It’s a terrible shock to hear that Rodney Smith, who grew Altera into one of the two biggest programmable logic companies, has been killed in a road accident.
Smith was a force of nature, driving Altera from start-up to industry giant, at a time when everyone thought the big companies in the industry would take over the programmable logic business. One by one the big companies tried to take the business away from the pioneers. Intel, Texas Instruments, AMD, Motorola, Philips, National, GEC-Plessey, Toshiba and AT&T all tried. And, one by one, they failed. “My position has always been that these guys didn’t have a clue,” said a cocky Smith, after all the big boys had been seen off. A lad from Lancashire, Smith was an enlisted soldier in the REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) whose re-unions he would still attend years after going off to America to find success and fortune. Smith always remained as down to earth as a Lancashire hot-pot. His wife, Mary, is charming beyond charming and he adored her. I remember him at Silverstone, as happy as a cricket, carrying what looked like a ghastly old lump of scrap-iron which he said was some long-lost vital part he’d found which he needed for one of his vintage cars. In his early days at Altera I remember going to some crummy office Altera shared at the back of another company’s building and, during the meeting, he suddenly dropped his American accent and spoke in pure English. I thought someone else had come into the room. Smith was a hard-driving boss, but one was needed in those days to keep the show on the road while the big boys waited to pounce, and Xilinx remained an ever-doughty competitor. In those days, Altera and Xilinx vied for top spot. Three years before he handed over the reins at Altera, Smith regained the No.1 position in the programmable logic industry. Within Altera it was axiomatic that you avoided getting into the lift with Smith. If you did, and Smith didn’t recognize you, he’d ask: ‘What do you do here?’ Woe betide the poor guy whose answer was hesitant or vague. Smith was not one for the parties and socialising of Silicon Valley, but he was fun to meet, loved to take the mickey and remained, at heart, a great Lancastrian.