Breaking the rules to see things differently
When Charlie Sporck was hired in the late fifties to oversee the production of silicon semiconductors, he didn’t really know how they worked. That did not stop him from playing a large role in the formative years of what has become known as “Silicon Valley”.
In 1959 Cornell engineer Charlie Sporck ’50 ME moved to the small town of Mountain View, California. He was there to start work as production manager for Fairchild Semiconductor, a recently-formed division of Fairchild Camera and Instrument. At that time, Mountain View was a sleepy town in the Santa Clara Valley with a population of less than 30,000 people. It was home to exactly two tech firms, Shockley Semiconductor and Fairchild Semiconductor. Today, you may know Mountain View as the HQ of tech giants Google, Mozilla, Symantec, and Intuit, among others.
Within fifteen short years, the Santa Clara Valley had acquired a new name and the world had entered a new age. Silicon Valley and the technological innovations birthed there ushered in the Digital Age, and Charlie Sporck was right there from the beginning.
After graduating from Cornell, Sporck worked as a production manager for General Electric in Hudson Falls, New York, not far from his birthplace of Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks. After nine years on the job for GE, Sporck had reached his limit with how difficult it was to institute changes to the production process. He came home after one particularly frustrating day and told his wife Jeanine that it was time he started looking for a new job. He interviewed for an opening as production manager for Fairchild Semiconductor and was offered the position in California.
When Sporck showed up for his first day of work at the Mountain View facility, nobody was expecting him or knew who he was. In fact, another man had already shown up and started in the production manager’s job. Although startling, this did not come as a complete surprise to Sporck. The men who had interviewed him in New York had seemed a bit inebriated, so it made sense they were somewhat hazy about which individual they had offered the job to. Nevertheless, things sorted themselves out after a few days and Charlie Sporck found himself in charge of making semiconductors. “They were strange devices,” he says. “I didn’t know exactly what they were or how they worked. Everything I know about semiconductors I learned on the job.”
Sporck learned fast enough and well enough to run the production process at Fairchild for eight years before moving on and up to the CEO position at National Semiconductor. Under Sporck’s leadership, sales at National went from just over $5 million in 1965 to $365 million in 1976. “What I found in Silicon Valley, and what makes its success possible, is the concentration of young people who are not very disciplined, but who are anxious to succeed. It was, and is, a very open, democratic, and fluid environment,” says Sporck. “The informality and more free-flowing atmosphere really suited me.”
When asked what made him so successful in Silicon Valley, Sporck gives what might be a surprising answer for an engineer: “The cost accounting I learned at Cornell and the management training I got at GE. These were the real weapons I had going to Fairchild.” As CEO of National Semiconductor, Sporck was known for his effective cost-control methods. He was also a master at improving processes developed and already in use by other companies.
Because of his impatience with the mediocre status quo, Charlie Sporck headed to California and a whole new life. In the process, he helped create the modern digital age. Nowadays, you can usually find Sporck and Jeanine far from both Cornell and Silicon Valley. They are enjoying their retirement in Hawaii, although they have kept their ties to Upstate New York, where they visit their camp at Saranac Lake as often as they can.
They have also maintained strong ties to Cornell. Sporck’s grandson, Chris Sporck B.S. ’09 ORIE, received his engineering degree from Cornell and now works as a senior engineer at Qualcomm. Charlie continues to promote and support Cornell and industry collaborations that help train the next generations of engineers through hands-on projects.