to do is to work with Collaborative Research in Engineering, Science and Technology (CREST) on a programme that will take graduates and instead of having them join the workforce right away, enrol them in a tailored programme over two years with various industry attachments. Then they can join the workforce proper.
“Industry must be prepared to pay a premium for this talent however in recognition of the time they have put into this programme,” he says. The programme is still in the planning stages.
In a break from what everyone else is doing, Altera is casting its attention beyond young talent, says Sofi. It is working with TalentCorp to attract retired senior executives with the right knowledge and experience to come to Malaysia under the Silver Hair programme.
“For many of these experts we have identified, it is not the monetary aspect that is the pull but rather they are in a stage of their life where they are happy to nurture young talent and contribute back to society.” 
Clearly Altera Penang is doing all it can to ensure that its R&D capabilities are deepened and that San Jose sees no need to ever ask Sofi if there might be better locations for its operations.
Related stories:
Penang’s E&E ecosystem the draw for National Instruments
Continuous success stories out of AMD Penang
Raising the level of Penang’s E&E cluster
Agilent stresses importance of STEM
1,200 R&D engineers power Motorola in Penang
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