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Data Centre Titans: Inside the Semiconductor Evolution with Adam Carter, CEO of OpenLight

Fri 8 Sep 2023

In the second edition of Data Centre Titans, we sit down with Adam Carter, the CEO of OpenLight. He brings a wealth of experience from his tenure at Cisco, Oclaro, and Lumentum.

Adam shares insights on the evolving role of AI in the data centre industry and the promising horizon of semiconductors. He also shared his remarkable journey of steering Oclaro to a successful sale for £1.48 billion and emphasises the importance of learning from mistakes for young data centre professionals.

Data Centre Titans continues to highlight the experiences and insights of those at the forefront of the data centre industry.

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What is your role and how did you get to your current position?

After my experience working at Cisco and Oclaro, which Lumentum acquired in 2018, I decided to take a six-month break. Just as I was planning to return, the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced, leading to an unforeseen extension to my time off.

During this hiatus, I reentered the professional realm as a consultant, collaborating with various firms, including a venture capitalist (VC). It was through this VC that I became aware of OpenLight looking to fill the position of CEO.

OpenLight was precisely the exciting opportunity I was looking for. Due to my existing knowledge of the silicon photonics space and acquaintance with OpenLight’s talented engineering team, I quickly recognised the platform’s exceptional market potential.

OpenLight’s vision is to develop and support the backend ecosystem for the silicon photonics landscape. As part of the company’s broader vision and strategy, we are making steps to target and fulfill the future requirements of data centre networks.

As CEO of OpenLight, I’m leading the team in navigating future growth as we expand our open-foundry business.

How do you see AI shaping the future of the data centre industry, particularly in relation to semiconductors?

The current surge in artificial intelligence (AI) applications presents the best opportunity semiconductor companies have had in decades.

While storage is projected to see the most significant growth, semiconductor companies will primarily capture the value in compute, memory, and networking.

If we go by the latest market analysis, the current trends indicate ongoing competition within the industry, as companies like Google, Meta, and Amazon are making significant hardware investments toward supporting AI and machine learning (ML).

I believe that silicon photonics is poised to revolutionise the future of AI/ML systems, presenting substantial benefits over conventional electrical signal solutions.

As AI and ML really start to pick up, I anticipate that the volume of optical connections, particularly in the context of short-reach connections between XPUs (CPUs, GPUs and memory), will increase.

Silicon photonics enhances communication between computing units like CPUs and GPUs, and influences how memory units are used and optimised within a system. Integrating silicon photonics into AI paves the way for creating smarter systems capable of efficiently handling intricate tasks and achieving superior performance.

From my perspective, the industry isn’t fully equipped to handle the bandwidths and densities for this transition. Nonetheless, I anticipate that within the next three to four years, there will be a compelling need for these advancements to take place.

What is one major challenge you’ve faced in your career, and how did you overcome it?

There are many challenges that I have faced during my career, the most significant being the successful turnaround of Oclaro from a financially distressed public company in 2013 to a profitable business in 2018.

This effort culminated in the sale of the company to Lumentum Holdings for £1.48 billion ($1.85 billion).

Both the CEO and I took a risk, particularly as I was responsible for world-wide sales – a role I had never undertaken before, as well as overseeing corporate marketing and investor relations.

Through my extensive network of professional contacts, I was able to lean on many people to learn from their experiences. I also had the privilege of working with an exceptional team of dedicated people willing to put in long hours to help turn the company around.

What is one thing that has greatly influenced your professional life in the data centre and semiconductor industry?

If I had to rewind the tape, a pivotal event that steered me toward the semiconductor industry occurred during my bachelor’s degree in the UK.

As part of my course, I had the opportunity to pursue a year-long industry experience. At that time, Northern Telecom Research Labs was looking for six candidates to join their laser research team focusing on semiconductor lasers, and I was fortunately chosen to work on their development program.

We were trying to build lasers for submarine cables, and I was involved with conducting several experiments around a niche process known as mass transport buried heterostructure lasers.

After six months of learning from multiple failures, we produced the lowest threshold laser in the world at that time, at a data rate of less than 100 megabits. Of course, it didn’t live very long, but the experience piqued my interest, and I have been deeply involved in this field ever since.

What advice would you give to someone starting in the data centre industry?

Working in the data centre and semiconductor industry requires significant dedication and time, but there is also a sense of importance associated with it.

You need to bring genuine passion with an insatiable curiosity to solve complex scenarios and troubleshoot problems every day. I suggest focusing on building a strong foundation of technical skills, staying updated with industry trends, and remembering to prioritise continuous learning.

I also believe that you do learn more from your mistakes than you do from your successes. So, it’s an important practice to consistently examine past actions and conduct postmortems. Regularly reviewing these experiences presents a valuable chance to juxtapose initial expectations with the actual outcomes. I recommend putting this thinking into practice.

Could you share a quote that inspires you as a leader or empowers you in your work?

Through the course of my career, I’ve embraced the idea that the ‘most profound lessons emerge from mistakes, illuminating our path more brilliantly than the successes we achieve.’ By embracing our mistakes with an open mind, we can learn, grow, and make better choices, and thus, navigate challenges with greater resilience.

> Read more: Data Centre Titans interview with Richard Luna on the frontier of data protection

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