Aart de Geus: At the Heart of High-Tech

The IEEE Fellow turned a start-up into a billion-dollar business

7 February 2008

Turning a start-up into a billion-dollar business is no easy feat, but keeping it going for 22 years is an even greater challenge. Just ask Aart de Geus, cofounder, chairman, and chief executive officer of Synopsys, a company in Mountain View, Calif., that offers software and intellectual property for semiconductor design and manufacturing. He and five engineers founded Synopsys in 1986; today it does US $2 billion annually and has approximately 5200 employees. Like a parent, he’s shepherded his offspring from infancy to adulthood—from being a start-up, to being publicly traded, to being the industry leader.

But de Geus is not just concerned with running his company. He’s also a well-known philanthropist active in the local community. In November, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group presented him with its Spirit of Silicon Valley Lifetime Achievement Award. The group, which comprises company executives and other local leaders, works with the government and the community to address public policy issues that affect the economic health and quality of life in Silicon Valley.

De Geus was recognized for his exemplary citizenship in ethics, business excellence, and community involvement. He is involved with organizations such as the Second Harvest Food Bank and the Synopsys Silicon Valley Science & Technology Outreach Foundation, which supports preuniversity teachers and students engaged in math and science learning projects in several schools near Synopsys’s regional offices.

STEPS TO SUCCESS De Geus was born in the Netherlands and grew up in Switzerland. He earned a master’s of science in electrical engineering from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Lausanne. He came to the United States in 1979 and earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Southern Methodist University, in Dallas. His first IEEE volunteer position was as a student member selecting papers to be presented at an IEEE Design Automation Conference.

“I was suddenly in the middle of the IEEE’s very global system that attempted to find excellence in writing in a short time,” he says of that experience.

He joined General Electric Co., in Research Triangle Park, N.C., in 1982 where, as manager of the advanced computer-aided engineering group, he worked on design tools that improved the efficiency of logic used with multiplexers. These are very efficient, but difficult to use CMOS gates. To efficiently use multiplexers in gate arrays, de Geus and his team automated the design, and in the process developed what still today is the most widely used logic synthesis program in the world: Design Compiler. When GE exited the semiconductor business, de Geus decided it was time to leave the company and start his own.

ON HIS OWN He and five former GE colleagues launched Synopsys in 1986 to develop computer-aided-design tools for integrated circuits. Today, the company also is involved with IC manufacturing, semiconductor design services, and system-to-silicon verification, and it has more than 60 offices in Asia, Europe, Japan, and North America. For his contributions to and leadership in the technology and business development of electronic design automation tools for designing and producing ICs, de Geus received the 2007 IEEE Robert N. Noyce Medal. He also was elected an IEEE Fellow in 1999.

The secrets of his success involve working with great people and having a passion for the next big breakthrough, or what de Geus calls “version n + 1.”

“Everything starts with people—the quality of a team, its ability to adapt quickly to circumstances while at the same time having a long-term vision,” he says. “Synopsys is sitting at the heart of the heart of high-tech. What we do makes it possible for designers to create very complex chips.”

That’s because virtually every chip-design company in the world uses Synopsys’s software to design its chips.

“These chips have built the hardware platform that enabled the entire software world, which in turn enabled the Web," de Geus says. "It’s been a succession of n + 1 and n + 2 versions. We do the next big thing every six months to enable the next visible big thing to happen.”

ALWAYS LEARNING De Geus manages to keep his company at the leading edge by using the same skill he had 22 years ago when it was a startup: learning.

“I want to learn quickly but not by myself,” he says. “For a company to grow, it’s as much about team learning as CEO learning.”

But de Geus has changed with the times. Today he knows he can no longer be a technologist running a business, but must be a businessperson running a technology company, he says.

“We’ve arrived at what I call the ‘techonomics’ stage,” he continues. “Technology change and economic change now interact to such an extent that the challenge for Synopsys is to be a leader in the techonomics age. That’s a fun challenge.”

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