On June 30, Cristiano Amon will become Qualcomm’s fourth CEO, succeeding Steve Mollenkopf. Amon, who currently is president of the wireless technology giant, first joined Qualcomm in 1995 as an engineer. After stints at Vésper, a mobile carrier in Brazil; Ericsson; and Velocom, Amon returned in 2004 to run the San Diego-based company’s semiconductor business. He spoke with Fast Company editor in chief Stephanie Mehta about the future of wireless and the next problems his technologists will tackle. Edited excerpts follow.
Fast Company: What do you see as the biggest differences between the Qualcomm you joined in 1995 and the company today?
Cristiano Amon: When I started there were about 3,000 employees, and we didn’t even have half a billion in revenue, but we had this incredible CDMA (code-division multiple access) technology. I was fortunate enough to join before it was ever launched. It was very disruptive for digital communications. It was such an incredible company. I fell in love with it. Fast forward to where we were now. Qualcomm has been defining innovation in the world of communication, from 3G to 4G to 5G. We’re now we’re in an incredible position that there’s demand for technology, and we can make a difference in every single industry. It’s an incredible journey, and while we are now a very large company, we haven’t lost that entrepreneurial spirit.
I think of founding CEO Irwin Jacobs as the builder, and his successor, Paul Jacobs, as presiding over the massive explosion of smartphones. Steve Mollenkopf’s tenure has been marked by legal and shareholder battles. What are likely to be the hallmarks of your time as CEO?
I’m incredibly fortunate. You know, Qualcomm has one of the largest opportunities in our history. When I became president in 2018, I had two major strategic directives: one, accelerate 5G by one year, and the other was to prepare the company to be diversified.
The opportunity as I become CEO in June is to continue to build on those two vectors. 5G is no longer unique to the telecommunication sector. It’s not just for operators and phones; 5G becomes essential to the cloud-based economy. You will connect everything to the cloud. [5G] becomes relevant in the automotive sector. It becomes relevant in the networking sector. It becomes relevant to the Internet of Things (IoT), and then it [powers] retail, industrial, and energy.
Look what we did in the last two earnings calls. Yes, we have our licensing business, we have our chip business, we have handset revenue . . . but we hit a billion dollars in IoT in the quarter. So that’s the answer. Looking into the future we are going to be executing on this incredible 5G opportunity that we have. We’re going to continue to grow in mobile, but we’ll also grow in automotive, we are going to grow in IoT, and we’ll continue to expand into computing at the edge—5G will take us everywhere.
What are the parts of the ecosystem needed for 5G to take off outside telecom? In telecom you needed the handsets for 5G to reach consumers. What’s the corollary in automotive or computing?
There are two answers to your question. There’s an incredible amount of leverage from what happened in mobile to all those other industries. Once you’ve built coverage of 5G and you have connectivity everywhere, besides connecting people in phones you can connect cars and other devices. But there are some specific answers to your questions about building an ecosystem, for example, in auto. The first thing that happens is cars become connected to the cloud, and that’s the telematics business. And now that you have cars connected, there’s richer and more relevant information about the systems in the car, and so we’re designing the digital cockpit of the car. And when the car becomes a computer, and the car gets connected to the cloud, the car company can upgrade your car. Insurance companies can collect data. The car can become a media center—the car company can become like a cable operator, offering gaming and streaming to the car.
How does the talent base inside Qualcomm need to change to address these new opportunities?
The company has been very focused in providing technology for phones and smartphones and doing chips for smart phones. And, especially as the [phone] market concentrated, we could count our customers on two hands. Now we have 13,000 customers plus, and [that number is] continuing to grow.
And as we start building into those industries, we need to build different core competencies. Some we did organically, some we did with acquisitions. as we did RF (radio frequency) [components], we needed to grow [our portfolio] which led to the acquisition of TDK. We’ve also been hiring people from the [automotive] industry, and we’re doing the same thing across several segments within IoT.
If I’m an engineer or a technologist, why should I work for Qualcomm?
If you really have a passion for technology and engineering, Qualcomm is the place for you. We invest a significant amount of our revenues in research and development. And we go from fundamental research all the way to creating a systems solution and platforms. We are a company of engineers who go to work and they are focused on software applications, the whole thing, but there are a couple of things that I find that are very unique.
The engineers at Qualcomm focus on solving real industry problems, and we have had a profound impact in the society that you can see.
Which competitors do you worry about most?
The more that we expand the more competitors we have. Now we have competitors in mobile, competitors in IoT, competitors in RF. We have formidable competitors and it’s good to have them because we [will] never become complacent. I don’t really worry about competitors. What I worry about is if we ever face a situation where technology no longer matters or when our customers don’t care about technology. As long as technology remains important, there’s always a place for Qualcomm,
What happens beyond 5G?
As you would expect, Qualcomm’s already working on next generation technology. And while it is early, you can probably make the prediction that it is is going to be called . . . 6G. Every technology has to have a problem to solve. With 4G it was to bring broadband in a computer in your hand. And the problem we had to solve in front of 5G was a little bit more profound, which is to create a technology for a society that wants to be connected 100% of the time, and it’s not only about people, but everything. So you have to connect billions of devices with limited data.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is very popular now but once you [have] billions of devices connected, each one generating its own data lake, with contextual information, you will see an exponential growth of AI, and it’s going to happen because of the devices at the edge. When you think about that future, you just assume the connectivity to the cloud is there, like electricity. 6G will be the technology for this connected society with the network as a service—where you’ll have the ability to add different services from the cloud to it, even as you expand the speed, quality, and reliability of wireless. We’re already working on this. Qualcomm starts fundamental research, usually about 10 years before it becomes a standard. And we remain optimistic about the future of communications.