Yervant Zorian

Semiconductor Software Giant Synopsys and Yervant Zorian Transform Armenian Tech and the World

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WATERTOWN — Synopsys, Inc., based in Silicon Valley in Mountain View, California, is one of the largest software companies in the world, with over $4 billion in annual revenue and over 16,000 employees, according to its website. It helps design and verify complex silicon chips, which are omnipresent in everything from our smartphones to cars, and enables the processes needed to manufacture and maintain the health of those chips throughout their lifecycle, plus it provides software security. Founded over 35 years ago, it has 124 research and development centers around the world. Yerevan happens to host the largest of these sites after the original one in Silicon Valley. Its presence in Armenia is an important contribution to the local economy. The story of how this all happened is highly intertwined with the life story of Dr. Yervant Zorian.

Synopsys provides chip designers at many major companies with the building blocks necessary to provide the wide range of functionalities required of new chips, with a selection of thousands of such blocks. Today silicon chips may contain somewhere in the range of as many as 30-50 billion transistors or building blocks, and Synopsys provides most of those blocks and the software tools that puts them together. Zorian became involved in this field back during his graduate studies, with his McGill doctorate in the domain of self-testing and self-repairing in order to maintain the health of chips. He eventually registered 45 US patents and published four books on this and related topics.

Today Zorian serves not only as Fellow and Chief Architect in the company’s overall hierarchy, but also as president of Synopsys Armenia. He explained that most technology companies are run through a two-track system, management track and technology track. Follows and Chief Architects are at the top of the technology track. Zorian said that he focuses on technology roadmaps, working closely with the major chip designers that use the building blocks and software tools produced by Synopsys to prepare the technology that they require in the next three to five years. It is the technological track’s equivalent of vice president in the managerial track.

Zorian Comes to Armenia

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Zorian was working at AT&T’s Bell Labs. He said he knew that Armenia had the ability for doing sophisticated research and development (R&D) due to the investment of the Soviet Union there in the fields of computer and communication systems. Armenia developed systems up to the stage of prototyping, and the universities, the Armenian Academy of Science and various institutes were involved, so that a culture of innovation solutions and the education for it was already present. Armenia had the chip design and system design culture, but manufacturing was not that sophisticated because of the gap in the Soviet Union compared to the US in this field.

Zorian said, “What I did initially was to establish links and find out who were my counterparts in electronic systems design. Even though I had been to Armenia before independence, I never had the chance to talk with my technology counterparts before.” Based on his prior knowledge, he prepared a two-page memo to Louise Simone, then president of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), suggesting that all the investment of the Soviet Union in these specialists could disappear very quickly and the latter could leave for other countries unless they were provided with funding and work. He said he advocated supporting Armenia to revamp and retrain its workforce in order to be able to take on projects and contracts with Western firms. More sophisticated research and development work in Armenia would lead to higher paid jobs and more value added to the results.

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Simone caught on very quickly, according to Zorian, and two days later asked him to go to Armenia personally to initiate such an effort, to which he agreed. AGBU funded a lab for two years which was established at the American University of Armenia (AUA) and thirty people were hired. These were all top talent, who were provided with knowledge and books and training. Soon the lab was able to get contracts for research work, and some of its talent was hired by new technology startups. Zorian said that today, these people are still all there in Armenia. They didn’t leave the country but instead became the nucleus of today’s thriving tech industry.

Soon, from around 1994 to 2004, startups from Silicon Valley which needed sites abroad came to Armenia to start R&D locations with the help of Zorian and the AUA lab. During the following decade, multinationals, including Synopsys, began to be attracted to Armenia and acquired already established companies. Zorian said that in the third, current decade of development, companies are not only coming to Armenia from abroad, but rather the opposite is also happening: startups created in Armenia come to Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

Why Is Armenia Attractive for Tech Companies?

What was so attractive about Armenia for tech companies? Zorian said that while the cost of labor and working there in general is comparatively low, there are other countries that also are not expensive. However, the work that companies like Synopsys do is not basic information technology. In Armenia, from day one, it was possible to develop a high end, more sophisticated level of R&D, such as chip design technologies.

Furthermore, the long-term way of considering jobs in Armenia leads to greater allegiance to companies, Zorian said. In certain Asian countries, there is as much as a 30 percent turnover annually, as people leave to increase their salaries. This means that there is barely time to teach them how to do their jobs before they leave. Of course, he added, you also have to give the proper benefits, like stock options, life insurance and health benefits for the entire family, to maintain that loyalty. In return, unlike in other countries, employees in Armenia may remain for long periods, providing more gain on the company’s investment in them.

Multinational companies work to expand their product lines through acquisitions. Synopsys, for example, came to Armenia, Zorian said, because of the attractive differentiating products that startups with R&D sites in Armenia had created, which complemented Synopsys’ portfolio of products. Once Synopsys and other tech companies came to Armenia, he said, “They saw that it was a natural place for growth.” They learned about the talent and ability of the local workforce to come up with very creative solutions. Zorian exclaimed that there are many patents that come out of Armenia.

One additional factor is that compared to other Asian countries, which have many, many multinational companies, Armenia is not a crowded field and so it is different in that sense.

The role of the government in the development of technology in Armenia is positive in the sense that in generally it does not interfere, Zorian said. He based this statement on his experience with every government starting with Levon Ter Petrosyan to that of Nikol Pashinyan today. A committee was created during Robert Kocharyan’s presidency with representatives of the tech sector, universities and the government to meet monthly to discuss any problems or issues, but in general the IT industry grew without any government subsidies or challenges.

A new Ministry of High-Tech Industry was founded in 2019 to replace the Ministry of Transport, Communications and Information Technologies. Zorian said that this is most helpful for newborn startup companies, but for midsized and well-established companies it does not make much of a difference.

Synopsys in Armenia

Synopsys, like many other technology companies, grows through frequent acquisitions of smaller companies, which allows it to absorb new products, concepts, technologies and people. In 2004 and 2005 it acquired three companies which already had established R&D sites in Armenia. Zorian happened to be involved professionally with the latest of these purchases, HPL Technologies (founded by a diasporan Armenian pioneer), which focused on the yield optimization of the semiconductor product lifecycle.

Prior to this, Zorian first began working as chief technology advisor in 1996 at LogicVision and then in June 2000 moved to a position at Virage Logic, based in Fremont, California, as vice president and chief scientist. He helped Virage Logic develop an R&D branch in Armenia. Synopsys acquired Virage Logic in 2010, and with it gained the skills of the approximately 150 people it employed in Armenia, as well as a large team in the US including Zorian himself. All four of the aforementioned companies acquired by Synopsys happened to have at least some Armenians involved in their management.

Synopsys merged the four separate acquisitions, creating a unified administration for them, and brought the employees to the same site in Yerevan. There initially were about 350 technologists, Zorian estimated, but over time, their numbers increased annually, so that today there are over 1,000 people working in Synopsys Armenia. It probably became the second largest Synopsys site in the world.

Synopsys and Education in Armenia

When the first small lab was started at AUA, Zorian said that there was a surplus of talent and 30-40 people would apply for every position announced. When the multinationals came to Armenia the talent supply began to balance out but Zorian realized that the next generation of talent in Armenia had to be prepared, so Synopsys began working with Armenian universities to offer the advanced education necessary for its field. Initially Synopsys partnered with the engineering school of the Polytechnic Institute in Yerevan in 2005, and later with Yerevan State University. When more numbers of students were necessary, it expanded to the European and Russian universities in the city, so that today Synopsys works with four universities and together they produce over 150 graduates annually. Software engineering and hardware chip design programs were jointly created by Synopsys and these universities, with the curriculum and courses based on what universities like Stanford or Berkeley offer in Silicon Valley. The programs lead to bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.

Between half to sixty percent of the course instructors are professors already at the universities, and the rest for certain more advanced courses instructors come from Synopsys, Zorian explained. Synopsys encourages employees with doctorates or more advanced knowledge to teach one course per semester in addition to their regular fulltime responsibilities. Zorian added that some of the university classrooms are located at the Synopsys sites.

Not only is this education (i.e. tuition) free, but Synopsys provides stipends to each student. It also pays the university professors and the instructors itself for their efforts. Perhaps most importantly, it sets up labs, and pays for all the tools and sophisticated software.

Synopsys does not mandate the graduates to work for it for any period of time, Zorian said. It hires around half of the graduates, and the rest, Zorian said, is its contribution to the larger community. They are hired by other companies or universities.

Zorian noted that the teaching components, labs and libraries formed serve now as models used not only in Armenia but in many other countries which have adopted the Synopsys Armenia approach. Universities around the world license the tools from Synopsys.

To increase the number of graduates in Armenia, 2 ½ years ago Synopsys started an educational program in Gyumri with the local Polytechnic Institute, offering bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. During the Covid period it began hiring employees in Gyumri and created a new Synopsys R&D branch which today has over 30 employees. The offices are located next to the classrooms, allowing students to easily do internships and employees to teach students.

Synopsys is the only company in Armenia with such an educational program, Zorian remarked. Apart from this company, industry rarely is involved in such university or high school educational programs.

Synopsys Strengthens Armenian Schools’ STEM Education

In the last decade, Zorian said that the demand for qualified workers in the tech field became far higher than what the universities could provide. There are now around 4,000 positions in Armenia that cannot be filled. Synopsys’s website is full of positions and many other companies are in the same situation.

One reason is that in Armenia, a small country and market, people have to be given the chance to prepare and need to feel they have jobs later. However, the main problem is not at the university level. Zorian said he thinks it starts more at the schools, which do not prepare sufficient numbers of students to enter the realm of technology, or STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in general. Most recently, he said, only 13 percent of high school graduates go on to study STEM topics, and so he felt students needed to be motivated more to go into these fields while still in the school level. This means having the right teachers, labs and curriculum, so he said much work remains to be accomplished in fundamental education.

Synopsys therefore was motivated to expand its educational work to the high school level and strengthen their offerings of advanced courses. Four or five years ago, Zorian related, it began a program with two other companies and the Armenian ministry of education. They chose ten high schools and prepared a three-year program for them from the 10th to 12th grades, teaching software the first year, telecommunications the second, and chip design or microelectronics software the third. Unicomp was part of the software program, Viva-MTS helped develop the telecom part, and Synopsys the microelectronics part. Teachers were trained, and given the curriculum and all necessary materials. The courses were optional electives, somewhat like advanced placement courses in American high schools, Zorian said.

As the number of students reached was limited, Synopsys recently pioneered a new approach by coordinating the preparation of a similar three-year program for the same grades on artificial intelligence (AI) using online learning technologies, which can reach any village or province in Armenia. Synopsys has a foundation that does charitable work in education which provided funding for these courses, and Zorian also worked with the Union of Employers of Information and Communication Technologies (UEICT) in Armenia. The 10th grade course content already has been prepared, using models from high schools in other countries that have done this before, and the 11th grade one is being worked on at present.

The e-learning approach is done in partnership with the Armenian Virtual College (AVC), which Zorian helped initiate through the AGBU 13 years ago to teach Armenian topics, mainly to diasporan Armenians, through e-learning. AVC already has its own staff, production mechanism and cloud services, reaching students in 132 countries. In the AI case, online instructors located in Yerevan spark interest and do corrections with very interactive online learning, including multimedia, video, voice and text.

Zorian’s Role as Synopsys Armenia President

As Synopsys Armenia’s president from 2015, Zorian said he oversees operations in Armenia and holds regular meetings. He solves the branch’s problems, whether they concern resources or facilities, and more importantly, what projects may be adopted there.

He also has the oversight responsibility of making sure that the Armenian branch does its job properly. For the day-to-day operations there is a local administrative team in Armenia, including directors for administration, educational programs in the universities, and relations with the public, government and other companies.

Zorian declared that personally, “Having the Armenian link there is something of which I am really proud. I used to have two parallel tracks – my technology fascination was one track, and my Armenian volunteerism and involvement with the community another. My parents and my grandparents were all heavily involved in Armenian activities too. When I was able to bridge them together, it was a nice win-win situation for me. Every day I talk to various people in Armenia about technology, and especially in Armenian.”  He said that while studying for his PhD at McGill, he never thought he would be able to combine his Armenian and technology sides. This combination extends beyond his professional work.

The Effect of the Artsakh and Ukraine Wars on Synopsys and Armenian Tech

Zorian declared that from a cybersecurity perspective, the Artsakh war of 2020 had no impact on Synopsys because as a large multinational corporation, it had already invested in cybersecurity defense. The situation was different, he said, for smaller private and public institutions, including certain universities, which suffered from attacks during the war.

While some employees or staff were drafted and participated in the war, none of them died, though there were some family members of staff lost. Zorian did note that the worries of the war and the post-war insecurity had a negative impact on work but overall the effects of the war were not as bad as they might have been.

As far as the Ukrainian-Russian war is concerned, that led to constraints on foreign technology companies operating in Russia, so that many, including Synopsys, had to leave Russia. Some 100,000 Russians and Belarusians moved to Armenia and contributed to the technology environment there. Zorian said he thought overall the impact was beneficial, not only in terms of increasing the supply of potential employees, but also more broadly in terms of innovation. He explained: “The reason Silicon Valley succeeds is because it attracts people from various countries and cultures, with various ways of thinking. They teach us that if you have diverse teams, your innovation and creativity levels are higher. If you bring in people with the same background and education, you have less innovation because you don’t have that variety. In Armenia, we don’t have diversity because the population in general is quite homogeneous. But now, by having Russians, Belorusians and others coming there from different places, diversity is increasing, and this is a positive.”

Beyond Synopsys

Zorian appears to be a very energetic man and volunteers his personal time in two categories of activities outside of his employment at Synopsys. As a technology professional, he volunteers for the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), the world’s largest technical professional organization. He has served as vice president of various bodies in IEEE and at present is president of its Test Technology Technical Council. He won its Lifetime Contribution Award in September 2022. He chairs many conferences and workshops and serves as editor for various journals.

Alongside his technology volunteer work, there are his Armenian volunteer activities. Zorian said, “I feel they are complementary. The common denominator is education and preparing talent, which I think is a useful thing – working towards the betterment of all of us, of Armenia and the world at large…My work at AGBU is mostly on the educational side of things, either training startups from Armenia here [in California] or advancing the Armenian Virtual College to teach Armenian language, history and culture.”

September 1, 2022 was designated by the mayor of Santa Clara, California, as “Dr. Yervant Zorian Day” in recognition of the pioneering scientist and educator’s outstanding achievements in virtual learning

Zorian serves on the board of AUA, a university created with strong AGBU support. He said, “AUA is an open education entity and I like to help the students of AUA with various programs.” He also served on the advisory board of the Armenian National Science and Education Fund (ANSEF), operating under the auspices of the Fund for Armenian Relief, which supports research.

In 2019, Zorian, together with Serj Tankian, Eric Esrailian and Alexis Ohanian, founded a pan-Armenian platform called HyeConnect which was meant to be a non-business collaboration platform facilitating discussions, joint projects, joint events and small topical or geographical communities. Armenians with a certain interest, whether hobby or profession, can be grouped together and learn from one another, Zorian said.

As noted above, the two categories of volunteer work often overlap. For example, IEEE is a large network with over 400,000 members worldwide, but it did not initially have a branch in Armenia. Zorian said, “Bringing a branch inside Armenia allows Armenians to be connected as well and benefit from this wealth of worldwide knowledge.” The process was an elaborate one, requiring a certain number of members in a given country, and a history of major conferences. Zorian was instrumental in taking several such international conferences to Armenia.  Then the application to headquarters was made. Finally, in 2019, Zorian brought the IEEE president with him to the World Conference on Internet Technology, which took place in Armenia that year, and the announcement was made of the creation of an Armenian branch of IEEE.

Helping Armenian IT Companies Expand through Accelerators

A second significant example of convergence of Zorian’s two major interests is the Armenian Virtual Bridge initiative. Zorian serves as the chair of AGBU’s Silicon Valley chapter, which started this project through an agreement initialed in 2019 with the Armenian Ministry of High-Tech Industry during the visit of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and High-Tech Minister Hakob Arshakyan to Silicon Valley.

Tech startups begin with an incubation stage, when they start building up their technology, their team and their product. Once they begin to start selling their product locally – in Armenia in our example, the acceleration process helps turn them from a successful company in Armenia into a globally successful company. They start to obtain funding outside and do marketing and sales globally. The Silicon Valley AGBU chapter already had been hosting many companies from Armenia and taking Californian companies to Armenia. In this case, it began to bring startups from Armenia for acceleration training.

During the Covid pandemic, it trained 15 companies, and at the end of June the CEOs of four more companies returned to Armenia after training. They learned how Silicon Valley operates, and how to do fundraising, marketing, and to deal with customers. Over 100 companies from Armenia had applied for the four positions. Another set are coming in October and November for the five-week program. AGBU volunteers organize their visit and introduce them to Armenians and to investors, but the training is done through a professional program at Draper University at which 80 CEOs participate from various countries around the world as well as from the US.

The Armenian government participates in the costs of the program along with AGBU’s network and organization. One important point stressed by Zorian is that some accelerator programs take a certain percentage of your company in exchange for teaching, but the Armenian Virtual Bridge chose one that does not do this.

Making the World a Better Place

Zorian said that while Synopsys is a company working for its own profit and that of its shareholders, he looks at it from a different angle, as “how Synopsys is helping the semiconductor industry, which I think is the backbone of all the technologies that we utilize. Without these chips, none of what we have would work. Your car is based on chips, your refrigerators, your phones, everything you do…soon we will even have some extensions of our minds in the chips. The chips or semiconductors are the enablers of technology, and Synopsys is present in every single chip. So we see that as a contribution to the betterment of the world through Synopsys.”

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