August 10, 2005

Book Review: The Autobiography of Morris C.M. Chang

The Autobiography of Morris C.M. Chang – Volume 1 1931-1964
ISBN: 9576218845

Bill Gates and Donald Trump. These are two of the names that most people think of as the richest and most successful. But go ahead, think of a rich and powerful man from a non-English-speaking country. The Sultan of Brunei you say? That doesn't count. You've got to come up with his name. Chances are you did not say Morris Chang (張忠謀), founder of Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC). But he is a household name in Taiwan, admired for inventing the foundry business and acting as CEO of the largest semiconductor company in Taiwan until this year, when he stepped down as CEO.

In 1998 Chang wrote the first volume of his autobiography. Before entering college, Chang had hopes of becoming a writer, and in his book he does a good job as a storyteller. But Chang is not fit to be a journalist—most of his life remains untold, left to his biographers. The book deals with his life from birth in 1931 to his graduation from the Ph.D. program at Stanford in 1964.

Chang's life began in China, moving from place to place to escape the war, first with the Japanese, then the war between the communists and nationalists. After high school he attended Harvard for one year, then transferred to MIT where he studied mechanical engineering at a brutal pace, finishing his Master's degree three years and a summer after entering. After failing to be accepted into the Ph.D. program, he began his career in the semiconductor field, which at that time was the transistor field. He eventually made his way to Texas Instruments, and his outstanding performance led his supervisor to offer him a chance to return to school for his doctorate degree.

The part or his life that readers will be most curious about, how he returned to Taiwan and started his own business is left for volume two. This first volume is simply fulfills Chang's wish of becoming a writer which he had apparently never managed to quench.

As appendices, the book includes a work of fiction he wrote in college and two pieces that he wrote at 13. Also included are two essays on the semiconductor industry in Taiwan, an essay on "Myths about the intellectual economy," an essay on innovation, and an interesting essay on lifelong studying. The book concludes with a timeline of his life.

The timeline of Chang's life includes the invention of the transistor, but it fails to include his first marriage, which is mentioned only briefly in the main text. As I read the autobiography, I thought that Chang must have had a very personal vision of what he wanted to describe in his autobiography. He wanted to portray the beginnings of a semiconductor tycoon, and his vision had no room for his personal relationships. But as I read the timeline at the end of the book, I began to suspect that his notions might not be so lofty. Although the timeline does not include his first marriage, it does include his second marriage in 2000. Maybe the lack of personal details is just a means to cover up his one great failure.

Not only is his wife missing from the story, but also any woman at all. I suspect that the story of any founder in the tech industry would be the same, a story of men. The only woman that appears in the book is in the short story in the appendix. The young woman in the story is a college student who, by her relationship with the narrator's friend, robs that friend of his drive for life. On the other hand is Chang, married to his work and possessed of super-human drive.

Chang describes how he would study semiconductors for four hours a day after work when he was a young engineer. Even as a CEO, he managed to spend an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening for studying. His interests are not just in technology, though, he also is interested in literature and music. He claims that every several months he will pick a new composer to study, then listen that composer's works and attend performances of that composer's music. He attributes his interest in music and in life to his year at Harvard.

Chang's love for Harvard comes across loud and clear. His time at MIT, not surprisingly, was not so fun or inspiring. It was only later that he began to love the semiconductor industry, but he fails to convey that emotion in this book. So, for me, the biggest mystery is, how did he come to love the industry? Was it the excitement of being in a new and advancing field, the gratification of outperforming others based on his intelligence and knowledge in the field, or does a deep understanding of technology naturally produce interest in it? There is an uninspiring but inescapable answer to these questions: yes, all of the above.


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