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The Life of an Extraordinary Lattice Employee

The Life of an Extraordinary Lattice Employee
Posted 01/08/2018 by Ryan Short

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In Memoriam: David Lee Rutledge – a visionary, leader, and friend.

On December 21, 1983, a young engineer with a long mullet and bell-bottoms flew to Portland, Oregon to join a start-up, Lattice Semiconductor, as employee #31. He left a steady job at Harris Corp. in Melbourne, Florida to go where he thought he could have the most significant impact. Lattice was a using an EEPROM technology that he had an idea for. Thirty-four years later on December 21, 2017, just one day shy of his planned retirement from Lattice he suddenly collapsed at the gym and passed away.

David Lee Rutledge, the man who unconsciously looked and dressed like a rock-and-roller in his early days, was a true rock star in the semiconductor industry. Born on September 2, 1955, in Louisville, Kentucky, David earned both a Bachelor of Science and a Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering from Purdue University in four short years. Over his 34-year career at Lattice Semiconductor, David rose from Director of Product Development to Corporate Vice President of Research and Development to finally Chief Technology Officer.

Not long after joining Lattice, the CEO at the time called all employees together to announce that he could not pay their salaries, but still expected them to come into work the next day. Many left immediately and never looked back, but not David. The following week, over pizza and beers, David passionately rallied his team to stay. He was confident that if they could just get past this seemingly impossible challenge, they could realize his dream of making GAL (Generic Array Logic) devices a reality in the marketplace. He knew that if he were to succeed, he would have to commit totally. Over a period of several months, David used nearly his entire life savings of $25,000 to pay the salaries of his team members as well as to buy liquid nitrogen and other necessary supplies. For David, it was not about the money; he was fiercely loyal to his team and his vision.

In 1985, Lattice introduced the GAL, the first Electrically Erasable Programmable Logic Device (PLD), and took the industry by storm. David’s paper on GALs was approved for the International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC—the premier conference for the IEEE), and according to review committee members, it blew the committee away. He followed up the GAL with the ISP architecture, the first In-System Programmable PLDs, using Electrically Erasable CMOS (E2CMOS) technology. What is now a commonplace feature, was then revolutionary. David removed the need for a separate piece of hardware and created the first device that was programmable on the customer’s circuit board. David had a unique ability to see technical challenges way before they became a reality and devise solutions to overcome them. In this way, he continued to amaze the industry with value-added products.

Another major Lattice product that David led the development of was the MachXO line. He focused and pushed his team to accomplish things that larger competitors could not. Rivals would speculate that David had a team of 200 engineers working on the product, when, in fact, there were perhaps 20. Decisions were made in real time, and when a decision could not be made, David told his team to flip a coin and go. He knew that there was nothing worse than not making a decision. He encouraged his team to think about what the customer really needed and to add value by designing beyond what marketing requested. Further adding to the MachXO line, David led the design team that the built the MachXO2 FPGAs—one of the biggest sellers in Lattice’s history.

In the more recent years, David focused his attention on power consumption and set the vision for Lattice to develop products using 28nm FDSOI. He also catalyzed the company’s focus on edge computing, in particular, artificial intelligence. More importantly, though, David had grown into his role as an elder statesman and leader, not only at Lattice but also in the industry. In 2014, he participated on an FPGA conference panel where he spoke passionately about the PLD industry and his respect for the industry’s pioneers, which to his honor and amazement, he was a significant part.

Friends, family, and colleagues all agree that David was a generous man. He was very giving of his time, knowledge, and finances. Often, what was anticipated to be a quick conversation lasted for hours as David imparted his wisdom. He had a natural gift for explaining complicated subjects in simple terms. His mantra was, “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” He pushed teams to do better, to continually ask why, and to always be looking forward. David mentored and influenced people in all departments because he always wanted Lattice to do what was right for the customer and the company. Colleagues say David was a tough competitor but always recognized that making someone else lose does not mean you are going to win. David’s financial generosity continued well beyond the early years at Lattice. He was known to purchase team meals and Christmas gifts, like an Xbox, for his entire team with his own money.

Many at Lattice were able to thank David personally for his contributions at a retirement party honoring him in early December. The following day David sent a note to his colleagues, where he not only thanked them for the celebration but in typical David fashion, he continued to inspire. He wrote that he was not sad or regretful to be passing on the torch to the next generation of “young lions,” but instead, he wrote, “I encourage each of you to aggressively attack the opportunities that come your way and have an impact! I challenge you to continue to do the things no one else believes is possible—because nothing is impossible—and the only limits are those that we create for ourselves.”

In honor of David’s passion for higher education in the field of electrical engineering and his innovative contributions to technology, the Rutledge family has established the “David Lee Rutledge Scholarship Fund.” The fund will provide scholarships to students who are striving to become better engineers by enrolling in Purdue University’s one-year Master of Science program in Electrical and Computer Engineering. Donations may be sent in the fund’s name to 949 NW Overton St., Unit 1315, Portland, OR 97209.

Farewell, David. You were an incredible mentor, colleague, friend, and visionary. We will miss you and never forget you.

You can read David’s obituary here.