I just heard a rather amazing story of a young artist (at least, he was young at the time this tale begins) who became an integrated circuit mask designer because it seemed to offer a more interesting career than that of a shoe salesman...
Honestly, I tell you, I couldn’t make this sort of thing up and manage to make it sound believable (grin). Did you ever watch that sitcom called The Golden Girls in which three older ladies called Dorothy, Rose, and Blanch live together in a condo along with Dorothy's mother, Sophia?
Sophia used to tell long involved tales of her youth. She would commence by saying something like: "Picture the scene... a small village in Italy before the Second World War ... a beautiful young woman is walking down a cobbled street..." and the story would grow in the telling.
Well, I have a story for you... picture the scene ... Santa Clara Valley, California, 1975... Who is this we see? Why, it's a young lad called Ben Leone. Ben is a commercial art student at Foothill Community College by day and a bartender at the Sunnyvale Ramada Inn by night (imagine a young Tom Cruise in the film Cocktail, but with a cheekier grin and longer hair).
Ben had just bought his first house (at a price back then that today would buy you only a decent BBQ, a lap-top computer, and pair of Maui Jim sunglasses) and – somewhat uncharacteristically – was starting to ponder his future. It was around this time that he was coming to realize that his ambitions of becoming a commercial artist as a paying job were shared by a lot of other art students. Knowing that the competition was fierce, he started to look elsewhere....
One of Ben's pop/rock art paintings
One of Ben's waitress friends had a son who worked at a local shoe store called Shoe Fair, and he was making tons of money (at least in Ben's terms). With tips, Ben was making around $7 as a bartender; he was informed that as a shoe salesman he could make about $9 an hour (which was good for 1975).
Then there was a group of customers who Ben says could have been stand-in's for the "Sopranos." It may just have been that they liked Ben's Sicilian family name, Leone, but whatever the reason, they told Ben that he could work for them if he wished. The "boss" said that he would pay Ben $500 a week, which was about twice as much as he was making as a bartender (or could make as a shoe salesman).
However, when Ben inquired as to what he would be doing to earn this princely sum, he was informed "Don’t worry about that, I'll let you know,"
which Ben felt was a little unsatisfactory. He had vague impressions of measuring people for "concrete overcoats" and was not convinced that this was a career path he wished to follow.
And then there were Ben's biggest bar customers – a bunch of budding, small-time electronic entrepreneur's. Ben says that there were all bright young guys who would wander in around 6:00 p.m. in the evening and wander out again around 2:00 a.m. the following morning.
Being regular bar customers, these guys soon discovered that Ben was an art major. One night, the president of one of these start ups asked Ben if he would be interested in working at his high-tech company. Somewhat confused Ben replied, "Doing what?"
The guy couldn’t describe it in terms Ben could understand – he ended up saying only that it was a task that required Ben's artistic skills. And the price he was prepared to offer for Ben's services? A measly $2.30 an hour... which equated to only $92.00 a week.
As Ben was starting to become desperate, and knowing he didn't want to spend the rest of his life tending bar or smelling stinky feet selling shoes, and since he was scared of the "dig a hole" boys, Ben decided to accept the job offer from the “Planet Mars”... to become an IC mask designer... whatever that was.
On his first day at his new job, Ben walked into the company bright and early and informed the lady behind the reception desk that he was here to see the boss. "Do you see that van in the parking lot?"
she asked, pointing out of the window. When Ben replied that he did indeed see the van, the receptionist continued, "Well he's sleeping in it!"
Ah, those were the days.
As it turned out, what this high-tech company was looking for was "right brained" artist types like the ones who can put together a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle with no picture while listening to "Led Zeppelin" and playing the bongo's – something that couldn't be taught – and they would provide the "left brained smart guys" to teach the artist types the rest.
Ben took the job and – as he says in his own words: "This was about the time that Silicon Valley began to spring up all around me."
Ben started out at the perfect time. Now, 35 years later, he's still hand-crafting IC masks, but of course the chips have become much more sophisticated. For the last 20 years (which he describes as "the best years of my career"
) Ben has been working at Xilinx, which is the largest purveyor of chips called field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) on the planet. He still loves the job because it allows him to be creative – when he gets into work in the morning he just dons his headphones, cranks up the music, and starts designing and loving it!
Personally, I was amazed to hear that any
of this stuff was still done by hand, but it seems that this is indeed the case when it comes to highly-specialized devices like FPGAs involving billions of transistors where every miniscule aspect of the design can have enormous ramifications.
Ben also continued his painting as a hobby using oils on canvas. Initially he specialized in pop/rock art (you can see some of these paintings on Ben's www.BenLeone.com
website), but about five or six or seven years ago (who can remember that long in the past?), one of Ben's colleagues was passing by and saw a full-color display of a zoomed in portion of one or two logic gates in an IC mask layout and said: "Wow, that would look really cool as a painting!"
When Ben went home that night, he pulled out a canvas and started painting a stylized, abstract, but functionally-correct representation of a logic gate. He became enthused and created painting after painting (you can see some of Ben's techno-art at his www.techscapeart.com
One of Ben's integrated circuit layout-inspired paintings
Ben's fame began to spread. When one of the first ("key") employees of Xilinx heard what Ben was doing, he asked him to create a painting of the original base circuit used in the first FPGA devices. Then, one day Ben received a email from a publisher at Prentice Hall saying: "We would like your permission to use one of your paintings on the cover of a college text book called Electric Circuits by Nilsson and Riedel ..and….what are your fees?"
Ben was astounded. As he told me: "I would have paid them!"
But they agreed on an amount and – eventually – the book appeared in print (if you zoom in on the cover shown below, you can see Ben's signature in the bottom-right-hand corner of the painting).
One of Ben's paintings on the cover of Electric Circuits 9th edition
Ben also told me that he was more than surprised when the book edition went from 25,000 copies to 40,000 and another check arrived in the post. Then another 20,000 copies ... and another check. The book has now sold more than 60,000 copies worldwide (so we can only assume that it's a good read [grin]).
So there you have it. This is just one story – I'm sure that there are thousands of similar tales to be told. As Ben says: "This is not your normal way to get into a high tech business I have to admit. Back then, a couple of well placed martinis did the trick – now a MSEE from MIT 'might' get you an interview!"
PS Ben does sell his original paintings (I'm hoping to acquire one myself one day). All of his paintings are created in oil on canvas. Ben also sells prints, called Giclees, which are created with high-end ink-jet printers that print on watercolor-type paper or canvas and are then hand-finished by Ben (these are the types of high-quality prints that you see in art galleries). If you're interested in talking to Ben about purchasing one of his works, you can email him at email@example.com
(and don’t forget to check out his websites at www.benleone.com