What do you do when nobody wants to be CEO of the company you have founded?
In part 1 of this CEO portrait, Prakash Narain told me about his early career and the primary steps that prepared him to start his own company, Real Intent.
EE Times: What was the prime motivation in starting Real Intent? Was it the technology, or was it building a company?
Prakash Narain: I took many of the steps of my career driven by intellectual curiosity. I had not focused on management aspects and was never a manager. I knew the opportunity that I wanted to pursue, but discovering how to do that was learning on the fly. The challenges were enormous at that time, because nobody wanted to work in EDA. This was the dotcom boom time. I had to learn how to sell the concept to people to make them want to work with me. So I had to build a team, and I had to build a product. I was not ready to be the CEO, even though I carried the title. I made it clear to investors that the company needed to hire a CEO, and I started to approach people that I thought could run the company, but they were looking for other things during those times. So I was the CEO because of the circumstances, as well as leading the technical direction of the company.
EE Times: So I presume that you grew into the role?
Narain: Yes, I have grey hair and lost hair along the way. You can never plan every aspect of your life, and there were a series of steps in front of me that I had to navigate. I don't regret any decision that I made. There was a lot to learn, and with learning, there are always mistakes, but I am very comfortable with where I am. And while investors may claim to be mentors, they are really only driven by return on investment. It is the responsibility of the CEO to understand all of the complexities that are involved. You cannot assume away a reality, and investors may give you good advice, but it may not always be right on the money. I did learn from advisers, but it was bits and pieces from many people and not a lot of meaningful guidance.
The timing of when I started Real Intent had positives and negatives. It was during a time when it was easy to raise money, but it was a lot harder to execute. Real EDA advancements do not take place in the lab. You can create a prototype, but the advancement gets made when you start an engagement -- partnerships with customers. By the time we had our first product, we were faced with the dotcom bust. Companies were shutting down, and everyone was worried about their jobs. Few people were interested in something new or dramatic. We were told that we were facing a nuclear winter, and that we should hunker down and survive. We did, and because it had been so difficult to hire, we didn't have too many people and didn't have to let go of people, but there was no momentum, and we didn't have an opportunity to validate the original concept.
EE Times: Tell me about your first success -- the first time you managed to start working with a customer.
Narain: The first product we built was actually an accidental discovery. We wanted to build a formal verification solution, and to test the concepts, we had built an automated method of generating verification targets. David Styles, a member of our technical advisory board, was the CTO of Siara Systems, and we asked him to try a few things. With the first design they ran it on, they got some strange results, and it turned out to be a problem in the design -- discovered right after they had taped out the chip. That became our formal implied intent product -- now Ascent IIV. Our first real customer was Nvidia, and they thought Real Intent had really hit something with the product and should run with it. But I wanted to challenge simulation, and this felt like a distraction.
In the third part of this portrait, we examine what happened that changed Real Intent from a technology-focused company to one that concentrated on products.
In your opinion, do engineers make good managers or CEOs? How many engineers who have become managers long for the days when they had their hands in the pot?