August 03, 2009
The Role of a Chief Technology Officer
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Jack Horgan - Contributing Editor

by Jack Horgan - Contributing Editor
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Often times I receive a press release announcing that a small company has hired a new CEO. The same press release often says that the former CEO and founder has now become the Chief Technology Officer of the company. The new CEO typical has a sales and marketing background while the former CEO and founder is more likely to have been the technical visionary and development leader when the company was formed. This is not always the case and in fact is not the case with Dr. Pranav Ashar, the subject of this interview. He has been the CTO or Chief Scientist at several companies. What is unusual is that he was previously CTO at Real Intent and has recently returned after a few years absence as the company's CTO. I asked him about the role of a CTO. Also on the call was Carol Hallett, VP Sales and Marketing.

Would you give us a brief biography?
How far back would you like? My last position was at a company called Liga Systems. This was a simulation acceleration company. Our technology was a FPGA-based solution. The technology was different than the typical FPGA-based simulator. It was a processor on an FPGA not the circuit under simulation on an FPGA. The original technology was developed at NEC. The company started in about 2005. I served with the company in an official capacity as Chief Scientist in the 2008 period. Before that I was a founder and CTO in a start up called NetFortis. Our goal there was to develop technology for low power detection of viruses and other malware on cell phones. This was a hardware/software solution. We had an interesting business model to get the technology to cell phones using sim cards. I was there from 2006 to 2007. Before that I was the CTO at Real Intent from 2004 to 2006. Before that I was at NEC Labs in Princeton, NJ for about 13 years from 1991 through 2004. I got my Ph. D. from UC Berkley in '87 thru '91. My Ph.D. was also in EDA. So basically I have been working in VLSI and EDA spaces for close to 20 years now. My Ph. D. was in the areas of synthesis and formal verification. I also did a masters project at Berkley in circuit simulation.

In these 20 years I have been pretty deep and also pretty wide in VLSI design. I have been exposed to a number of different environments and ecosystems at universities, corporate research and development, and in different size companies.

You said that the last two companies where you have worked had interesting business models. Would you expand on that?
Sure. The company after my two years at Real Intent was a company called NetFortis. It was a company funded by me and a couple of other people. The goal was to get a low power and high performance technology for malware detection into cell phones. Cell phones are interesting because they are computers but unlike desktops and laptops, they do not have the compute and energy resources at their disposal. Malware detection becomes a significant overhead as a result. Since the operating systems on these phones are becoming as open as on PCs, we thought that there was an opportunity here. The most efficient way to achieve this was to express some of the algorithms in hardware. What we did was to develop a combined hardware/software solution for regular expression detection and matching. Unfortunately, we found that cell phone ecosystems are extremely controlled . The delivery time scales, deadlines and so forth are consumer oriented and are determined by factors outside the control of small companies like ours trying to introduce a new technology. So what we did was to figure out that there was a way to get hardware technology inside the phone by using the next generation SIM card. SIM cards are on a path where they are getting more complex in terms of the amount of memory and processing that can be performed in them. They also have a high bandwidth interface to the mother board of the cell phone. We developed our technology to be low-power enough that it fits in the SIM card profile and planned to introduce this technology through a replacement of the SIM card rather than replace some other component. That was one of the important business-model innovations enabled by our technology. The second part of innovation was the realization that hardware IP gets commoditized very fast. Stable revenue can be generated only if there is a software part. We decided to have this up-front as part of the business plan and planned to have revenue through recurring software upgrades and malware signature licensing fees.

The company after that was called Liga Systems. It is a simulation acceleration company. This is a technology that a number of companies have tried and have not been very successful at. Our goal was to provide a technology to perform the acceleration without the overhead of setup and having to introduce new technology into the design flow. In our technology, the circuit got compiled into the a custom processor's instruction set, and it was the processor that got mapped to the FPGA. The company was successful in substantial performance improvements in gate-level simulation of 20+ million-gate designs.

You have been a CTO at several companies. Would you describe in general terms what the role of a CTO is?
The role of the CTO depends on the specific context. There are two ways in which the CTO can leverage his or her deep understanding of the technology. The first is an inward focus and the second is an outward focus. In the inward focus role, you give direction to the company's development group in terms of the product and technology targets and opportunities. In the outward focus role, the role is one of communicating with the rest of the industry on the challenges faced by it and on how the company is positioned to address those challenges. In the specific context of Real Intent, verification is one of the most significant challenges that our industry is facing given the complexities of upcoming designs. It appears that there are four or five semiconductor technology-shrink generations yet to come. Today, a design with medium-scale complexity is of the order of 20-30 million gates. If you factor in four or five more technology shrinks, a medium complexity complexity design will have about 500 million or a billion gates on a chip. With the 20-30 million gates today, companies are finding it hard to design chips and verify them and get them out on time. So you can imagine what it is going to be like when the number of gates gets to be of the order of between one-half and one billion. My goal in this context is to understand the challenges out there and the technology opportunities in terms of what is on the cutting edge on the research side of our community and how to bring this into our products to address these challenges. On the outward focus side, the role is to make the industry understand that these challenges are real and that companies like Real Intent are working toward finding solutions to address them. Thus there is both an inward and an outward focus.

In many instances the CTO tends to be the founder of a company who is moved from the CEO slot to CTO when the investors decide to bring in someone with a sale and marketing orientation. This is not the case with you. How would you define the relationship between the CEO and the CTO?
At a previous company where I was a founder and a CTO, we had a CEO who just handled the business side. The CEO is more likely to be focused on a company's business strategy, on how the company positioned in the market, with customers and with investors. The role of the CTO is to have a very deep understanding of the company's technology and to give direction to the company internally as far as the technology focus is concerned and to communicate this technology focus to the outside so that it is synergistic with the company's operations and business goals. As far as the CEO and CTO relationship is concerned, it is a partnership, a division of labor if you like, where the CEO takes care of the business and investment sides of the company and the CTO complements with a technology focus and direction.

Is the current CEO at Real Intent, the same one when you were there before?

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-- Jack Horgan, Contributing Editor.

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