Spotlight on life of a Semiconductor Account Manager

This article focuses on the life of a Semiconductor Account Manager. John O’Donnell worked as an engineer and then moved into sales and account management travelling the world to different Fabs. He is Semiconductor Account Manager Northern Europe GSE/Intel at VAT GROUP and based in Glasgow in Scotland.

John O-Donnell Semiconductor Account Manager Northern Europe GSE Intel at VAT GROUP

Look at a Semiconductor Expert covering Northern Europe

Apprenticeship with National Semiconductor

You joined the apprenticeship programme with National Semiconductor. Why did you decide to do this?
I applied for the apprenticeship as I wanted to have a technical career and earn money while learning a trade and gaining qualifications. Also, I liked the sound of working in a cleanroom with ion implanters and cutting-edge technology. I applied the year before and failed the aptitude test, so I studied hard for the following year’s application.
What do you think is the value of an apprenticeship? Why would you recommend an apprenticeship programme to someone at school or college now?
I think apprenticeships are crucial to the ambition of the Semiconductor industry. The forecast due to AI and other emerging technologies is $1 trillion in the coming decade and there is already a huge skills shortage to the tune of 300,000 FTE (Full Time Employees) shortfall estimated by 2027.
Apprenticeships are much more usual and available in countries like Denmark. Do you think we should aim for this in the UK? Would it help the semiconductor industry?
I have seen a trend with “apprenticeships” covering all industries and trades, including, IT, social work, hospitality etc. The older definition for me will always be in the technical trades and I use the term “traineeships” for these other sectors. I think the UK government should be promoting traineeships and apprenticeships harder, so that we have a skilled workforce that has disposable income to help the economy. It’s surely a win-win for Britain.

Technical support in the semiconductor field

How quickly did you adjust to working in the field?
My first field job was sustaining equipment at UK Semiconductor FABs like Motorola, National Semiconductor and NEC. Having been used to only working in one factory with its own rules, I had to be aware of several factories with different procedures, protocols, and politics. It takes time to get used to it, but just make sure to get the safety policies spot on and ask any questions you have, no matter how trivial.
What were your techniques for:
Solving issues quickly?

Listening and understanding the problem fully instead of offering an uninformed solution that will not be received well. Good communication.
Take responsibility for communication and the fix.
Dealing with customers and forming good relationships?
Be professional and efficient, spend more time listening than talking and after you have the first good fix under your belt, the door is open for developing a good professional and personable relationship.
How did you balance the travel with having a life in Scotland?
I always managed to coordinate around family life. Although I did take a home-based job when my children were in high school to be more present for homework etc. I went back into the field when they progressed to further education as I missed the travel and challenge of field work.

Returning to studying while working in the semiconductor industry

Why did you decide to return to studying?
I have been studying at the same University across 4 decades now with my first class in 1999. Now, after several courses, BEng and a Post Grad in Physics I will begin an MBA/DBA in June this year, hopefully finishing in time for my 50th birthday.
What is your advice to someone who is considering working and studying at the same time?
I found the travelling perfect to balance study, work, and life as I caught up on Uni work while on the road. It also kept me out of the pub which is a good thing! It really depends on how willing the person is to make it work, most Universities are flexible these days to accommodate lifestyles and careers.
Do you think you were a better student because you already had relevant work experience?
I don’t think I would have survived University after school, the soft start from college was definitely a big help. I was lucky enough to teach Engineering and Electronics to apprentices at my old college for 2 years during/after COVID and was keen to let them know the sky is the limit no matter where they start.

Semiconductor manufacturing

How has the semiconductor manufacturing industry changed during your career?
I joined National Semiconductor at an industry peak in the early nineties, which then had a slump a couple of years later. This has been a regular pattern, meaning I have had to change jobs several times to follow the curve. The last 10 years, particularly the last five have seen a fantastic regeneration of the industry and unprecedented growth, long may it continue, especially until I am sixty-five…. 🙂
The cutting-edge technologies with AI, automotive, consumer electronics, power electronics, and renewable energy, plus sustainability and the environment have all created the perfect storm for hi tech chips and electronics moving fast into the future.
What led you to focus on vacuum based systems?
As an apprentice I was in the HiVac department, working on Ion Implanters and PVD (Physical Vapour Deposition) tools that had sophisticated pump systems and I really enjoyed working on them. Then, life seemed to keep putting me with vacuum!
Are there any systems that you found particularly well designed or badly designed from a maintenance perspective?
I always liked working with well-engineered and user-friendly systems. I can admit that I am not the world’s fastest engineer, so I appreciate a good set of instructions and never assume anything until the manual has been read cover to cover, no matter how intuitive the equipment feels! Market leaders like Applied Materials and ASML are continuing to make amazing equipment in line with the leading edge of technology nodes. VAT are in a good position to be on all the new equipment as a hardware Tier 1 supplier.

The future

What do you think will happen in the next twenty years in semiconductor equipment? In particular how will the changes impact equipment and customer support engineers?
The equipment is getting better at making smaller devices, but in essence, the fundamentals of the processes remain the same. So, we just need more of the same in terms of engineers and technicians learning. The more mature fabs making the older devices can play their part in the development of young engineers for sure.

Move to semiconductor sales

Why did you make the move to sales?
It was by accident; I was on a service call out to a solar customer in the Arctic Circle to fix a vacuum pump (wrongly recommended and sold by a “sales” guy). After spending a day installing a new one the customer was happy with the job and said, “you are my sales guy now.”
How much did your very technical and hands-on background add to your credibility?
It was the most important skillset to build a relationship on. Many of my current customers have been customers for over 20 years across several jobs/products, so I must be doing something right!
In your opinion, if a field service engineer is considering a sales role, what should their decision-making criteria be?
I recommend it completely if they want to move into sales. Some guys want to be the best technical resource on the team and that’s fine too. We have Field Application Engineers at VAT who support the customer alongside Sales so it’s the perfect foil to delight the customer. To sum up, a move to sales from the field could be lateral or a step up depending on how it’s done; and sales is more suited to people that enjoy handling politics as much as a spanner. Be careful what you wish for!

Current role as Semiconductor Account Manager

You are account manager for northern Europe. How large is the area you cover? How much of your time is spent travelling?
I travel around 60% of the time currently, mostly Europe, compared to my previous role, which was global. So, it’s very manageable.
My main areas of focus are the HVM (High Volume Manufacturing) FABs in Europe North. In addition, regular trips to our HQ in Switzerland for product development and training. There are times when remote working is productive. However, you can’t beat being hands on and in front of the customer working together.
Has Brexit (the UK leaving the European Union) impacted your role in terms of how much time you can spend with customers and at exhibitions in Europe?
Apart from a longer line at passport control, Brexit has not had an impact immediately. However, I can see opportunities that have not come to the UK as we are no longer in the EU. Personally, I miss being part of the EU as I identify as a European citizen as opposed to only UK.
How closely do you work with field service and field applications teams?
Our FAEs are critical to the company’s success. We are the leader in our market for several reasons. Swiss precision engineered equipment plus a strong emphasis on technical support being two of them. We have FAEs working in most leading edge FABs across the globe, who interface as part of the customer’s team to overcome technical problems together. We have regular meetings on open projects and new opportunities.

VAT Group AG

VAT Group is a Global Market Leader for high performance vacuum valves, mission-critical components for advanced R&D and manufacturing processes of semiconductors, LED, solar cells, displays and other high vacuum demanding products.
Sales/Service representations in twenty-nine countries.
R&D sites:
Haag (Switzerland), San Jose CA (United States), Penang (Malaysia)
Manufacturing sites:
Haag (Switzerland), Penang (Malaysia), Arad (Romania) and Xinwu (Taiwan).

Further Reading

A gender-neutral field service engineering workforce by Judith Lesowiec of Edward Vacuum

Why become a Field Applications Engineer (FAE) now

My 3 Reasons I’m A Field Applications Engineer FAE Now

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