For Synopsys Chief Executive Aart de Geus, running the electronic design automation behemoth is similar to being a bandleader. He brings together the right people, organizes them into a cohesive ensemble, and then leads them in performing their best.
De Geus, who helped found the company in 1986, has some experience with bands. The IEEE Fellow has been playing guitar in blues and jazz bands since he was an engineering student in the late 1970s.
Much like jazz musicians improvising, engineers go with the flow at team meetings, he says: One person comes up with an idea, and another suggests ways to improve it.
“There are actually a lot of commonalities between my music hobby and my other big hobby, Synopsys,” de Geus says.
Aart de Geus
École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland
Synopsys is now the largest supplier of software that engineers use to design chips, employing about 20,000 people. The company reported US $1.36 billion in revenue in the first quarter of this year.
De Geus is considered a founding father of electronic design automation (EDA), which automates chip design using synthesis and other tools. It was pioneered by him and his team in the 1980s. Synthesis revolutionized digital design by taking the high-level functional description of a circuit and automatically selecting the logic components (gates) and constructing the connections (netlist) to build the circuit. Virtually all large digital chips manufactured today are largely synthesized, using software that de Geus and his team developed.
“Synthesis changed the very nature of how digital chips are designed, moving us from the age of computer-a ided design (CAD) to electronic design automation (EDA),” he says.
During the past three and a half decades, logic synthesis has enabled about a 10 millionfold increase in chip complexity, he says. For that reason, Electrical Business magazine named him one of the 10 most influential executives in 2002, as well as its 2004 CEO of the Year.
Creating the first circuit synthesizer
Born in Vlaardingen, Netherlands, de Geus grew up mostly in Basel, Switzerland. He earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1978 from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, known as EPFL, in Lausanne.
In the early 1980s, while pursuing a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, de Geus joined General Electric in Research Triangle Park, N.C. There he developed tools to design logic with multiplexers, according to a 2009 oral history conducted by the Computer History Museum. He and a designer friend created gate arrays with a mix of logic gates and multiplexers.
That led to writing the first program for synthesizing circuits optimized for both speed and area, known as SOCRATES. It automatically created blocks of logic from functional descriptions, according to the oral history.
“The problem was [that] all designers coming out of school used Karnaugh maps, [and] knew NAND gates, NOR gates, and inverters,” de Geus explained in the oral history. “They didn’t know multiplexers. So designing with these things was actually difficult.” Karnaugh maps are a method of simplifying Boolean algebra expressions. With NAND and NOR universal logic gates, any Boolean expression can be implemented without using any other gate.
SOCRATES could write a function and 20 minutes later, the program would generate a netlist that named the electronic components in the circuit and the nodes they connected to. By automating the function, de Geus says, “the synthesizer typically created faster circuits that also used fewer gates. That’s a big benefit because fewer is better. Fewer ultimately end up in [a] smaller area on a chip.”
With that technology, circuit designers shifted their focus from gate-level design to designs based on hardware description languages.
Eventually de Geus was promoted to manager of GE’s Advanced Computer-Aided Engineering Group. Then, in 1986, the company decided to leave the semiconductor business. Facing the loss of his job, he decided to launch his own company to continue to enhance synthesis tools.
The importance of building a good team
De Geus says he picked up his management skills and entrepreneurial spirit as a youngster. During summer vacations, he would team up with friends to build forts, soapbox cars, and other projects. He usually was the team leader, he says, the one with plenty of imagination.
“An entrepreneur creates a vision of some crazy but, hopefully, brilliant idea,” he says, laughing. The vision sets the direction for the project, he says, while the entrepreneur’s business side tries to convince others that the idea is realistic enough.
“The notion of why it could be important was sort of there,” he says. “But it is the passion that catalyzes something in people.”
That was true during his fort-building days, he says, and it’s still true today.
“Synthesis changed the very nature of how digital designs are being constructed.”
“If you have a good team, everybody chips in something,” he says. “Before you know it, someone on the team has an even better idea of what we could do or how to do it. Entrepreneurs who start a company often go through thousands of ideas to arrive at a common mission. I’ve had the good fortune to be on a 37-year mission with Synopsys.”
At the company, de Geus sees himself as “the person who makes the team cook. It’s being an orchestrator, a bandleader, or maybe someone who brings out the passion in people who are better in both technology and business. As a team, we can do things that are impossible to do alone and that are patently proven to be impossible in the first place.”
He says a few years ago the company came up with the mantra “Yes, if …” to combat a slowly growing “No, because …” mindset.
“‘Yes, if …’ opens doors, whereas the ‘No, because …’ says, ‘Let me prove that it’s not possible,’” he says. “‘Yes, if … ’ leads us outside the box into ‘It’s got to be possible. There’s got to be a way.’”
De Geus says his industry is going through “extremely challenging times—technically, globally, and business-wise—and the ‘If … ’ part is an acknowledgment of that. I found it remarkable that once a group of people acknowledge [something] is difficult, they become very creative. We’ve managed to get the whole company to embrace ‘Yes, if …’
“It is now in the company’s cultural DNA.”
One of the issues Synopsys is confronted with is the end of Moore’s Law, de Geus says. “But no worries,” he says. “We are facing an unbelievable new era of opportunity, as we have moved from ‘Classic Moore’ scale complexity to ‘SysMoore,’ which unleashes systemic complexity with the same Moore’s Law exponential ambition!”
He says the industry is moving its focus from single chips to multichip modules, with chips closely placed together on top of a larger, “silicon interposer” chip. In some cases, such as for memory, chips are stacked on top of each other.
“How do you make the connectivity between those chips as fast as possible? How can you technically make these pieces work? And then how can you make it economically viable so it is producible, reliable, testable, and verifiable? Challenging, but so powerful,” he says. “Our big challenge is to make it all work together.”
A great time to be an engineer
Pursuing engineering was a calling for de Geus. Engineering was the intersection of two things he loved: carrying out a vision and building things. Notwithstanding the recent wave of tech-industry layoffs, he says he believes engineering is a great career.
“Just because a few companies have overhired or are redirecting themselves doesn’t mean that the engineering field is in a downward trend,” he says. “I would argue the opposite, for sure in the electronics and software space, because the vision of ‘smart everything’ requires some very sophisticated capabilities, and it is changing the world!”
Connecting with like-minded IEEE members
De Geus joined IEEE because one of his EPFL professors encouraged him to do so, in part so that he could attend the organization’s conferences.
“I think the most intense interactions with IEEE have all been from various conferences,” he says. He began submitting papers to IEEE journals—which he says, “gives you great and sometimes humbling feedback.”
Eventually, he became more actively involved with the organization and has reviewed papers submitted to IEEE conferences. Reviewing is hard work, he says, because you have to “learn about the technology really fast” and within a tight deadline.
For 25 years, he has been a keynote speaker at IEEE conferences, sharing his expertise on electronic design automation and his vision for the semiconductor industry.
De Geus says what he values most about membership is connecting with like-minded people.
“That’s how all kinds of different ideas come out and fertilize each other,” he says. “IEEE is a fulcrum for that.”
He adds that he enjoys attending the awards ceremonies held during some conferences, as they invariably shine light on great excellence. De Geus himself was recognized in 2007, when he received the IEEE Robert N. Noyce Medal for his pioneering role in establishing EDA as a productive and efficient way of designing and producing ICs and circuit boards.
During the Moore’s Law era, one’s technical knowledge has had to be deep, de Geus says.
“You became really specialized in simulation or in designing a certain type of process,” he says. “In our field, we need people who are best in class. I like to call them six-Ph.D.-deep engineers. It’s not just schooling deep; it’s schooling and experientially deep. Now, with systemic complexity, we need to bring all these disciplines together; in other words we now need six-Ph.D.-wide engineers too.”
To obtain that type of experience, he recommends university students should get a sense of multiple subdisciplines and then “choose the one that appeals to you.”
“For those who have a clear sense of their own mission, it’s falling in love and finding your passion,” he says. But those who don’t know which field of engineering to pursue should “engage with people you think are fantastic, because they will teach you things such as perseverance, enthusiasm, passion, what excellence is, and make you feel the wonder of collaboration.” Such people, he says, can teach you to “enjoy work instead of just having a job. If work is also your greatest hobby, you’re a very different person.”
Climate change as an engineering problem
De Geus says engineers must take responsibility for more than the technology they create.
“I always liked to say that ‘he or she who has the brains to understand should have the heart to help.’” With the growing challenges the world faces, I now add that they should also have the courage to act,” he says. “What I mean is that we need to look and reach beyond our field, because the complexity of the world needs courageous management to not become the reason for its own destruction.”
He notes that many of today’s complexities are the result of fabulous engineering, but the “side effects—and I am talking about CO2, for example—have not been accounted for yet, and the engineering debt is now due.”
De Geus points to the climate crisis: “It is the single biggest challenge there is. It’s both an engineering and a social challenge. We need to figure out a way to not have to pay the whole debt. Therefore, we need to engineer rapid technical transitions while mitigating the negatives of the equation. Great engineering will be decisive in getting there.”
This article appears in the September 2023 print issue as “Aart de Geus Transformed IC Design.”
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Kathy Pretz is editor in chief for The Institute, which covers all aspects of IEEE, its members, and the technology they're involved in. She has a bachelor's degree in applied communication from Rider University, in Lawrenceville, N.J., and holds a master's degree in corporate and public communication from Monmouth University, in West Long Branch, N.J.