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Mark has been involved in EDA recruiting for over 18 years. He is Founder and President of EDA Careers, but started his career in EDA as executive Vice President at EDA Jobs. Mark was also VP of Marketing and Business Development in the beginning of the Internet revolution and has been a … More »
My Mega Enjoyable Exclusive Sit-Down Interview With Aart De Geus, Co-CEO of Synopsys
August 8th, 2012 by Mark Gilbert
It is the Sunday night pre-reception before DAC; it is fairly crowded and most of the bigwigs of DAC are there, and umm so am I. As I walk around in my trademark WHITE JACKET, fraternizing with old friends and meeting new people, I run into Aart, that’s Aart de Geus, CEO of Synopsys. (I guess I now say, CO-CEO).
He is his usual charming self. I asked him about his thoughts on the column I wrote about our chance 30-minute talk at the last DAC. He says, “Who the heck are you”? Well not exactly. After a few reminder nudges he said, “ah yes I do. “I thought your article about me was fair and balanced”. I said like FOX NEWS and he noticeably chuckled. After some light banter about the column, to my amazement, he followed with, “would you like to do it again”? I choked slightly in shock and answered, of course. This was 8 at night, the Miami Heat (my team) were on TV in the playoffs playing at that moment, and I knew the next many hours would be spent preparing for this privileged opportunity. He asked me to meet him at the Synopsys booth and from there we walked the few blocks to the Marriott, chatting like I would with a new friend, so easy and nonchalant.
The walk was so casual, discussing little tidbits about our personal life. I think I learned more about the man during our walk than I did in the actual interview. For a guy running a BILLION DOLLAR PLUS company, he is about as casual and down to earth as you and I. The only difference (well at least speaking for myself): he has an IQ of about 500 points more than I have and a vision of reality hardly imaginable by most.
This is Synopsys’ 25th Anniversary year, yet 99% of his brain worries about tomorrow…. I guess by definition you would call that a “forward thinker”.
I DO NOT do interviews. I write about my perceptions on various topics relating to our industry. I have done numerous interviews in radio and on stage with some incredible superstars but this is different. It is different because I am talking to a man literally capable of making significant changes in the world. I honestly hope I do justice to Aart’s thoughts and answers. After all, this is the Godfather of EDA and, while I thought my characterization nailed it (and still do), he takes everything so literally and took slight umbrage to the word Godfather. He felt that the comparison to the Godfather had so many overtones and chose to recast my question. (He can do that, he is Aart) He felt like this was a privilege, even lucky to be part of this experience. Aart has worked at nearly every stage of developing companies in his career… from working at a public company (Calma, acquired by GE), to growing one and making it public… from one product/division to multiple products/divisions… from local to multiple locations … he has the rare ability to see companies and create organizational structures at various levels. This all comes from those learning experiences. He admits to being virtually clueless on how to get there or even knowing where there is, but he does know this: companies, according to Aart, must be defined by what the customer needs…even knowing that sometimes the customer doesn’t even know. For him, it is clear that if you don’t provide it or if you don’t come up with it together, the ultimate success is much more difficult.
Interestingly enough, he feels that it is unfair to credit him for all this success when all he did was masterfully, rightfully identify problems. But reality is, identifying problems is the starting point and what you do with that data is what qualifies you for a leadership position, an authority figure, a CEO. I think that for Aart this all seems so easy and natural. While many have this ability, only the good ones continually look at tomorrow and subsequently realize they don’t really know what tomorrow brings. In a nutshell, that is this man. What is most astonishing is that I think he still feels that way now, in fact, more than ever. You can hear in his voice his attempts to understand the unknown, to decipher what lies ahead, in hopes that answers come to solve the many challenges he faces. He compared it to playing electric guitar (not sure I or Hendrix would agree) but he said “the more you know, the more you know how little you know and in that process, you learn to navigate the things you don’t know and, over time, you get the survival instinct on what you have to do. It is your motivation, your determination that prepares you for tomorrow”.
He is now 40 again (his official answer, we share that age in common). I told him that I ran into the Grandfather of EDA, Bernie Aronson (Former CEO of Synplicity, acquired by Synopsys), this morning in one of the various booths he frequents these days at DAC and said “so you’re a booth-babe now” (slang for models that hang around a booth). I asked Aart if he could see himself someday as a booth-babe and he immediately said “absolutely not”. I challenged him and said you are never going to mentor and help out in the booth? As the light bulb went off, he said “oh that kind of booth babe” (not sure where he went with Bernie, but I can totally see Bernie in a tight skirt). Laughing, he went on to explain that his life goal was to spend time on things that are important and matter, things that drive him.
Some of my previous columns have dealt with people leaving and/or not joining EDA for newer or more emerging growth alternatives. This reference is to companies like GOOGLE, FACEBOOK, or even companies like Global Foundries and the like. When I asked him how we keep this industry inviting and exciting so we keep and attract the right people, he reminded me that I had a similar question or tone last year. He intoned that I was the consummate advocate of the start- ups. While perhaps correct, I felt like he was missing the point of my question. This is a problem facing EDA companies both big and small. We are dealing with attracting and retaining talent desiring these newer industries but he continued his thought anyway. He said that the start- up is not the only entry level place where innovation emerges and declared that none of the start ups do immensely complex chips, not that he was downgrading their value. Today’s work is of a magnitude of complexity that is incomparable to a few years. Execution requires a degree of innovations and sophistication so much more complex than even a short while ago. (I am quite sure the same could be said 5 years ago and the 5 years before, etc.). He kept avoiding the question and continued his retort by explaining how much more sophisticated EDA development was but finally caved a little, at least in principle, admitting that these alternative attractive companies (my words not his) were new emerging markets, thus making them more attractive. I was not trying to compare complexities, just realities, and he kept reverting to defending that the comparison of the depths of technical development in EDA is nowhere near as close as in these other offerings.
So seeing that I was not going to get agreement on the “people leaving/joining EDA issue”, I moved on to image problems facing EDA. How do we create an image to make EDA more inviting, compelling, even sexy (for lack of a better word)? In other words create an exciting image that reminds us that “All Electronics Starts with EDA”. We need some type of message that has luster and magic and he disagreed. He said we don’t, that we are the heart of the heart of high tech and the people who don’t appreciate that will not work here. (Hmm wasn’t I just saying something similar?) He points out that while doing this amazing nanometer work is an incredible achievement, it is not as cool as Facebook, etc. (again sounds familiar). He compared it to being a rocket scientist in the 70’s when that was the heart of the heart of high tech and said we are the specialists in the field where all high tech has been built. The difference Aart misses is being a Rocket Scientist had some sizzle, something mom could brag about, and get the wow factor response from friends. (How cool is the recent landing of the Mars Rover?) So if EDA is the creator of tomorrow, wouldn’t it be image-wise better to create some magic around that? He said there have been multiple attempts like “EDA, where design begins”. (I say whoever thought of that needs to be fired…could that be any more boring or to my point?) Even though he knows that the outside competition is different today than 10ish years ago, he still asks the question, are you part of the high-flyer or part of changing the world (times 100).
There is no question in my mind that companies like Synopsys have literally changed the world. No one can argue that these design tools (as Proctor and Gamble might say) allow for smaller, faster, brighter chip designs. When I asked him if he realized his significant contribution and importance in all this, he talked about his immense sense of gratitude for having the good fortune to be in the midst of this change, that what he does is unique in the history of mankind, and that there are many orders of magnitude over 40 years time that allowed for this exponential growth of these years of achievement. Aart says that we are the field that exponentially benefits from the work that we do, more than any other area in the history of the world. He says that if he marveled at his place in that history, (as I might, as one of the greatest EDA jobs specialist- of course I am joking), that marveling specifically is that exponential that kills you. He does not get that immense sense of accomplishment that other great men might claim because the very nature of an exponentialist is to never look back because you will miss the next exponential. Even the ease or simplicity (or rightly said complexity) of that answer makes this visionary so humble. Many would say that Aart is one of the true pioneers of our business. Of course he does not feel that he is a true pioneer but does feel the appointment is relevant in the face of the likes of exponential Boolean algebra for example. The same hold true for the simple yet so complex ones and zeros model because as he states, “it is hard to imagine there is something simpler than the notion of binary thinking”. When he looked at the first mechanical calculator, credited to Charles Babbage, he cited that this was a succession of people that built on each others’ shoulders, but it still comes down to the simplification of one and zeros that simplification is the heart of the exponential of it. MAN I HOPE I GOT THAT RIGHT!
My take on Aart is that he is the kind of guy who while so serious, does not take himself so seriously- so I thought I would have some fun. Were you always a geeky genius? He answered without hesitation; “NO I actually don’t think of myself as geeky at all, I think I’m the opposite of that”. He cites his love for psychology, music, ancient history, and the principles that govern climate in the world as examples. (I would argue that those were not compelling reasons to not call yourself GEEKY.) He just wishes he had more time to learn and to see so much more, and that gave me the opportunity to ask about the CO-CEO question just announced by Synopsys. Fact is, he has worked with Dr. Chi-Foon Chan for more than 20 years and has been “two in the box” for 10 years. Aart said that he felt that this was no more than a recognition of something that was already shared,and it gave Chi-Foon an opportunity to also speak in the name of the company when he travels. This quasi-geeky guy simply feels that this is a cool way of saying we work as a team and wants that symbolism of TEAM to carry through to the rest of the company. I had to ask if this was the start of a migration out and he was quick to say that this was not the premise for the decision.
As for his future he is currently committed to trying to achieve certain status (the recent acquisition of Springsoft might help perpetuate that) and he sees enormous tactical and economic changes on the horizon. He feels that together they will continue to reinvent the company. (Like the CEO of PEPSI said many years back, “Fix it before it Breaks, because it will”). For him, life is a gift with so many possibilities and it is not up to him what happens tomorrow…as he says, “ everyday is a cool day to be able to do stuff”.
I was curious to know if this was a guy who looked to the future with a real vision of what our world might be like in the coming years. His response was not where I hoped he would go…I wanted to hear 21st century Flash Gordon (showing my age) or 5th Element stuff. He took it in a different direction and felt that there was a very big challenge coming in the utilization of technology and its impact on the public. He exclaimed that we are heading towards probable catastrophes (my words, not his) because so many large and critical systems are not in balance. He said you could see it in the institutions, in the ecology, in the water utilization, the aging population, etc. I asked for his thoughts on how all of this would be impacted in this age of fighting for limited government, and limited regulation. He had strong opinions here and felt that this is the worst line of thinking…what is needed is “much better government”. Less government can only result in insufficient resources; it would be a free fall, a return to the Middle Ages when there were such limited resources and everyone was fighting for them. He (and I think rightly) said that less government is such a naïve, simplistic thing and repeated, “it is not about less government it’s about better government”.
I closed by asking him to forecast the near future in EDA since EDA had a nice Q4. Because of his position he was hesitant about forecasting the industry but told his company to target double-digit growth for the remainder of this year and high single digit growth next, subject of course to any major distractions.
While Aart is totally in control of knowing what he does and who he is, he is so unaffected by any of it. Even though I knew I was sitting with one of the veritable geniuses in the world, one who sees things in complexities that I and most others cannot possibly imagine, I can’t help but know there is a piece of this man that thinks “why are you thinking I am all that”? This is all so easy and virtually effortless for him. He is comfortable in his role, his skin; it fits him like any good suit off the rack would. You cannot help but feel that he could dramatically help make a difference in so many domains, and more so, really wants to. He speaks with the comfort of a man that has been given an amazing gift or as he might say, opportunity to make a difference. And yet, this man knows he has not come anywhere close to fulfilling that dream, that there is so much yet to do, so much life unchartered, so much left to accomplish.
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