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Can Do

Pat Pistilli Shows How Problems are Solved

Anyone who’s gone from California to New York or from New York to California notices pretty quickly that they’re very different places. While California admits all shades of gray, New York is a pretty black-and-white place. It’s either right or wrong. Sensible or ridiculous. It comes from a sense of well-established simple truths. And simple truths lead to simple decisions, unencumbered by process and the win-win feel-good complications so much more evident in the Left Coast.

Sit down for five minutes with Pat Pistilli, and, even if he doesn’t tell you, you will recognize that he’s a product of New York.

Pat has been all over the news lately as recipient of this year’s prestigious Kaufman Award for achievement in EDA. His name is synonymous with the Design Automation Conference (DAC) that he founded and, ultimately, ran.

Most of the news summarizes the major milestones of his career: working at Bell Labs starting in the 50s, putting together a “SHARE” workshop in 1964, taking over management full time through the company he formed with his wife Marie, MP Associates, in 1984. These are his outward achievements.

But sit down for a discussion with him, and you’ll find that he pretty much takes off with stories that may or may not correspond to the trajectory you expected. And, in fact, you may find that they have little to do with DAC. And you might infer from that that he pines for his engineering days, with conference management being more of a bureaucratic business. And you’d be wrong. A clear pattern emerges through the stories. It’s one of having a goal, encountering problems, and solving them. A simple can-do attitude.

Wrapping it up

An ex-Marine – well, it’s sometimes argued that, once a Marine you’re always a Marine, admitting no “ex-“ status – he graduated with an electrical engineering degree from the Newark College of Engineering (now part of the New Jersey Institute of Technology) in 1954 and started work at Zenith on the DEW line, which some of you may remember from Cold War times. Part of that job would be in Alaska, where the early-warning detectors that would notify the nation of a Soviet missile strike were located.

Bell Labs was a subcontractor on the project, and along the way, it was suggested that perhaps Pat might want to move to Bell Labs. It was a tough decision at first, since it might mean going back to entry level – and Pat didn’t come from the top 5% of the top universities, which were the only places Bell Labs recruited, so ordinarily he wouldn’t have been noticed. As luck had it, a non-entry position opened up, and he took it, a 30% cut in salary being the cost of being saved from Alaska.

Of course, in that day, Bell Labs was synonymous with telephones, and that’s what Pat worked on first. But in 1959, he was given the opportunity to work on the Nike missile defense project in Whippany, NJ, where all of the Bell Labs military work was being done. Out West, New York and New Jersey might seem two of a kind, practically lying on top of each other. Not so if you’re in New York; this was a big move that he and his wife considered carefully; in the end, they left their families in the Bronx and headed out into the wild.

The group that Pat worked with was tasked with separating wheat from chaff. At the time, it was felt that Moscow had lots of missiles but not so many warheads. That meant that, when a barrage of missiles was sent, some number would be armed and some would be duds. The trick was telling which was which.

The approach they used was to measure the trajectories of all of the missiles to try to detect minute differences that would give away the live missiles. This required a lot of computation, and giant wire-wrap boards had to be built to do the job. And wiring these things up was a huge task. There was a set of complex design rules that dictated various aspects of routing and placement, and from paper to board took four to six months to complete.

Meanwhile, in another part of the company, someone had written a program that would automate the placement and routing of logic and nets on the board, and he was asked to try it out.

He panned it. He wrote his report during the World Series. He summarized it, “Machine 0, Man 1.”

Leaving that aside, he started to streamline the wire-wrap process himself by keying in all the nets and having the computer spit out a sorted list of nets. It cut the board implementation time in half. He light-heartedly called the program “SNWY” (pronounced “snowy”), for “Sophisticated: No; Working: Yes.” In your face.

This naturally caused a stir. He was called in and told, “OK, since you’re such a wise guy…” he should work in the tools group. He moved there; the original programmer moved to work on something else, the others eventually also got moved, and it was all on him.


The problem with the program lay not with the router, which was good, but with the placer. Its algorithms were purely mathematical, minimizing net lengths. It couldn’t accommodate rules and heuristics – like taking into account the fact that wires couldn’t go over components, but had to go around them.

He added a means of inputting rules – an early form of partitioning or cliquing. He also improved the input format, developing a language that was a mixture of logic and other directives. What he wanted as an output was a sorted list of nets just like the one he had gotten from his SNWY exercise.

He called the program BLADeS (for Bell Labs Automated Design System). It took him 18 months to finish. And when he was done, the 4-6-month process was reduced to 4-6 weeks.

Needless to say, the Department of Defense (DoD) was thrilled. So much so that they had him consult with all the various contractors to make sure they were using the right CAD tools and processes.

Discussions with a colleague at IBM convinced him that many companies were probably solving the same problems independently, each making different mistakes and learning different critical things. This led to the first SHARE workshop (named for the Society to Help Avoid Redundant Effort) in 1964. And the success of that led to the second, and eventually it evolved into DAC.

Meanwhile, at his Bell Labs job, he was a complete workaholic. “I was on a high,” he recalls. He pushed hard for the users of his tools, making sure things worked right. He fought against design shortcuts that would compromise manufacturing. His philosophy was, “You design once, but you build a thousand times,” and it was folly for manufacturing to suffer a thousand times for the sake of a one-time design savings.

He got involved in things that no engineer today would become involved in (or would be allowed to become involved in). The wire-wrap boards were mounted in chassis and these were wired together using cables, and, absent some persistent, reliable way of telling which wire was which, you would have to “buzz” out each line to make sure it was right, a terribly inefficient process.

So he wanted to put long-lasting labels on the wires that would establish the “from” and “to” locations. He found Band-Aid like tape from 3M and designed a label. He asked 3M to make a die to cut the label, and they did. Meanwhile, they found a material that would last, that would resist the dirt and grime inherent in the installation process, and yet would accept ink.

Then, in North Carolina, he was in a cigarette manufacturing plant, and he noticed one of the rolling machines and how it worked. He went back and designed a special chuck that could be attached to the wire-wrap tools to affix the labels to the cables.

It’s hard to imagine today’s electrical engineers going so far afield to solve such wide-ranging problems associated with a system. But, in retrospect, it seems not much more than a simple “see a problem and fix it” way of doing things.

He brought that attitude to the Telephone Pioneers, a volunteer service group he was part of. Inspired by an athletic blind man he met in Boulder, he developed baseballs for the blind, blind skiing, blind bowling, and blind hiking. He drew the line at blind boxing.

Burning the candle at both ends

So now Pat was doing his job at Bell Labs, he was overseeing DoD CAD use, he was organizing the SHARE/DAC conferences, and he had his Telephone Pioneers work. He saw his family very little; he would return to work after dinner, working perhaps until 2 or 3 in the morning. He’d get four hours of sleep a night. It was becoming a strain.

At the same time, DAC was steadily growing. Everyone had been volunteering, and Bell Labs had willingly footed the bill for a lot of the administration, mailings, and other costs. Other companies were helping out too, but eventually this started to wear, and companies started pulling back. If DAC was to continue, something had to change. It was time to take it professional.

So Pat wrote an RFQ for IEEE for full-time management of the convention. Meanwhile, Marie thought that, as a business team, he and she should also bid on the job. Pat was a bit concerned that there was an ethical problem there, a conflict of interest. But, in the end, Marie prevailed, they submitted the bid, and they won. They formed MP Associates and took DAC forwards.

Pat credits Marie with driving the exhibits and revolutionizing how that was done, but it’s also clear that managing DAC was no simple administrative job for Pat. He brought his usual problem-solving approach and revolutionized the registration process – he claims that no one else has anything like it. Whereas attendees were once lined up out the door waiting to get badged, he says that it now takes only seconds.

He describes a booth allocation process that uses – as you might guess – a place-and-route algorithm in real time; the companies waiting to make their booth selections can watch a screen with an up-to-date floorplan so that, when they go in for their turn, they know exactly what’s available up to the moment.

They did such a good job that the International Microwave Symposium (IMS) hired them on as well; it is now as large as DAC.

The perils of automation

Looking back, Pat’s problem-solving propensity runs alongside a passion for automation. We take automation for granted today, but it was not always so. As with the Luddites during the Industrial Revolution, there was a fear that automation would eliminate jobs.

During the 1965 SHARE workshop, two keynote speeches were prepared. The first was given by Edmund Berkeley, and he more or less told the audience that what they were doing was killing jobs. The second speaker, August Bolino, having heard the first talk, told the audience to look for his prepared remarks in the proceedings; he was trashing his notes to answer what he thought was the ridiculous proposition he had just heard.

As an example of the nature of the dispute, the wiring machine that Pat had helped to build had to be surrounded by chain link and barbed wire so that no one from the union would come sabotage it at night.

But Pat stands by the belief that automation hasn’t eliminated jobs; it simply moves them elsewhere. By the time he left Bell Labs, the CAD department had 200 people in it. Of course, today’s complex systems would be completely unimaginable without automation, but those tools would be nowhere without the efforts taken when it wasn’t so obvious whether this was good for jobs.

The other thing Pat is passionate about is Bell Labs. He clearly has very fond memories and great admiration for what that company stood for. They believed in quality, they believed in doing it right. You could drop a phone from the 7th floor back then, and it would still work. It’s just that Bell Labs was a regulated monopoly, guaranteed their 10%, and they weren’t prepared for, and couldn’t survive, the bruising that competition would bring.

Looked at through the events Pat highlighted in our conversation, it’s easy to conclude that Pat brought his can-do sensibility to each phase of his career. He brought it to Bell Labs, he brought it to the Telephone Pioneers, and he brought it to DAC. And, as if results weren’t enough, it earned him the Kaufman Award, which he received on October 12th.

Think of it as a New York thing: it’s simple. If it ain’t working, then go fix it. What’s so hard about that? 

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