In the latest instalment of our Future of Work Interview Series, Barry Winkless, CSO of Cpl & Head of the Future of Work Institute, spoke with Steven Hollands, Software Engineering Group & Site Director at Cadence about his career journey to date, and the teams that will be designing the systems of the future at the new R&D Centre of Excellence.
Cadence is a fascinating company that works with some of the biggest organisations around the world. Can you tell us a little bit about Cadence and the work you do?
First and foremost, we are a computational software company. We are developing software applications, systems, and support mechanisms for computationally challenging problems that we see in the typical design flow space that we are engaged in with customers. When we are engaged like that, we find that the computational challenge can become intractable with regular techniques.
When we are developing our applications and our software, we need to come up with new and innovative mechanisms, algorithms, applications, tools, methodologies, and approaches to problems that previously just did not exist. That ranges from low-level chip design to the system development space.
You talk a lot about intelligent system design, and I know that is a big focus right now. Can you tell us a bit more about this space?
The heart of EDA (Electronic Design Automation) is engineering tools that solve problems within a given part of the design flow. That ranges from front-end verification to digital back end. When we are in that space, and when we bring those pieces together, what we get is an emergent property that is greater than the sum of its parts. There are additional things that we can do, because of the connectedness of the tools themselves.
The intelligent system design is a push towards the integration of greater sophistication and intelligence in the tools. What that means is that we are building artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques into our tools, as well as joining those together.
If you take any piece of silicon that you have in your life today, whether that is from your smartphone, your TV, or your car. There are hundreds of thousands of different devices out there. And our intelligent system design mechanism is enabling the development of those systems.
We are not developing them; we are providing the mechanisms to enable our customers to develop the intelligent system portion. Our intelligence system design methodology is the application of our tools, algorithms, expertise, and artificial intelligence, machine learning to enable that to take place.
What is your career journey to date both before and within Cadence?
I started studying in the electrical engineering space, but I found that I was much more drawn to ASIC engineering, so I went on to study computer science. I found that when you join the two together, you can do cool things.
Initially, I was involved in aerospace and I worked with Cadence not as an employee but through another company. At the time, we were deploying what is now commonplace technology, but at the time it was very cutting edge.
We were building hardware systems using traditional techniques, and there was not a lot of EDA tooling in the flow. I was working on what is known as a full authority digital engine control, which is the controller that you would see a lot on the RB 211 engine as part of the 747 aircraft.
That control system required, what is known as full hardware in the loop simulation, which required everything that we had, all the horsepower computationally, all the software we could write, all the tools we could buy plus an engine emulator itself. So, we put all of those together. I worked with Cadence very, very closely during that time to build that mechanism.
From that point, I developed a very keen interest in developing EDA tools, so I moved into Cadence for the first time in the late 90s. I have spent the last 20 years developing application tooling, in a variety of spaces, but most specifically focused on the back end of chip design. This is the part after synthesis, the physical implementation, which is generally termed digital sign-off.
I'm now in the Digital Systems Group and we have this Centre of Excellence in Cork that we're setting up. This will form a large part of the strategy for all those tooling areas that I’ve worked on over the last 25 years.
We talk about meaningful work being an important driver as to why people join organisations and ultimately why people stay. What is meaningful about the kind of projects you and your team get to work on in Cadence? What’s the good and bad of working on such leading-edge design?
On the positive side, we see big trends early. When we're working with leading customers, we might see that customer A has a problem that we want to solve so, we engage with them. We understand what the problem is, and we iterate and communicate with customer A on how to solve that problem.
We might see the same problem with customer B. And then we say well if we're in this particular problem space, doesn't it make sense to do something that's more broadly applicable and take a more holistic approach? Because typically, as a customer, whether that is Intel or Samsung, they all have a very specific set of requirements when they're developing silicon.
This is the negative part of it, we'll always see the big picture and what we should develop to address the industry challenge. But, when we put forward one solution, it might be that it doesn't suit, two or three of the other companies that we’re trying to satisfy so we need to allow for different conditions which is where the complexity arises.
But the great thing is when you go to a customer, and they say, “we have this problem” and we say, “we've seen this a couple of times, and here are some of the approaches that we think could work.” You then present your findings with their thinking and join that all together into one idea. This is a big hitter item that will grow the market.
What are the two or three things you’ve learned about leading problem-solving teams?
The business starts and ends with the customer. However, in our operation, the most important thing we have is our people. The people are absolutely everything in terms of their skills and what they can bring to the organisation and the customer.
Then right at the heart of that is communication. Quite often people say to me, what technical skills should I be looking for, and while technical skills are extremely important, communication is still the most powerful. If we cannot communicate, then we cannot collaborate.
We can only innovate at an individual level which is not as powerful as innovation at a team level or a corporate level, particularly when we have complex projects that have interdependency between them.
If we have extremely complicated technology in a particular area, and nobody else in the team can communicate it, well how can we maintain that technology's value over time? It can be problematic if there is too big a focus on deep skills in particular areas over the ability to communicate effectively.
Can you tell us about the new R&D Centre of Excellence in Cork and what the focus will be there? Who are you currently hiring?
We have big plans for Cadence in Cork and are currently in phase one of our build. We have a lovely new office at Penrose Dock that is state-of-the-art.
Primarily our focus will be on technology development, operational support, and customer services. From a pure R&D perspective, we are doing application software development in the digital space. We also have a division in the mixed-signal IC component, so this is where you are developing integrated blocks of analog type circuitry into the digital space as well. This very successful product range is going to be developed out of Cork.
We also have a very important group, which is known as World Field Operations which works directly with customers and looks at how products are working operationally on the ground.
They also help to evolve the products and bring them up to speed for new standards. For example, in this world of autonomous driving, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, we want to make sure that whatever silicon gets produced or manipulated out of our tools, there are mechanisms such that if they're utilised in safety-critical applications, that we have some graceful failure mode.
There are many job opportunities in this melting pot that will continue to evolve. What I've just described is our kick-off in terms of the technical work and engineering opportunities available. What we hope to do is to bring in some new technology fields, which are extremely connected to the academic side of things.
We're working to establish academic connections, particularly around the Cork area with Tyndall Institute, University College Cork, as well as universities abroad. We want to leverage those relationships and build out some new technologies from the centre.
Cadence Ireland is currently hiring for many exciting tech roles including software engineers, validation engineers, and application engineers at their new R&D Centre of Excellence. If you are interested in a tech career with Cadence, click here to learn more