August 13, 2007
Jim Solomon: Burning Intellect, Restless Man
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Peggy Aycinena - Contributing Editor

by Peggy Aycinena - Contributing Editor
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Jim Solomon has always been working on the cutting edge of things. After finishing his BS and MS with Don Pederson at U.C. Berkeley, he spent 10 years at Motorola designing radar systems and ICs. From there, he went to National Semiconductor for 13 years, working in analog and mixed-signal design, both as an engineer and a manager. Solomon said, “I always moved slower than most people. I would get into a professional situation that I really liked and just stay.”

It was at National, well into the second decade of his career, that Solomon began to recognize the need to automate the design process. He credits Don Pederson with helping him figure out how to meet that need. Solomon said, “Don was like a second father to me. He was that rare professor who would invite kids into his home, introducing students to all of the great professors at Berkeley. Even after I finished my masters, I was back on campus every month or two, visiting Don, working on joint projects, and swapping stories. I would fly up to have lunch with him, meet with his students and chat. At one point, the dean of engineering stopped me in Cory Hall,” Solomon added with
a laugh, “and told me I was actually on campus too much.”

On one of his visits to Cal in the early 1980‘s, Solomon told Don Pederson he was worried: “The Japanese were coming at us like crazy. They were learning fast and using our universities better than we were. I could see there was a risk they would pass us up in chip design, and the key would be design automation tools. I said somebody needed to start a company in this area. Of course, companies like Daisy, Mentor and Valid already existed, but they were systems oriented and not providing tools for people like me – the chip guy. Although I’d been playing with microprocessors for a number of years and had taught myself to program, I wasn’t a software guy. I
told Don I needed to completely retrain myself to understand how to attack the CAD problem, and Don said, ‘Okay, I’ll introduce you to two guys, and you have to talk to both of them.’ Of course, it was Richard Newton and Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli.

“When I told Richard and Alberto what I wanted to do, it turns out they had already worked out a bunch of the details. [From that point forward], we started having monthly meetings at Berkeley and kept it up for 3 years. I regularly invited industry people from various companies to attend our meetings – people from Hewlett Packard, tools writers from Intel, a variety of other people from industry and universities, plus a bunch of graduate students from Berkeley. Basically, it was about trying to figure out exactly what the industry needed and [attacking the problem] like pure scientists. It was a great bunch of guys. Eventually we worked out a plan for what would become SDA
Systems, Solomon Design Automation Systems.

“In addition to the plan for the company, Richard and Alberto also identified the top people around the world in each discipline that we would need. I flew around and hired these guys for a company for which I still didn’t have the funding. Luckily, Bell Labs was falling apart at the time, so I was also able to hire a dozen top people out of there, plus five people from Berkeley. At that point, both IBM and DEC attacked me saying I had unfair access to the top Berkeley graduates and I must be paying someone off. Don Pederson went through the roof when he heard about it, and IBM and DEC ended up pulling out their funding [from his lab]. I flew back East and talked [to the
companies], but they didn’t believe me. It was 3 years before Don Pederson talked to me again. Clearly, that was a very hard period – and very stressful.”

Those weren‘t Solomon‘s only concerns, however: “I was an idiot when it came to funding. I had, at the time, a vague impression that all VCs were bad guys. That may not have been totally wrong, but since I’m a VC now I have to be careful,” he chuckled. “Anyway, I wanted to get the money for the company from industry not from VCs. I was still working at National, of course, so I told my boss what I was doing and he got [the word] to Charlie Sporck who was head of National at the time. [Originally] I had wanted to start this business inside of National, but Charlie told me he’d get me the $10 million I needed. It was a shocking amount of help
– he started the whole money thing for me!

“Charlie called Don Lucas, who was a VC, and hooked me up with various VCs and National board members. Together with Lucas, and a guy from Arthur Andersen, and a lawyer, we brainstormed about how to do things correctly. Don Lucas was really, really smart and he knew how to do things right, even if I didn’t. [In the end], the employees of the startup owned two-thirds of the company, the remaining money came half from industry and half from VCs.”

Like any good story of human drama and success, there were many more stresses ahead for Solomon in the coming years. At one point as SDA grew, a significant portion of his sales team was recruited away. In response, he hired Joe Costello and cheered him on as Joe mastered the art of selling CAD tools. Solomon said, “I hired Joe straight out of college and knew right away that he was brilliant. He figured out how to do sales starting from first principles. Nonetheless, we ran out of money and couldn’t get anyone to put any more funding into the company. I already had a building plus employees on site, but it looked like we were going to have to shut down. I flew around
looking for an additional million and a half dollars, and [after talking to several different companies] GE came through for us.

“[Interestingly], Aart de Geus was working at GE and was actually in the room when I made the pitch. He saw it and heard it, and saw me get funded. A few years later, he flew out to see me and asked me how I had done it. I told him, and also encouraged him to join Cadence, but he wanted to do it on his own. He had help from several companies, and from Alberto, and he got the funding. The rest is history.”

Meanwhile, Solomon said, it was exciting when SDA finally began to get market traction: “Revenue started cranking – at one point, we tripled our revenues in 1 year – and I moved Joe into the COO position. We were getting ready to go public, something Joe and I were doing together in 1987, when we saw the market start to fluctuate. In October ‘87, on Black Monday, the market went straight down and that was the end of our IPO. A year later, we merged with ECAD – Joe should get credit for managing that merger – and [eventually] Joe became CEO of Cadence. I became Chairman.”

Again, Solomon said, the rest is history – and so is the stress from that era. “I’ve always stressed pretty badly, getting sick and run down. But when you’re in business, it’s often about luck and [not necessarily about things you can control]. I now know that nobody can very be good at everything. Some people know how to do strategic things, others have operational abilities, or are able to handle human resources, or financial things, or develop technology, or provide leadership. Nobody will ever have all of these skills. You just hope the CEO knows enough to hire good people.

“Even to this day, I don’t enjoy being CEO, [particularly] because setting priorities is the thing I enjoy least. I’ve been a CEO several times now, but it’s still torture. I know my limits, but I also know my biggest skill. I can honestly figure out what people can do and who can get things done. So, I’m on the board of 6 companies today – Silicon Navigator, Ciranova, Gemini Design Technology, AWR – Applied Wave Research, Pyxis Technology, and Nascentric.”

Solomon added that in all of his current industry involvements, he tries to drive home a critical lesson about leadership: “You can’t be a technologist and also run the company. However, the business guys in the company can also have too much influence and that’s not good, either. It has to be a balance,” he insisted, and then grew wistful about the history of EDA over our coffee and dessert.

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-- Peggy Aycinena, Contributing Editor.


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