Some say that asking the right question is more important than having the right answer. But if you're Aart de Geus, you'll do them both, and you'll do them both pretty darn well. Synthesis programming as well as all of the computeraided engineering (CAE) software that designers have used to their advantage started with a simple question de Geus conjured while working at a General Electric plant in North Carolina: Is it possible to do a schematic without writing everything?
According to de Geus, two factors in the 1980s necessitated a leap in EDA technology and methodology to perpetuate prosperity in the industry - nonstop manufacturing and a boom in design technology that made use of transistors. To keep up, designers were going to need a way to streamline integrated-circuit design.
In fact, de Geus says "being a player in Moore's Law" is an accomplishment. Through synthesis, he modernized the analog method of converting logic equations to netlist, enabling designers to increase efficiency and productivity. Born in the Netherlands in 1954 and raised in Switzerland, de Geus grew up in a school system where children are grouped into specialized schools based on their skills.
"Certain people tend to grab Legos quicker and do better in math," he says. "It's seeds in water. Life is figuring one's resonant chords. Don't neglect all aspects, but extrapolate on strengths and compensate for weaknesses." Naturally, he chose a route of math and science. After achieving an MSEE from the Swiss Federal Polytechnical Institute in 1978, de Geus left Switzerland to make his mark in the U.S. and the electronics industry.
"It's the call of the wild. It was time to do something different, so I decided to get a PhD in the U.S.," de Geus says.
Hitting the Books
He chose to attend Southern Methodist University, where he not only studied the tricks of the trade, but found a golden opportunity as well. "By the time I arrived I wasn't super special, but I was very lucky," said de Geus. "The new chairman took me under his wing and gave me a feel for the field. \\[He\\] allowed me to set up classwork. That's when I learned management skills."
His luck didn't stop there. Ron Rohrer, SMU provost, chairman, and dean, also provided room and board for the young student, inviting him back to his Virginia home, where he would land a job at GE. There, de Geus worked on tools that designed logic multiplexers and spent the remainder of his time finishing his doctorate. While working at the North Carolina plant, he found some compiled research on synthesis. Though he didn't know much about it then, he soon would become an authority on the subject.
Things started coming together in 1985. He finished his coursework and earned a PhD in electrical engineering, and his labors in creating a synthesis application were nearly complete. Even though GE was pulling out of semiconductors, de Geus was sitting on a golden egg that was about to hatch.
Though de Geus loved GE, he knew he had to move on. "It was clear that we were going to be laid off. But what we made was unique," he says. "We added key capability and optimized time." By the time de Geus left GE, he had compiled a staff of over 20 workers, mostly college students.
"I know EDA," said de Geus. "The reality is that I know people who really, really know EDA. I appreciate how deep they are. My skill as a CEO is to bring those people together."
Though he had been an accomplished engineer at GE and was on the cusp of releasing revolutionary CAE software, his passion as a leader began to eclipse his desire for design. His academic work at SMU, combined with management skills he learned creating curricula at SMU and handling students at GE, molded him into a nextgeneration CEO.
"We don't realize that so many things are interdependent," he said. "If you're good in economics, but have no technological understanding, you'll miss the boat."
The ingredients behind de Geus' success begin with teamwork, management, passion, and a pinch of luck. "People who like what they do, do it better," he says. "I like to find people who want to make an impact and have the passion to drive something to conclusion."
The next thing de Geus asked himself and his young colleagues was if they could take the technology and form a company. GE's investment of $1 million in startup revenue and the collective pot-scraping efforts of his coworkers eventually allowed them to operate as their own company, Optimal Solutions Inc. But with its early success, the company headed to a bigger pond, Silicon Valley. Now billed as Synopsys Inc., the company's synthesis technology was ready for largescale implementation and unprecedented success (see "Technology X: The 'What-If' Proposition" at www.electronicdesign.com, ED Online 2290).
Over the past 30 years, de Geus has received numerous awards and accolades, including the IEEE Circuits and Systems Society Industrial Pioneer Award, an IEEE Fellowship, and most recently an IEEE Robert N. Noyce Medal. "We've been running so fast. There's been no time to look back," he says. Now, de Geus presses on, tackling the challenges of the latest technological advances.
"Today we're dealing with issues like smaller transistors," says de Geus. "Mathematics and complexity is going way up. The opportunity to bring the company to the next generation is very exciting. The Entire EDA field is at an intersection of continuities."
Beyond the challenges and achievements, the fraternity of sharing labor and a common goal is a joy for de Geus. "The human essence makes life beautiful and fun," he says. "The key reason I go to work is for the people I'll meet. It's a passion."