Back in the Napoleonic era it was possible to manage a battle with very ad hoc methods. Sit on a horse on top of the highest hill and watch the battle unfold, send messengers out with instructions. By the First World War, never mind the second, that approach was hopelessly outdated and a much more structured way of managing a battle was required. Chip design is a bit like that. Until recently, people could manage a design using ad hoc methods like Excel but now the Napoleonic era is over and a much more structured and disciplined approach is required. Otherwise all designs are like the famous aphorism: it takes 90% of the time to do the first 90% of the design, and the other 90% of the time to do the last 10%.
You see this all the time. Everyday, chip tapeouts slip their schedule and managers wonder why they didn’t see the issues sooner. Engineers grapple with communicating and resolving issues and even understanding the real status themselves. Closure is always a few days away, “real soon now.”
Many companies realize that this is an issue and have invested a few people in building some sort of system to allow them to keep track of where their design is. But it turns out that doing this on the cheap without a good underlying infrastructure is harder and more expensive than it looks.
One company I’m on the board of (actually the only one) is Tuscany Design Automation and they have created a product, Pinpoint to address this problem. It focuses on providing teams with hard information that they need to get the design closed and taped-out sooner. It generates actionable information to engineers and managers by extracting critical metrics from existing tools at each step of the flow. It is “design literate” able to read physical design, netlist and timing files directly rather than trying to naively parse reports. Everything is based around a central project server accessed through a browser, enabling collaboration and communication among team members.
Improving overall team performance without adding team members (and so money) is one of the best actions that a manager can make. And a good way to do that is to eliminate existing inadequate mechanisms for communication (such as everyone extracting design data and manually adding it to a wiki). Some companies find they have several hours of meetings every day to try and get to grips with where things stand and update assignments. In such an environment the team efficiency goes way down. Pinpoint directly goes into the data and makes the issues visible. It even provides functionality for status reporting using objective data and not subjective “95% done” updates.
As Ralph Portillo of Netlogic (now part of Broadcom) said: “I don’t want to say I can’t live without Pinpoint but I can’t live without Pinpoint.”
The Pinpoint information page is here.