Archive for March, 2012

When I arrived at Mostek the 64K DRAM was still in design. It was very late. Initially, Bob and I worked on some side projects but the pressure to get the 64K DRAM out the door eventually sucked me in and I was assigned to that project. I would routinely discuss design issues with Bob. It was a great education. Bob didn’t teach circuits as much as how to design and think. A question often got another question in return. I would ask why a circuit didn’t work. Bob would start asking things like “What happens if this transistor is a light year wide?” That would be followed by “Now what happens if that transistor is 0.000001um wide?” He taught insight rather than stock answers. It was a technique I would later blatantly steal when I began to guide young engineers. Bob drove home the idea that a good engineer could design with nothing more than pencil, paper and a calculator. He didn’t put down simulation using programs such as SPICE but he had a huge distaste for engineers who designed through brute force using simulation. To him, simulation allowed better optimization of a circuit that already worked. A circuit should want to work. Time and again, during design reviews, discussing new circuits with another engineer, and when judging my own creations I would come back to Bob’s comments and how a circuit should want to work. So many times I would see an engineer spinning his wheels trying relentlessly to make a circuit work that didn’t want to. Bob’s training helped me avoid that trap and to guid others out of the black hole of circuits that mostly work.

Bob was always an electronics hobbyist. For him work was fun. It always has been for me too and Bob and I became friends and not just coworkers. We would discuss cars, high end audio and the emerging PC area. A number of us decided to build Apple 2 clones. Bob and I spent a late night in his garage, hunched over an oscilloscope, debugging his board. Here was a guy worth millions building a clone not because it was cheaper to do but because it was fun.

I only worked with Bob for about three and a half years before moving on to my next company. I had learned the value of startups at Mostek from working with some of the founders including Bob. I wanted to go to a startup and Cypress was my opportunity. It would be well over tens years before my  career path would again bump into Bob’s. By then I was Director, Atlanta Design Center at IDT. Bob joined IDT as a Fellow to add creativity to the designs done by the company. This afforded an opportunity to renew our friendship. On the work side our interaction had shifted. I was not the manager needing to get designs out the door while Bob was the engineer want to keep making it just a little better. Still, the friendship remained. In his personal life Bob was enjoying time wit Arlene, his truly wonderful wife, and was winning swimming meets in his age group. He had been a world class swimmer in college. His brain was just as sharp as ever and his design thoughts wide ranging. Bob would die of cancer on June 4, 2007.

I have tried to post about what was unique about my interaction with Bob. There is so much more. Some information on his swimming and early fight with cancer can be found here , here and here . These links also show some of Bob’s swimming records. On the design side, Bob is the father of the modern dynamic random access memory (DRAM). This is the main memory in the computers we use today. Bob didn’t invent the DRAM but his advancements drove the DRAM to dominance and changed the face of computing. He also changed the career for the better of one new college physics grad.

For more information on Mostek check here. I hope to post later on the influence Mostek had on both myself and others. Many people there went on to become major players at other companies.

Sometimes small events lead to big changes. In my case a couple of small comments resulted in big changes in my life. I was reminded of this when I ran across an interview, click here, with Bob Proebsting. Bob was one of the major players in the history of the semiconductor industry and a person who had a major impact on my professional life.

It started while I was a graduate student at LSU. I was getting burned out on school and figured it was time to get out and get a real job. What do you do when you have been working on a gravity wave detector? The market in that area seemed pretty limited and already saturated. Fortunately, LSU had a very good career center. I interviewed for just about every job at the career center. The result was a wide variety of company visits and many different opportunities. Several were in electrical engineering. I have been an amateur radio operator since age 13 and have always loved electronics. In high school I would check out books on electronic design and read them from cover to cover. Other opportunities were in software. I had taken some programming courses and was familiar with a wide array of languages. Anyone else remember APL, LISP or SNOBOL? At this point there were so many different directions my life might take.

I wound up with a lot of company visits and dutifully arranged them in the most efficient fashion. That meant flying from one company to the next. One series of visits ended with Motorola followed by Mostek and then a flight home to visit with my family for Thanksgiving.  It was at Motorola that serendipity began to set in.

Since my background was physics and not electrical engineering, I was lined up by Motorola human resources, HR, to interview for jobs in process engineering and product engineering. As the day was coming to a close I was asked what I wanted to do. I mentioned design. A person whose name I have long since forgotten was gracious and arranged for me to talk to the design manager of Motorola’s SRAM design group. During that interview I mentioned that I wanted to do design but that I guess people thought it wasn’t a good fit because my degree was in physics. The design manager said “The best designer in the business is Bob Proebsting over at Mostek and he is a physicist. The physics degree isn’t a problem.” I was excited. That ended my Motorola time. I had to rush to the airport in Austin and catch a plane to Dallas to visit, fortunately, Mostek. Today many people don’t recognize the name but back in the late seventies, Mostek was a very influential player in the emerging semiconductor industry.

The Mostek visit was a repeat of the Motorola visit. I talked to people about process engineering and about product engineering. Late in the day another nice person asked the me what I wanted to do. Just like at Motorola, I mentioned design. The Mostek engineer called around but it was getting late and there was a long holiday weekend ahead. Most people had left. He found an SRAM design engineer, however, and I went to talk to him. That interview was deeply technical. At one point there was a complex schematic on the whiteboard and I was asked some voltages and currents. I remember saying that an electrical engineer might be able to write a network equation but I couldn’t. However, I could simplify it down using simple principles including symmetry. I was told to go ahead and I solved the problem. When I was done the interviewer, a man named Vern McKinney, said that that was how it was done in the real world. I felt better and proceeded to answer all except one of the other questions. Time was getting tight and I had a flight to catch. I followed McKinney as he left work and he showed me how to get on the highway to head to the airport. At the last minute I figured out the answer to the question I had missed. I rolled down the window and yelled it out. From there it was home for Thanksgiving and a bit of chill time before starting to cram for finals.

The next week I got a call from the head of HR at Mostek. He wanted me to return for another round of interviews. The problem was I had finals coming up and needed to study. In addition I already had five job offers. I declined the visit. The HR person said I should really make the trip. Again, I said “No.” He said I REALLY needed to return because one of the founders of the company was impressed by me. I said “What?!” He said “Didn’t you interview with Vern McKinney?” I said I had. He then explained that McKinney was one of the founders of the company. At that point I stopped being stupid and agreed to return for more interviews.

Upon my return visit I was met by Bob Proebsting. He started explaining the Mostek culture. At one point he said I was free to walk the halls by myself and stop anyone and ask them how they liked Mostek.  It was clear he was very proud of the work environment. He showed me his business card which listed him as a design engineer. He said that, if I joined, mine would say the same thing. Somehow I didn’t think the equality would go beyond that. My only interview that day was with Dr. Proebsting but it was an interesting one. He picked a complex circuit and explained it to me. He then asked if I had any questions which he then answered. Next, he turned the tables and asked me to explain the circuit to him. This was my first bit of insight into how Bob thought. At the end of the interview he asked me to come work with him on special projects. Here was the guy that the design manager for SRAM’s at Motorola thought was the best design engineer in the business. In a rare bit of intelligent thought, I immediately accepted. We went to see Bob Owen, then design manager for the DRAM group, and I signed the offer paperwork. This would turn out to be one of the best decisions of my life.

Tomorrow I’ll discuss working with Bob Proebsting and learning how to be an insightful design engineer.

The photo below was taken prior to my joining. It shows Vern McKinney and Bob Proebsting who I have mentioned. In a later post I plan to discuss the impact of L. J. Sevin. He is a person who not only influenced my professional life, but indirectly my personal one.

Tenth Anniversary Photo: left to right, Vin Prothro, Robert Palmer, Bob Proebsting, Berry Cash, Vern McKinney, and L.J. Sevin