Agere Systems' Jon Fields

My high school senior recently told me that it's poor form, from a literary point of view, to open an essay with a quote. I'd counter that in the case of Jon Fields, it's safer to pull a quote from his official Agere Systems bio, than to trust my scribbled notes in attempting to describe his current (huge) role with the company.

“Jon Fields is Vice President of the Design Platform Organization of Agere Systems. Fields oversees IC CAD support, common IP sourcing and design, custom and ASIC IC design kits, new technology introduction, foundry support, IC package design, and Agere's Bangalore development center.”

“Mr. Fields joined Agere Systems' predecessor, AT&T Bell Laboratories, in 1979. In a career spanning design of 32-bit microprocessors and peripheral chipsets, Jon was the lead designer of the WE32xxx family's first memory management unit and floating point processor chips, design manager of PC products, and senior design director of mass storage products. In this role, Jon helped propel Agere to the number one position in the hard disk drive IC market. Jon has a BSEE from Rutgers University and an M. Eng. from Cornell University.”

Query - With some 24 years in essentially the same organization, does all of this make Jon the quintessential Company Man?

Answer - Not by a long shot.

And, I don't use that phrase lightly, because apparently Jon was doing shots with the best of them at DAC 2003 - holding his own quite nicely, thank you - and still out jogging at the crack of dawn before each long business day in Anaheim.

At least, that's what he was telling me during our recent, lengthy phone conversation.

I don't actually have any cooberating evidence to prove Jon's claims, but I'm willing to take his word for it because, even though Jon's a manager with no small measure of responsibility (did you read that job description?) and 320 folks reporting to him, he's fundamentally an engineer - you can tell that as soon as you start talking to him - and as we all know, engineers don't lie and they don't exaggerate. When an engineer tells you that he was doing shots in the evening and was up bright and early the next morning jogging, several days in a row, you best believe him.

One other thing you'll know as soon as you start talking to Jon - you can take the manager out of the engineer, but you'll never take the engineer out of the manager. Which is as it should be, as engineers are trustworthy, loyal, clean, reverent, etc., tall, dark, handsome, sober (even after shots of tequila), down-to earth, and wry.

All of this is by way of saying that it was great chatting with Jon and I'm grateful to Gale Morrison (now of Agere Systems, but formerly of Electronic News fame) for setting up our conversation. Here are some of the highlights of Jon's wide-ranging comments from our 90-minute chat.

On being a CAD manager

“This is a different role for me. I'd been used to closing deals, defining products, ramping up and delivering products - things where the success [or lack thereof] was very clear. In CAD support, it's not clear whether the customer is ramping up or not, whether you've had an impact on manufacturing or cost effectiveness or not. On a good day, you simply find out that nothing's gone wrong. It's ultimately the success of the project [that you take pride in] and whether [business units] voluntarily spend their money with you, which proves your contribution.”

“I take care of the stuff that nobody else wants to take care of, which makes me believe that in my former life I was really, really bad. Anybody who's a CAD manager is being punished for past sins.”

On the EDA industry

“At Agere, we're assembling a flow from the best that EDA has to offer and writing scripts to glue it all together. We don't see that [task] going away anytime soon. You only do your own [in-house EDA tools] if it gives you the competitive edge. You never invest in parity. Why would you? The most you'll be able to say for your work is that you wrote it yourself. An EDA vendor has a better shot at providing tools.”

“But I would give the EDA industry some simple advice. You should be concentrating on performance, ease of use, and integration. Currently, I don't see any of the EDA vendors giving adequate attention to these things. It doesn't mean that I don't respect many of the vendors, however.”

“Synopsys, for instance, is handling the Avanti acquisition well, even brilliantly. People I know and love are very happy working now at Synopsys. Paul Lo, Mike Jackson … They are excited and feel very empowered by their new situation.”

“Magma's got the right vision - an integrated approach that takes you to physical design - and its handling of hierarchy makes sense. But Magma may not be big enough to carry it off. We don't use Magma [tools], by the way.”

“Cadence is in the OpenAccess camp. With all of their acquisitions, Cadence is gluing together products that come from very different sources. It's more difficult to pull that off. They have some catch-up to do to have a shot at maintaining the customer base [of the acquired companies].”

On managing the team

“It's clear to me that Agere must be doing something right because our IC design engineering population has been steady at approximately 1000 [for a number of years].”

“Each month, I sit down and read a 20-page report from my staff. [However], we all sit down and talk weekly - my 6 direct reports, my admin, the project manager, the CFO, and the HR manager. It's my personal philosophy that we don't have meetings to discuss things that have been written down in status reports. Those reports should be read prior to a meeting. Also, to the extent that managers don't need to know something, [reports should be tailored to what they do need to know].”

“I've got a great team in place here and they know that every problem needs one workable solution. With the scope of my job description, I need to delegate to good managers. I have mandatory weekly meetings with my direct reports, and monthly meetings with all of the managers. I prefer short meetings that are 60 to 90 minutes long.”

“Meanwhile, we've got 100 people on the team in Bangalore. They're doing software development, supporting some legacy DFT software (that pre-dates our adoption of the LogicVision platform), as well as a long list of other interesting projects. We're trying to do more than just create an extension to Agere Systems. We're trying to create a great Indian company - Agere Systems India. We've got local management in place there with local project leaders. We have empowered the local management, rather than present rigid deliverables to the team in Bangalore.”

“The country manager in India reports to me, but the business culture at the center is an Indian business culture. That culture is different than here in the U.S. Employees in India are very disciplined. They document what they're going to do and how they're going to do it - and then they do it. Here in the U.S., first we often do the thing, then we write down what we did and how we did it. We don't always plan ahead in the same way.”

On the economy

“These are difficult times. These days you need to stay close to your financial reality. All technical ideas have to be evaluated against a zero-sum game. Something new has to come out of not doing something else. [However], if you can present a great story, you'll get the budget increase.”

“The economic downturn has not been about [specific] industries, as people generally believe. It's been a one-time event, a Perfect Storm between Y2K, the Internet bubble, and the competitive local exchange bubble. Now we're waiting for the next killer app [to appear] - which may turn out to be in voice [technologies].”

On doing shots

“I went to the Tuesday night Cadence Customer dinner at DAC. It was all pretty formal, so somewhere mid-way through the evening, Penny Herscher and I left and went over to the Denali party at the House of Blues. We did shots along with a bunch of people from Magma. Rajeev Madhavan [CEO at Magma] even did a shot of tequila, because I encouraged him to and I'm the customer. I'll say to Penny's credit, she would only do shots of Vodka. She doesn't like Tequila and wouldn't do shots of Tequila even for a customer. You've got to respect her for that.”

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