2010 Kaufman Award Winner ...

Pat Pistilli: Strength & Honor

by Peggy Aycinena

For 47 years, “DAC is everything” has been a way of life for Pat Pistilli. For at least one evening in October, however, DAC was more than just “everything”. It was also family, champagne, memories, strength, honor, a job well done, and – by the way – the 2010 Phil Kaufman Award, presented this year to Pat Pistilli – and of course, by inference, to his bride of 57 years, Marie Pistilli – for the 1964 founding of the Design Automation Conference, and 40+ years of inspired leadership of that legendary go-to place for all things EDA.

Pat Pistilli

I spoke by phone with Pat in early October, 2 weeks before the Award Dinner in Silicon Valley. It was not our first conversation over the years, but it was certainly the first framed by the Kaufman Award. It was also one of the finest conversations I've ever enjoyed in my years covering EDA. [Photo by JL Gray.]

First, I wanted to know what Pat would say during his acceptance speech at the EDAC/CEDA-sponsored Kaufman Dinner on October 12th. Pat was working on that exact issue: “Just before you called, I was looking at the talk I gave at the very first DAC. I'll probably start with that,” Pat said.

“In that talk, I attempted to cover all of what had been accomplished to date in design automation, to look at what point we had reached in the journey to man-machine systems. I said, in the electronics industry we were approaching a workable automation. In logic circuity, we had used a computer for wire routing, testing and automatic manufacturing, and increased the efficiency. At best, however, a design automation system was still only a partial system.

“I said we needed to ask about the problems of automating the initial design itself. What has been done, I asked, using the computer to automate the specifications themselves? At that first DAC, I said it was time for all of us to share our problems, our needs, our plans, and our aspirations. And that was how I felt about things in 1964.

“Most of it didn't come along until later in the 60s, however, because up to that point design automation was all about defined parameters and solving specific problems. At Bell Labs, for instance [where Pat worked for over 29 years, we were designing an anti-missile system with well-defined parameters. From 1960 to '63, IBM was also working on a specific problem – they were designing their new 1401 computer, a transistorized machine they put it out in early 1964, the same year as the first DAC. The 1401 represented man-machine interaction even before physical design.

“From that first DAC, to the second DAC in 1965, and on to the fifth or sixth, you could see that we were starting to evolve. At Bell Labs, for instance, I didn't really get into heavy circuit capture until we moved the team to Denver in 1969, and then I went hog wild on it. We had a component file with all of these goodies, and actually did our first capture in at that point. Of course, at the time I defined physical design as the actual data you put out to manufacture the board, where front-end design was the circuit.”

Suddenly, Pat stopped himself. He was re-thinking the content of his Kaufman Award Dinner talk: “I'm not really sure I want to go on with this long story during my presentation at the dinner in October. Maybe before talking about the history, I'll start instead by thanking everyone involved – the Award Selection Committee and the past DAC Chairs, of which there are lots coming to the dinner. I'll start by thanking them all for their support through the years.”

Admirable, I said, but I wanted Pat to go on with his story about DAC – a story he knows better than anyone, except for his splendid help mate, Marie. Pat said, “Well, from the beginning, Marie and I took our 'not-much' money out of our savings account to fund the entire conference. And from the beginning, Marie was very supportive, even though it meant a lot of extra travel for me. She always worked with me on the conference, and by the way, also from the very beginning, we had a woman's program as part of the conference. Marie insisted.

“At one of the earliest DACs, Marie gave a talk to the wives of the men attending the conference. She said, 'Know your husband's job!' She was very positive that every DAC had to include talks, given in layman's terms, so the wives would understand not only what their husbands were doing, but also why their work was so demanding that they were rarely home. When I give my talk at the Kaufman Award dinner in October, I will start by thanking Marie for that,” Pat said.

Still thinking out loud, Pat said: “I'm thinking of titling my talk, 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Kaufman Award', and then listing some of the highlights of the last 48 years of DAC. That would probably be more interesting than how I developed the first CAD system at Bell Labs. Really, most people in the room wouldn't even blink an eye at a story about my work at Bell – even though at the time, that's all we had. I'm talking about way back in 1959, when all we had was a 704 IBM computer, a 32k machine with vacuum tubes, and no storage whatsoever!

“It was such a challenge, that when I first got pushed into it by management – because we were having problems solving a major design challenge – I didn't know a thing about computers or programming. I only knew I could design a register circuit. And when I got into CAD at that point, the only language available was FORTRAN.

“Of course, 10 or 15 years later, we were using IBM 360s and PL1s, and the languages were more conducive to the type of work we were doing, but FORTRAN was not conducive at all! I had to learn all of that, plus the efficiency of using it. It was nice that it compiled way down, would shrink down to a usable amount of data, but it was very difficult to learn all of this at the time, and all at once.

“I always tell people – You learn by doing! You start at something, you get it partially done, and then you change it because you've learned how to do it better.

“That's the history in all of this – a history that the average person developing software today would not understand at all. All they do now is develop software. Back in 1963, however, before we had the conference – you had to not only develop the software, you also had to market the software to the engineers and the users. You had to sell it to management, and then train the people who were going to us it. It was a great deal of responsibility!”

While Pat Pistilli was in a reflective mood, I asked him what he would change if he could turn the clock back to 1964. He echoed back: “What would I change?

“I had many opportunities to leave Bell Labs – to join Boeing, to join Fairchild, and so on – but I loved working at Bell. Maybe, if I could do it again, I would have started my own company in this area, maybe even in the 15th year of the conference. If I'd done that, today I'd certainly be in a lot better shape. I have seen people over the last 40 years who went out and built companies up based on all this technology, and done well. My gosh – I was so much further advanced than they were back then, but I really loved Bell Labs and couldn't see leaving.”

Pat went on: “When we finally started MP Associates, the real driving force was Marie. After all, I had an excellent position, with a good salary and lots of responsibility. At the time, Bell Labs was the premier research company in the world. But then at some point as the conference was growing, Marie and I were putting out RFQs to run DAC, and she talked me into doing it ourselves.

“I had been married to Marie for a long time at that point, but hadn't realized until then how strong she really was – it was something I learned about my wife at that point. That, and the fact that she really knew how to manage people.

“After we started MP Associates and took over the conference, it was Marie who succeeded in driving the number of exhibitors to up over 200 companies at one point. It was Marie who came up with the idea of suites on the exhibition floor – and she was always looking out for the small companies and [lesser known] people at DAC.

“I just didn't have the personality for that type of work. Quite honestly, I get angry too easily. But Marie was different. She was very quiet about herself, and I was really shocked. She had quite a background in business and put those skills to work building the conference. Plus, her manner with people were just fantastic. She's absolutely always kept me on the straight and narrow. She was always saying, 'Now look, Pat. You just can't be like that with people!' – and she's been doing that for years.

“In fact, after I first got out of the Marines, it was Marie who talked me into going to school to study engineering. We were just dating, but she insisted. I was the only one of my friends who had gone straight into the service, so when I got out they were already in business. They all called me and asked me to join their companies, but Marie said, 'You have to get an education, and you have to be an engineer!'

“When we got married, she worked and I went to school until I finished, and then I got my first job at Zenith before I switched to Bell Labs.”

Fast forwarding again to the founding of MP Associates, Pat continued: “When we first started the company, Marie would get so frustrated. She'd pick up the phone and even if she knew the answer to the question, they'd ask to speak with Pat. They'd say, 'When Pat comes in, could you have him call me?'

“That used to bother her a lot. Even at the first DAC Executive Committee meeting – I was there – Marie was the only female in the room with all these guys. At first she was somewhat intimidated, but within a year she had those guys under her thumb.

“She always said, if it was detrimental to the exhibitors, it was going to be a big problem. A lot of the guys were purists. They didn't even want exhibits, and just considered them a big thorn in their side. But Marie fought for the exhibitors gracefully, and without making enemies.

“And, she was the single most instrumental person making sure that the female element was represented in organizing DAC. She always insisted that we put a female on the Executive Committee. Then, when we came up with the new direction for DAC, Marie made sure there would be a program for women.

“All the way around, she was very good at building up the exhibits, working with difficult people – as the exhibitors sometimes can be – and doing so much to expand the exhibits. Really more than any other person could have done at that point, Marie knew the conference, the make up of the Executive Committee, the academics, and the industry, and was very much able to work with all of them.”

Pat laughed and said, “You know, when I first left BTL to start MP Associates, my colleagues had a $50 pool that working together we wouldn't say married. But, I'll tell you – only 3 months into MP Associates, Marie sat down and said to me, 'Look, Pat. I have my responsibilities and you have yours. When I need guidance, I'll ask you, and vice versa for you. But, don't come over to my half of the company and tell my people what to do.

“And she was right – Marie's always right! From the very first day, we shared an office. She sat on one half, and when she had a phone call, if she was having a problem – or vice versa – we’d write the advice out and pass it to one another. And, it worked out really well. We cut the thing, the conference, right down the middle. We didn't overlap in our responsibilities, or come into the other person's area.”

Pat laughed again: “Something must have worked, because we'll be celebrating our 57th wedding anniversary on the 4th of October! As I said, it's Marie's guidance and prayers that have always kept me on the straight and narrow!”

His own path secure, I asked Pat about the future of DAC and EDA. He was quick to respond: “I really believe academia and industry both need to be represented at the conference. That's where the future of DAC should be.

“For the industry – it's always been the case that the tool users will make you or break you. EDA companies sell their tools to customer companies, but upper management at those customers often haven't a clue of what they're buying. If the message comes up to them from the users down in the company that the tools are no good, the EDA company is out.

“So, it's the lowest man on the totem pole in the customer’s company that's going to hurt you the most, if you don't have him on your side. When you're developing CAD software, you have to keep that in mind.

“Also, we all know that we design something once, but we build it thousands of times. It's the manufacturing of the design that's the most important, so if tool developers can do something within the design system to make the manufacturing easier and more efficient, they need to do it – even if it costs a little bit more in developing the software.

“Back when I was running the CAD group in Denver, I made every person who came to work for me spend 2 weeks in the shop, so they'd understand the problems of the users. After all, the output of the designs had to be manufactured, and the tool developers had to build those solutions into their design automation systems.”

Pat ended on an emphatic note: “That's always been my biggest message – design automation tools, to be competitive, have to work with manufacturing!”

And that, more than anything else, is why Pat Pistilli deserves the 2010 Kaufman Award. He's a man with a vision, who's got his feet planted squarely at the interface between design and reality.

And that, quite simply, is why “DAC is everything!”

November 1, 2010


Print Version

Peggy Aycinena owns and operates EDA Confidential:

Copyright (c) 2010, Peggy Aycinena. All rights reserved.