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Women In Tech: Intel's Aicha Evans, VP And GM, Communications And Devices Group

Intel has a preponderance of high-powered female executives, as we discovered when we attended an Intel dinner at Mobile World Congress that included a number of Intel execs, including Aicha Evans, the company's Corporate Vice President and General Manager of the Communications and Devices Group. Evans was kind enough to grant Tom's Hardware an interview and tell us how she succeeded, and of course, talk tech.

(Between our interview and press time, Evans actually garnered a promotion as part of several moves within Intel.)

Intel's Aicha Evans

Per her title(s), Evans is somewhat intimidating on paper, but in person she is disarming and effervescent. At the aforementioned dinner, she sat down and immediately, effortlessly, commanded the table, drawing the gaggle of grumpy, tired tech journalists into a spirited conversation.

Her technological expertise flowed as freely as the Barcelona wine, as she deftly handled question after challenge after question from the group. Evans is an animated talker, and she has this habit of rapidly saying, "No no no no no," before clarifying a point or rebutting a question. She's clearly passionate about the technology she guides from within Intel's ranks, and we were eager to learn more about what makes her tick and ask her (even more) questions about Intel and the technologies and trends we can anticipate coming down the pike.

Fast forward a few months, and we had the chance to sit down with Evans for an extended chat that covered everything from her background to Intel's larger mobile strategy to the possibility of a SoFIA chip and Windows Phone symbiosis to the state of  women in tech.

Tom's Hardware: When did you first become interested in technology?

Aicha Evans: As a very, very young child--probably 3 or 4 years old. First of all, my dad was in technology, and second, I was just fascinated by how things worked, and why they worked.

I traveled a lot, from Europe to Africa, back and forth, almost on a 2-3 month basis. And seeing the variety in technology and infrastructure, and what it enabled and didn't enable, had me very interested, very early.

Also, my mom claims that when something was broken, I would always try to fix it. Apparently, I tinkered with VCRs, and really destroyed a lot of stuff in the house, because the fixing sometimes didn't work out so well.  

TH: It sounds like going from that to where you are now [an engineer] was pretty organic for you. But how did you get from that early interest to where you are today at Intel?

AE: [laughs] There's a lot of luck involved. There's a lot of timing involved, and there's a lot of choice in opportunities as they present themselves.

My parents were very big on education. My dad is an engineer, too, so they took a natural interest, and they made it very, very clear that math, physics, philosophy, French, English--basically, school was quite important. With school came the sort of rationalization, and the formulas for why these things were possible. With that also came the "This is how you change the world," "This is how you matter," "This is how you make an impact."

On top of that came [the notion that] if you take a lot of risk, yes you will fail, but you will also be able to make things happen. So, [it was] the combination of the three.

There was a passion in me about building things, like starting from the beginning of something, assembling things, and making something out of it. I followed my passions.  

[After I got my first job], literally within a year it was recognized that I was an engineer that had the technical chops but could also connect dots, motivate people, make people work together, and was interested in the business aspect and the strategy aspect.

And then from there, I was always put on the new project, because it was like -- I was too new, too junior to be put on the "hot" project that was happening at the time, but I showed enough potential to be put on the new project. All of the "superstars" were on the "old" project because they were shipping, which actually in a way gave me more latitude to do more.

So [I went] from silicon to software to systems, and really, "How do the products get into the hands of the customer? What do they do with it?" From there, I got into cellular technology, and really liked it. I think it's a fascinating technology; it goes beyond voice, or camera, or getting on the Internet. It's really about connecting people, making information available--I mean, you truly have an impact on the world.

And then from there, I basically joined Intel after I had my first child, and then I had decided I was going to take a year off. Again, I'm into transforming, so I was like, "My job and taking care of my child is not going to work." But I like to work, so I decided I was going to take a year off. And Intel started calling because I was in cellular technology, and Intel was doing WiMax, and there weren't many people in the Portland area with that skill set.

So then I came into Intel in a kind of reduced capacity because I just wanted to take the time off. And then essentially I said, okay, somebody really understands here that essentially everything that computes connects.

So this is how I started the wireless journey, little by little.

You should know that there was a brief moment in there, where I did buy a restaurant with my first boyfriend -- now husband -- and I had this restaurant in D.C. for a year, and it definitely taught me about people, about management, about leadership. I have this really weird situation where I thought that restaurants were about cooking, and I quickly realized that cooking has nothing to do with restaurants!

And these people [meaning restaurant staff] that were actually your user experience interface, but they don't get paid a lot of money, but they are really important because that's really who touches your customer on a day-by-day basis. [You have to learn] to motivate them and give them a feeling of ownership and commitment, of a common goal, while they are making, I think, $5.50 an hour.

Quite a challenge! Needless to say, after a year, I went back to computers.

TH: Taking a little step back: Where did you get your education? Where did you go to school?

AE: I went to school in Paris, basically through high school, and then kind of -- they have this thing which is between high school and college and they call it prépas. So basically, you do math, physics, philosophy, English, French literature for two years. Then at some point, instead of continuing engineering in France, I wanted to come to the U.S., and so my parents -- especially my dad -- said, "Well, you can only go to the U.S. if you go to Washington D.C. at George Washington University," because that's on the campus of the IMF World Bank where he had all these friends that he thought were going to keep an eye on me. In the end, I never saw them!

And then I graduated with my bachelor's [degree], got married, had the intention of going back to school and never went back, and just entered the business world and stayed in it the whole time.

TH: You didn't get a master's degree?

AE: No, I started and then eventually I couldn't do both, and I decided to continue working. It's funny, when I coach young ladies and they ask me about education and I say "No, you need to go get a master's or a PhD," invariably I get the answer, "Well, it worked out pretty okay for you not to do that."

And I'm like, "I'm an exception. Looking back, I was probably just extremely lucky, and don't do as I did." You need to go to grad school, and you need to work in between, by the way. Work experience is not just about applying what you learned, but technically, it's also about working in teams, it's about connecting dots, it's about experiencing success and failure and learning from it. I think the correct combination is going all the way and finding a couple of years in between to work.

TH: Tell us briefly about your role and work at Intel.

AE: Right now, I serve wireless at Intel. Technically, I lead a group called the Intel Communications and Devices group. My team basically delivers all the wireless technology for all Intel platforms, so from cellular, and also all of the unlicensed technology -- Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GNSS, FM, WiGig, NFC -- Our team is also responsible for the integrated part -- integrated communication and application processors so the SoFIA line also comes out of us.

It's a horizontal team, it's both the engineering and the R&D, and it's a riot. It's really, really a lot of fun. It's a tough journey, but I enjoy that because there is so much opportunity in it.

TH: I think there is some confusion and some misconceptions about Intel's new direction in the mobile market, especially concerning Cherry Trail and SoFIA. Strategically, where do you think Intel is going in the mobile market?

AE: I think we've been very clear that we're doing well in PCs, we're doing well in servers, we made a big play in tablets, but we're expanding the portfolio.

[But] our CEO and our chairman -- and that was a hard moment -- were very clear that we missed that transition, that opportunity, in tablets and smartphones, and we were not going to let it happen again. So for me it was funny, the first year of BK [Ed. note -- BK is Brian Krzanich, Intel's relatively new CEO] -- people inside the company were like, "Oh my gosh, can you believe he was at CES, and he didn't mention the words 'PC' or 'server' once. [But] it was because he was sending a signal to the industry that whatever is going on in this IoT, wearable new world, we're not going to miss that transition.

So, if we agree that we're a compute company with a strong kind of synergy, with a leading-edge process technology and view of the world is that everything that computes also connects. We can ask whether it connects wirelessly or wired.

For example, servers today are more wired than wireless, right? And so outside of servers, most of it requires -- human beings are mobile in nature -- it requires wireless, so the mobile strategy at Intel is that everything that computes connects. The wireless assets, the wireless IP, the wireless products, are key to everything we do.

Now, it's a matter of being in mobile so that we have the wireless assets. So that we can use integration and shared IP and Moore's Law to further continue to transform the compute landscape for human beings. The thought that's important around that is that it's not impossible, but it's extremely difficult, to have competitive wireless assets without being in the mobile market.

The mobile market today is anchored around tablets and smartphones, there's no question about it. But over the next few decades, I can actually envision a world where everything that draws power potentially connects. Think about what's going on in the home, in terms of the control points in the home, and see the fusion of your entertainment, your news, your TV, your sports. Also, your life and the security in your home, and energy, and so on.

And so the mobile strategy is very simple: everything that computes connects. The connection is as important as the compute.

TH: I think some people have a tendency to be myopic about a large company's strategy and thinking too much about the U.S. exclusively. But what I'm hearing from other large companies, like Microsoft, is that the strategy has become very global, particularly on the mobile side. Can you speak to that global strategy and what you're hoping to accomplish?

AE: First of all, let's remember our heritage. We drove the transition from the mainframe to the PC, and that was definitely a global play, right?

So, when we think about mobile, yes, we think about it globally. I believe the mission says "smart and connected devices for every person on earth." Then it becomes quite important to learn what's happening in China, what's happening in India, what's happening in emerging markets. And not all emerging markets are born equal. What's happening in Brazil, what's happening in Europe, Middle East and Eastern Africa, and which Europe, Western or Eastern?  What's happening in the U.S.?

[In the U.S.], we're used to very, very high-end smartphones, but it may be that for the fisherman in Africa, who today has an LCD black-and-white ancient phone, that "low-end" smartphone is going to be the first device that he goes on the Internet with. So it is extremely global, and the distribution channels are also different. The type of operators are different.

Someone was telling me, educating me -- even me, who lives and breathes this market -- about triple SIM. (Why would somebody want triple SIM, I mean seriously?) They explained to me that in that particular country, people have a phone, and they have three SIM cards in it. [This is because] one week, one operator or one provider is doing a promotion where, for example, you double your minutes. The next week it's the other one, the next week it's the other one, and they don't want to change their SIM cards back and forth. Whereas for me [in the U.S.], I'd have to actually think, "Where's the SIM card in my phone?"

That looks different depending on where you are in the world, and so yeah, this is a totally global play. That's why when you look at Cherry Trail versus SoFIA, SoFIA is definitely an entry value-type device, whereas a Cherry Trail is more of a performance device.

But the one thing that all of these have in common is that they will communicate over a network or an infrastructure, and understanding that and then building the roadmap and portfolio and executing to it accordingly is key.

TH: Microsoft said that many vendors in emerging markets are asking specifically for Windows phones. There's such a thing as Android exhaustion, and a lot of those vendors want some differentiation in what they can offer consumers. You guys have this very global strategy, Microsoft has a very global strategy. Do you think there is room for that old "Wintel" paradigm, but on mobile, globally speaking?

AE: What I can tell you is that we support Android, [and] we've already been public that we think the SoFIA line will intersect Windows Mobile. Windows is something that we think, in general as an ecosystem, is really important. Obviously, you have iOS out there also doing well, and you have some emerging operating systems coming up, so what I can tell you is that we are committed to supporting Windows Mobile on the SoFIA line.

In terms of a group mobile alliance or anything like that, I can't really comment on that. But I can tell you that Windows Mobile is important and key in what we are doing with SoFIA.

TH: Regarding women in tech: Women are notoriously underrepresented in the STEM fields. Do you think the same is true of the tech world that you live in, and why or why not?

AE: [Laughs] Yeah, it's probably worse. I heard some statistic yesterday that we are actually -- I mean, a lot of women are going to school, which is good. So I think the supply will keep on increasing. Which is good, and [is] something that makes me very happy.

Let's be honest though, there are some facts. Men cannot be pregnant for nine months and bring a baby out, and that's just something that we women can do. At the start of the career, there are a lot [of women]. I think when you start getting to middle management, they dwindle a little bit, and when you get to executive management, they dwindle even more.

And there is this discussion, can you really be it all? The wife, the partner, the mommy, and you know, the high-powered executive. My view in life is first of all, don't try to be it all, because nobody can, even men can't do that. Be very wise about your choices, and your support system, and what I call your "pace;" sometimes you speed up, sometimes you slow down.

A friend of mine, a fellow woman executive at Intel, Lisa Lambert I think, came up with something brilliant: If you just figure out those early tough times of [child-rearing], if you just find the right support system and power through, as you become an executive woman, you actually have more possibility and means to kind of come up with a balanced equation around you. So if you power through, you actually get that [more high-powered] opportunity.

I think we need to be more vocal about that, we need to be out there and be more supportive. We need to make sure we eliminate any "barn door" concept, like, "Oh, I worked so hard to get there, I'm going to make sure all you [younger women] work even harder to get there."

I truly think that the diversity of thoughts, diversity of conversations, diversity of ideas, is key in technology. It's proven that it leads to better business results, because you consider all possibilities and alternatives and have more conversation around it.

[Also,] a lot of the consumers out there are women. They buy for themselves, they buy for their families, so designing without their input is probably not a good idea. And this is worldwide, by the way!

TH: Do you think that there's an unfair bias just because of the fact that if you're a woman in the workforce having children, at some point you're pregnant, and you're walking around--

AE: No no no, I don't think about it that way at all. At all. Let me help you: I actually think that I have an advantage over you. You know why? Everyone is like you. Everyone is a male. And so I am actually bringing a totally different perspective to the conversation when I'm the only woman in the room.

If I just have the courage, the confidence, to bring my ideas forth, to participate in the conversation, and to behave myself with my head up and my shoulders high like I belong, because I do, I actually have more to offer that most people in the room don't.

And yes, it does happen from time to time that I need to go off and be pregnant for nine months, and bear a child.

I think we make too big of a deal out of it. I think it's a matter of, women need to know that they have choices, and no matter what choice they have, there are ways to get them through, to make things happen, and don't try to be like males. They are males and we are females, and the combination of the two is what enriches humanity. And corporate boardrooms, too.

TH: What would be your message to young girls, or young boys for that matter, who are interested in enthusiast technology, but there's a mental block that they have because they aren't seeing themselves represented [in that field]?

AE: I would talk to them about the possibilities. Show them the impact they can make in a language and in a way that they can understand. Don't just send them to a website and hope that they geek out, it's not a good idea. Translate it in a way that they can see the vision, the possibility, the opportunity, the excitement. When human beings see that, there is discretionary energy, they are passionate and motivated, [and] their will to find a way and make a way becomes unstoppable.

Update, 7/9/15, 9:25am PT: Updated Evan's title.

Seth Colaner is the News Director at Tom's Hardware. Follow him on Twitter @SethColaner. Follow us @tomshardware, on Facebook and on Google+.