When I saw the announcement late last week for the first stage of the Microelectronics Olympiad sponsored by Synopsys, my interest was piqued. In my alter-ego, I’m a PhD student. A little digging revealed that the winner of the student competition being held at DAC this week would be sent all-expenses paid to Armenia for the final round. Humorously, I wondered if perhaps the winner of the final round in Armenia would be conscripted into the Armenian engineering corps. When I spoke with Rich Goldman, VP of Corporate Marketing for Synopsys this afternoon after the competition began, I found out almost exactly the opposite is true.
Rich started out by telling me a little bit about Armenia. The country, nestled between Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan is one of the oldest in the world tracking its roots back 5000 years. Mount Ararat, the fourth tallest mountain in the world, was at one time on Armenian territory. It’s the storied landing place of Noah after the flood and is clearly visible from Armenia’s largest city Yerevan. Speaking of biblical figures, Armenia also holds the title for being the oldest Christian nation on the planet having declared the national religion to be Christianity in 301 A.D. This small country of four million or so people has also laid claim to the world chess champion for the last three years in a row.
It was in 1991, when the Soviet Union broke up, that trouble began for Armenia. Under the Soviet system, everything had been compartmentalized. Cars came from one state, food from another, and all products were distributed across the Union as the leaders saw fit. Armenia was in charge of producing the Union’s cognac and semiconductors. This is quite a nice little combination of industries as long as your basic needs are supplied from somewhere else. When the U.S.S.R. broke up, however, Moscow not only cut the umbilical cord to Armenia, but also delivered a several billion dollar bill for support provided for the preceding 70 years of Soviet rule. To add insult to injury the United States demanded that Armenia shut down their Chernobyl style nuclear power reactor citing safety concerns.
The ensuing four years were termed by all, ‘the dark years’. The phrasing was both literal and figurative, with no power stations, there was little light. The major cities were denuded of all their trees as residents harvested them for cooking and heating fuel.
Starting in 1995, the country regained its footing and began the slow process of rebuilding. The semiconductor engineering industry was one source for the impetus of reconstruction. ARSET, the Armenian Software Engineering Team, was purchased by Monterey who was in turn acquired by Synopsys in 2004. Synopsys also purchased the Armenian company Heuristic Physics Laboratory.
Little money had been invested in the Armenian university system in the ensuing 13 years since the ‘dark years’ began. With an Armenian tech presence and a shortage of Armenian engineers, Synopsys began looking for a supply fix. Synopsys’ solution was to start the microelectronics degree program at the State Engineering University of Armenia. Housed inside an old silicon fab that was renovated into classrooms, the program includes bachelors, master, and PhD degrees. Synopsys employs about 60% of the graduates, and their Armenian offices consist of a full 40% of engineers who are products of the new degree programs.
In true plan, execute, measure, and reiterate style, the microelectronics program started the Olympiad as a way to judge their students against those in the rest of the world. The competition started out small, including only institutions from the immediately surrounding areas, but has now grown to include contestants from 28 countries including the United States, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Georgia, China, and Germany. Each of the countries has a first round competition among their own students. The winner of the first round receives an all-expenses paid trip to compete in Armenia at the International Olympiad. After the competition, all the students attend an awards ceremony in the Armenian Presidential Palace where they get to meet the Armenian president. There are awards for the best engineer from each country, and various other special awards.
When Rich mentioned that there’s an award for the best female engineer, I asked what percentage of engineers in Armenia are women. His reply, “About half”. As it turns out, almost all male students are required to serve in the Armenian military for two years which results in a somewhat heavier loading of female students into the engineering profession.
And that brings us back to the conscription question. Want to avoid winding up in the Armenian military? Be the best engineer you can be! If you graduate from the bachelors level of the microelectronics program and are accepted into the more selective Master’s program, you’re allowed to put off your conscription until you complete the degree. If you manage to get into the even more selective PhD program and successfully graduate with your doctorate, you get a free pass, no military service required.