SemiSister Success Stories: Lena Nicolaides Turns Adversity into Opportunity

SemiSister Success Stories: Lena Nicolaides Turns Adversity into Opportunity

I first met Lena Nicolaides on a tour of KLA’s manufacturing area in 2015, just before the launch of the CIRCL™-AP. She had recently been promoted to vice president and general manager of the company’s LS-SWIFT Division. We spent some time picking each other’s brains about the industry and where advanced packaging was going, and I immediately felt a kinship. I knew she was a SemiSister.

The next time we met was at the 2015 3D InCites Awards Ceremony. She was there to accept the 3D InCites Award for Inspection and Metrology tools on behalf of KLA. She was so impressed by the event and the causes it supports, that ever since she has earmarked part of her marketing budget to sponsor the 3D InCites Awards at the platinum level. 

When I started this SemiSister Success Story Series, I knew I wanted to talk to Nicolaides about her journey. What I discovered was a woman who carefully considered her options, and then made strategic choices to build a solid foundation to support a path to success. Her interest in the industry goes well beyond developing new technologies and the day-to-day tasks of making her business unit profitable. She believes in leveraging the power of the semiconductor industry to support causes like promoting STEM education and fostering diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Young people embarking on a STEM career can learn a lot from her experience.

A Foundation for Success

Lena Nicolaides

Lena Nicolaides, KLA

Nicolaides’s journey began in Cyprus, the small Mediterranean island where she grew up. Like many other successful SemiSisters, she had a passion for math. She originally set her sights on becoming a math professor and headed to the US for advanced education. After taking career advice from an engineer, she decided that a degree in engineering offered more practical opportunities. So, she got a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Rutgers University.

Next on her agenda was to get master and Ph.D. degrees. Two options presented themselves. One was to attend Stanford and study mechanical engineering focused on fluid dynamics. The other was to go to the University of Toronto to study mechanical engineering with an applied physics focus. Although Stanford and Silicon Valley were hard to resist, she was more interested in the program offering in Toronto. She invested in some warm clothes and headed north.

Two Roads Diverged

Nicolaides discovered her aptitude for management while working with her professor managing different post-doc programs. Upon graduation, she once again had a decision to make. She could either stay with her professor in launching a start-up, working on implant metrology for semiconductors, or accept a job offer from Therma-Wave, a manufacturer of process control metrology systems for the semiconductor industry based in Silicon Valley. Despite the excitement of working for a start-up, Nicolaides felt she would benefit more from learning how an established semiconductor company worked. So off to California, she went.

Although well-established in the industry, Therma-Wave was still small enough to require that employees wear many hats. Nicolaides started out as a research scientist but also gained experience as an engineer, applications engineer, and in marketing. She worked on a struggling product line and devised a plan to improve its performance and regain lost market share. From there, she moved into a role as product marketing manager and eventually was promoted to VP of marketing and applications.

Did she miss being an individual contributor? Not really, because she could still learn. “As a product manager, I could go as deep as I wanted or stay on the surface. Product management is one of the most fulfilling jobs,” says Nicolaides. “You can’t succeed by coming from the outside with only management skills but no technical depth. You need technical depth to be a good manager in our industry.”

Making Low Points into High Points

Visiting Lena Nicolaides at KLA HQ in Milpitas

Visiting Lena Nicolaides at KLA HQ in Milpitas

In 2007, Therma-Wave was acquired by KLA-Tencor, and Nicolaides became general manager of the implant division. Then the downturn hit in 2009. Nicolaides’s division was merged with another group, and she found herself out of a job. “What started out as a low point in my career actually ended up being a high point,” she said.

She was then offered another position within KLA as chief technology supply executive. In this new role, she collaborated with suppliers to develop components, such as optics, for systems. “The position needed someone who understood the technology and how to collaborate and build relationships with supplier partners,” explains Nicolaides. “It was a phenomenal experience. I learned a skill that I didn’t have before and a new way of collaborating with the supplier partners that ultimately improved supplier collaboration at KLA.”

Nicolaides was making a name for herself as someone who could use her skills to boost divisions. She became general manager for the SensArray division, a group that provided wafer temperature monitoring systems for process tools. Here, she spent time with OEMs learning the industry from the process perspective. Next, she was offered the chance to lead a larger division. With Nicolaides at the helm, the team expanded the division’s application space into additional segments, including advanced packaging.  After that success, the division was further expanded to encompass all of KLA’s laser-scanning patterned-wafer inspection products.

“I’m a strong believer that when someone faces challenges, they can turn challenges into learning opportunities,” she explains. She has also learned the importance of continued engagement with customers, understanding their roadmap and technology trends, and matching a product division’s roadmap to the customer’s future needs.

Transforming and Growing

If Nicolaides had to do it all over again, she says she wouldn’t change a thing. “I’m excited and feel fortunate for where I am,” she says. “We are in an industry that’s always transforming and growing. We went from the PC to mobile to the IoT to AI. All of these drive semiconductor content in different forms, which drives innovation. That excites me. For KLA, that means we innovate every day to improve our systems.”

Managing Challenges

As much as gender diversity and inclusion have become hot topics in the semiconductor industry, Nicolaides says challenges still exist. The industry is still male-dominated, and women are noticed and scrutinized. She thinks women can turn their differences to their advantage.

“In general, as a woman in this industry, you need to make sure to earn respect. The way you do that is by knowing your stuff,” she says. “Thinking we don’t face challenges is unrealistic. It’s how we handle challenges and overcome them, and mentor other women to overcome them. The first step is to create an environment that values diversity.”

Nicolaides didn’t always feel this way. She says that in her early days she didn’t want to differentiate herself based on gender. She saw it as a weakness. Rather, she defined herself as an engineer working at an engineering company. She wanted to focus on her own career.

“My way of handling difficulties was to just keep moving forward. I accepted the challenges, and I accepted that improvement may be slow,” says Nicolaides. “But I realize that not everyone has that personality. Now I want to enable faster change and give back by helping other women face their own challenges.” To this end, Nicolaides is actively involved in KLA’s diversity & inclusion initiative, as a member of the Diversity & Inclusion Council and executive sponsor of a new employee resource group (ERG) for women.

An Environment for Diversity and Inclusion

Lena Nicolaides spoke on the topic of diversity and inclusion at during Women in Engineering panel.

Lena Nicolaides spoke on the topic of diversity and inclusion at during Women in Engineering panel.

It’s proven that a more diverse environment results in more innovation. Nicolaides believes that no company should—or should need to—sacrifice performance for gender diversity. Jobs and promotions need to be merit-based. That goes for pay as well.

Nicolaides says there is an abundance of talented women coming out of universities with STEM degrees. If companies want to attract those women, they need to establish the right environment. For example, having more women interviewers involved in the hiring process, offering mentoring programs and career panels for women, and providing benefits that enable a good balance may provide a welcoming environment for talented women with STEM degrees.

There is an important role for men to play in this initiative, too, which is why the steering committee is also tasked with helping people of all genders understand the tenets and benefits of diversity and inclusion.

Final Words of Advice

Nicolaides’s final words of advice about pursuing a career in the semiconductor industry is for all young people, not just women:

“Make sure to take risks in your career as you move forward. Don’t over calculate. Be willing to learn.” She adds, “If you want a rewarding career that offers continuous learning, worldwide travel, the opportunity to meet interesting people and become a more informed person, then the semiconductor industry is a good place to be.”