Graham Curren, founder and CEO of Sondrel, talks to Steve Rogerson in our series of interviews for CIEonline. Curren founded Sondrel, a privately financed, independent IC services company, in late 2002, and now operates from offices in the UK, Sweden, France, Israel, Italy and China, and provides design services to many of the top global semiconductor companies and start-ups.
The company is a winner of the UK Queen”s Award for Enterprise and, in 2010, Curren accompanied UK prime minister David Cameron on his visit to China as a member of a business delegation. He is a director of the China Britain Business Council and a regular speaker on international trade panels.
Previously, he was European head of marketing and engineering at Avant before it was sold to Synopsys. There he had Europe-wide responsibility for marketing, application support and design services including sales. Before that he was the European design centre manager for ES2 covering UK and Scandinavia.
He is a passionate believer in education and Sondrel is active with several university programmes, including helping to set up an IC design course with the University of Nottingham at its Ningbo Campus in China.
Curren is married with five children. He is also a keen motor racing fan. He likes old and fast cars and currently owns a Lotus Elan; his past cars have included a Noble.
1. Why are you helping with Nottingham University’s IC design course in China?
It came about because it is quite difficult to hire people with the right expertise in the Shanghai region. There are lots of graduates but not enough good graduates with the right qualifications. This makes hiring harder and pushes the price up. Many are capable of electronics design work but are not experienced enough, so by training these people we open up a pool we can hire from. Nottingham University was happy to support this. Mentor Graphics provided the software for the course as well as teaching material.
The first 21 students came out in August and we have hired all of them. It is a three-month course, 12 hours a day, six days a week. And we will be running three courses a year, with the second one starting mid-October. We take graduates from other courses and bring them on to this. It is a practical course to teach them how to use the tools rather than being theoretical.
Although we are doing this in China, we are at bringing this type of training to Europe. We want to get a couple of terms under out belt first in China, but we are talking about months rather than years.
2. What do you see as the pros and cons of outsourcing?
There are different types of outsourcing. Our customers give us work rather than having their own people because it gives them flexibility. They might have a project that comes up for which they are not really staffed, so they use us. In longer term projects, we can let them work in different environments and be comfortable in them. They can have access to different people. It can also be a geographical reason. Our overseas companies want access to UK engineers. They might also like a focus on a type of engineering that is not their core expertise.
Some worry that with outsourcing it is not under their control. We look at it as a long-term thing. We try to share and understand the objectives of the company. We have to feel the pain as well as the rewards of what we deliver. It should also be cheaper because of economies of scale. It is not just a question of finding engineers but of giving them an environment to work in.
For small companies, it can be impossible to justify having an engineering team. If you are a start-up that has designed your first chip, you’d have to have engineers sitting around not doing anything while waiting for the time to make the second chip. For larger companies, it is very much like having a group of your own people anyway. Those of the second company are very motivated to give you value for money. You should be able to get a good service. We are very aware that any customer could cancel the contract and walk away.
3. You met David Cameron on a trip to China – what did you think of him?
I am not a political person, but I was very impressed with how hard he works. If you go on a long-haul flight, when you arrive you just want to shower and relax. But he had to be ready and smart and straight off to the first meeting. Politics aside, it was good to see that the politicians do work very hard, sometimes. I didn’t have a chance for a chat with him as it was all organised business meetings.
4. Do you think Sebastian Vettel’s domination is ruining Formula One?
The most interesting thing I see in Formula One is how UK centric it is. Even though the best drivers often come from Germany, the engineering often comes from the UK and I don’t think we make enough of that. There is so much good stuff in Britain than we hear about. We are so much better snickering when things go wrong than cheering when they go right. We should be a lot more proud of what we do in Formula One, and in a lot of other engineering work. We should shout about what we do more.
5. What are the main problems facing IC designers today?
We tend to be involved in the newer and smallest technologies, but IC design covers a large area. We are normally working with 20 and 28nm projects and there is a real concern about complexity. The complexity is going up so the time it takes to do anything is going up and the number of variables is going up, and so the value is going up.
The challenge is managing this complexity and that is one thing where we are not good enough – managing the whole project. We can be too tied up with the new technology to learn about that. We are always chasing the new rather than working out how to do things well. So that is the biggest challenge – project management, and keeping costs under control on big projects.