of the 2002 Phil Kaufman Award to
Dr. Ronald A. Rohrer
A. Richard Newton
It is a special pleasure and an honor for me once again to present the ninth annual Phil Kaufman Award to Dr. Ronald A. Rohrer.
Usually when I describe the contributions of a Kaufmann winner, I sit down
and try to construct an orderly timeline of their career and accomplishments.
But much in line with Ron’s early work as a circuit theorist, his
career has had a highly nonlinear
trajectory—better thought of perhaps as a collage,
or an abstract, and certainly not as any product of the schools of realism or
still-life. There is no single line
of thought that I can find that can truly capture the many important
contributions Ron has made. The words that continually surfaced in all of my
conversations with people about Ron included: passion,
focus, enthusiasm, inspiration, creative, innovative, not to mention educator,
mentor, radical, and friend.
As Ron’s spouse and partner Casey Jones told me, “Ron has amazing technical vision—he has the ability to somehow see all the threads. But at the same time Ron doesn’t get ‘stuck’ on an idea, trying to prove that it is true. He really enjoys evolving and refining ideas, especially with other people. He is focused on finding a solution, not just on being ‘right.’” That has certainly been my own experience with Ron as well. I remember a brief discussion we had prior to his development of what was later to become one of his major technical contributions—Asymptotic Waveform Evaluation, or AWE—where he was trying to explain to me what he was looking for and I must say I left the conversation pretty confused. It was 1989 when Ron finally introduced us to AWE, a technology that formed the basis of an industry wide interconnection reduction approach for efficient delay calculation for integrated circuits.
When I heard my first talk about AWE, it was immediately very clear and correlated with what Ron had been trying to explain to me earlier. When I recounted this experience to Casey, and confessed that I felt a bit stupid for not ‘getting it’ when Ron first tried to explain it to me, she kindly explained that, “Well, even Ron probably didn’t totally understand where he was going with the ideas back then. He was evolving the idea himself.” Thank you, Casey.
Tom Beckley, President and CEO of Neolinear also recounted that “Ron often gets to a good solution so quickly that for many of us, the light bulb doesn't fully click on until days later.” But that is how these major new ideas evolve for Ron, whether it is in technology or in business—most likely in life as well!
Ron developed the AWE work while a member of the faculty at
Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU). Larry Pileggi, now himself a distinguished
faculty member at CMU and Ron’s Ph.D. student from 1986-89, recalls that
during that time Casey was living and working back east for a while and Ron was
commuting. He would work at CMU during the week, travel to spend time with Casey
on the weekends and return to
Although Ron says he hated school from his very first grade
on—and somehow I can appreciate that; I just wonder how his school teachers
felt about him as well—he built his career on a very solid foundation, with
early degrees at both MIT and Berkeley. “Ron was one of the smartest students
I have had the pleasure to advise, and always had very good ideas,” said Ernie
Kuh, Ron’s Ph.D. advisor at
No wonder that upon graduation Ron went to work with Mac at
in those days, Ron’s influence had an international impact “I was first
‘introduced’ to Ron Rohrer in 1968 as an undergraduate student in
“I always saw Ron as a ‘Rebel with a Cause’,” says Professor Bob Meyer at Berkeley, one of Ron’s earliest faculty colleagues. “A rebel—both technically and socially in those days—and always passionate about what he was doing—always with a cause. Just an amazing guy!” Bob Meyer remembers when Ron gave a seminar after returning from a stint working with industry at Fairchild. His talk was titled “What I learned about design this summer.” Now don’t forget—Ron began his career as a quintessential theorist. He drew a very complex I/V characteristic on the board and said, “I used to be a circuit theorist concerned with resistors like this,” Then he drew the simple exponential I/V characteristic of a semiconductor diode on the board and said, “Now, the only resistor I am interested in looks like this.” Find the essential understanding of the problem—simplify it to its core elements—and focus your thinking, all your energy, right there.
As Ron told me recently, “Complexity is the real enemy.
If you start out with a complex solution, you get ‘complexity cubed.’ The
key is to find the essential simplification—the core idea.” This is a theme
that many have observed in Ron’s approach to problem solving.
According to Ernie Kuh, Ron was always a very innovative
teacher. “When I became EECS department chair at
Dr. Dick Dowell, another of Ron’s Ph. D. students and a
one of Ron’s student ‘Rat Pack’ as they referred to themselves back then,
met Ron through EE222. Dick had heard from a fellow student that EE222 from
Professor Rohrer was the hardest course he had taken in his life and that this
guy was the toughest son of a gun he had ever met. Dick thought this sounded
like a great challenge and so he enrolled to see what this guy was really like,
“expecting a 55 year old Professor with gray hair,” recalls Dick. “But
instead, in walks this kid! He started talking to the class and was even funny!
He announced that the class this semester would involve writing computer
programs and commented: ‘By the way, if you don’t know how to program,
neither do I, so just go to the student store and buy a book on it.’”
The next semester Ron continued his exploration. Larry
Nagel recalls: “I had enrolled expecting a circuit theory course—actually,
at the time I had very little interest in circuit simulation, as I considered
myself a circuit designer.” Ron announced that the rules for this class were
that there would be no exams, “If you write a program Don Pederson likes, you
get a passing grade. If he doesn’t like it, you don’t pass the course.
Dick Dowell was also a member of the team that developed
CANCER and recalls that, “To this day, with more than thirty years of
industrial and research experience under my belt, I have never seen a better job of project management than the way Ron
managed that class—that group of students.”
Larry Nagel summarizes that experience by saying, “If Don
Pederson is the ‘Father of SPICE’ then Ron is its Godfather. It never would
have happened without him. Ron represented the intellect behind SPICE, while Don
was really its soul. Both roles were critical to its eventual success.
Ron had a definite hand in just about everything in CAD in
those days. It was back in 1965, when Ron was teaching and working with Don
Youla at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute that he developed the basis for what we
now refer to as the Adjoint Sensitivity Method. Published in 1969, the adjoint
sensitivity method in circuit simulation lead to Ron’s invention of what we
now call noise analysis and its extension to distortion analysis as well. Many
people don’t realize it, but a large fraction of the algorithms and techniques
in widespread use today for the analysis of very high frequency circuits—what
we often refer to as ‘microwave analysis’—are also directly due to Ron and
this important early work.
I think fellow Kaufman Award winner Don Pederson summed it
up well when he told me, “Ron can take the technological problem at hand,
understand it quickly, he can identify the key theoretical simplification needed
and then can generalize to the appropriate technological solution. But Ron can
move so fast that only a few people can really understand and keep up with him
as he goes through it.”
Ron has continued his innovation in both research and teaching—heck, in everything he does—wherever he has been since. At CMU he built what one student referred to as a ‘circuit simulator for dummies’ to introduce basic concepts in circuit design and analysis to first year undergraduates. “With its graphical user interface, if a transistor was dissipating too much power it would turn red.”
Michigan Dean Stephen Director had had the proverbial
“360 degree” exposure to Ron throughout his career, first as one of Ron’s
Ph. D. students, then as a colleague, and finally as Ron’s department chair at
CMU—I hesitate to call him Ron’s ‘boss.’ Steve says, “One of the
characteristics that I appreciate the most, and probably has personally
influenced me the greatest, has been Ron’s demonstration that you can
simultaneously be an outstanding researcher and an outstanding educator; that
the creation of new knowledge and its dissemination in a clear and concise way
go hand in hand. Ron is an outstanding teacher, advisor and mentor to me and to
all his students.”
is one of the greatest teachers I know!,” continues Dr. Aart De Geus, founder,
Chairman and CEO of Synopsys and also one of Ron’s Ph. D. students. “He is
not one of those professors that expects you to become like them. Rather, he is
a teacher who gives you the support and the courage to find your own talents and
one who brings out the best in you. Just
as much as Ron cannot stand ‘No, because…’ people; he is the prototypical
‘Yes, if…’ thinker himself. A new idea is always welcome; a new
perspective always deserves exploration. It is that attitude that has made him
into a great researcher but even more into a great educator and mentor.” Aart
continued, “Today at Synopsys we teach every manager that their job is first
and foremost to make every member of their team ‘an inch taller’. I learned
this important lesson from Ron and it is fair to say that I owe at least a yard
of my height to him. I will always
be grateful for that tremendous gift.”
Another member of Ron’s distinguished group of Ph. D.
students, Dr. Aykut Dengi of Neolinear summed it up this way: “For Ron,
everything starts with a ‘wild-assed thought’ and he has a lot of them. Some
of them can seem completely ridiculous at first sight. However, nurturing an
original idea at these ‘baby stages’—focusing on their strengths and not
their weaknesses—is one of Ron's real strengths.” A theme is
developing—the lesson Ron himself learned from Mac Van Valkenburg!
No wonder that Ron was awarded the very prestigious IEEE
Education Medal in 1993—one of a number of major awards Ron has received in
his distinguished career.
However, as another former student continued, “Ron can
also be brutally objective once an idea is past the infancy stage. In fact, his
cool-headed, objective criticism is a key to his credibility and the respect
people have for him, even with people who don’t like what he has to tell them.
Ron’s technical judgment is never marred by personal factors, positive or
negative. On the other hand Ron’s blunt honesty has been known to annoy and
even embarrass some people who do not know him well.”
In the first half of the 1980’s, Ron also had an active
stint in industry as General Manager of Scientific Calculations MicroElectronics
Division, as EDA Director of Marketing at Calma Corporation and as EDA Program
Manager for the GE Technical Systems Sector.
to Ron, “The world is divided between ideas people and implementation
people.” He told me that “I consider myself and ideas person, and I used to
have a lot less respect for the implementation side of things than I do today. I
have really learned you need both, and that they’re equally important. Over
the years, I have developed a profound respect for the great
‘implementation’ people I have had the luck to work with.” Ron’s
experience with business has also taught him a number of important lessons.
“Tenacity trumps intellect every time,” he told me. “I have had the luck
to work with some truly great entrepreneurs and I often find myself in awe of
the sheer pain and suffering they endure as they create their success.”
Roy Jewell, President and COO of Magma, says, "I've been very fortunate to
work with Ron for several years now and for a number of different companies.
What I've found striking about Ron is his ability to grasp the complexity of a
situation, see how technology and business issues are tied together, and suggest
a course of action that meets the needs of both. Ron has shown an ability to
bring his unique brand of creativity to business as well as R&D, which is
all too rare." And, might I add, the quintessential qualities we seek with
this Kaufman award.
But so far I haven’t said hardly anything particularly
specific about the tremendous technical achievements Ron has brought to our
field and to our industry! The adjoint sensitivity method and its application to
circuit analysis, automated network design (a quarter century too early Ron, but
almost here now—we won’t hold that against you!), the architect and the
Godfather of SPICE, the AWE family of techniques and tools that have spawned
entire workshops and conferences in their wake, and his insights in so many
other areas that have shaped our field—as a theoretician, an engineer, and a
true architect. Of course that work is all very important, and you can read
about all of it in the press releases. The picture that emerged in my
conversations with so many people—many of you here tonight—about Ron and his
impact was much more about the man himself and the impact he has had on our
lives, about the inspiration and understanding his own passion and determination
have brought to so many of us, as his students and as his colleagues in academia
and in business.
I remember many years ago now when Professor Don Pederson
was writing a letter of reference for Ron and he said to me out of the blue,
“You know, I just counted seventeen different jobs Ron has had since he left
One of the ‘radicals’ of our field, one of the giants
of our industry and its history, we thank you Ron for all you have done. We
certainly would not be where we are today without you and all that you have
contributed, in so many ways. When I asked Ron what he attributed most to his
success he responded that he felt he had been “lucky enough to be standing
around when the right people showed up, and at the right times.” Ron, we are the lucky ones!