Alumnus Jason Cong's IEEE Robert N. Noyce Medal Represents an Impactful Computing Career Emboldened by the Right Choices

12/13/2021 8:40:35 AM Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

When Illinois Computer Science alumnus Jason (Jingsheng) Cong (MS CS '87, PhD '90) left his home in China to become a graduate student here, he did so with one thought in mind. He wanted to study combinatorial mathematics and algorithms with longtime CS professor Dave Chung-Laung Liu.

Illinois CS alumnus Jason Cong portrait photo, posed in front of a building with a blue suit on.
Alumnus Jason Cong points to Illinois CS professor, and his mentor Dave ChungLaung Liu, as a major influence on his early career - which has become quite decorated. Most recently, Cong received the 2022 Robert N. Noyce Medal from IEEE.

However, when Liu shifted his focus shortly after Cong arrived, the graduate student had another important choice to make.

Cong could remain focused on combinatorial mathematics and not study as closely with Liu, or he could stick with the mentor who was going to start working with optimization techniques and circuit design.

The fact that Cong altered his train of thought, remained a student of Liu’s and shifted his own focus became a decision that altered his future to the benefit of computing.

“Dave had a very influential book called ‘Elements of Discrete Mathematics,’ from which I learned a lot during my undergraduate study at Peking University. That’s why I wanted to work with Dave, and that was the reason I came to Illinois,” Cong said. “But when his interests shifted, there was an opportunity to work on something that became more practical and impactful. Thinking back on that time, now about 35 years ago, that was when integrated circuits started to take off.

“Transitioning from more of a pure mathematician, Dave became an applied theoretician in large-scale optimization techniques for one very important area that’s called integrated circuit design automation. I am very grateful that Professor Liu introduced me to this fascinating field.”

Since that moment, Cong’s impact in the design of integrated circuits for major improvements in speed, energy efficiency, scalability, customized computing, and quantum computing has become quite clear.

Cong conducts this work as director of the UCLA Center for Domain-Specific Computing and the VAST (VLSI Architecture, Synthesis and Technology) Laboratory.

He has received several significant career recognitions, the most recent being the 2022 Robert N. Noyce Medal from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Additionally, Cong has earned:

  • Election to both the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Inventors
  • The A. Richard Newton Technical Impact Award in Electric Design Automation from IEEE and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)
  • The University Research Award for excellence in semiconductor design research from the Semiconductor Industry Association and the Semiconductor Research Corporation
  • Status as a fellow of the IEEE and ACM
  • 16 best paper awards
  • Three most influential paper awards

“The Robert N. Noyce Medal is definitely a very special honor to me, especially given the illustrious careers of past winners,” Cong said. “Just looking at the list of previous winners you see the very first winner is Morris Chang, the founder and former CEO of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, the largest IC foundry worldwide. Also, there is former President and CEO of Intel Corporation, Craig R. Barrett, and I have collaborated a lot with Intel over the years. Most recently, President and CEO of Advanced Micro Devices, Lisa Su, stands out for her achievements in the field.

“That's an incredible list of the leaders in the electronic area. I’m honored and humbled to receive this award.”

The Noyce Medal reflects his “fundamental contributions to electronic design automation and FPGA design methods.” Additionally, Cong found meaning in its recognition of winners both in academia and industry.

His own career made an impact in each area.

Academically, his work with PhD students has spurred innovative research and educational experiences. Through connections made with industry partners, Cong has also founded three companies.

“Venturing into the startup side was almost accidental, but it became something I very much enjoyed,” Cong said. “When I started the process of founding my first startup company, there wasn’t even an official term of entrepreneurship was not widely taught or recognized in academia. Over time, though, I’ve come to believe this is the best channel for tech transfer.

“Once the students behind a research paper graduate, it’s often hard to continue work on that technology. But when you continue to work them in a startup for a commercial product and eventually find someone to acquire your product, you can see that work grow and impact many for years – and that becomes deeply rewarding.”

For that to occur successfully, Cong said it was instrumental to develop trustworthy relationships.

One that has endured the test of time, and is representative of the type of connections one can make in this process, is Cong’s working relationship with Peichen Pan (CS PhD ’95).

“What the University of Illinois provided me was not just the proper knowledge and training, but also the friendships and network that became equally valuable,” Cong said. “I formed great partnerships over the years, and each person was incredibly important to any success I’ve achieved. Dr. Pan worked with me on each of the three startup companies and played a critical leadership role. It’s those ties that equate to success.”