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Some people grow up in the US, go to high school, get into a good engineering or computer science program, graduate, and end up in Cadence. Other people take a rather more indirect route. Michal Siwinski has quite a story as to how he got from growing up behind the Iron Curtain in Poland to being VP of Customer Engagement and Product Management for Cadence's System and Verification Group today. A route from Warsaw to the Canary Islands to Madrid to New Jersey to Staten Island to California...you get the idea. By the way, Michal is the Polish equivalent of Michael, but it is pronounced more like Mee-How (to be honest, it always sounds like Ni Hao, the Chinese for "hello").
Michal was born in Warsaw, the capital of Poland. He grew up in the city, as opposed to the countryside. His father was a university professor, his mother a musician and radio DJ. One of his relatives was the president of Poland right up to World War II, many others either well educated or landowners, which didn’t bode well for growing up in a Soviet-dominated country.
Life was tough in that era, but as a kid you just accept that that is the way things are. Stand in line for eight hours to buy food. Normal. Only get the right to buy one pair of shoes per year. Normal. You don't ask someone why they are wearing heavy boots in summer, that is just normal.
One Sunday morning in December of 1981, he looked outside and there was a tank outside their apartment complex, seemingly pointed towards their building. He was eight years old. Even at that age, that seemed a little random. The radio was talking about how there was martial law. There were soldiers with machine guns in the street. This became the new normal, different from the old normal. Over the next five years, he gradually became more aware of his environment, and it started to become clear that there was a system, and there was something wrong, and people were trying to do something about it. His parents were somewhat active in trying to bring freedom back to Poland. Solidarity started to drive change, beginning in the shipyards in Gdansk, but becoming a national movement driving towards independence and democracy. Of course at that age, Michal didn't really understand the whole scope of things, but could sense the quietly spoken notion of people striving to live in a country with freedom and democratic values, like what he could see in a few American movies.
Suddenly, one day, he was told the family was going to on a vacation for a week to Spain. Wow. That sounded exciting, since he'd only been outside Poland as a kid once, and this would be the first time to non-Soviet territory. They got on the plane and went to Tenerife on the Canary Islands, which are just off the west coast of Morocco, but part of Spain. After binge eating bananas for a week, which were impossible to buy in Poland, outside the black market, his mother said they left permanently. Not just going on vacation for a week, which was obviously a big surprise. It turned out that his parents had found out they were under scrutiny due to the family background. Their apartment had been seemingly broken into by a "thief" who stole nothing but a handful of documents. That set alarm bells ringing, and his parents decided to make sure their children (he has a younger sister, too) were safe. The Canary Islands were a wonderful place, in many ways, but were also an adjustment. Michal didn't speak a word of Spanish so communication was hard for the first few months. At least the family was able to make a living.
So there Michal was, 12 years old, soaking up the environment, learning the language. They were still on a tourist visa and sometime around then the family decided to apply for political refugee status. This was 1986, so still a few years before The Wall came down, but weirder stuff was still happening in Poland and it would not be safe to return.
They ended up in Madrid, in Spain's first refugee center. This was less than 12 years after Spain became democratic after Franco's death, and so they were still building up their institutions. Michal’s family were only the second ones there, and the first non-Spanish speakers. So Michal was now officially an immigrant living in a refugee camp. That sounds worse than it was. They had food, housing, and schooling so it was fine. Michal's Spanish had started to be good and so he became the unofficial translator at the age of 13, as more people arrived from central and eastern Europe. His sister's Spanish was fine, but she was too young, and his mother's Spanish wasn’t as good a year in.
They decided that Spain was fine but they really wanted to apply for asylum in the US, which was always seen as the bastion of hope, and a place with more than one or two TV channels. His father had separately got out of Poland, as families couldn’t really leave together, and was already in California working. At least in the mindset of the Polish, the US was always held in high regard: fought for independence from an empire, democracy, humanity. During the revolutionary war there had been a lot of Polish freedom fighters in the US. West Point garrison defenses were built under the leadership of a Polish general. So, growing up, the US was seen as the place of freedom and where you could become anything you wanted to be, if you worked for it.
So after a couple of years in Spain, it was time for another change. His family applied for entry into the US as political asylum seekers. Soon, they received the good news that they were allowed to come.
Michal didn't speak more than a handful of words of English…and knowing how to say ‘dog’ and ‘cat’ and counting to ten was only so effective. So it was a similar transition, starting again as a refugee. He was now 15 and they arrived at the end of 1988 (the wall still up for another year in Eastern Europe). They ended up in New Jersey, since they had some friends there who had gone ahead. They weren't living in any sort of immigration camp, but initially, there was no right to work, so they were on welfare and getting help from charity. But after about a year they all got green cards—it was an accelerated process, but still a process. The moment he got his green card, he got his first job delivering flyers for Domino's pizza, to have money for food and clothing.
Being used to living in cities, New Jersey’s Manasquan was great, but didn't feel like home, so after six months they moved to New York, to a part of Staten Island that was still pretty sketchy in those days. He still didn't speak much English but decided he should work to get a good education and go from there. First he had to deal with innate biases. In Spain, he had some experience of that. Despite eventually speaking Spanish fluently and with no accent, there was discrimination about immigrants. The US was no different. The Polish jokes, for one. But, more importantly, the first thing that happened was that they wanted to put him in a remedial program, since being a refugee and speaking poor English he must, of course, be on the non-bright side. Luckily, the principal of the school spoke Spanish so he fought successfully to get into the most advanced program, and they could downgrade him if he couldn't make it there. So he was in the top college-bound track. It was challenging not yet speaking English but life started to be a new normal.
Michal started to wonder about where he should go to college. Having always been interested in electronics and computer science, he decided that ideally he would go to MIT, Stanford, or Berkeley. Since two of those are in California, as was his father, he moved on his own to California after the first year of high school. There was the same presumption again, that you were not smart since you were an immigrant. And the Polish jokes again. But he decided not to let it distract from his goals and he stayed the course. He also started taking university courses at night during high school, when not working part-time or playing sports, since they were a lot cheaper than they would be at an expensive university.
At the end of high school, he got into UC Berkeley into the dual Electrical Engineering and Computer Science program. Since he had already done a lot of basic university classes in high school, during his bachelor's he could do some graduate courses in CS/EE. But he also took courses in psychology and business, particularly around entrepreneurship. He decided he really wanted to drive innovation and work in a startup, but get his Masters and PhD done first. However, having taken all those graduate courses in several subjects, it wasn't even clear what subject to follow. So he decided to get a job where he'd be exposed to the work environment and ended up at Mentor Graphics doing chip design and verification services, which in turn exposed him to lots of companies and design styles. At the same time, he started working on his Master's degree at Stanford (spoiler alert: he never finished). The employment market was so hot in that era that after a couple of years he ended up going into a startup called Verplex, in formal verification. Michal was doing application engineering for the main product, logical equivalence checking. When the company started to look at its second product, model checking, he got pulled in. He run product engineering, customer support, and product marketing, creating a viable second product line for the startup, with notable customers.
Cadence acquired Verplex in 2003. The logical equivalence checking ended up in the Implementation group (where Conformal is still today, see Logical Equivalence Checking to Get Smart). Property checking, and Michal, himself went into the Verification group. Fifteen years later, after responsibilities including verification, front-end digital, PCB and IC Packaging, and IP, he is still there, driving the next wave of innovation and customer success.
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