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A Simple Mantra: Meet John Leung

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"Have a plan, be ready, step up and work your butt off." In various forms, that mantra is how John Leung mentors high school students and Intel employees. 

Leung started his plan when he was 15. During a career exploration assignment in high school, he chose aerospace engineering, and listed each class he would take during his four years in college.  

While attending an inner-city high school in Oakland, California, Leung jumped at the opportunity to participate in a summer program for high school students at UC Berkeley when he was 16. Those summer classes turned into Saturday classes during the school year. By his senior year, Leung was traveling to UC Berkeley for afternoon classes. The summer program also led to a job at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab testing their newly installed CDC Cyber supercomputer. 

That experience helped Leung get accepted into Caltech. During his first summer, he started a job at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab. He was responsible for downloading and categorizing magnetic tapes with telemetry from the Pioneer 12 orbiter mission to Venus. A lead scientist saw him reading the mission status reports in his downtime and asked him to help with an analysis. Leung jumped at the opportunity and ended up finding a rotating thermal anomaly in the Venusian atmosphere. That discovery allowed Leung to co-publish papers in two research journals. His simple mantra was paying off.  

 

From corporations to startups 

As planned, after four years, Leung graduated from Caltech with a degree in Engineering & Applied Science with a focus in Aeronautics Engineering. His studies prepared him for his first job working at Douglas Aircraft where he wrote software to simulate aircraft take-off for FAA certification. He later moved to a job with Logicon, but as the Reagan-era was ending, he saw the writing on the wall. The collapse of the Iron Wall meant reductions in the SDI Program and defense budget. 

 

Time for a new plan: he pulled stakes from Southern California and headed to Silicon Valley, where his Bay Area buddies said technology was surging with startups galore and landed a job at Sun Microsystems. 

On his first day at Sun, his manager said he could give him two types of projects: those going well that he could bring to fruition, or those projects that were in trouble. Leung decided to accept the challenge of developing the boot firmware and system diagnostics for an upcoming product.  

“I define success as being happy with what you’re doing,” says Leung. “If you’re not happy being on the path along the risky edge, go the safe path. For me, success is accepting the challenge and finding ways to meet that challenge.” 

 

After five years, Leung went from one startup to another, joining the team at Auspex Systems writing firmware and system diagnostics for their first product. While there, he found an opportunity to learn different parts of the organization (Marketing, Sales, Finance) and discovered how radically different their thinking processes are from an engineer’s. 

At Auspex, Leung’s manager gave him his best career guidance, "John, you're smart. Using logic and data, you will always win your point. You'll win the decision; but you'll lose the room. After the meeting, the attendees may not even remember the topic, but they will remember how they felt. You need to learn to guide the room to your perspective; sometimes, the speed of the decision is not paramount." That forced Leung to change the way he saw the world. Rather than going in with numbers and data, he focuses on convincing people with their language and perspective.  

Understanding this lesson, John grew with the company and built an organization which owned firmware, system testing, product transfer to manufacturing, and customer escalations. After 5 years at Auspex and a public offering, an Intel recruiter contacted Leung. 

 

Intel 

Leung was hired for the validation team for Intel's TFLOPS system in Hillsboro, but before he could relocate, he was asked to fill a managerial role. So, on his first day, instead of being a direct report, he managed six first-line managers and a group of 60 people. While he found the role to be fun, at the end of the day, he realized being a manager wasn’t what made him happy. That’s when he learned about Intel’s technical ladder and made the jump. 

Now, Leung is a Principal Engineer in DCAI’s Office of the CTO (OCTO) team, focused on data center and system manageability standards. He has nine patents - all related to data center manageability. 

Leung is a member of the DMTF (Distributed Management Task Force) Redfish Forum standards organization. Redfish is an internationally recognized interface for managing platforms in the cloud data center. Along with DMTF leadership (HPE, Ell and Emerson), Leung created and contributed to its manageability interface to DMTF for standardization. Later, he chaired the industry collaboration (joined by VMWare and Microsoft) to contribute Redfish extensions for managing persistent memory, firmware update, storage over fabric, PCIe fabric, and node composition from disaggregated resources, work that eventually earned him a DRA (Division Recognition Award). Today, Redfish extensions have be released for managing industry value (e.g. CXL, SmartNICs/IPUs and NVMe-over-Fabrics) and Intel specific value (e.g. Intel Speed Select) 

In 2017, Leung was elected by the Open Compute Project (OCP) community to be the Incubation Committee’s representative for the hardware management project. Within OCP, Leung has driven Redfish to be the system-level manageability interface. Today, OCP prescribes a common baseline set of manageability across OCP platforms. Within OCP, Intel is collaborating with the community to align on Redfish extensions for managing liquid cooling and component faults, and on an on-platform API for RAS (Reliability, Availability, and Serviceability). 

 

Advice for young engineers 

“Assess both the managerial and technologists' ladders against what brings you joy and your career goals. For engineers, you may find one of the greatest challenges is communicating and influencing non-engineers, since it will take you out of your comfort zone. I encourage you to accept that challenge and opportunity of thinking outside your discipline.”  

 

What brings you joy? 

“Professionally, tackling challenges and making an impact at a higher level. And easing the path for those who come after me.” 

Personally, Leung is looking to give back during his fourth sabbatical. During his third, he spent three weeks building houses for Habitat for Humanity in Malawi, Africa. 

 

Favorite book or podcast 

He enjoys listening to the TED Talks series when he has time as well as NPR’s “Hidden Brain” podcast.