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 What Would Joe Do?
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena is a freelance journalist and Editor of EDA Confidential at She can be reached at peggy at aycinena dot com.

2017 Kaufman Award: Rob Rutenbar’s Right Place, Right Time, Right Thing

December 7th, 2017 by Peggy Aycinena

Academics are a special breed of animal
, especially those who have also succeeded in business. They vacillate wildly between the conventional and the visionary, between the tangible realities of life and the far-flung concepts of blue-sky, what-if thinking. And this year’s Kaufman Award winner is no exception.

Professor Rob Rutenbar grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, did his undergrad at Wayne State University, his PhD at University of Michigan, was on the faculty at Carnegie-Mellon for 25 years, during which time he co-founded Neolinear and sold it to Cadence, and then picked up and moved to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he put the university and his own perseverance to the test by igniting the move to massively available online education. Now just this year, he has returned to the East Coast as Senior Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Pittsburgh.

All of this is very comprehensible and logical, but only on the face of things.

In fact, by his own admission, no small part of Rutenbar’s success is based on attendance at a random barbecue years ago, a bit of simultaneous happenstance, and a restless interest in what’s around the next corner. Which of course, is the classic definition of a bohemian. Or in Rutenbar’s case, the definition of a Kaufman Award winner.

[Spoiler alert: The following may include narrative that will appear in Rob Rutenbar’s talk on Thursday, February 8, 2018, when he accepts the Kaufman Award at the CEDA/ESD Alliance dinner in his honor in San Jose.]

Rob Rutenbar was involved in EDA from early on in his graduate studies.

“It was kind of right time, right place for me,” he said in a recent call.

“I had the great opportunity to be at a university when the VLSI thing hit, the whole VLSI revolution in academia. I was in the first-run VLSI course at Michigan, and did a chip there – a 6-micron NMOS with 1 poly and 1 metal. It was a couple thousand transistors, and I did the whole thing by hand.

“The very first generation of [design] tools was just coming out and I said: This is awesome, I really want to work on this stuff!

“So I did my thesis on CAD. In the 1980’s, that was like doing a thesis on machine learning or AI today. CAD was the hottest thing going on in the market, and I had a bunch of job interviews and offers when I finished.

“I decided to go to Carnegie-Mellon because it was really strong in VLSI, and there was a lot of faculty there [I wanted to work with]. CMU was a very nice fit for me.”

“In fact, the Kaufman Award I’m receiving now is for the technical stuff I did then,” Rutenbar noted in our call, then chuckled.

“At CMU, one of these random bits of serendipity [came along] that helped shape my career. Early on, the Department Head had a barbecue at his house and I sat on a couch there next to Rick Carley, who had just been hired from MIT. He was an analog circuit design, and an awesome guy.

“Meanwhile, my very first grad student at CMU was Ramesh Harjani – he’s now a very prominent faculty member at the University of Minnesota. When I asked Ramesh what he wanted to work on, he said he liked analog. I told him I had just sat next to this great analog designer at a barbecue!”

And so the A Team [A for Analog] was born.

“Ramesh, Rick and I together looked around for analog tools and saw nothing except Spice,” Rutenbar recalled, “so we started working on this stuff and were successful.

“In fact, just a couple of years later at DAC in 1987 – the first and only time DAC was in Miami – we won Best Paper for our work. That paper got some strong feedback that proved [our ideas] had legs.”

And so the collaboration continued.

“Over the next few years, I think Rick and I wrote 50 or 60 papers together,” Rutenbar said. “We worked on synthesis together, and then I started working on layout and on a broader range of things.”

Yet the serendipity was not done, per Rutenbar: “In another one of those random connections, Rick was doing some consulting in the mid-1990s and connected with a guy named Charles Bunzli.

“Charles said: This analog stuff is a lot of complicated design.

“And Rick responded: Oh, but we have tools.

“Charles said: Dude, nobody has tools!

“And Rick said: Nope, not true. Rob Rutenbar and I have real tools!

“And Charles said: Then why aren’t you guys starting a company?

“And Rick said: Because we’re academics.

“But Charles wasn’t satisfied, so he wrote up a rough business plan and said: Let’s just share this around the big verticals in Japan.

“And so he did, presenting a kind of anonymous proposal from a company in Pittsburgh – with a name like Analog CAD NewCo – to customers in Japan. No names associated with the company, nothing about us or Carnegie Mellon, although there were some shots of the chips we had done.

“Charles shared all of this around a number of companies – Toshiba, Sony, and several others – and he was surprised, and we were gratified, with the response.

“Charles then said: Oh cool. Rick and Rob want to start a company and the two of you should totally do that.

“And so we did. We started Neolinear and had like a $3 million series A, back when you could get a Series A with nothing more than a really strong PowerPoint presentation, and didn’t need reference customers.

“We launched Neolinear, grew the company, and a couple of years later decided to make a pivot on the management team, [moving] from people who were good at taking a company from nothing to something, on to people who were good at moving something to something even bigger.

“We brought in Tom Beckley as President and CEO [with Kaufman Award winner Ron Rohrer as Chairman] and then we got acquired by Cadence in 2004.

“Happily, Cadence built us a great office and kept the staff intact, so we are still the Cadence R&D office in Pittsburgh.

“And Tom Beckley is now running one of the largest components of Cadence [as SVP and GM of the Custom IC & PCB Group].”

“It’s been a wonderful success story,” Rutenbar emphasized, and then continued.

“The other part of my Kaufman Award is related to my teaching. I spent 15 years at Carnegie-Mellon building a deep core course on chip design.

“When I went to the University of  Illinois in 2010, that was the basis for my MOOC, which is actually still running although I’m now back in Pittsburgh. We ran the course in 2013, 2014, and 2015.

“Then in 2016, Coursera [company that provides technology for Massive Open Online Courses] changed their core platform, We had to rebuild the course, because they changed the operating system.”

Chuckling, Rutenbar added, “They literally broke all of my homework and all of my lectures.

“In addition, now it’s two courses – one on logic, and one on layout – and it’s no longer offered just once a year, but basically just runs.

“The course starts about every 6 weeks to 2 months, and runs in an autonomous mode with student assignments being done in the Cloud.

“Quite honestly, the last thing I did before leaving University of Illinois this past year was to spend a bunch of time with my TAs, so the course could run pretty much hands-off for me. Although, I do still get emails and LinkedIn requests associated with it.

“And once a week, I get an email for Coursera with updates.

“Currently, the logic part of the course has an enrollment of 8024 students, while the layout part has 3136 students. And all of those students are in the new version of the course launched this past summer.”

Rutenbar again chuckled: “The whole thing is like an ADAS – autonomous driving assistance system – but for teaching. I really think this material is both beautiful and vital, and that somebody’s got to teach it.

“Not everybody in the world gets to go to Carnegie Mellon or Illinois, yet I know a bunch of people who have gotten jobs solely on the basis of having taken this course.

“Also, if someone is applying for a job and you look at their degree, it may not look like they know what they need to know. But if the employer sees that they’ve taken this course, the [application] may be viewed differently.”

Importantly, Rutenbar’s efforts have not only resulted in the successful VLSI MOOC, but in dozens of other online courses being made available by the University of Illinois as well.

“I managed to get the whole campus involved in the thing,” Rutenbar said. “More than 2.5 million students have enrolled in Illinois MOOCs, roughly a million in my former Computer Science Department alone.”

“The phenomenon has been pretty significant. Everywhere I go in the world,” he laughed, “a bunch of people are always shaking my hand.”

But now, with the move to the University of Pittsburgh, life has changed a bit for Rutenbar: “I have come back to Pittsburgh, which is a city I really like, and basically – as Senior Vice Chancellor for Research – am setting the vision for the whole campus. Not just for engineering or computer science, but for all disciplines.”

“I love this job,” Rutenbar added. “I get to meet the most amazingly interesting and smart people.

“And although my first order of business is the management stuff, I have faculty appointments in both Computer Science and Computer Systems engineering, and am still an adjunct professor at Illinois.”

And how does Rutenbar feel about receiving the 2017 Kaufman Award in EDA?

“I’ve received so many lovely text messages and phone calls since the award was announced,” he said, and added laughing, “starting with Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli.

“He couldn’t reach me by phone to tell me the news because he was in Rome at the time, so he sent me a Facebook message instead asking me to call him.

“When I reached him, he said: I’m officially telling you that you’re receiving the Kaufman Award!

“Alberto has know me for my entire career, so having him announce the award to me was super awesome.”

As we concluded our conversation, Dr. Rutenbar returned to his original thesis of humility, and the serendipity that has shaped his career.

“What would have happened,” he asked, “if my very first PhD student at CMU hadn’t said that he wanted to do analog? What would have happened if I hadn’t sat next to Rick Carley at that barbecue?

“Looking back on my 30-something years working, so many times it’s been the right place, the right time, the right thing.

“I have just been a lucky guy all the way along.”


Press Release: 2017 Kaufman Award Winner …

Dr. Rob Rutenbar is being honored for his pioneering contributions to algorithms and tools for analog and mixed-signal designs.

As an academic, he developed a wide range of fundamental models, algorithms and tools for analog IC designs. Rutenbar’s research has focused in three broad areas: tools and algorithms for a wide variety of integrated circuit design problems; methods to manage the messy statistics of nanoscale chip designs; and custom silicon architectures for perceptual and data analytics problems, notably in applications like speech recognition and machine learning.

As an entrepreneur, Rutenbar co-founded Neolinear in 1996, one of the most successful analog tool companies, to bring his research efforts to the larger design community. In 2006, Rutenbar founded Silicon Vox Corp., now called Voci Technologies Inc., to commercialize high-speed, high-accuracy speech recognition appliances for enterprise speech analytics applications.

While at Carnegie-Mellon University from 1984 through 2010, Rutenbar was founder and director of the Center for Circuit and System Solutions (C2S2),  a large consortium of US schools (e.g., CMU, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Caltech, Cornell, Columbia, GaTech, UCLA, etc.) chartered by major U.S. semiconductor companies and DARPA.

“For most of the early 21st century, C2S2 was an essential part of the U.S. funding ecosystem for analog and mixed-signal research,” says Dr. Martin Wong, executive associate dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois. ‘”C2S2 faculty pioneered a range of important technologies, notably in statistical circuit design and lithography-aware chip design.”

Rutenbar moved to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to head the Computer Science Department in 2010, a time when many universities were reducing EDA courses. He reworked his CMU course, VLSI CAD: Logic to Layout, into a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in 2013, providing EDA training to thousands of engineers. To date, his course has connected with over 50,000 registered learners from more than 150 countries.

This year, Rutenbar became Senior Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Pittsburgh.

Success in both industry and academia comes as no surprise to those who know Rutenbar.

Tom Beckley, Cadence Design Systems’ senior vice president of Custom IC & PCB, observes, “Rob is first and foremost an outstanding teacher, who always puts his students first. His students are not only skilled in EDA, but also in communications, innovation, working as team players, and share Rob’s passion and strong work ethic.”

According to Dr. Patrick Groeneveld, past chair of the Design Automation Conference, sponsored by the ESD Alliance and CEDA: “Rob combines several qualities that make him uniquely qualified as a Phil Kaufman Award recipient: thorough academic research, educational excellence, and a successful business enterprise that commercialized the research. Such a combination is rare in EDA, and has been a key ingredient for the vibrancy of our field.”

Dr. John Cohn, chief scientist at IBM Watson IoT and an IBM and IEEE fellow concludes: “The Phil Kaufman Award is the closest thing there is to a Nobel Prize for EDA. As such, I can think of no one more deserving of this award than Rob Rutenbar.”


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