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 What Would Joe Do?
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena is a freelance journalist and Editor of EDA Confidential at She can be reached at peggy at aycinena dot com.

Madam President: IEEE’s Bartleson brings honor to EDA Nation

December 8th, 2016 by Peggy Aycinena

For the first time ever, a citizen of the EDA Nation will be President of the IEEE
, with 400,000+ members, the largest professional organization in the world. Karen Bartleson is serving as IEEE President-Elect here in 2016, and will serve as IEEE President starting in January 2017.

Prior to her current role at IEEE, she was President for two years of the IEEE Standards Association, a group with total membership exceeding 17,000. And prior to her leadership there, as every citizen of the EDA Nation knows, Bartleson honed her myriad skills through 20 years of distinguished service at Synopsys.


Honored Guest …

When we spoke in early November, Bartleson had just wrapped up a weekend of events at her Alma mater, California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo. There she was one of a group of nine Cal Poly alumni honored for their lifetime accomplishments – Bartleson, in particular, for her outstanding contributions to engineering.

She said she was thrilled at the recognition but in her usual fashion, wrapped humor around the accolades: “I have never experienced anything like that before. They honored me like I was a great person, but I’m just me.

“We went to the football game, sat with the President, they gave us gifts, there was a video, and for me everywhere, a message: Wow, there’s the president of IEEE and she came from Cal Poly!”

Does she miss her college community and beautiful San Luis Obispo?

“I haven’t been back there in ages and honestly remember very little of my college years,” Bartleson said, then chuckled. “Of course, I still have those nightmares about it’s finals week and I’ve overslept!”


Standards Work …

Asked to recount the career path that lead to her many years of work in standards, Bartleson said, “I took a job at UTMC [United Technologies Microelectronics Center], where my job was to re-design the CAD system for the company’s rad-hardened chips.

“At the time, we had an old home-grown simulator, really clunky and awful. So we selected a Verilog simulator and Cadence place-and-route for the back-end.

“Our software was from Mentor, Cadence, Valid, Daisy, and Synopsys, and we had to use industry standards – first as a user, and then as developers for the VHDL library.

“[Eventually], I went from watching the standards governance process, to joining the boards of directors of Accellera and Si2, to becoming the President of the IEEE Standards Association.”

Bartleson noted that becoming involved in standards “was built into my job from the very beginning.”

How does one navigate the politics embedded in standards work? They seem so daunting, I said.

She responded, “It was very technical – how to model transistors, how to describe timing on the chip, working through low-power design. These technical aspects of the work were very compelling for me and everyone involved.

“But the politics were also very, very interesting. We had to understand everyone’s hidden agenda, the competitive nature of standards development, and not be frustrated by it. In fact, it’s very fascinating: How do you bring competitors together to make compromises?

“So how does someone navigate the politics? Well, that is why I liked the work so much. It had a very strong human dynamic as part of the effort. And for me, it was also about learning to be a better change agent.”

What would you cite as your biggest triumphs and breakthroughs in the standards area, I asked.

Bartleson chuckled again: “UPF was certainly the most political [Accellera’s Unified Power Format]. An ugly fight between the major players in the industries, and trying to figure out who the little guys would align with.

“In the end, however, it was a triumph because it was driven by TI and Nokia, users who said they were tired of the politics and wanted to get things done.

“So although there was a bitter lawsuit raging between Synopsys and Magma, we got the UPF standard approved. A major statement on the benefits of standards – the idea that companies compete on products, but cooperate on standards.”

“And just to see how Yatin Trivedi and I were working together at the time,” she added, “and how we became the closest of friends, even though we were employees of two companies who were the bitterest of enemies, that was really a neat thing.”


Path to the Presidency …

How does one become President of IEEE Standards Association?

“All members of the Association get to vote for president,” Bartleson said.

And is it a natural progression to move from President of the Standards Association to President of all of IEEE?

“Not really,” she responded. “Oftentimes, the president comes from technical activities or membership activities. I’m one of only three presidents who have come up through the Standards body.”

Bartleson laughed, and added, “So I am different for three reasons, a weirdo for three reasons.

“I’m only the third woman president, I came to the role from the Standards Association, and I came from Industry. More often, the IEEE President comes from Academia.”

Is there an inauguration event for the incoming IEEE President?

“No, there is not,” Bartleson said. “What we do as President, Past President, and President Elect is to go to conferences to pass out awards. Those are often very, very nice events – and we have the opportunity to say: Congratulations, Dr. So and So, on your major accomplishments.

“Some of these people are of an age that they have to be assisted to the stage, but it is always so moving to present their awards. To me, these engineers have designed things that people use everyday, but those people will never know who did the design.”

How do you decide which IEEE representative will attend which conference?

“There are approximately 30 conferences,” Bartleson said, “and we have a big spread sheet. The President picks first, the President Elect picks second, and the Past President gets the rest.

“And, in addition to the Technical Field Awards, we also present Milestone Awards honoring technology which has proven important for at least 25 years.

“Recently, I got to present a Milestone Award to the Japan Broadcast Corporation for their work on HDTV. It was a 40-pound plaque – they were so awed!”


IEEE and Ethics in Technology …

As a lifetime member of IEEE, I’ve always been impressed with the organization’s broad pallet of concerns. I asked how Bartleson would parse the intent of the IEEE.

The President Elect responded easily: “Education. Standards. Publishing. Conferences. These all continue to be a very strong part of IEEE.

“But today, the way I look at it, there are new and even bigger concerns. The IoT, Smart Cities, Big Data – emerging technical areas that cross all aspects of society. These things are very exciting.

“And there is the global public policy piece, including the Internet Initiative. Focusing on these things looks to a different dimension for IEEE than the traditional view.”

Bartleson noted, with even more enthusiasm, “And for my year as president, my favorite focus will be the young professionals: How can we serve the upcoming generation of technologists around the world?

“Especially those in under-served communities – women and engineers in emerging economies. I am particularly interested in bringing more education, jobs, and the positive influence of engineering to Africa.”

You seem very optimistic about the possibility for progress and improving the human condition through IEEE, I noted.

“Yes,” Bartleson said emphatically, “because that is the spirit I feel among all IEEE volunteers. They love this organization!

“It’s true, IEEE has over 400,000 members, but not all of them volunteer. But those who do, have done wonders.

“They help with earthquake recovery all over the world, there are committees that work to advance the technology, volunteers working everywhere to bring the Internet and phones to remote, less-served geographies. And that’s just for starters.”

It sounds like IEEE is full of smart, inspiring people, I said.

She agreed, adding, “Over the last couple of years, IEEE has been stepping into the world of global policy. We’re putting our foot into that arena, sensing an obligation to educate the policy makers about the impact of technology.

“Currently, we have three different initiatives addressing ethics in technology, including the ethics of autonomous machines and the ethics of technology in general. It is our responsibility to promote conversation about all of this.”

Given the nature of a highly globalized electronics supply chain, how can IEEE address the needs of this international industry while also showing respect to the individual nation states involved?

“I think we do a pretty good job,” Bartleson replied. “There are global issues that apply to everyone, but there are also local issues that do not apply everywhere. As a result, when we make a position statement we are very careful.

“For instance, we believe and have stated that the Internet should be open and free, but we also understand that nations want to protect their citizens. There’s a balance needed there.

“Another area where we have worked to find balance is within our USA unit, which is committed to promoting American engineers. When we make a statement from the American perspective, we are clear: ‘This is an American-position statement.’

“But when we make statements in Europe, for example, it is on behalf of Europe.

“We understand there’s a fine walk to walk here, and we have a long way to go. It’s a big challenge.”


Room for Improvement …

Have there been reality checks, and even disappointments, with the extent to which IEEE can implement progress in the world?

Bartleson answered with candor: “Yes there have been reality checks, and some disappointments.

“For instance, we have met with various governments on their Internet policy in the hopes of convincing them not to wall off their Internet, not to create a Splinternet. This is a very important issue for IEEE.”

“Also within IEEE itself,” she continued, “the organization is massive and complex – and there is a fear of change.

“For me, this is also a very important issue to think about. It’s very difficult to change something that is traditional, something where if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

“Nonetheless, the Board of Directors worked very hard last year and this year in an attempt to change the governance model of the organization to make it more flexible and nimble.

“I went all over the world, visited many of the organization’s units [in hopes of helping implement the changes], but the effort was not successful. It was a big disappointment, because I feel not implementing these changes will hold the organization back.”

Bartleson is moving on, however: “The next step I’m taking on is to modernize IEEE with a renewed focus on the young engineering professional.

“My message to them: This organization will belong to you in the next decades. Help me shape it to be the best it can be when it is your professional home.

“In this effort, I think our standards group can really help us. Electrical standards are a very important example of how IEEE is making the world a better place.”

Bartleson is a standards expert. What are some important areas that need attention?

“Obviously, standards for security and privacy,” she offered, “if we can develop standards where businesses and governments can protect the interests of their customers and citizens.

“Of course, there needs to be a balance between security and privacy – access to Big Data to learn, for instance, without invading the privacy of the consumer.

“We also need to develop standards to help protect against cyber-attacks. This is a very lofty goal, but one that is really important to everyone in IEEE.”

Will these kinds of standards come of IEEE, or out of industry?

“They will come from all over,” Bartleson replied, “from standards bodies all over the world. These problems are always resolved – eventually – through global standards.”


Seeking Balance …

It always seems difficult for anyone with a demanding job in technology to carve out time for a personal life, let alone find time to volunteer in standards groups or other IEEE work. How does one balance all of these conflicting demands?

Bartleson said, “When I first started working after college, I would come into the office on the weekends because the problems were never-ending, We were writing simulators!

“But after a couple of years, I realized I needed a life as well as work. So I stopped working on weekends, got married, had children, and had a life.

“Nonetheless, I still found it tempting to step away from ‘regular life’ and click on emails until 10 or 11 pm, plus also work on Saturdays. But I adore my children and found that [temptation] was preventing me from spending enough time with them, so I began to draw the line.

“Now I’m much more disciplined about the work-life balance.”

Best intentions notwithstanding, heading up a global organization must entail a lot of travel. Are you awash in frequent flier miles, I asked.

“Yes, and I use them all,” Bartleson laughed. “I’ve been on 130 planes already this year!

“I’ve been to Las Vegas, St. Thomas, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Denver, San Diego, Los Angeles, Hawaii, Trinidad, Austin, Morocco, New York City, Reykjavik, San Jose, Lisbon, Tokyo, D.C., New Jersey, Portland, New Jersey, Israel, Denver, Vancouver, Denver, Bangalore, Kuala Lampur, Raleigh, Milwaukee, Frankfurt, San Diego, and one more trip to New Jersey.

“And last year, it was also Bangladesh, Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico and Brazil. Basically, the one continent I have not yet visited is Africa.”

She laughed again, and added, “I’ve also never been to Antarctica, but there may not be a lot of engineering there.”

Isn’t all of this more of a young person’s game, I suggested.

“Yes, I do get tired sometimes,” Bartleson acknowledged, “but you just do it. This is such a great opportunity. It’s such a fantastic, life-changing experience and I will never forget it.”

And the year after Bartleson serves as President of IEEE?

“Clearly being President will be a full-time job for me in 2017,” she replied, and chuckled. “Right now, I feel like I’m 21 again – graduating from college in a year and not knowing what I’ll do then.

“I may want to go back into Industry or into Academia, or I may want to volunteer in one of the areas I’m interested in.

“It’s the strangest place to be, but I know I have a lot of energy and want to do good things.”


Elegant Coda …

The best part of any conversation with Karen Bartleson is her deep-seated optimism:

“I see this younger generation all over the world ignoring each others religions, not caring about what country someone is from, what the color of their skin is, or where they live. And it’s particularly exciting to see young women feeling comfortable in taking on leadership roles.

“All over the world, young engineers are excited about the future. They believe they can do anything!”


Personal Note …

For all the young engineers, nurses, administrators, chemists, doctors, and lawyers in my own life – I would hold up IEEE President Elect Karen Bartleson as the very best of role models.

She has shown how a life full of contributions in technology can be balanced with a life full of humanity, family, and good works. It is an honor to call her a friend.


IEEE Standard 1801-2009 …

Addressing static or leakage-based power consumption requires new techniques and standards that fall outside the scope of traditional HDL-based flows. The IEEE Standard 1801-2009, based on Accellera’s Unified Power Format (UPF), allows designers to describe low power design intent and improve the way complex integrated circuits can be designed, verified and implemented.

This world-wide open standard for low power from IEEE permits all EDA tool providers to implement advanced tool features that enable the design of low-power ICs. Starting at the Register Transfer Level (RTL) and progressing into the detailed levels of implementation and verification, UPF facilitates an interoperable, multi-vendor tool flow and ensures consistency throughout the design process.


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One Response to “Madam President: IEEE’s Bartleson brings honor to EDA Nation”

  1. Bob Smith says:

    Congratulations Karen! Excellent write up!


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