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Memory is a ubiquitous component in today’s electronic devices, and advancements in the technology are resulting in higher performing, lower power memory products. Anne Hughes is a design engineering group director at Cadence, where she manages a team that develops DDR memory IP products. We recently chatted about challenges and advancements in memory IP, women in technology, and the rewards of mentoring.
Tell me a little about your educational and professional background.
I have an electrical engineering degree and an MBA from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, as well as an MSEE from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. My first job was at United Technologies as a design engineer—we drew circuits on paper and handed them to a drafting team! I entered the EDA world as an applications engineer for Gateway Design Automation, the developer of Verilog, which was later bought by Cadence.
When my kids were very young, I took some time off of work, and then later joined Lucent in a marketing role. My return to Cadence came via Denali, where I was on the R&D side (Denali was acquired by Cadence in 2010).
How did you become interested in engineering?
It was kind of accidental, the way I ended up in engineering. I was always a math/science kind of kid. When it was time to go to college, I didn't have the foggiest idea of what I wanted to do. Everyone else in my family went into accounting, but I wasn’t interested.
I had an uncle who was an engineer, and my mom suggested that I talk to him. He gave me a great background into the field, and electrical engineering sounded kind of interesting. Calculus and physics interested me more than, say, chemistry. As my uncle informed me on what was involved in engineering, those were the subjects that spoke to me more.
What are your primary responsibilities at Cadence?
As director of engineering for DDR controller memory IP, I run all of the design and verification for this product line. I have a team here in Austin, Texas, and we just ramped up another part of the team this year in Bangalore. I work closely with Marketing to figure out what goes into our products, and I talk with customers on their requirements and requests. My team is involved in DFI and JEDEC standards committees, so we can see what’s coming up in the future. I have to roll up all of this input, take a look at what’s most important for our business, and prioritize what we can resource first.
What keeps your job interesting and rewarding?
I really love working with people, and two things really get me excited. One is working with younger or newer engineers—being able to give them background and training and then watching them blossom. The other exciting thing is engaging with really sharp people, bouncing ideas among them, and breaking down barriers to solve a problem. It’s also rewarding to see what so many different companies in so many industries are doing with our technology—we get to see next-generation projects that are going to reach the market maybe two or three years down the road. Sometimes we see customers applying our technologies in ways that are unintended, yet they manage to be successful with it.
In your view, what are a few of the most significant advancements in memory IP in recent years, and why?
Most of the advances are evolutionary—the IP is a little faster and it’s a little more dense. Recently, there’s been a real push for lower power: low-power modes of the devices and low-power memory itself. In DDR memory, there’s the standard full power and there’s a low-power class—they’re built differently and there are different challenges in how you interact with them. There was a distinct divide in the industry when low-power memory started coming to bear a few years back. You saw a split in the industry where you had people building bigger systems with straight DDR and people building cellphones and the like with LPDDR memory, which didn’t run as fast and was not quite as responsive. Today, LPDDR is making inroads in nontraditional areas like servers because its performance has improved.
Another recent change is a push to using stacking technology, where you stack memory right on top of the chip which has the memory controller and processor inside. Or, the memory goes across the board and has the DIMM there—you can stack up to eight ranks of memory on the DIMM, so they’re not as far apart and you can drive more loads on it. There’s also more push in memory devices to have different types of error detection, like parity error detection and CRC detection in DDR4. In LPDDR4, there’s a certain layer of error protection and even some correction on board.
What is the next big engineering challenge that you would like to help solve? What’s the next area of advancement in memory IP?
The challenges to me are to always stay at the leading edge of what’s coming along. We have people on the JEDEC committee, which defines the next memory technologies. The first discussions of LPDDR5 are starting to warm up, so our challenge will be to hit that speed of operation. We also need to address our customers’ competing requirements for our IP—customers tend to want really complex things, like lots of function and high performance, and want the performance to be really fast. These requirements are at odds with each other, though over time, we have rearchitected our memory controller to be even more efficient and high performing.
There's been more discussion lately about the importance of encouraging more women to pursue STEM careers, particularly in the area of technology. What advice would you share with women who are considering careers in tech?
For women who are already considering tech careers, I would say to absolutely engage in it—it’s exciting, dynamic, and challenging. There’s a lot to do, and it’s a constantly growing and evolving area. If you have interest in tech at all, chances are there’s something to draw you in and excite you.
From the day I went to my technology-focused college—at a time when not very many women were students there—I can honestly say I never felt treated differently. I think the bigger challenge is, how do we get women to consider technology fields and explore them. If someone is more of a left-brain person, tech fields are a very natural fit for those talents.
Outside of work, what do you like to do for fun?
I’m about to start tutoring at a charter school that’s targeted toward low-income students. I’ll focus on the math side of things and, hopefully, help light the fire of excitement. And if I can be a mentor or an inspiration, all the better.
My biggest hobby is distance running, so I spend a lot of time on my feet! I also enjoy reading, cooking, and travel. I’m always up for a new adventure.