2009 Kaufman Award – Dr. Randal Bryant

Believe it or not, that was 25 years ago. I would never have imagined being in one place for such a long time. However, I’ve actually had several different jobs here. First, as a young faculty member, then as a senior faculty member, then as a school head, and now as a dean.

Q – The Kaufman Award is given in honor of technical contributions to EDA. Do you own any patents on the ideas you helped to develop?

Dr. Bryant – No, I’ve never applied for a patent. I have sort of mixed feelings about patents. As an academic, I believe it is our responsibility to get our stuff, our ideas out there and into use as far and wide as possible. I believe patents slow down that process.

Q – But patents are the bread and butter of startups, the way small companies protect their intellectual property.

Dr. Bryant – Yes, once you go into a startup, you have to lock down your IP with a patent. But, I’ve never been directly involved with a startup. I’m more interested in getting things disseminated out there.

Q – How do you feel about universities protecting their IP through the licensing of technology?

Dr. Bryant – Actually, as far as EDA is concerned, Berkeley has always had a strong tradition in being quite liberal about that. They’ve never charged a dime, for instance, for the use of the SPICE simulator.

CMU has gone back and forth on several occasions with regards to their attitudes about IP, and how to protect and maintain it. [Ultimately], they have decided to be more open-ended, to be more generous in terms of IP. We produce ideas with the intent that people should be happy with their experience in using our IP, rather than our being tough negotiators trying to wring every last dime out of our IP.

I don’t think academics commonly [worry about these issues]. They have an altruistic attitude. Of course, there are many roads that academics can follow. If they really want to commercialize their work, they can do it [through involvement with a startup].

Q – Don’t universities also have to worry about the bottom line?

Dr. Bryant – Yes, that’s true. But there are other ways of earning money.

Stanford, as an example, did get a patent on the Google search technology that was developed while Sergey Brin and Larry Page were graduate students there. But the university took stock in Google as a royalty for the patent. The stock has done extraordinarily well, which is a way that Stanford has benefited from the company’s success.

Q – As a dean, what is your biggest challenge?

Dr. Bryant – It’s always money, simply put.

Universities rely on research dollars, and we are heavily oriented towards being a research university. Funding from both the government and industry, however, has been flat or declining. It’s very hard to sustain a high-quality research organization when that’s the case.

Q – What does a university do in response?

Dr. Bryant – Well, we keep trying to convince the public that federal funding of research is good for the whole country. And also, importantly, we keep careful watch over the money we do have. Happily, we have been able to keep our situation steady.

Q – Have you seen a declining enrollment in EE or CS over the last few years?

Dr. Bryant – I know, particularly in the CS programs, the number of students applying over the last few years has looked like a parabola. The applications peaked in the dot-com boom at 3200 students applying for 130 positions at that time.

With the downturn in high-tech, those applications went down to 1700 a year, but now we are back up to well over 2500 student applicants. The programs in CS and EE have both come back strongly.

There is always fear generated in an industry that suffers from boom-and-bust cycles. There was also the fear that jobs would move offshore to India and China over the last couple of years. Today, however, we are seeing that the students again believe that the U.S. is still the best place in the world to be for high-end jobs in both hardware and software.

The numbers speak for themselves, and it’s pretty interesting. Two years ago, a group did a study on behalf of the ACM on globalization and its impact on the industry. The study showed that, although a lot of jobs in IT had moved offshore, the IT job market was actually larger at that point than even at the height of the dot-com boom.

If you look at companies like Google and Facebook, they didn’t even exist until 10 years ago. Now, they have been transformative in how society works, and how students think they can impact the world around them.

Q – Today, Google is a large company with many thousands of employees. Do you think they can still be innovative?

Dr. Bryant – Google has maintained a very entrepreneurial environment through various practices. Their employees tend to work on projects in small teams, and are moved from project to project every 18 months.

People don’t get locked in that way, and always keep things fresh, which then helps produce new ideas that can be implemented in the company.

Q – How do universities, which can also become huge and bureaucratic, keep themselves open to new ideas?

Dr. Bryant – Young students constantly keep us from becoming stale. But you’re right – if faculty keep working on the same stuff year after year, they do become stale.

Quite honestly, one of the other things that keeps us nimble is coming up with ideas that we can sell to the funding agencies. DARPA, for instance, funded a lot of the basic research in the late 1970’s and 80’s in their VLSI program. That’s the way a lot of us in EDA today got our start back then. In recent years, however, DARPA has reduced their funding for university research quite a bit.

Now there’s new leadership at DARPA, and the agency wants to get back into the role of funding academic research. This is very good news.

The point is, it’s so competitive to get funding, and usually the money goes to the people who have all the experience. That makes it much harder for those who have riskier, off-the-wall ideas to get funding.

Q – Isn’t it the role of the venture capital community is support risky ideas, places like Sand Hill Road?

Dr. Bryant – I’ll say, in favor of Sand Hill Road, that they’re more willing to bet on a person if they think that person will be a leader. However, the problem is that the VCs want their money out of the deal in only 5 years, even if it means being acquired. A lot of ideas, however, take longer, which [continues to be] a problem.

That’s why this is the role that academia is supposed to play. But, again, funding continues to be a problem.

Q – You have lived and worked on both the East and the West Coast. How would you characterize the differences?

Dr. Bryant – One of the things we find in Pittsburgh is that we connect strongly with the work being done on the West Coast, but we’re not so caught up in the middle of it.

Living on the East Coast, we have the advantage of being able to sit back and think more about what the core research problems are, without being caught up with which company is being acquired, or the latest law suits between companies.

Another way of thinking about it is the idea of running on Internet time, of always pushing things out the door every 6 months. That’s much more of a West Coast kind of thinking.

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