Kettler Plays A Full Hand As Product CTO At Dell

 M.S. 1989, Ph.D. 1999

May 12, 2003

"Kevin's schedule is beyond hectic," his administrative assistant has warned. Yet in a phone interview Kettler sounds calm and genial, not like a CTO with too many balls in the air. In fact along with his work at Dell -- plus the course in PC architecture that he teaches as an adjunct at the University of Texas, plus a full slate of family activities -- Kettler is planning to put one more ball in the air that evening by playing pickup basketball at a local gym. He figures it costs him "about ten dollars per jump shot" time-wise, but sees the ability to set aside the time as an indicator of how well he's been coping: "If I find that I've gone two weeks without getting out and playing, I know I have to go back and re-evaluate my time management."

Taking on a lot, and taking responsibility for it, has long been a way of life for Kettler. As he says, "I was a little unusual compared to my peers in engineering school." Raised as one of seven children in a close-knit family, Kettler married the former Julie Worley from Boiling Springs High School in rural central Pennsylvania. "I was unusual in that I entered college with a wife and daughter while doing my undergraduate at Lehigh," Kettler recalls. "By the time I did my master's work at Carnegie Mellon we had two children. Then four for my PhD." The clan is now holding steady at that number.

Before and between stints as a graduate student, Kettler worked at IBM. The company steered him into the then-emerging field of personal computers and sponsored his studies. Kettler's first job, in the mid-1980s, was to test memory IC devices; he then wrote a master's thesis on the use of current-sensing circuitry for chip testing. Returning to IBM just as the first multimedia PCs were in development, he worked on hardware design for high-quality audio and video systems, which eventually led him back to campus for a doctorate. But he finished his dissertation -- on a bus framework for real-time/multimedia applications -- while shuttling back and forth from Austin, Texas. He had been hired by Dell and put onto the management track.

With his background in multimedia, Kettler is excited about Dell's move into the consumer markets. "Our focus is more on what customers will use the system for, and how we can facilitate that. Manipulation of audio/video files is still a strong emerging market."

So is the market for new modes of interconnection. The company's founder Michael Dell has pointed out that the long-awaited "convergence" of technologies for video, voice and data doesn't necessarily mean convergence into a single do-it-all appliance. "You're going to have lots of different devices," Dell told an audience this summer -- "and they'll all be connected." And as Kettler adds, the prevailing vision of wireless as the way to go -- combined with industry trends like the new PCI Express standard (the next generation Peripheral Component Interconnect bus) -- points to "a whole new technology of interconnect" with "a major upshift in performance, features and functions."

Whatever the technology, Kettler enjoys the CTO's prerogative of getting to deal with all the pieces of the puzzle. In servers, for instance, "we're moving from tower- and rack-based systems to more modular, computing-based systems." This entails laying out new system architectures as well as working with vendors and partners "to line up the silicon and software we need." And always, there are the nuts-and-bolts engineering challenges like those presented by power density: "As we build out this modular platform, putting multiple cards side by side to get the most processing power in the smallest square footage, how dense can we make the design?" he asks. "What comes with performance is heat. Then, since most cooling technology involves the flow of air, this gets you into acoustics. It also gets you into EMI and other shielding technologies, because when you open up a design for airflow you open it up to radiation." These are issues, Kettler notes, "not only in the server space but in smaller form-factor notebooks and desktops" industry-wide.

Kettler says graduate work at ECE was good preparation for his role at Dell. "I think Carnegie Mellon's real value proposition is the emphasis on solving practical problems," he says. "One component of that is breadth and depth, with a lot of interaction among research areas, and the other is emphasizing research with relevance to the real world." Looking beyond his own IBM-funded research, Kettler notes that "across the [ECE] department, the areas that have developed have strong tie-ins to industry or government needs."

The mindset he acquired at Carnegie Mellon has carried forward into his three-step formula for being a CTO: "One, have a good breadth of technical knowledge. Two, understand what is relevant to the customer. Three, apply a business model that creates value for the shareholder."

But there is one more part of the equation. "I'm fortunate in the family that I have, and in the relationship that I have with my wife," Kevin Kettler says. "We are very much a team. A lot of the ability to balance work and personal life, to balance all of the pressures, depends on how happy you are with your relationship. A positive relationship provides a strong cornerstone when balancing work and family," he concludes.

Source: Currents Newsletter, Spring 2003

The cornerstone of Kettler's life is his family. Taken a couple of years ago while on a ski trip, this photo shows Kettler with his daughers Stephanie and Laura and wife Julie (back row, L to R) and son William and daughter Christen in the front.