A Company Reunion?
by Bryon Moyer
December 13, 2011 at 2:15 PM
Back in 1982, I joined a smallish company that had gotten their start in memories, but had subsequently been the first company to build a strong commercial business in programmable logic. The company was Monolithic Memories, or MMI. Yes, others like Signetics had been to market with PLAs before, but the difference was the combination of the simpler, faster, cheaper PAL architecture along with – critically – PALASM, the first PLD design software that could take Boolean descriptions and figure out which fuses to blow. And yes, we’re talking bipolar technology, TiW fuses. The two guys credited with the success of that product, architect John Birkner and designer H.T. Chua, were pictured in National Geographic magazine in front of the cars that the company leased for them as a reward.
MMI was a unique place to work, with great esprit de corps (at least as far as this wet-behind-the-ears newbie could tell). At the time, it was led by Irwin Federman. This was a guy with an unmistakable New York accent and a penchant for calling things like they are (for example, rejecting a “no-layoff” policy as “intellectually dishonest”). He inspired trust; he seemed like a truly open and honest guy; and he was an inspirational speaker. When I heard Mario Cuomo making his famous convention keynote speech, I thought, “Wow, he sounds just like Irwin Federman!”
Of course, I was clueless about business at the time, and I guess things weren’t so rosy: next thing I knew, we were being bought by AMD. This was a dramatic culture change – MMI all touchy-feely and family and AMD all hard-ass and Chuck Norris wannabe. (So you can imagine the impact when Irwin’s speech at the first joint sales conference had some of the hard-as-nails AMD salesguys in tears.)
What was odd was that, as a company, it felt like little MMI was being swallowed by big AMD. But AMD also had a PLD business; it was smaller than MMI’s. So the AMD PLD group felt like they were being eaten by the big MMI PLD group. It took a while for things to blend, and it wasn’t always clean and easy, and some of the MMI guys went elsewhere (as did some of the AMD PLD folks). To the day when I left, there were still two design groups,one in Texas and one in California, each with roots in one of the companies.
At some point, AMD decided it wanted to focus on processors and FLASH. AMD is a company that likes to hit home runs and only home runs; the PLD business has always been about lots of scoring on base hits. Makes money, but reflects a different culture. AMD spun the PLD group out into what became Vantis. Vantis operated on its own as a wholly-owned sub for a while; eventually Lattice bought it. So one thread of the MMI genealogy ends there.
Much more recently, I went to visit SiliconBlue. The guy running it, Kapil Shankar, was someone I used to work with at MMI – and he had come to MMI from AMD prior to being merged back into AMD. When I got there, it was like an old homecoming. John Birkner was there; Engineering VP Andy Chan hailed from MMI. Everywhere you looked was someone from MMI. Clearly Kapil had condensed lots of ex-MMIers back out of the Silicon Valley vapors.
And so as Lattice buys SiliconBlue, it’s like two inheritors of the MMI legacy have come together again. Perhaps they should rename the company “Reconvergent Logic.” (OK, except that reconvergent logic generally makes simple logic more troublesome.) I’m not sure how many MMI people were left at Lattice by the time this happened, but if it’s not an actual reunion, at the very least, it’s MMI folks re-entering the official MMI stream.