Presentation of the 1997 Phil Kaufman Award to James E. Solomon


James E. Solomon

Presented on November 12, 1997
A. Richard Newton

This is now the fourth year that I have had both the pleasure and the honor of being asked to present the EDAC Phil Kaufman Award. At each occasion, it has been a pleasure to try to piece together the various aspects of the very unusual individuals we honor and to try understand not only what they have provided to our industry as might be listed in the Who’s Who of EDA, but to attempt to touch the depth and breadth of their life-long contribution to us as people.

Many of you know Jim Solomon as the founder of SDA Systems, which evolved to become CADENCE Design Systems today. So tonight I’m going to emphasize a few aspects of this man and his career that are perhaps are less familiar to many of you.

Jim began his professional career with Motorola in Riverside as a system designer, after completing his MS at Berkeley under Don Pederson. Don tried hard to convince Jim to continue for a doctoral degree, but Jim insisted that industry was where he wanted to make his mark. He soon transferred to the semiconductor organization in Phoenix, working under the direction of Lester Hogan. In his seven years at Motorola, Jim was responsible for the development of analog integrated circuits and ultimately for the design of a solid-state television receiver. Why analog circuits? To quote Jim, “Several smart people said you couldn’t do it and so that got me intrigued,” which reflects an aspect of Jim that led him here tonight. He left Motorola for National Semiconductor because he believed “The wafer fab was better in Silicon Valley.” “Bob Widler and others were doing better than I was in analog but I felt it was only because they had access to a better manufacturing process.” That’s Jim—follow the challenge and follow the opportunity. In his time at National as a designer and design manager, Jim invented the biFET operational amplifier among other things, and wrote one of the cornerstone papers in analog design concerning the theory of how operational amplifiers worked. These contributions, and others, led to his admission to IEEE Fellow status at a time where such recognition was unusual for a designer.

As always, he recruited and retained a stellar team, moving from analog to digital signal processing, and to digital CODECs at a time when “leading industrial design groups said it couldn’t be done,”—but again Jim and his team did it. He eventually tackled speech recognition in the late 1970s and early 1980s which, he admits “was a little bit too soon.”

Jim was always looking for that new idea, that new piece of theory or practice he could apply and leverage in his own work. It was in the late 1960s when he discovered CAD — almost at its inception in the microelectronics business — and he never looked back. Not many people know that Jim’s first CAD company was actually called Micromodel Design — not SDA Systems — and licensed IP to designers back in the mid-1970s. Along the way, Jim had also invented the macromodel for analog circuit building blocks and, as a side-line to his work at National, he developed a library of analog IC models which were licensed to designers on the NCSS timesharing system for use with their ISPICE simulator. “I got paid a royalty based on how many seconds of CPU time my models were used by the ISPICE customers,” says Jim. “It made me enough money to pay the rent.” This activity continued as Jim adopted the TRS80 as his home development environment, developing his own text editor and other tools along the way.

But it was in the early 1980’s, with the combination of complex analog-digital converters and 16 and 32-bit microprocessors on a single chip, when Jim recognized that a new generation of design technology was absolutely critical to his work at National. At that time, he had already begun adapting a number of university tools and ideas for use within his group. For example, he was one of the first industrial users of our Berkeley KIC layout editor and associated tools, developed for the Unix environment, and Jim actually purchased a number of VAX 11/750’s to use the Berkeley tools on his designs. Joe Costello, then a member of the National speech group and working for Jim, recalls that “We used to give him a lot of grief about that. Here we were trying to design and delivers some of the most complex chips in our history and Jim insisted we used this raw university-developed code!” But, as usual, Jim persisted. “At that time we had a very serious competition from overseas and I was concerned that overseas companies seemed to be leveraging our universities and their research far better than we were,” Jim recalls.

In fact, Jim planned to try to develop “a CAD company within National” before leaving to found SDA Systems (now Cadence Design Systems) according to Joe Costello, but management eventually decided National could not afford it at the time. However, recognizing the importance of the technology to National, Charlie Sporck supported Jim when he left National to found SDA.

As a cofounder of SDA Systems, I could recount a hundred or more stories about Jim in those early days, but I promise not to! I will say, however, that it was after one of our Industrial Liaison programs when Jim approached me and said he agreed with the direction of our research and wanted to apply more of it in his own work. However, “When the program core dumps in the middle of a critical project and I eventually track down the location of your student, only to find he is up at Tahoe for a few days, it just doesn’t work for me,” he said. “How can we make this University-developed technology accessible to US companies, especially National, in a supported way?” he asked, and we agreed to work on finding a solution together.

After many meetings discussing strategy, the role of Unix, standard cells, new data structures, and frameworks, and many frustrating discussions with existing CAD companies and research organizations who just couldn’t seem to grasp the vision, Jim came to one of our meetings and announced, “I’m convinced the only way this will happen the way we want it to is if I do it.” Jim then proceeded to identify the best people in the world to help us and recruited all but one of them—a researcher in Europe who could not move to the US for personal reasons—to SDA. He negotiated and implemented the first technology partnership funding model in the electronics industry, and started development on the only Unix workstation at the time that supported a color display. To this day, whenever Jim begins a new venture, either as a start-up or within a company, his first and most important activity is people. “Who are the absolute best and brightest people in the world and how do we get them engaged?” could be one of his maxims. In the early days of SDA, much of the development of the physical design code was carried out by a subsidiary based in Canada—the best person, but unwilling to move to Silicon Valley!

Oh, I should mention that along the way, and with all of this going on, Jim was personally active in the development of our common electronic interchange data format (CIDF) project at Berkeley. He helped forge a partnership with TI, Motorola, HP and Tektronix who were also actively looking for such a standard at the time, and so was instrumental in the seeding of what soon evolved to become EDIF.

When SDA was well under way, Jim recognized the need for a different kind of leader at the helm. The company was bigger and moving into some uncharted territory. Some members of the Board wanted to take on a search and find a seasoned, senior candidate. But Jim had a different approach. It turns out that the young Joe Costello had left National to start his own company which, for various reasons, he decided not to pursue. Jim had later recruited him to SDA into a sales and marketing position and Jim decided he wanted Joe to take over SDA, taking his conviction to the Board. Jim won agreement, but in the process two Board members resigned! I think it is eminently clear, in hindsight, who was right.

“Jim could have reduced his role at SDA then,” recalls Joe Costello. “He had been very successful founding the first software-only EDA company. But he didn’t leave because he wanted to stay on to help me. He wanted to ensure my success and I will never forget how important that was to me.” Again, Jim jumping in to help the people he has empowered, those to whom he has given his trust.

Later, Jim started the Analog and Mixed Signal Division with Cadence—a startup within a startup—at a time when analog CAD was not considered an easy area in which to build a business. Probably because of his design background, he was by far the strongest advocate of ease-of-use and user interface issues within Cadence, although I think we would all agree this remains a largely unsolved problem for all EDA companies! He founded a state-of-the-art usability laboratory within Cadence. He was also a driving force behind the Cadence Windows NT push, not wanting to see Cadence fall behind in an important technology platform area.

Jim recently left his active role at Cadence and has applied himself in two other areas, founding Xulu entertainment and Smart Machines with his son. He recently gave me a tour of both companies and I must say if felt like the early days of SDA. Jim openly explaining the products, the challenges, and his vision. That infectious excitement of the true entrepreneur. Taking notes each time I asked a question or made a suggestion and, at the end of the meeting summarizing my list of follow-ups for him. It is always just great fun working with Jim!

So what are the common threads in this rich story of this man we are honoring tonight?

First and foremost, Jim is the distilled essence of a great engineer entrepreneur. He is always looking for new ideas and new challenges. Once he finds one that intrigues him he cannot let it go. He steps back, sets conventional wisdom aside, and starts from scratch, testing every hypothesis and every decision objectively. In this process, he routinely tests his ideas on others to find and cracks or inconsistencies until he has what he wants. When he’s convinced he is on to something, he seeks out the best and the brightest to help him—with an uncanny eye for talent at a very young age–and recruits them with an evangelical energy that carries people along with him. He empowers his people, plants the seed and lets them grow. Finally, and in true entrepreneurial style, he never lets go of the vision. Through thick and thin, good times and bad, Jim is dogged in his enthusiasm and promotion of the vision and of his people.

But I would especially like to emphasize the relationship Jim has had throughout his career with young people and the relationship he has had with higher education. As an industrialist, Jim has always had the greatest respect for our educational system and Universities in particular, always making it a point to visit regularly, chatting with faculty and students. He has been a mentor to many, from Joe Santos the designer to the young Joe Costello. He empowers young people, puts ego aside, and helps wherever he can. Achieving the vision together—changing the world–as a team, has always been his top priority.

Jim, on behalf of Mrs. Kaufman, EDAC, and all present here tonight, it is with great pleasure and distinct honor I present you with the fourth Phil Kaufman Award for your contributions to EDA and design throughout an impressive career that stands as a model and as an inspiration for the many generations of engineer-entrepreneurs to follow.