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Hogan Fireside Chat with Paul Cunningham at ESDA

Hogan Fireside Chat with Paul Cunningham at ESDA
by Bernard Murphy on 04-17-2019 at 7:00 am

If you’re in verification and you don’t know who Paul Cunningham is, this is a guy you need to have on your radar. Paul has risen through the Cadence ranks fast, first in synthesis and now running the verification group, responsible for about a third of Cadence revenue and a hefty percentage of verification tooling in the semiconductor industry. Since he was honored as one of the outstanding innovators under 40 at DAC 2017, you should realize he really is on the fast track and is likely to significantly influence how you will be verifying in the future. The ESD Alliance hosted an event recently at which Jim Hogan interviewed Paul, to help us learn more about this rising star and his entrepreneurial journey.

Paul is a fellow Brit/ex-Brit; there are a lot of us around (at least 5 at the ESDA meeting). He took his first degree (CS) at Cambridge, also rowed for the university, then stayed at Cambridge to get his Ph.D. in formal verification of asynchronous circuits. He was quite open about his journey of discovery in async circuits, saying he originally drank the Kool-Aid, believed this design style would conquer the world and decided he wanted to start a company to build compilers for self-timed chips.

Together with a co-founder, they started Azuro in Cambridge, raising ~$100k. Talking to prospects, they got a quick reality check between what is academically interesting and what can make serious money. They found that prospects weren’t interested in self-timed circuits but were very interested in better clock gating and useful skew. Paul/Azuro reworked their PowerPoint to reflect this reality and started doing deals with well-known companies. That woke up the big VCs; ultimately Benchmark Capital, who have a branch in London, put in $4M. Benchmark required, unsurprisingly, that Azuro move their HQ to the Bay Area (though there’s still an R&D operation in Cambridge, now driving clocks for Cadence).

Jim asked Paul what he learned from being a CEO. Pay attention here, would-be CEOs. He said that intense customer focus and agility to meet customer needs are primary. At the same time there’s a need for balance and a broad set of skills. No-one, not even a CEO has everything it takes, so it’s important build a strong team, to fill gaps in expertise and ensure priorities are balanced. One of the gaps was marketing. In the early stages some wins were self-marketing; new prospects called them. Azuro got to escape velocity but generally you can’t assume technology alone will get you there. If he was going to do it over again, he’d be a lot more vocal, even shameless, not try to over-optimize the pitch, pump up the volume and ensure that everyone knew the name. Jim added that now social media has to be a part of the strategy.

Charlie Huang, back then running strategy in Cadence, called Paul in 2010-2011. At that time, smartphones were really taking off and the ARM A9 had caught the wave. ARM were using aggressive clock gating and useful skew, giving them a 10% advantage in PPA. That’s massive in this business; Charlie (whose background was in timing) wanted it to be exclusive to Cadence. Paul had no ambitions to take Azuro public and Charlie saw the opportunity to have a powerful differentiator and grow market share. They just had to do the deal.

Again, for would-be CEOs, if you’re lucky enough to get there, this is one of the most painful stages in a startup; Paul said the due-diligence process was brutal. For several weeks they were gathering/assembling legal and financial docs (NDAs, patents, patent searches, customer contracts, audits, …), a very stressful, sleep-deprived time when the technologists are in a holding pattern while the lawyers and accountants do their thing. Even after that part is done, the transition from a small, tightly-knit startup group to being one group among many in a large enterprise, this also is traumatic. But Paul never regretted it, or the immense leverage it has enabled for the technology and for him personally.

At Cadence, Paul applied the Azuro technology to clock tree synthesis, then quickly took on a broader portfolio managing the digital back-end products. Logic synthesis, these days tightly coupled to implementation, is a solid pier in Cadence’s pretty clearly dominant implementation solution.

Not bad, but Paul wanted more. He saw one of the IBS charts at a kickoff event, the chart that shows growing investment in various phases of design. What stands out for everyone is that system and software verification dominate everything else. In his view if he wanted to make a real dent that was where he had to focus. Anirudh asked him about 15 months ago to run verification; Paul said this wasn’t a hard decision.

He believes the opportunity is boundless if Cadence can deliver new and compelling approaches. This starts with what I find to be a differentiated top-line goal – throughput. By this he means bugs found per dollar per day. He’s very single-minded about this goal; objective by objective, he asks does this move the throughput needle or not? I consider this goal to be an important new direction. When I look at verification pitches over the last 10+ years, it can be difficult to isolate a unifying metric or philosophy other than run faster! ease of use! more features! Laudable goals of course, but how do specific advances affect customer success and profitability? Implementation flows and teams don’t have this problem – they’re always optimizing for PPA. There’s no confusion about the right metric. Verification needs the same singular objective. That’s what I see in this direction.

Of course execution has to be broken down into sub-goals. For Paul this starts with the underlying bare-metal verification hardware – today x86 (Intel/AMD) and ARM based servers for simulation, then emulation and FPGA prototyping. He sees hardware platforms as a variable; they will continue to evolve. Above the bare metal, he sees a heterogenous compute layer, a hybrid mix of platforms to optimize throughput versus accuracy and bug-finding visibility. On top of that, smart analysis – isolating bugs faster and more intelligently in the always exponentially huge state-space.

Jim asked about compliance, safety and security. Paul likes Simon Segars’ (ARM) view, that all of us in the ecosystem enabling and building these transformational products have a responsibility to ensure these solutions are safe and secure. Verification has a big part to play in this, but for Paul this must be guided by the Lip-Bu/Anirudh philosophy of having the right to win. If you don’t have proven domain expertise, you need to work with people who do, which is why he’s so excited about the partnership with Green Hills, a company with proven leadership in automotive and in high-level security solutions.

For me this was a wake-up discussion, the first time in quite a while that I’ve seen someone who’s going to re-engineer the verification tooling business and move it onto a new level. I’m looking forward to hearing more.