Prakash Narain: creating a unique workplace culture at Real Intent
June 13th, 2013 by Peggy Aycinena
Every year, Forbes publishes a list of the Best Companies To Work For. The winners are always big companies, ones well known by you and me. The problem is that Forbes’ polling techniques are flawed. If they were not, EDA stalwart Real Intent would most definitely make the list, particularly if the folks from Forbes were to have been in on a recent phone call with Real Intent President & CEO Prakash Narain.
WWJD: Let’s start with the elevator pitch for the company.
Prakash Narain: Real Intent is focused on SoC signoff solutions in the static verification space, RTL linting, CDC signoff and X-propagation signoff.
WWJD: That’s a lot to focus on.
Prakash Narain: That is correct, but we have very good people and very good people can be focused on a lot of things.
WWJD: How did you build your current portfolio of expertise?
Prakash Narain: We started in 1999 looking at functional formal verification, a more ambitious undertaking than today’s formal. What we were attempting to build [was difficult], there were no languages and no standards for assertion, but we released our first product for formal in 2001. Somewhere around 2005, we entered the CDC space, but then in 2009, dramatic things happened. We began to focus completely on SoC signoff, developed an automated, high-capacity solution, and added Lint and X-verification.
WWJD: And here in 2013, who is your competition?
Prakash Narain: We compete in the SoC signoff space with Atrenta, Mentor, Cadence and Synopsys.
WWJD: Some of the smaller players in the industry? Is your solution one of the arguments for users moving away from what some call Monolithic Providers, and moving instead toward Best-in-Class Providers?
Prakash Narain: This actually [addresses] one of the characteristics of the front-end. EDA is a rapidly changing place, where the tools and engineers on the customer side are trying to design tomorrow’s products. But there are always gaps, and their creativity must be focused on overcoming those gaps. EDA providers have to evolve their products at a rapid pace to help minimize those gaps.
Which brings us back to Monolithic versus Best-in-Class. When it comes down to practical deployment, if you can offer a solution to a customer’s problem, you don’t really have to link to the rest of the flow. Design engineers are working in parallel on so many things, coupling across [the flow] actually adds unnecessary complexity. Because the demands are continuously changing, you need to be able to respond to customers’ needs, and on time. If you can provide a Best-in-Class tool, it will be adopted.
WWJD: Do you think others would agree that cross-coupling adds complexity?
Prakash Narain: Yes, the engineers agree, although the vendors often argue in favor of an integrated solution. Unnecessary interactions in the flow don’t add value to the end user or the process. In CDC signoff, for instance, customers can leverage the methodology, but they don’t want [to deal with] the complexity problem.
WWJD: Isn’t there an advantage, however, for a customer to only have to negotiate with one vendor?
Prakash Narain: I don’t understand that either. The purchasing side of the customer deals with our sales side, and negotiates one contract – if there’s a need, the template of the contract can be repeated.
WWJD: From a technology point of view, what percentage of your resources are applied to developing new solutions versus maintenance of existing solutions?
Prakash Narain: We need to couple that statement with the [fact] that the applications are continuously changing. As a result, the notion of ‘maintenance’ is not an accurate characterization. We have to keep evolving the applications as the requirements evolve.
We have dedicated R&D teams for each product line, yet we also creatively manage our internal resources, leveraging a lot of work that we do across multiple products. Typically, however, if we want to add a new product, we add another team. As employees join the company, they have [the opportunity] to join the race and keep on running.
WWJD: And does the process of adding a new product sometimes include outsourcing, or does it always mean bringing the resources internal?
Prakash Narain: There is an element of discovery phase: Once a combination of customers has communicated new requirements to us, we have to decide to make the investment based on our vision and the creativity of our internal [staff].
And then we go for it, although it’s often a back-and-forth process because the customers never have things defined in their minds. They can articulate the problem, but they can’t articulate the solution. Somewhere along the way, we have to take the customers’ input and fill in the gaps, then re-engage with them, develop a solution, and then re-engage with them again. This is where the rubber hits the road.
WWJD: Is it typical for customers to present a problem without proposing a solution?
Prakash Narain: Yes, because there might be five different solutions which could be created, so we need to articulate [an optimal] solution. We value customer input completely, but once we’ve collected their input, we then try to look at the problem from first principles – what is the nature of the problem, and the solution, within our infrastructure? How well does the solution match the problem, where can we get the pieces of that technology, and how much time will it take?
WWJD: That seems like a very risky moment in the life of a company.
Prakash Narain: Yes, but if you do it on the basis of vision, then it’s easy.
WWJD: Have you ever guessed wrong?
Prakash Narain: Yes. We were going to challenge simulation with highly formal verification, but had to abandon that and completely reinvent ourselves.
WWJD: Are you able to lure young people into EDA based on the [thrill of] all of this risk and reward?
Prakash Narain: [Laughing] EDA is a very competitive space and there is certainly less young talent coming in today than there used to be. But every EDA company has its own creative pitch [to potential employees], and we compete well with them. We have our fair share of success getting young people to join our company, because we offer important incentives.
It’s really about being able to appeal to the entrepreneurial spirit in these people, the excitement of doing something interesting, of learning something new, of having the ability to work with great people in a great environment, and the availability of mentor-ship. These are the fundamental elements we offer to potential employees, and typically [talented people] are very receptive to them.
WWJD: And do you think a background in EE or CS is more beneficial to someone wanting to pursue a career in EDA?
Prakash Narain: If you have an intelligent person and they choose to develop the expertise, [either background is appropriate]. However, I would think for a CS grad to come into EDA, they would need to come through compilers, while an EE will come into EDA from a very different point. Ultimately, it’s a lot of electronics, so it may be easier for an electrical engineer. Nonetheless, a qualified, motivated person from either background [can succeed].
WWJD: What was your trajectory into EDA? And could you have guessed at the outset you would end up in EDA?
Prakash Narain: Mine was from EE to EECS, and then into EDA, although that process was not dominated by an analysis of the industry. I found myself working in computer architecture and CAD problems, and then found myself attracted to CAD and EDA.
WWJD: Do people always have to attend the University of Cadence or the University of Synopsys or the University of Mentor Graphics to succeed in the industry?
Prakash Narain: [Laughing] That is interesting, because if that is the metric [of education], 85-percent of our employees only have a high-school diploma!
WWJD: And does Real Intent adhere to the strategy of many players in EDA, insisting they must go to the other side of the International Dateline for development teams because they’re ‘following the talent’?
Prakash Narain: Again, we are breaking most of your molds. True, we have a sales office in Japan but other than that, we have no ‘land-bridge’ across the Pacific – a deliberate decision not to pursue off-shore operations. At every point in time, we have come to the same conclusion that we would prefer not to do that. Yes, we have had to challenge a number of conventional wisdoms [to stay with this decision], but we have developed a formula for success that has allowed us to be a quality organization without going off-shore.
WWJD: What about the idea that a company has to locate development close to the customer? Where are your customers?
Prakash Narain: They are all over the world, and clearly there is a lot of merit to working locally [with respect to your customers]. When our customers need local support we know we need to service them, but for us the bottom line is this: Since our customers are all over the world, it doesn’t matter where we locate our R&D. It’s the support that has to be managed across the various time zones. This is a very different problem from where you locate your R&D.
Our R&D is in Silicon Valley. We know it’s not easy being here, particularly because there is a significant cost differential in [salaries] and I wouldn’t be doing my job as CEO if I didn’t look at that. However, figuring how to get the best productivity [from our team] and how to get the best return on our R&D dollars has given me the luxury of being able to create a different kind of workplace.
Here at Real Intent, we have attempted to create a respectful, challenging work environment. One where we invest a lot of expertise in communication involving our engineers. We don’t believe in engineers versus management, we’ve gotten rid of that attitude in our operations in the U.S. Instead, I have attempted to create an atmosphere of mutual respect at all levels, respect for the younger engineers, respect between the engineers and the managers, and at the same time, giving our employees a lot of freedom.
WWJD: Are your developers freed from the concept of billable hours, given time to work on projects outside of specific product-related R&D?
Prakash Narain: Yes, they have a lot of freedom. Attempting to structure creativity is not necessarily a bad way, but I have a more minimal approach. We don’t have billable hours; people don’t need to report back on what they are doing each hour. In that, we have a unique workplace culture.
People feel happier in an environment where they can engage in a wide ranging set of problems. To do that, we have tried to minimize the management layers. Rather than just telling people to do this or that, they are given a high degree of empowerment.
I don’t follow the model that creativity only comes from a few sources within a company. We have created a system where there is respect for everyone, a place where everybody has a right to the microphone. If you suggest something that others don’t agree with, they can try to explain why it’s not a good idea. But maybe your suggestion is brilliant and instead they’ll say, Wow! These are the things that foster a culture of empowerment and creativity.
[Laughing] Of course, we still have trouble competing with companies like Google, because there’s an aura about companies like that pushed in the media. But when I find the right person looking for the type of challenges available at Real Intent, the match is obvious. Not everybody’s suitable for our kind of environment, but when we find them, their [opportunities] here are excellent.
Our work is the most interesting work in the world, and the levels of innovation needed are very dramatic. We have great engineers here, a very unique culture, and as a result have produced a phenomenal amount of productivity.
Dr. Prakash Narain’s career spans IBM, AMD and Sun where he got hands-on experience with all aspects of IC design, CAD tools design and methodology. He was the project leader for test and verification for UltraSPARC IIi at Sun Microsystems. He was an architect of the Mercury Design System at AMD. He has architected and developed CAD tools for test and verification for IBM EDA. Dr. Narain has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana where his thesis focus was on algorithms for high-level testing and verification.
Tags: AMD, EDA, IBM, Prakash Narain, Real Intent, Sun Microsystems