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An Engineer Reflects on 20 Years at DesignCon

An Engineer Reflects on 20 Years at DesignCon
Istvan Novak, a 20-year veteran of DesignCon, discusses signal-integrity trends, the value of building a community of engineers, and the best ways to craft an award-winning research paper.

DesignCon has been going strong for more than 20 years and Istvan Novak has been there for most of it. Novak, a Senior Principle Engineer at Oracle, specializing in signal and power integrity, has authored several award-winning papers for the DesignCon Best Paper Awards. His most recent, “Transient Load Tester for time Domain PDN Validation” was honored with an Outstanding Paper Award at DesignCon 2017.

Istvan Novak

A member of the DesignCon Technical Program Committee, Novak recently reflected on his 20 years as a DesignCon attendee ahead of DesignCon 2018, where he will be part of a keynote discussion, “SI/PI & EMI Challenges: Looking Ahead Through 2023.”

In a column on his website, “DesignCon: Personal Reflections on the Past Twenty Years,” Novak looks back on the years gone by at DesignCon and discusses the papers presented at the convention that have had the biggest impact on his personal and professional life.

He chatted with Design News ahead of DesignCon 2018. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.

In your column, “DesignCon: Personal Reflections on the Past Twenty Years,” you mention a lot of papers that have impacted you over the years. Is there one in particular you would say has had the biggest impact of all of them?

It is hard to pick any one of the papers because there were so many excellent presentations over the years influencing and helping our work.  If I still had to pick just one, my vote goes to the paper by Christian Schuster, Young Kwark, Giuseppe Selli, and Prathap Muthana, “Developing a 'Physical' Model for Vias,” from DesignCon 2006.  I have to pick this paper because it sheds light on a question that lingered unanswered for years. More than 10 years after this paper was presented, we still find good practical applications of the concept outlined in it. The concept is elegant and simple, to the point that in retrospect it may seem obvious, which is the usual hallmark of a great solution.

You mention two papers you are anticipating for DesignCon 2018, “Introduction to Non-Invasive Current Estimation (NICE)” and “A Convolution Technique for Verifying Acceptable PTPX Current Waveforms for PDN Voltage Droops.” What is it about each of these has particularly caught your attention?

This goes back to the subjective nature of any list of favorites: We like things that help us with the problems we currently work on. In power distribution network validation and testing a significant challenge is to measure the current that goes through the supply pins of large devices: CPU, GPUs, FPGAs, which sometime have hundreds of pins connecting to the same supply rail. These two papers address this challenge: The first using frequency-domain techniques; the second focusing on time domain.

You’ve had several papers win awards at DesignCon in the past yourself. What impact has this had on you personally and professionally?

In the first half of my career I was in the academia, where publishing was a routine requirement. In the industry this is much less so, but I always felt that making a good publication serves multiple purposes. It not only enables the readers to learn something new and useful, but it also enhances our own understanding and improves our knowledge, eventually allowing us to do our job better and more efficiently. 

Often in the industry deadlines push people to solve problems without getting to the bottom of them. [My team and I] have found with several of our award-winning papers that in the process of summarizing and explaining the problem and its solution in a paper, we eventually got a more complete understanding of the topic, something that probably would have not happened without writing a paper on that subject. The biggest reward is to see how energizing this process can be for an entire team, especially for our young colleagues.

What advice would you give to researchers and teams looking to craft their own award-winning paper?

A good paper has to speak about something that is of high interest to the reader. This can be a well-written tutorial on an already known subject, possibly with data referring to the latest technology advances, or it may suggest a solution to an existing problem. In this latter case a good paper should clearly state the problem and offer a solution that is both simulated and validated by measurement, together with a clear explanation of why and how it works.

Have you been able to work with or meet with any of the authors of your favorite papers over the years? What was that experience like?

Yes, I consider myself very lucky and blessed for the opportunity to work together with so many talented and excellent people, both immediately around me in my work place and also in the wider industry. I consider several of the authors of my favorite papers my close friends with whom I work together occasionally on joint projects or publications and many others with whom I keep in touch by e-mail.  All this has been very rewarding and fruitful, leading to new ideas and solutions.

Conversely, have you met with other engineers who have been impacted in some way by the papers you have written?

Yes, and these contacts fall into different categories. The widest category is people who simply find an idea in a paper interesting and they want to understand and explore it. A smaller and more dedicated category is where people decide to implement and use the solution described in a paper. The smallest, and still a very rewarding category, is companies and individuals who decide to turn your idea into a commercial product so that it becomes available to the wider public. I feel very fortunate to have friends and companies in all three categories and the dialogue with them is always enlightening.  People who are new to an idea often come back with feedback or suggestions that result in a more complete understanding of the solution.

Having attended DesignCon for so many years, what is the biggest change you’ve seen in the convention over the years?

There is significant continuity over the years and at the same time there are great changes also at DesignCon. The fact that it has been set up at the same Santa Clara Convention Center at the same time of the year since the early '90s, provides an important continuity; people can easily plan around it on the long run. The biggest change that happened incrementally over the past many years is the gradual expansion of the scope of the conference. In the old days, when it was organized as a marketing trade show for Hewlett Packard, there were two parallel tracks: a system design and a high-speed signaling track. The number of parallel tracks grew year by year. For DesignCon 2018, the Technical Program Committee solicited contributions in 14 tracks.

Where would you like to see DesignCon headed in the next 20 years? Are there particular trends or topics you’re looking forward to?

My area of expertise is signal and power integrity. With all the great and exciting advances in signal integrity, it is a maturing principle at this point.  Power integrity, on the other hand, is still evolving fast and steady, having a lot of uncharted territory. We can expect the silicon (or any other semiconductor) technology to take over more and more analog circuit functions; DC-DC converters will continue to migrate onto packages and dies. As an ever-growing challenge, thermal design considerations -together with signal and power integrity and EMC- may become the fourth discipline to drive and constrain our electronic and photonic designs.

Istvan Novak will be a part of a keynote discussion, “SI/PI & EMI Challenges: Looking Ahead Through 2023,” at DesignCon 2018 on January 30.

You can read his full column, “DesignCon: Personal Reflections on the Past Twenty Years,” on his website.

DesignCon 2018 logoBy Engineers, For Engineers. Join our in-depth conference program with over 100 technical paper sessions, panels, and tutorials spanning 14 tracks. PLUS! New this year: Acquire an IEEE credit for every hour you spend at the conference. Learn more. DesignCon. Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 2018, in Santa Clara, CA. Register here for the event, hosted by Design News’ parent company UBM.

Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at  Design News, covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, and robotics.

This interview has been edited for clarity.  
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