One to Watch: From chicken farming to high tech innovation

In our ongoing series, ‘One to Watch,’ we profile the movers and shakers at TI who are making a difference through their extraordinary work.

TI AvatarWhen TIer Charles Parkhurst headed off to the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez to major in computer engineering, he had never actually turned on a computer.

His high school in Comerio, a tiny town high in the tropical mountains of Puerto Rico, had only one computer when he graduated in 1995, and he never had the opportunity to use it. He spent his childhood helping his father raise roosters for cock fighting, a part of Puerto Rican mountain culture that he abandoned when he reached adolescence.

Charles knew his learning curve would be steep when he decided to major in computer engineering, but he tackled it armed with a deep love of learning and a spirit of innovation that has taken him far from the town where he spent his formative years.

“If there is one word I would use to describe Charles, it’s innovation,” said Julio Acosta, a design manager in our analog business.

Charles, now a senior analog design engineer with 15 patents to his name, became our first co-op student from the University of Puerto Rico when he graduated in 2000. He now serves as a TI ambassador to the university and regularly visits to lead seminars, speak at technical conferences, provide input to the engineering curriculum and recruit students.

“Charles has a curiosity, an eagerness to learn that has been with him since I knew him as a student. It’s still with him. He’s always trying to do something new,” said Rogelio Palomera Garcia, the engineering professor who encouraged him to apply to TI.

Charles filed his first patent applications within months of landing a job here as a junior designer straight out of college. He has earned a reputation as an innovator and problem-solver and was elected a Senior Member of our Technical Staff in 2012.

Charles’ designs for operational amplifiers – the building blocks of analog circuits – have been incorporated into equipment ranging from space satellites to pressure sensors.

In addition to his technical achievements, Charles was one of 19 individuals recently recognized by Great Minds in STEM for his efforts leading, collaborating, and initiating key programs and research in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math. The 2015 HENAAC Luminary awards were presented during the HENAAC STEM Career Conference in October.

TI AvatarFor Charles, innovation is the key to success.

“TI is a company of innovation,” he said. “That’s its cornerstone. But innovation is inside of everybody. You can innovate. You can do new things.”

While he once flirted with the idea of pursuing a career in physics, Charles said the practical aspects of engineering finally held more attraction.

“Engineering is applied physics, and you can build stuff,” he said. “In physics, you’re not necessarily doing that. Plus, they pay you more as an engineer.”

When he first came to TI as a co-op student, his eyes were opened to the seemingly limitless learning possibilities before him.

“My co-op experience completely changed my life,” he said. “The people at TI were designing state-of-the-art stuff, and I realized I needed to know even more than I was learning at the university. I went back after my co-op ended and started pushing my professors. I told them, ‘I’m here to learn and you have to teach me.’”

University relationship

The relationship between TI and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez has blossomed since Charles’ co-op stint in 1998. Today, we sponsor engineering labs there, support undergraduate research and regularly hire co-op students.

In the seminars Charles leads and in one-on-one conversations with students, he sometimes tells the story of his humble early life and a career path that now includes patents and recognition as a senior design engineer.

“It’s rewarding that people are taking advantage of my experience,” he said. “Maybe some of them are coming out of a chicken farm like I did.”

“Charles is very down to earth,” said Praful Madhani, director of Analog Technology Infrastructure. “He wants to give back to the community. He came from a very poor background, and he has not forgotten that and doesn’t take it for granted. He wants to give others like him an opportunity to excel.”

Solving problems

As Charles interviews students for roles at TI, the ones who catch his attention are driven to solve technical problems.

“In school, you can memorize stuff, but once you’re here at TI, you have to solve real problems that have never been encountered before. We’re coming up with new products for the market, so a skillset for solving problems is important.”

Solving problems is Charles’ specialty. When presented with a problem – the challenge of designing a new circuit, for example – he conducts background research and reviews the basic skills he’ll need for the design.

“Once you understand the problem very well, you can start doing design of experiments,” he said. “‘What if I do this? What if I do that?’ You change one variable and compare. You may come up with 40 ways not to solve a problem. That’s not failure – that’s your path. You never quit on a problem. You can quit on a solution, but then you have to understand why it didn’t work and try a new one. Once you find a solution, then OK, you’re done.”

Giving back

Charles returns to his hometown in the mountains of Puerto Rico about once a year to visit family and friends, but his visit this September was different. The town’s leaders held a ceremony to honor him for his achievements.

They invited family members, friends and former teachers. Even his kindergarten teacher, by now well advanced in years, was able to attend. The mayor spoke, gave him a medal and ceremonial decree, and called him a distinguished son of Comerio.

Charles sees his involvement in the university, his mentoring of junior engineers and even accepting honors from his hometown as a way to give back.

“Innovation by itself and becoming a successful professional is just half the work,” he said. “If you’re not giving back, then you’re not being that successful. You have to try to inspire people.”

What is the most impactful piece of feedback you got at TI?

I got this piece of feedback from our Principal TI Fellow: No one will look after your career, so you have to do the best you can to achieve your career goals. This motivated me to excel even more at my job. My supervisor sets some expectations, but I always set them even higher in order to satisfy my career goals. This results in excellent performance because I feel that I’m meeting my expectations and I don’t let myself down.

Development takes many forms. Looking back, what opportunities have helped you grow and develop the most at TI?

TI has always given me a sense of empowerment. When I had been with the company just two years, I was promoted to team leader in charge of three different projects and analog designers. This promotion helped me develop leadership skills and, more importantly, how to be proactive and how to come up with my own ways to solve problems and not wait for someone else to do it for me. After that experience, I’ve always been tasked to develop new device cores and to interact with customers, learn from them and develop exciting new solutions that will satisfy their needs.

What was the most difficult stretch assignment you’ve received at TI, and how did it help you in your career?

My most difficult stretch assignment was to design a fully integrated pin electronic chip for the ATE market. This IC was extremely challenging to design since it was in essence a high-speed precision function generator with two drivers and two receivers to be used in IC testers. The design was all done in our BiCOM1.5 and BiCOM2 technologies. This project was designed by a large group of senior analog designers that I managed. We had to innovate in many different ways on a tight schedule. This project taught me mixed-signal design integration and all kinds of skills required to design SoCs.

What career advice would you give your 22-year-old self? 

I would tell my 22-year-old self to follow these steps in order to achieve success by innovating:

  • Understand previous solutions, if any.
  • Have a very strong knowledge of basic concepts related to the problem at hand and ask yourself, “What if?”
  • Experiment. Be perseverant and never give up on a problem, but do give up on possible solutions.