The Design Automation Conference (DAC) has been a major driving force behind the commercial EDA industry for several decades. It is thus fitting that Pat Pistilli, DAC founder and chairman of MP Associates, is the winner of this year's Phil Kaufman award, the highest honor in EDA. The award is presented yearly by the EDA Consortium and the IEEE Council on EDA (CEDA).
In this interview, Pistilli talks about his experiences with CAD tools in the early 1960s, the first DAC (then called SHARE - Society to Help Avoid Redundant Effort) in 1964, the growth and influence of DAC, and the state of DAC and the EDA industry today. Pistilli will receive the Phil Kaufman award at an EDA Consortium dinner Oct. 12 in San Jose, Calif.
Q: Congratulations, Pat! What was your reaction to winning the Kaufman award?
A: It was very much of a surprise. We got the call when I was driving, and I was shocked. Since then I've gotten a lot of congratulation emails from people, some of whom wrote, "it's about time."
Q: You had some early experiences with CAD tools at Bell Labs. How did that happen?
A: I started in 1955 with Bell Labs on telephone work, and then transferred to New Jersey to work on military projects in 1959. The first electronic CAD system was used for the Nike EX, or Safeguard, missile system. We had a very complex design. Transposing the electrical logic diagrams with the physical design was a monumental task. Then we had the trouble of wire-wrapping it with all kinds of wiring rules. It was taking anywhere from 4-6 months from the time the logic diagram was turned over to get it wired so the engineers could start testing it.
A PhD mathematician designed the CAD system at our computer center - this was in 1959. They gave it to me to try it for the first time, and I wrote a bad review. Because of that I was called in. They said, "since you know so much we're going to transfer you to work with these people and get it right." I moved back to Murray Hill and there were three people working on it.
First we changed the name to Blades, Bell Labs Automatic Design System. We got it to be user-friendly and came up with an input language that was part Boolean algebra and part topological equations. Blades had the first concept of partitioning for getting different placements. The computer we used was the [IBM] 704, which was a vacuum tube machine with core memory.
Q: So you were working on CAD development in the early 1960s. What was the response at Bell Labs?
A: The engineers thought we were trying to take their identity away from them. Manufacturing people thought we were trying to replace them. Upper management wasn't crazy about it, believe it or not. Basically I had to be the salesman and market the thing.
Q: How and why did SHARE get started?
A: In 1963 I ran into a fellow at a 704 users group meeting and we got to talking. I put up a notice for a design automation discussion, and 6 people came to the meeting. We thought it would be great if we could have a conference and bring people together. So we started putting together the first conference in 1963, and Marie [Pistilli] and I put up $1,000 from our savings account to feed the conference.
At the first conference , we were in Atlantic City. There were 132 attendees and 31 papers, about half of which were electronic CAD. I talked to people at MIT who were working on Sketchpad, the first interactive graphics program. I got them to give the paper and that was the paper of the year.
In the second year we had 200. In the third year, in New Orleans, we had over 600. By the third year, [PCB] layouts were starting, and people were using plotters to put out logic diagrams. From there we kept growing.
Q: How did the SHARE workshop turn into today's Design Automation Conference?
A: In the fifth year we got sponsorship from the IEEE and the ACM. Until then the conference was seeded by itself - we'd make a profit to use on the next conference. With the IEEE we had credibility with a technical program, and the papers presented ran in IEEE journals and PhD students could get credit.
Q: How did the exhibits start?
A: At the 20th DAC  we were going to be in Miami, and we decided to bring in vendors for the first time. I think there were 13, including Calma and Daisy. The next year, we went to the convention center in Albuquerque, and we had more room, so we increased the size of the conference.
Q: When did you leave Bell Labs and start MP Associates?
A: That was in 1985. I couldn't leave Bell Labs without giving 6 months notice, so for the first 6 months I worked at night. Marie handled the exhibits and we built that into a monster. I handled logistics and papers.
We really got into it. My original theory was that, since I was a volunteer for 20 years I'd be able to work for the company half time and play golf half time. That didn't work out.
Q: What are you proudest of in the development of DAC?
A: To be honest I'm very proud of the technical program. I'm also proud of the way Marie handled exhibits. We came up with the concept of putting suites on the floor. Before that everybody used to go to hotels and go away for a day. We moved suites to be part of the booths, and to the best of my knowledge we're the only conference that does something like that.
Q: You and Marie retired from MP Associates in 2000. Who runs DAC today?
A: The staff at MP Associates. Marie and I are co-owners of MP Associates and are co-chairs of the board.
Q: What's your view of DAC today?
A: We've had a drop in our attendance because of the economy. Companies are having problems. We had the same thing in the 1970s and 1980s, but we've never had anything like I see now. This is the worst I've seen.
Q: With all the on-line activity today, is there still a need for physical conferences?
A: After DAC is over, you can get all the papers on line. What you lose on line is the most important thing about DAC - networking with other people in the industry. There's nothing like a hands-on look at actual products and demos.
Q: What's your view of the commercial EDA industry today?
A: Very little new stuff has come out over the past 3-4 years. Companies are not putting as much into R&D as they were before. They're sticking with products they already have and selling those products. The most important thing is that our economy has to turn around. But we also have to put a little more money into R&D.
At one time we were able to design chips that we didn't have the ability to manufacture. Now manufacturing is ahead of what we can design. We need tools to design at the same level. I don't think we have that. The EDA industry needs to come up with something new and exciting.
Photo by J.L. Gray