A Q&A with ADI Fellow Tony Montalvo
Q: Describe the role ADI has played in developing and enabling the network infrastructure necessary to launch 5G. What sets us apart from the competition and why does it give us credibility for understanding its future impact?
Montalvo: We’re the leaders in radio technology for cellular infrastructure because we challenge ourselves to anticipate market needs and our customers’ emerging pain points. Here’s what I mean: around 8 years ago, we observed the continuing exponential growth in data traffic and asked ourselves how the network would need to evolve in order to keep up. While the details were fuzzy, it was clear that the answer had to be some combination of densification and frequency band proliferation. And it was just as clear that the radio architectures that were in use at the time weren’t going to work. They were too big, too expensive, and creating a band variant required too much effort from our customers who, we predicted, would soon become over-burdened by the demand for an exploding number of product variants.
Consumer products such as cell phones, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth all use a radio architecture called “zero IF” or “ZIF” because it has the lowest cost, lowest power, and is the most flexible. The problem is that cellular infrastructure has far more difficult performance requirements. We reasoned that, if we were going to enable the next generation of cellular infrastructure, we were going to have to solve these problems so that this much more efficient architecture could be deployed. And that’s what we did. We created a new architecture, got skeptical customers to adopt it, and it’s now everywhere.
It sounds simple but it wasn’t. These were extremely hard problems and the solutions required deep collaboration between analog, mixed-signal and digital circuit designers, signal processing Ph.D.s, embedded real-time software designers, and more. Many people think of ADI as a component supplier, but this was a fairly large-scale, system-level effort. The end product may have been a component in a larger system, but it was quite a complex component and its definition was driven by our understanding of the whole system.
Q: Tell us about your role in ADI’s wireless infrastructure projects.
Montalvo: I’m an ADI Fellow and the director of technology for the Wireless Communications business unit.
Fellow is the highest technical position at ADI. Of about 15,000 employees, there are only about 30 Fellows, so it’s a huge honor. I was promoted because I pioneered our software-defined radio technology, which is at the core of our 5G position.
The director of technology role is sort of a chief technologist position but focused on a particular business unit rather than the entire company. Working collaboratively with other technologists and business leaders, I try to anticipate market needs and create system architectures that address these needs.
Q: Why should our 5G customers (of today and tomorrow) care about ADI’s leadership in wireless infrastructure? Why should customers partner with us?
Montalvo: Our business model is built around being the leader. In order to lead, we need to have a deep understanding of our customers’ emerging pain points. Developing these complex products takes time and if we just responded to customer requests, we’d always be late. As Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions—especially about the future”. Making bets on future customer and market needs is risky, so we design in some flexibility. This is possible because of our understanding of the system requirements. We have some competitors that claim to simplify the system because they’re providing a high level of integration. They’re missing the point though because their solutions require a lot of supporting components (filters, for example) that aren’t flexible at all and must be fine tuned to each application. Because we understand the system-level pain points, we’ve innovated in such a way that these inflexible components are eliminated. Elimination always beats integration.
Q: How does our understanding of the whole system position ADI to develop complex components? Or be a system-level developer?
Montalvo: While our customers obviously have a deeper understanding of the whole system, we have a deeper understanding of the capabilities of silicon which are always changing. If we simply responded to customer requests, we—and our customers—would be missing a huge opportunity. By having a conversation as equals, we can come to much better conclusions than either would come to individually.
This doesn’t mean that we only develop system-level products. Even relatively simple components can create enormous system-level value. It’s all about understanding the system-level pain points.
Q: Can you describe a situation in which an idea was first met with resistance, but ultimately became a real game-changer?
Montalvo: Oh dear. You really want to get into this? The holy grail for technology is disruption. Disruptive technology. That’s great unless you’re the disruptED. Just about any really valuable technology is threatening to somebody. It can be someone within the company that’s developing the technology or it can be a someone at the company that would be a customer for that technology.
There’s a lot of literature about corporate culture being protective of the status quo - see The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen. I can’t say that it’s always been pretty, but ADI has always found a way to navigate this minefield. New technologies find their way to market and the developers of the old way find new things to do. This culture of constant reinvention has a lot to do with ADI’s success over the last 50+ years. You can’t do one thing for that length of time in the world of technology and expect to be successful.
As for disruption of our customers, it’s just a matter of building trust and for having conversations at the right level. You can’t expect a customer to change direction after a single meeting. And you can’t expect a new technology to be perfect the first time it’s built. It takes continuous engagement and openness to make a new and disruptive technology successful.
And, finally, there will always be people who refuse to adapt. That’s unfortunate, but I suspect that there were scribes who weren’t big fans of Gutenberg’s printing press. Progress happens.