For Synopsys CEO Aart de Geus, running the electronic design automation behemoth is like being the leader of a group. He brings the right people together, organizes them into a cohesive ensemble, and then guides them to perform at their best.
De Geus, who helped found the company in 1986, has some experience with bands. IEEE Fellow has been playing guitar in blues and jazz bands since he was an engineering student in the late 1970s.
Like jazz musicians improvising, engineers flow during team meetings, he says.
“There’s actually a lot in common between my music hobby and my other big hobby, Synopsis,” says de Goos.
Aart de Geus
École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland
Synopsys is now the largest supplier of software used by engineers to design chips, employing about 20,000 people. In the first quarter of this year, the company’s revenue was $1.36 billion.
De Geus is considered the founding father of electronic design automation (EDA), which automates chip design using synthesis and other tools. It was a priority for him and his team in the 1980s. Synthesis revolutionized digital design by taking a high-level functional description of a circuit and automatically selecting the logic components (gates) and building the connections (net list) to build the circuit. Virtually all major digital chips manufactured today are largely synthesized using software developed by de Geus and his team.
“Synthesis changed the very nature of digital chip design, moving us out of the computer age
conceived design (CAD) electronic design aautomation (EDA),” he says.
Over the past three and a half decades, logic synthesis has allowed a nearly 10-million-fold increase in chip complexity, he says. For that reason,
Electrical business The magazine named him one of the 10 Most Influential Executives of 2002, as well as its 2004 CEO of the Year.
Creating the first circuit synthesizer
Born in Vlaardingen, Netherlands, de Geus grew up primarily in Basel, Switzerland. He received a master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1978 from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, known as EPFL, in Lausanne.
In the early 1980s, Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, de Gus joined General Electric in Research Triangle Park, N.C. There, he developed tools to design logic with multiplexers, according to a 2009 oral history conducted by the Computer History Museum. He and a designer friend created gate arrays with a mix of logic gates and multiplexers.
This led to the writing of the first program for synthesis circuits optimized for both speed and space, known as SOCRATES. It automatically generated blocks of logic from functional descriptions according to the oral history.
“That was the problem [that] all the designers out of school used Karnau maps, [and] knew NAND gates, NOR gates and inverters,” de Goos explained in an oral history. “They didn’t know multiplexers. So designing with these things was actually difficult.” Karnaugh maps are a method of simplifying Boolean algebra expressions. With NAND and NOR universal logic gates, any Boolean expression can be implemented without using any other gates.
SOCRATES could write a function, and 20 minutes later the program would generate a netlist showing the electronic components of the circuit and the nodes they were connected to. By automating the function, says de Geus, “the synthesizer typically created faster circuits that also used fewer gates. That’s a big benefit because less is better. Few make it to the end [a] smaller area on the chip”.
With that technology, circuit designers shifted their focus from gate-level design to designs based on hardware description languages.
Eventually, de Geus was named head of GE’s Advanced Computer-Aided Engineering Group. Then in 1986, the company decided to leave the semiconductor business. Faced with the loss of his job, he decided to start his own company to continue improving synthesis tools.
He and two members of his GE team, David Gregory and Bill Krieger, founded Optimal Solutions in Research Triangle Park. In 1987, the company was renamed Synopsys and moved to Mountain View, California.
The importance of building a good team
De Geus says he acquired his management skills and entrepreneurial spirit as a teenager. During summer vacations, he teamed up with friends to build forts, soapbox cars, and other projects. He was usually the team leader, he says, the one with the most imagination.
“An entrepreneur creates a vision of some crazy but hopefully brilliant idea,” he says with a laugh. The vision sets the direction for the project, he says, while the business side of entrepreneurs tries to convince others that the idea is realistic enough.
“The idea of why it might be important was kind of there,” he says. “But it’s passion that catalyzes something in people.”
That was true in his fort-building days, he says, and it still is today.
“Synthesis changed the very nature of digital design construction.”
“If you have a good team, everyone is doing something,” he says. “Before you know it, someone on the team has a better idea of what we can do or how to do it. Entrepreneurs who start a company often go through thousands of ideas to achieve a common mission. I have been fortunate to be on a 37-year mission with Synopsys.”
At the company, de Goos sees himself as “the person who makes the team cook. It’s being a bandleader, a bandleader, or maybe someone who has a passion for people who are better at both technology and business. As a team, we can do things that are impossible to do alone, and that are clearly proven to be impossible in the first place.”
He says the company coined the “Yes if…” mantra a few years ago to combat the slowly growing “No because…” mentality.
“Yes, if…” opens doors, while “No, because…” says, “Let me prove it’s not possible,” he says. “Yes, if…
‘ takes us outside the box to “It should be possible.” There must be a way.”
De Geus says his industry is going through “extremely difficult times, technically, globally and business-wise, and ‘If…
‘ part is recognizing it. I thought it was remarkable that once a group of people accepted [something] difficult, they become very creative. We managed to get the whole company to accept “Yes, if…”
“Now it’s in the cultural DNA of the company.”
One of the problems Synopsis faces is the end of Moore’s Law, says de Goos. “But don’t worry,” he says. “We’re facing an incredible new era of opportunity as we’ve moved from classic Moore-scale complexity to SysMoore, which unleashes systemic complexity with the same exponential ambition of Moore’s Law.”
He says the industry is shifting its focus from single chips to multi-chip modules, with chips closely spaced on a larger, “silicon interposer” chip. In some cases, such as for memory, chips are stacked on top of each other.
“How do you make the connection between those chips as fast as possible? How do you technically make these pieces work? And then how do you make it economically viable so that it’s manufacturable, reliable, verifiable and verifiable? Hard, but so powerful,” she says. “Our big challenge is to make it all work together.”
It’s a great time to be an engineer
Pursuing engineering was a requirement for de Geus. Engineering was the intersection of two things he loved: realizing a vision and building things. Despite the recent wave of layoffs in the tech industry, he says he thinks engineering is a great career.
“Just because a few companies are over-hiring or reorienting themselves doesn’t mean the engineering field is on the decline,” he says. “I would argue the opposite, certainly in electronics and software, because the vision of ‘smart everything’ requires very complex capabilities, and it’s changing the world.”
In an era of Moore’s Law, one’s technical knowledge must be deep, says de Goos.
“You really specialize in simulation or some kind of process design,” he says. “In our industry, we need people who are best in class. I like to call them
six Ph.D.-deep Engineers. It’s not just the deep school. it is scholastic and experientially profound. Now, in the context of systemic complexity, we must bring all these disciplines together; in other words, we now also need six Ph.D. engineers.”
To gain that kind of experience, he advises university students to take multiple sub-majors and then “pick the one that appeals to you.”
“For those who are clear about their mission, it’s about falling in love and finding your passion,” she says. But those who don’t know what field of engineering should “hang out with people who you think are fantastic because they will teach you things like persistence, enthusiasm, passion, what excellence is and make you experience the wonder of collaboration. Such people, he says, can teach you to “enjoy work instead of just having work. If work is also your greatest hobby, you are a very different person.”
Climate change as an engineering problem
De Geus says engineers need to take responsibility for more than the technology they create.
“I always liked to say that ‘he who has the mind to understand must have the heart to help.’ With the increasing challenges facing the world, I now add that they too must have the courage to act,” he says. . “What I mean is that we need to look and reach beyond our field, because the complexity of the world requires courageous management so that it does not become the cause of its own destruction.”
He notes that many of today’s complications are the result of fabulous engineering, but “the side effects, and I’m talking about CO2 for example, have not yet been accounted for, and the engineering debt is now repaid.”
De Geus points to the climate crisis. “That’s the single biggest challenge there is. It is both an engineering and a social challenge. We have to find a way so that we don’t have to pay the entire debt. Therefore, we need to design rapid technical transitions while mitigating the downsides of the equation. Great engineering will be crucial to get there.”