Dr. Tom Williams – A Lifetime of Achievement

Life is good for Tom Williams, Fellow at Synopsys. Half of his life is spent in Colorado and the other half in the wilds of Western Canada. Not only does Dr. Williams get to continue to pursue his life’s passion in design and test from his offices in Boulder, he’s also able to enjoy his avocations for photography, skiing, and teaching in Alberta, a particularly rugged and scenic part of Canada where he is an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary.

These days, there’s one additional facet in Tom’s life which is the envy of his friends and associates. Tom’s core expertise has become a Golden Child of EDA – test, with an eye to Manufacturing and Yield. DFT is walking hand in hand with DFM/DFY and together moving the industry forward.

Several weeks ago, Williams gave the lunchtime keynote at ISQED at the Double Tree Hotel in San Jose. In an homage to optimism entitled, “EDA to the Rescue of the ITRS Roadmap,” Tom detailed the technical challenges associated with the move to 65- and 45-nanometer design, described some of the many initiatives within the EDA community in support of the move, and put out a call for cooperation between customers and vendors to facilitate further evolution in semiconductor design and manufacturing. The talk was well received by a sold-out crowd of designers.

I was lucky to catch up with Tom after lunch that day, and enjoyed a long, impromptu chat in the lobby that covered a number of topics. Tom’s a gracious and engaging individual, down to earth, and appreciative of the many people and circumstances he says have enriched his life over the years.

Happily, I’ll be seeing Tom again shortly at DATE in Nice. He’ll be onstage during the opening session on April 17th accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award  from the European Electronic Design and Automation Association [EDAA] for outstanding contributions to the technology. From the sound of things, it couldn’t be happening to a luckier guy.


Tom Williams grew up in Rochester, New York and despite a less than auspicious start to his education – his parents were advised early on that his learning capabilities were limited at best – the system never gave up on him. Several teachers took an interest in Tom over the years, and eventually he was admitted to Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, where he earned a BSEE. From there, he went on to the State University of New York at Binghamton for an MA in pure mathematics, and then Colorado State University for a PhD in EE. Tom’s next 360 months (his metric, not mine) were spent at IBM managing the VLSI Design for Testability group, and his last 10 years have been at Synopsys. As methodical as this all sounds, there was actually a lot of capricious luck and circumstance in all of it.

Per Tom, “I’ve been lucky throughout my life to be in the right place at the right time. For instance, my father was a speed skater and introduced me to skating as a child. When I could finally afford to buy my first pair of skates, I looked around and realized other people were taking really expensive lessons. But my family didn’t have a lot of money, so I went and asked the pro at a local rink if I could have a 15-minute lesson once a week. That is all I could afford from my paper route income. The actual lesson time was 10-20 times less than the serious competitors.”

“Fortunately the guy didn’t laugh and, low and behold, nine months later I was asked if I would skate in competition if someone paid for my lessons – I was about 14 or 15 at the time, and that was very lucky. Someone really thought that I had potential and was willing to pay for me. It must have been very expensive. I eventually became the Eastern U.S. Figure Skating Champion. I was on a track to be considered for the US Team. A year later, I quit skating because I was continuing to struggle in school and needed more time to study.”

“That following year the US Team competed at the North American Figure Skating Championship. I watched it on TV. A year after I quit competing in 1961, the entire US Team all headed off to Europe for a competition, but quite tragically their plane went down in Belgium and the whole team was killed. Since that time, I’ve known for sure that I have had extraordinary luck in life. First I had the luck to be involved with skating, and then the luck to have quit before tragedy struck.”

Tom went on, “In a less profound way, my career at IBM grew out of a series of lucky circumstances as well. When I first went to Binghamton for my masters, I had to get a job to support myself. I was on the desperate side, so I went to the IBM Country Club and tried to caddy. The manager at the club said I could not caddy but he would help me get another job at the Club. I often say IBM was so impressed with my Bachelors in Electrical Engineering they gave me a job cutting down trees and driving a tractor.” Tom added with a chuckle, “That was really a lucky break!”

“But while I was in graduate school in Binghamton, I ended up being a TA for a calculus class. There was a guy from IBM in the class and in gratitude for some help I gave him with his problem sets, he helped find a summer internship for me at IBM. At my going-away party at the end of the summer, my manager offered me a consulting position while I finished my masters. I had asked later if I could stay on full time for 6 months, till I left to go work on my PhD. After checking with personnel the response was ‘No, we do not hire part time.’ I was so annoyed that my honesty about going on in school had cost me the job, I really pressed the issue by pointing out that if I had lied they would have given me a position. Not only did IBM then offer me the job, they also gave me an educational leave and stipend to help me fund my schooling. Again, a very lucky break.”

“Of course, the only reason I was able to go for my PhD was that the head of the department at Clarkson became the head of the department at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. I was very fortunate that he invited me to join the PhD program at CSU, where I did my PhD under Dr. Lee Maxwell.”

“Like I said, I’ve always been lucky and my mother was right. If I hadn’t studied, I would have ended up as a garbage man. The only reason I got through undergrad, through grad school, and had the opportunity to earn the PhD was became several people said I wasn’t as dumb as my grades would lead you to believe. The fact that people went out of their way to help me has made all the difference in the world, and I try as often as possible to pass the favor on to the people I interface with. I try to be a role model to people, and give a hand to the younger generation in the technology. I hope I have earned a reputation for helping people, because I certainly think it’s important.”


Not surprisingly, as one of the world’s foremost authorities in the technology, Tom Williams has lots to say about test. He started this portion of our conversation by telling me that when he and Ed Eichelberger published their first paper on scan (specifically, “LSSD” or level-sensitive scan design) at DAC in 1977, “We thought it was such a simple concept that it would become common practice within 2 or 3 years. On the contrary, it ended up taking lots and lots of time and education to get the message across to the industry that the overhead of these test structures was worth the cost. Now the industry is well down the path and designing full scan. And, I am very proud to have played a major role in making full scan a de facto standard.”

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