Characterization – Altos Design Automation

Introduction

Altos Design Automation is a startup that provides ultra-fast, fully-automated characterization technology for the creation of library views for timing, signal integrity and power analysis and optimization.  The San Jose company has two products, Liberate and Variety.  Liberate is a standard cell and I/O library creator. It generates electrical cell views for timing, power and signal integrity including current source models (CCS, CCSN and ECSM).    Variety is an ultra-fast standard cell characterizer of process variation aware timing models. It generates libraries that can be used with multiple statistical timing analyzers without requiring re-characterization for each unique format.

I recently had an opportunity to talk with Jim McCanny, CEO and co-founder.

Would you provide us with a brief biography?
I have been in EDA for my entire career.  I started my professional life as an EDA developer at Texas Instruments, working in the Bedford, UK facility back in 1980.  I spent 10 years developing all sorts of internal tools: logic simulation, timing analyzers, Pcell editors, testability analyzer.  You name it and I probably put my fingers on it.  After about 10 years I left there.  I got an opportunity to move out here to the Valley and join a startup called EPIC Design.  I came out here in 1990 and was at EPIC through its IPO.  I stayed at EPIC for 6 years.  At EPIC I started out working as their engineering manger.  Then I kind of segwayed into being a developer on their transistor level timing tool, PathMill.  From there I ended up working for the field organization on major accounts.  That came about because as we tried pushing PathMill we found that the tool was very much aligned with major accounts, firms like Intel, AMD and TI.  I spent a lot of my time working with these people.  The situation became such that I had to spend my time either with the accounts or spend my time with the code.  I decided to try something new.  I moved to the dark side as they say and have been there ever since.  After EPIC I went to Ultima.  I joined their marketing department.  After being at Ultima for about a month  the CEO left and I was given the job of acting president of the company and also running marketing.  I did that for about 18 months.  Then I teamed up again with some of my old EPIC colleagues at CadMOS.  At CadMOS I was VP of Marketing.  About 3 years later Cadence acquired us.  I spent 4 years at Cadence as Marketing Director for Timing and Signal Integrity.  Then some of the CadMOS team left to start up Altos.  Six months later they contacted me and said that they would like me to come on board as CEO.  They were great guys.  I knew them from a personal working relationship.  I was positive that they had the technical skills to do something distinctive.  Further the area they were working on was a problem that was not getting much attention from the big players.  It looked like a great opportunity, so here I am.  I have been at Altos since July 2005.

You said that you went over to the dark side. Which side was more interesting, more challenging, more satisfying?
They both have equal amounts of interesting stuff.  Having spent so many years on the technical side, it was interesting to try something new but still be able to leverage what I had learned on the technical side.  On the technical side you tend to be point focused on one customer, one user.  You can add a feature or make a change that helps one user and it is satisfying that that you are having an impact.  But when you go into marketing, you can make pretty broad strokes that have impact across a whole market.  That was new, exciting and very fulfilling, especially at a small company like CadMOS where we had to evangelize signal integrity, which was a new issue.  People would rather ignore some of these issues that are coming along.  You get some resistance.  Not only did we build a successful company we transformed the digital design flow.  They had to have signal integrity as part of the flow.  We had a lot of influence on how signal integrity was measured and how it could be dealt with in the design flow.

The marketing side appeals to sort of the broad strokes.  Occasionally you miss the one-on-one connection with the end user, particularly when you get to Cadence and you know you would be doing things on a broad scale.  But when you make contact with a customer, you never got to see them through an entire project.  At EPIC we were working a lot with Intel and AMD, going down and spending a couple of days a week, working onsite with these guys, seeing their issues and the progress they were making on their big microprocessors.  That was very satisfying too.  I like both.  The good thing about being in a small startup is that you stay close to the technology without having to spend all the evenings and hours writing code.  Once you start writing code, it sort of drags you down.  You have to spend so much time thinking about it.  It can become very isolating after some time.  So I think the dark side has its benefits in the sense that it is a little more social and you get to interact with more people.

Large firms often acquire smaller firms for their technology.  This gives the founders and the investors an opportunity to cash in.  However, it would appear that a lot of employees eventually drift away from the larger employers because of the difference in environments.
Yes.  I think the big companies are nice in terms of the security and the hours are a better (not a lot but a little better).  There are some more benefits but everybody likes to feel useful.  At times at a big company like Cadence, you may work with a customer and then the sales guy will do an all-you-can-eat deal.  You have no idea whether the little piece you worked on was important or not.  You can’t relate what you do to the bottom line.  In small companies everybody is involved.  Everyone gets to experience the highs and lows.  They understand what they do really matters.  Once you have had that kind of excitement, that drug, it is hard to give it up.  You can wear yourself out in a startup and then go spend a few years in a big company, make some good contacts and find your feet again.  Then you just feel like it is time to do something new again, to get out there.  At least that was it for me.   I felt that Cadence was very good to me.  I had no complaints.  They had great people there.  There were interesting things to work on but I missed the excitement of being at a smaller company, really interacting with the customers and the developers, and working with a very focused team.   The reason EDA has so many startups is not only the potential to get acquired.   You can grow the company to a large size and make good money.   It is very exhilarating to solve real problems for customers and work very closely with the technical team.   You feel like you are changing the world a little bit.

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Review Article
  • Yet another doomed to fail March 05, 2007
    Reviewed by 'M&M'
    This time Jim jumped into something with a very tiny market ($20M). Several people have tried walking that path before- burnt the money and closed/got acquired. GOOD LUCK.

      9 of 9 found this review helpful.
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