Jensen huang, the new king of the hill in the semiconductor world, has just taken what looks like an uncharacteristic risk.
His company nvidias agreement on monday to pay up to $40bn for chip designer arm holdings has threatened to provoke a backlash from arm customers who see the us-based firm as a rival.
Were not going to stand on anyones toes, mr huang insists although that may not be the way the rest of the chip industry sees it. critics also say he has risked making his company a pawn in the tech war between the us and china, whose antitrust regulators two years ago failed to clear a $44bn acquisition being pursued by another us chip company, qualcomm.
That mr huang has ploughed ahead is a sign of just how much is at stake. having brought nvidia to the top of the chip industry through an unconventional route, he believes the deal could now help it become the dominant chip company of the artificial intelligence age.
Mr huang has already taken big steps towards that goal. the maker of graphics chips that he co-founded 27 years ago has seen a spectacular 10-fold leap in its share price over the past four years, as its chips have become the main engines for training the neural networks that lie at the heart of much of todays artificial intelligence. the rally pushed nvidia past intel in july to make it the worlds most valuable chip company, and left mr huang with a personal stake worth $11.6bn.
It took a powerful idea, a strong technical background, and a firm grounding in the realities of the industry to carry him to this point.
His vision is out five to 10 years he isnt talking about going to mars or something, says tench coxe, a venture capitalist who has been a director of nvidia since backing the company when it was formed in 1993.
At a casual glance, there looks to be a strong streak of flamboyance to the nvidia chief. there is his penchant for leather jackets and all-black attire, which he adopted more than a decade ago, at a time when much of silicon valley was emulating apples steve jobs. there is the tattoo, based on nvidias logo, at the top of one arm. and there is the love of flashy cars: he owns two ferraris and a koenigsegg, along with a penchant for mercedes.
But it would be a mistake to jump to conclusions about mr huangs personality from this. he has admitted that he was crying like a baby at the pain from the tattoo, which he got when nvidias share price first passed $100. one colleague says he likes the cars because they are cool, not because he drives them fast, and another says his day-to-day ride is a white tesla model s.
In short, mr huang has all the hallmarks of the hardworking silicon valley technocrat. his days start at 4am. he is said to enjoy an early morning exercise session before moving on to a 14-hour day. family is all: he met his wife, lori, on a lab assignment the two shared in their first year as undergraduates. they have a son and a daughter.
His arrival in the us from taiwan at the age of nine was far from conventional. his family scraped the money together to afford schooling for him and an older brother at what he calls the most affordable boarding school in america a baptist school in rural kentucky that had some of the hallmarks of a reform school. cleaning the bathrooms daily for a dorm of 150 boys was part of the deal, he says. but he also says he loved every minute of it, and calls it a formative experience.
Mr huang took degrees in electrical engineering at oregon state and stanford universities and worked as a chip designer, before quitting to start nvidia at the age of 30 with two friends. he still takes a close interest in vetting nvidias technical decisions. that means he has a clear understanding of where the puck is going in the chip world, says rene haas, who worked at nvidia for seven years before becoming a top arm executive.
Mr huang himself credits a singular insight for putting him on a track to the top. he says he sought out a technical challenge that was difficult enough to require an intense research and development effort something that would carry the company to further breakthroughs in future.
The nascent video gaming industry fit the bill. it could be one of the largest computer science industries the world has ever seen, he says. the data-intensive video processing and simulations needed to create imaginary gaming worlds turned out to require the same sort of computing resources required for scientific computing, he says.
Staying flexible, nvidia evolved from a maker of pc graphics cards, an intensely crowded market, to a creator of graphics processors called gpus. a major step came in 2007, when nvidia created of the software to program gpus for more general-purpose computing tasks. mr huangs move to broaden their use was widely discounted in the chip world at the time but it has paid off with the rise of ai.
Riding the ups and downs has taken a high level of intellectual self-assurance. two years ago, the bursting of the cryptocurrency bubble hit nvidia hard, as demand for crypto mining computers dried up. mr huang says that is why softbanks vision fund one of his biggest backers sold out in 2019.
Mr huang barely blinked, insisting that nothing had changed in his companys prospects. he was rewarded with a rapid rebound, both in the business and the share price. softbank, as the owner of arm, has now agreed to take a big slice of nvidia stock as part of the sale effectively buying back into the company at a far higher price.
If mr huang is feeling smug, he does a good job hiding it. he refers to the decision by masayoshi son, softbanks founder, to sell out of nvidia two years ago with a laugh. its understandable, i forgive him. hes completely redeemed himself, he says.
With the unshakeable conviction that lies behind all his big technological gambles, he adds: in five years time, were going to look back on this as one of the deals of this century.