Thirty-three years after helping found what is now the largest EDA vendor, Aart de Geus still loves the constant evolution of the semiconductor industry.
Electrical engineers often arrive at the profession in part due to affecting experiences during their formative years. Aart de Geus, chairman and co-CEO of EDA market leader Synopsys, was impacted — quite literally — by electricity at a young age.
When he was 15, de Geus worked summers on a farm in the Netherlands. One day, he was on the bed of a truck, stacking bales of hay, when he found himself suddenly knocked to the ground. As he stood up, he could literally see electrostatic discharge. He realized that lightning had struck the truck or hit the ground very near it.
“I didn’t hear it all,” de Geus recounted in a recent interview with EE Times. “But I found myself falling on top of the truck — not off the truck, which was very lucky.”
De Geus realized that the truck’s rubber tires had likely saved his life. Even as a teenager, he had the wherewithal and enough physics knowledge to warn the others in his group not to touch the truck. He instructed the members of the team that he was working with to drop their metal tools against the side of the truck to discharge the static electricity from it.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
The near-miss was one of several fortuitous circumstances that shaped de Geus’s early life. To hear him tell it, many of the events that led to his education, early career, and the founding of Synopsys came about almost by happenstance. “I landed in electrical engineering, but I think mostly because math and physics came very easily to me in school. It’s amazing how unconscious the decision now seems.”
Take, for example, de Geus’s first day as a graduate student at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas. He had come to SMU after undergrad at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, mostly to get away from Europe and because he wasn’t sure yet what he wanted to do. Walking into the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, de Geus struck up a brief conversation with the new head of the department.
The new department head’s name was Ron Rohrer. De Geus would find out later that not only is Rohrer considered the father of the SPICE simulation program at Berkeley; he also learned later that after that initial encounter, Rohrer replaced the name of de Geus’s original academic advisor at SMU with his own.
Through Rohrer, “mostly without realizing it,” de Geus ended up being introduced to many of the pioneers in the field of EDA. “That set a level of aspiration that I would never have found on my own.”
The birth of synthesis
A few years later, Rohrer went to work for General Electric (GE). When it came time for de Geus to do his dissertation, Rohrer invited him over for a few days. He ended up staying a few months. “It was a true mentorship,” de Geus said.
In the process, de Geus got hired by GE. He joined GE’s Microelectronics Center which, in the mid-1980s, was relatively new. De Geus built an EDA team at GE that invented its own version of synthesis to replace a very manual design process. Using the new tool, GE could do in minutes or hours design work that previously would have taken weeks — and with better results. “It completely changed the very notion of digital design,” he said.
Not long afterward, in 1986, GE decided to close the Microelectronics Center and get out of the semiconductor business altogether. Eventually, de Geus and his colleagues managed to convince GE to invest the synthesis technology as well as $400,000 into a new company that would turn out to be Synopsys.
“I’m very happy to say that five-and-a-half years later, after we went public, along with the thank you note I sent the vice chairman was also a $23 million return for them,” he said.
Twenty-seven years after its 1992 IPO, Synopsys, the world’s leading EDA vendor and second leading supplier of design IP, has a market capitalization of more than $20 billion.
While he will go down in history as the original founding CEO of Synopsys, de Geus is quick to point out that he shares the credit for the company’s success with many people, a number of whom have been with Synopsys for more than 30 years. “Success of an endeavor like this is always the result of many people — and, in our case, some extraordinary people. To put it in very straightforward terms, without those people, Synopsys wouldn’t exist. It’s that simple. The emphasis on the founding CEO is too high for the reality.”
Today, de Geus stands among the most respected leaders in the semiconductor industry. Over the years, he has piled up the accolades, including the IEEE Robert N. Noyce Medal, the GSA Morris Chang Exemplary Leadership Award, the Silicon Valley Engineering Council Hall of Fame Award, and the SVLG Lifetime Achievement Award. He is occasionally mentioned in electronics circles as a potential governor of California — talk which he has repeatedly dismissed.
Job sharing in the corner suite
De Geus may well be the most important CEO in the history of EDA, but today, it may be a matter of debate whether he’s even the best CEO in his own company. Synopsys raised a few eyebrows back in 2012 when the company elevated Chi-Foon Chan — the company’s longtime chief operating officer — to the position of president and co-CEO along with de Geus. At the time, a number of observers noted that not many executives of de Geus’s stature would agree to sharing the corner office. But he took it in stride. “For starters, long before that date, Chi-Foon and I had been close partners in working together, thinking things through, and so on. He is an exceptional person in pretty much every dimension I can think of — [he is] unbelievably smart [and] has a positive attitude that, in many ways, has saved me from all the challenges that come on a daily basis.”
The partnership, de Geus said, has ultimately made Synopsys a stronger company. As co-CEOs, he and Chan complement each other. “From the first minute I met Chi-Foon — which is now literally almost 30 years ago — I had that feeling about him. When we disagree, my first reaction is always that he sees something I’m not seeing.”
De Geus considers the semiconductor business a team sport and that great ideas emerge from great teams of people as opposed to individuals. “If you look at a great basketball team, most of the time, you don’t know where the ball is. It’s between people.”
Growing beyond EDA
In recent years, Synopsys has broadened its business model in search of continued growth, branching out into the software integrity and security space through several acquisitions — much to the surprise of many in the semiconductor industry. While the fields of EDA and software integrity are both software-centric, they are also distinct and generally far apart within customer organizations, with little apparent technology overlap.
As far back as 2005, de Geus said that he was noticing that the number of software engineers within semiconductor companies was beginning to cross the 50% threshold. Semiconductor company management didn’t like it because they viewed it as a cost center that didn’t generate any additional revenue.
“I think they misdiagnosed themselves,” he said. “They were selling functionality that happens to be wrapped in silicon, but functionality was as much the software as the hardware.”
Shortly thereafter, with the gradual economic slowing of Moore’s Law, more emphasis was being placed on software as opposed to hardware because getting advances from software was becoming more cost-effective.
“I concluded that, therefore, the intersection of hardware and software was gradually going to shift up and that the same issues that hardware had with the growing of systemic complexity were going to plague software,” de Geus said. “Therefore, [software] needed more attention from a quality point of view and then shortly thereafter from a security point of view.”
At the same time that Synopsys began moving aggressively into the software integrity space, beginning with the acquisition of Coverity in 2014, the company also began to invest aggressively in the prototyping space to provide customers with the ability to run software on hardware that didn’t actually exist through simulation, emulation, and FPGA boards.
The move has paid dividends. Earlier this year, revenue from the software integrity business accounted for more than 10% of Synopsys’s quarterly sales for the first time. Also this year, the company introduced its Polaris platform, which brings all of its software integrity products and services together into an integrated solution.
On the side
When he’s not at the helm of a Fortune 1,000 company, de Geus can often be found at his other job — as the guitarist for Legally Blue, a blues band that plays about 10 to 12 gigs per year in Silicon Valley.
For de Geus, who rediscovered his love of music some years ago, the band is an oasis in the otherwise busy life of a CEO. When he’s not traveling on business, he makes it a point of getting together with his bandmates for rehearsal once a week. He considers it the one slice of time that he won’t give up. “Being in a band has many of the same attributes as really good executive or R&D teams. The best moments are when somebody does something that’s really good and you notice how everyone notices and someone picks up on that, and then others do. And that’s when the creativity really happens.”
This is an installment in a series of EE Times articles that profile the CEOs and other top executives who lead many of the semiconductor industry’s most important companies. These stories will focus on what makes the leaders of the industry tick and what initially drew them to electronics.