In Conversation with Akash Palkhiwala, Qualcomm CFO | Exhibit Tech Interviews

In Conversation with Akash Palkhiwala, Qualcomm CFO

Akash Palkhiwala joined Qualcomm in 2001, and before serving as a Chief Financial Officer of the company, he served in several finance leadership roles, including Treasurer, Financial Planning & Analysis and Corporate Development. He holds an undergrad degree in Mechanical Engineering from L.D. College of Engineering in India and an M.B.A. from the University of Maryland.

Exhibit: What makes a great leader?

Akash Palkhiwala: When I think about leadership, to me, it’s about two things. The first is building a great team. I think once you have an excellent team, it allows you to focus your time on the things where you really add value to what’s going on, and you have the option of spending your time where you want to. So building a great team, hiring the right people and letting them go is super important. The second most important thing is maybe the ability to look around the corner. Especially in the technology industry, things change from time to time. Unless you have the ability to anticipate change and follow it, it sometimes becomes challenging to hit inflexion points right for a company.

Ex: What are the technology transformations you haven’t explored yet?

AP: I think on the industrial side, when you look at what’s happening in the transformation of industries, everything is trying to connect to the cloud. Whether it’s your dishwasher, whether it’s your doorbell, but then you go into industry, and there is a security camera, you go into retail stores, and price labels are becoming electronic and connected to the cloud. Everything wants to connect to the cloud. And that means that there is this opportunity for us to take the technology we have created and bring it to all those areas. And I think we’re at the front end of maybe a 15-year trend. And the challenge for us is how do we capture the opportunity? How do we get to market? How do we get to all these customers who want to undergo that transformation?

Ex: Being a CFO of one of the top-notch tech giants, how do you keep yourself up-to-date with the latest technology?

AP: I think I’m fortunate, unlike other CFOs, because I was an engineering student, which makes me familiar with the technical background, and I love numbers. Also, I’m very close to the technology trends, the decisions we’re making on investments in different programs, and business opportunities. So I think of myself more as a business person who happens to do finance as the starting point of what he does on a day-to-day basis, but the more I can get involved on the business side, the better CFO I’m going to be.

Ex: Why are automakers turning to Qualcomm for digital transformation, and would you please elaborate on Qualcomm’s growing automotive-chip business?

AP: Yeah, so the automotive industry is going through a once-in-a-lifetime transformation. The cars were created long ago, and this is the first time they are fundamentally becoming something else. We think of it as a car becoming a supercomputer on wheels. You have the electrification trend, you have the software-defined car trend and then finally, you have the change in the digital cockpit. The experience inside the car is more like a digital and a tablet experience. And all those three trends lend themselves to what we do well, and we have this tremendous opportunity to take advantage of it and focus on it. And if you think about the opportunity in front of us, there’s $100 billion that we’ve outlined, and our design pipeline is now up to $30 billion only for auto space. And if you look at just any large major OEM, they’re all using our chips. Earlier, the chip suppliers didn’t have a direct relationship with the OEMs, but now with the importance of the technology that we bring to the table, we’re working directly with the OEMs.

Ex: How is Qualcomm planning to cope with the competitors with its handheld gaming console, Razer Edge 5G, co-developed by Razer, Verizon, and Qualcomm?

AP: Yes, I think gaming is also about to go through a huge transition. We already have mobile gaming that still dominates the gaming arena. Then there’s PC gaming and console gaming, but the next step is really cloud gaming. You’re going to see a lot of the game titles move to the cloud, and with the 5G network coming in and the very low latency of that network, you have this tremendous ability to create games that use the cloud as the base for all the processing. And that’s going to be very transformative because once that happens, every device becomes a gaming device, and I think we have a tremendous role to play in that transition.

Ex: Tell us about the highest technical project failure you have experienced?

AP: That comes with the territory for someone like us because we’re always at the leading edge of technology. I’ll give you an example of personal computers; we’ve attempted to transition our chipset business to extend it to personal computers outside of smartphones, and for the last five or six years, we’ve invested in it with limited success. Now we’re very excited about what’s happening because I think through COVID, what happened is the PC suddenly became a communication device, not just a productivity device. And as a result, it needs a lot of the qualities in the phone. And then we’ve seen Apple transition to an Arm-based processor as well, and we think as we look forward, Qualcomm will be the alternative to Intel and AMD for the next generation PC. 

Ex: Out of all the books based on entrepreneurship and leadership, which one inspires you the most?

AP: I have maybe an uncommon answer to that question. I still think of The Godfather as a book that teaches you a lot about leadership. There are certainly negative qualities to Godfather, but the way he operated his business, inspired loyalty, and worked with people was amazing. There’s a lot to learn from a business perspective from him.

Ex: Tell us about your definition of success and any quote you want to share with us that inspires you.

AP: The definition of success is you have to have fun. A lot of people do very different things, and they’re all good as long as you’re having fun doing it. We all work too hard and spend too much time at work to not enjoy what we do. About the quote, I’ll say that I am a big fan of Mohd. Ali and Bruce Lee quotes, but the one that comes to mind immediately is float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

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