Arm still barnstorming 30 years after humble birth
Reflecting on the early days of Arm has refreshed fond memories of exciting and challenging times, writes Sir Robin Saxby, first CEO of Arm.
The process has also helped me to realise that success comes from the work of many with each doing their best in their defined function. It is about not being afraid to try and fail, continually learning and – with the support of other team members – having the ability to pick yourself up and have another go.
I’d been communicating with Larry Tesler (Apple chief scientist and father of the Newton Project), Malcolm Bird (Acorn CTO) and Cliff Roe (VLSI Vice President) before the company was founded – in particular focusing on what the business model should be.
Approached to become CEO, I met Jamie Urquhart, who was the most senior of the founding 12 from Acorn, along with Tudor Brown at Heathrow Airport after which we met again along with the other founders in a famous ‘pub meeting.’
We all decided we were right for each other. I accepted the job offer and operated via Jamie while I worked out my notice period at ES2.
The 12-strong founding team were somewhat unique in that they understood systems design, from operating systems to chip design (quite a broad experience in such a small group). The Acorn Archimedes was an excellent demonstrator of what the Arm architecture could do.
I’d also been discussing prospects with other friends who could help us get started. Peng Wong (my ES2 CFO) helped set up the finance systems and David MacKay of Acorn the legal systems. Contacts at VLSI like John Stockton helped me understand end-customer needs. I hired Tim O’Donnell who’d been with me at ES2 as our first United States employee.
A business is as weak as the weakest link and everything needs to be well founded to have the ability to scale.
Even though the first Arm chip (created within Acorn) was a UK computer chip design the company was global from day one with a strong California input swiftly followed by Japan, Korea, China, India and more.
Fortunately I had many International contacts – some of whom we hired. The European input developed very much with the help of the ESPRIT programme OMI – Open Microprocessor systems initiative that I chaired. In particular the open standard on-chip AMBA interconnect was developed within this programme.
All of our semiconductor partners brought strong input from global customers in diverse application areas.
In summary I believe keys to Arm’s success came from a handful of clearly defined goals.
- To become the global RISC standard.
- To adapt the technology to be suitable for the embedded market (Key contributions, debug, the Thumb instruction set, the development tool chain, soft cores etc).
- Partnering with the best and learning from them, with all partners adding value to the technical roadmap and market suitability as well as money and purchase orders.
- Hiring only the best people and continuing to develop them.
- Changing and adapting to face changing situations and needs.
- As well as working very hard, finding time for fun with social activity so we better understood each other as people – a factor that also builds trust.
- Being brutally honest with each other, not being afraid to challenge, admitting our mistakes and continuing to learn.
- Treating all partners fairly and equally with a balanced view towards their unique contribution to help us in our mission.
I consider Arm’s biggest achievement has been in creating a global standard and community that everyone on our planet can benefit from. The two most obvious benefits are: It saves time and cost and partners add value back to the community with their unique solutions.
Today the application range of Arm technology is probably the broadest of any computer architecture. Many applications, like remote medicine, e-commerce in poor communities, contact tracing of the current pandemic and saving our planet’s scarce resources are especially rewarding.
Since I retired from Arm in 2007 I continue to be invited to visit many of the company’s global offices as well as maintain social activity with old friends.
On a recent Zoom call with early employees I haven’t seen in years it was refreshing to realise the spirit and camaraderie was as strong as at the start. I am very pleased that the founding ethos principles of Arm’s open culture and partnership remain at the core of the company today.
Our world faces some particularly new challenges that I am sure Arm people and partners will make a positive contribution towards meeting and overcoming.
I am also pleased that Arm people continue to help with education and training of young engineers and are connected to many of the professional societies, universities, venture funds and start ups that I am involved in today.
Unfortunately, as is normal with life, many great people are no longer with us. In particular we lost Arm founder Al Thomas very early on and this year Larry Tesler passed away. Their contribution is very much remembered.
To all the many great people around the Arm community, in the past, today and tomorrow I thank you for your contributions.
And congratulations to Arm on many further innovations since my departure. I hope the next 30 years are as exciting as the first 30.
Caption: Robin Saxby, Mike Müller, Jamie Urquhart and Art Lancaster from Sharp in front of the Arm barn in Swaffham Bulbeck