Almost 30 years on from becoming Arm’s first CEO, Sir Robin Saxby has been awarded one of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ highest honors – the Founders Medal. Sir Robin joins a long and prestigious list of Founders Medal recipients including former Alphabet Inc. Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, Bill Hewlett and Gordon Moore of Moore’s Law fame.
Sir Robin had a huge impact on Arm’s modern business, pushing the licensing and royalty model and focusing on building a vast ecosystem of technology partners. Today that ecosystem runs to more than 1,000 companies which, cumulatively, have now shipped 145 billion Arm-based chips. Even today, Sir Robin’s shadow is felt across the business, especially given one of his first recruits was a young engineer named Simon Segars – Arm’s current CEO.
To pull the veil back a little, the Arm Blueprint team caught up with Sir Robin to talk through the romance of the early days, what drove Arm’s success and the reason he remains as interested in pushing technology today as he ever was…
At home with Sir Robin
Sir Robin Saxby whirls around his home office during a Skype video call, pulling old computer hardware off one pile and describing how he’s just added a solid state drive to it. He’s in constant motion – even when he sits – sweeping his hair back from his face, starting a sentence, pivoting to another in a heartbeat, as he pulses out his philosophy of technology and management with the energy of a laser.
He swivels his monitor to show a silicon chip plot framed on his wall. “That was the Arm610, the chip that powered the Apple Newton,” he says, beaming his trademark mile-wide smile.
Sir Robin is just as likely to be found tinkering with old technology as he is to be investing in and mentoring startups, teaching students, painting, photographing birds, sharing pictures of a grandchild or his celebrating of a Champions League win or writing hip-hop music with Ghanaian artists.
This is the man who helped chart the course of the company that has become one of the most influential in electronics in the past generation. The IEEE honors him this week with its Founders Medal, but he waves it off with characteristic modesty. “I fortunately don’t need more recognition,” says Sir Robin who was knighted in 2002 after his wife convinced him it would make his mother proud.
“How we got here was I and friends had been communicating with the IEEE about Arm architectural and implementation improvements beyond Acorn,” he says. “I wanted to get (former Arm Fellows) Dave Jaggar and David Flynn an award for their work on the architecture. Finally we’ve got Jaggar and Flynn the Maxwell Award for the Arm architecture and how it changed the world. Maybe the judges thought, ‘Perhaps (Saxby) deserves an award too.’”
Sir Robin joins a decades-long roster of electronics-industry legends who have received the Founders Award and it shows in his reaction to the news.
“I’m highly honored to receive this award and be in the company of Sarnoff and Hewlett and Packard. I feel a bit humbled,” Sir Robin says.
But he also sees awards more as tools to leverage than to bask in.
“When an award comes, what I’ll do is try to inspire the kids and tell them life is challenging but with hard work can also be fun,” he says. The knighthood gave him access to the royal family — a connection he uses to help fund and engage with the Prince’s Trust, which works to improve the lives of disadvantaged children.
The arc of success
Sir Robin’s story and that of the early days of Arm are well chronicled: A Motorola veteran, Sir Robin was heading up the U.S. operation of ES2 (European Silicon Structures), a silicon compilation and e-beam fabrication company. He was approached by a Heidrich & Struggles headhunter about a position with a startup in the U.K. The startup involved a group of engineers who had worked on ARM (Acorn RISC Machines then) chips at Acorn. Acorn had found initial success with a home computer, the BBC Micro, in the mid-1980s and had invented the first Arm chip that powered their next-generation Acorn Archimedes home computer. But they had run into problems competing with the better-funded IBM PC and Apple communities in the business-computing sector.
VLSI Technology, with whom Sir Robin had a relationship through his ES2 connections, had fabricated the first Arm chips for Acorn and became a founding investor in Arm the company.
Apple (especially the then-chief scientist Larry Tesler) was interested in backing the energy-efficient processors that the Acorn team had developed, and the 12 engineers behind the technology agreed to meet with Sir Robin at, where else in the UK, a pub.
The engineers were late, and Sir Robin and his ES2 chief engineer colleague Brian O’Connell almost walked. But as the meeting wore on inside the Rose and Crown pub in Ashwell, each side took measure of the other. O’Connell vetted the engineering expertise of people like Jamie Urquhart, Tudor Brown and Mike Muller and the engineers quizzed O’Connell “on what were Robin’s strengths and weaknesses?” Sir Robin took the job, and Arm was born Nov. 27, 1990.
Everyone knows the story of Arm’s first headquarters in a restored 18th century barn in Swaffham Bulbeck, near Cambridge. Not everyone might know that it was Sir Robin’s job to find furnishings for the place. He had mixed success. Having secured a conference table in a coin flip with a local furniture dealer, he missed out on free drawers when he lost a billiards game.
The synergy between Sir Robin the manager and business visionary and the technical prowess of the engineering team soon became apparent and was to become the force that propelled Arm to success not only with its microprocessor and architectural designs but its business model: not selling chips like everyone else, but licensing the technology to make the chips and then receiving royalties based on sales volumes.
What’s old is new again
Sir Robin, now 72 years young, sits in a catbird seat to assess the evolution of both technology and Arm over the past several decades. In fact, his career started when he designed a color TV decoder in 1970 that included an analog chip with 50 resistors and 50 transistors. Today he advises a company, GraphCore, that ships a chip containing the most transistors in history – 23.5 billion.
“There’s a lot more hype today than there was in 1970, and everything has become much more complex,” he says. “You need real specialization to get the job done. At the same time, technology is broader and touches everything today.”
Technology creation is more difficult and expensive, but on the flip side, he says, “Look at what Arm chips do in so many applications that improve lives; whether it’s energy efficiency, medicine, scarce water management or teaching kids how to program.”
In Sir Robin’s eyes, today’s problems are the same as yesterday’s, with some nuances. Technology can be amazing on the one hand, but older consumers are often befuddled or intimidated by it. On the other hand, younger generations of technology natives have no problems using and adapting technology to their needs and seeing future possibilities in development.
Human beings unfortunately tend to make things more complicated over time, but Ohms Law doesn’t change, he quips. And it’s the human aspect that’s both the boon and bane of technology, in his eyes. Technology itself, as the saying goes, is neither good nor bad. He cites nuclear energy that has been used to make bombs but also can solve a host of energy-generation problems. The same is true, he believes, of technology when it comes to things like artificial intelligence (AI).
“The opportunity for machine learning, if we base our decisions on data and doing the right things, is that we can actually improve human performance and maybe save the planet,” he says.
From here he pivots to one of his core business tenets: mistakes are OK if you learn from them.
“If you don’t try something, you don’t learn. Don’t make the same mistake twice, though” he says. “Things go wrong when people stop listening and become arrogant.”
Sir Robin’s sensibilities on business echo those you might find in a business textbook: be honest and fair, encourage differences of opinion, find your passion and work hard and so on. But business success is part good management practices and part serendipity. In other words, no one can predict the ‘aha’ moments that can highlight a successful career.
The decision to license ARM (by now Advanced RISC Machines) IP instead of making the chips themselves was a carefully thought-through strategy based on Sir Robin’s experience. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the electronics industry was beginning a long period of disaggregation. Where a company like Texas Instruments or IBM in the 1960s had design, tools, masks, fabrication and packaging machines all under their own roofs, specialization emerged to transform virtually all of these technologies into distinct business segments serving the cause of chip design. It was more efficient and cost effective to do it this way. Systems-on-chip were just starting to emerge in a world where previously all chips had been discrete – logic, memory, analog, mixed-signal – and stitched together on printed circuit boards. Into this world and opportunity, Arm was born.
Outside of the technological differentiation of Arm’s low-power, small-footprint processor cores, a different idea emerged: Let’s sell people the silicon IP to make their own better chips using our technology. We’ll license it on the front end and gather royalties on the back end. This will give customers vastly more design flexibility and the ability to focus on their particular value-add and not get bogged down in a lot of time-consuming, expensive circuit design.
“There’s a joke about it,” Sir Robin says. “I said, ‘we’ll make chips over my dead body.’ The good news is I’m still alive, and Arm doesn’t manufacture chips.”
Sir Robin and team saw Arm’s opportunity and market advantage as MIPS-per-Watt, MIPS-per-dollar and the ability to embed a core in the next generation of system on chip. “It was obvious to me because of my previous journey with Motorola and ES2,” he adds.
Collaboration breeds innovation
Startups, in Sir Robin’s estimation, can’t do what everyone else does; they have to figure out what they do differently, what they do better than anyone and how they can scale. Part and parcel of that was the partnership model that evolved quickly into the Arm ecosystem: A startup can’t do it all and it needs to rely on customer-partners to make the whole far greater than the sum of its parts.
“You have to listen to the customer,” he says. “Customer pull is a thousand times more important than technology push.”
Quarterly partnership meetings, which have evolved into the venerable summertime, invite-only Arm Partner Meetings in Cambridge, were a key component of the model.
“It was all very real and it was solving real problems for real customers,” he says. “We encouraged our customers to be brutally honest and we were challenged to come up with the right solutions.”
So, if you’re on the team with TI and you’re the Arm employee, it’s the Arm employee’s responsibility to tell Arm when it’s not delivering. It’s equally right for the TI employee to tell TI when they are not delivering. The concept is “win-win, teamwork and community,” he says.
Sir Robin has said in the past that he believes one of the key early contributions to the industry was the decision to create the Arm Thumb technology. As he saw gold in embedded applications, he needed a more directed technology to address the market.
The memory footprint of other RISC chips before Arm came along was larger than established CISC chips. The mobile phone users were reluctant to switch from CISC to RISC for this reason but saw the performance opportunity of RISC. So they added a preprocessor unit near the front of the pipeline that would decode either a new set of simplified 16-bit instructions or the existing set of full 32-bit Arm instructions. These 16-bit instructions, known as Thumb, would map into 32-bit counterparts on execution, leaving the balance of the processing pipeline intact. The Thumb instruction set produced code only 65% the size of Arm code, and could run at 160 percent the speed of comparable Arm code using 16-bit memory.
It is for this invention and its implementation that Jaggar and Flynn are receiving the “Maxwell medal” at the IEEE awards ceremony on the same evening as Sir Robin.
This helped the embedded industry flourish and helped the young Arm gain a very strong (and what would become long-lasting) foothold in the mobile industry.
But the partnership concept itself extended beyond simply helping customers create winning products in a timely fashion. “It really helped the system on chip (SoC) industry develop,” Sir Robin says.
“Part of the way we did that was by working with the electronic design automation (EDA) community where David Flynn made a big contribution, with the applications community, with the operating systems companies. And again those Arm partner meetings in Cambridge were key to demonstrating how competitors could come together and see the value of collaboration,” he says.
“It comes back to the partnership model. I think we did something real. Human beings, be they Japanese, American, Korean, European, Chinese, Indian or whoever, really looked forward to the Arm partner meetings because real things would get sorted out,” he adds.
Arm also was instrumental, he believes, in helping drive industry standards, such as the AMBA bus for on-chip IP interconnect, soft cores, design tools, debug tools and system-control interfaces.
Industry SWOT analysis
In the early days of Arm, Sir Robin and the team drafted a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis to help guide their strategy. In an interview, he’s asked to perform a SWOT analysis on the industry at large today but he demurs as the question is too broad. That said, he has plenty of commentary about the state of the industry and its near-term future.
While he’s not a fan of the phrase Internet of Things (IoT) (“it’s like Y2K, too vague!”) he is a fan of the flourishing applications and technologies that are being built to support them. Take automotive for example.
“One of our startups via Amadeus Capital Partners is a very ambitious company, FiveAI” says Sir Robin. “Their team is developing safe self-driving automotive software, stacks on hardware for one of the toughest cities, London, to enable the most intelligent cars. Their cars look like a supercomputer on wheels processing 200 TOPS (tera-ops per second) using 12 GPUs, 2 Xeons and lots of Arm devices. The real-time processing has to be done in the car because you can’t trust wireless to stay connected,” he says. Like other advanced companies,. FiveAI does much development and simulation in the cloud.
“With AI in the cloud you have a new type of intelligence,” he continues. “It’s about gathering lots of data and using it and letting the machine process it and interfacing with human beings. This is a new paradigm with new compute architectures being developed by Graphcore and others that will, eventually, displace traditional architectures from Intel and the like. This is what makes the world of technology so challenging and exciting.”
Sir Robin sees security as important but also vexing when it comes to effective, broad solutions.
“To make secure whatever happens – a bit like Arm did for SoC – you need a kind of revolution but everyone’s got their vested interests. I’m totally with Simon (Segars) in that we need global standards but the problem is governments are elected locally and have difficulty thinking globally to help create a better world. Hopefully charities, businesses, universities and standards organizations can help them do a better job”
But he does have ideas on how to solve other problems. He’s involved with a number of startups, teaches at university frequently, mentors students, loses his mind at Anfield football matches, skis the Alps. The list of activities would make a scheduler’s head spin.
“The benefit of having my own time is doing things I love with people I love,” he says.
One of those things is music. He started a music hobby just 4 years ago when, as the after-dinner speaker at University College London’s Computer Science Gala dinner, he asked the musical entertainers – a Ghanaian guitarist Kari Bannerman and a Brazilian singer Nina Miranda – if they’d join him on stage to put music behind his words. Kari and Nina said yes, and the experience was something akin to one of Robin’s favorite movies “The Blues Brothers.”
On YouTube, you can watch him deliver a university lecture and close by discussing the musical collaboration and then playing one of the group’s compositions for the crowd.
The music plays in the background and, at the foot of the lecture hall, Sir Robin, coffee cup in hand, dances and grooves to the beat of the music, somewhere at the intersection of technology and fun, a man in constant motion.