Blogging Engineering

Burning The Candle On A Third End

Hey Folks!

Because my brain decided I didn’t have enough going on already (and a healthy dose of thinking “wow, that’s a good idea” when Cherish mentioned it to me), I’ve started with a couple other engineer bloggers! I’ve already mentioned it on Twitter, but I thought I should write about it here as well.

The lineup right now is me, Cherish, Fluxor and FrauTech.  But we’re looking for more! If you’re interested, check out the “Write For Us” page on the site and fill out the form there. We have some requirements, but if you’re a good writer and have been doing it for a little while, we’d love to hear from you.

As for me, hopefully posting there on a schedule (a requirement) will get me back into the swing of posting here. If not, you can always read some of my stuff over there or just listen to my nasally voice on The Amp Hour. Hope you enjoy the new site!


The Engineering Model Of The Future: Malcolm Reynolds


That’s what you said when you read the title, isn’t it? That’s probably what I would have said. You said that for one of two reasons:

  1. You’ve never watched Firefly.
  2. You’ve watched Firefly and you just don’t get it yet.

The second is more excusable than the first. If you’ve never watched Firefly, I highly suggest going to do that right now. It’s 14 episodes (one season) and a feature length film. It’s a great show that was unfortunately cancelled after one season.

“So what the hell Chris? You’re sounding like a lame fan boy.”

Yes, yes I am. And I loved the show but I love the analogy much more. So let me explain the background on Malcolm Reynolds a bit before I dive into the relevancy to this site and electrical engineering.

Malcolm Reynolds, played by Nathan Fillion

Mal was the captain and owner of the Firefly (a spaceship). Prior to that, he participated in a war between the Alliance and the Browncoats, on the losing side. After the war (and where the show picks up), he is working with a small crew, floating through space and picking up jobs wherever they can. They aren’t always glamorous jobs but they often require ingenuity. Often times, they are avoiding the Alliance, which is a federation of the populated planets. They control just about everything in the galaxy and have very advanced technology. They seek to bring everything under their control.

Starting to see my point? I believe that engineers of the future (and already starting today), have only a couple options:

  1. Be part of the ever growing “Alliance” — In this case, the corporations (companies >200 people) that have an increasing share of the technological population.
  2. Be part of a smaller company (20-200 people). However, I believe that over time these smaller companies will continue to disappear (in the electronics world) because of the difficulty of competing on cost. They will either go out of business, see costs increase to the point of employees leaving (healthcare premiums, anyone?) or will get swallowed up by bigger companies.
  3. Work alone or in very small teams. Work on jobs for smaller companies in a contract situation. This would be where the future engineer is very similar to Malcolm Reynolds.

The corporations mentioned in the first point are large for many reasons, not all bad. One of the most striking is economies of scale; places like a semiconductor fabrication facility simply cannot operate with small budgets. They need capital equipment which is produced at great cost and the company is necessarily big in order to recoup the initial costs. Another is working with very advanced technologies. If you happen to be an engineer that is working with circuits that operate at 10’s to 100’s of GHz, you likely require very advanced equipment in order to monitor and modify your circuits. Only the largest companies will be able to afford the bleeding edge technology required to develop future technologies (i.e. If you’re working on 20 GHz signals, you need a scope that can detect 40 GHz or more in order to see higher order effects). While in Firefly the Alliance wasn’t necessarily big because of these reasons, they were very advanced technologically and were the only places that offered opportunities to work on the bleeding edge.

Now before I take this analogy too far, let me speak to the “stealing” side of Firefly. I think that’s really where it begins to fall apart. Hopefully none of the engineers of the future are taking from the large corporations that represent the Alliance (except maybe the contracts they win). Stealing isn’t right and in the show is usually because of necessity; I would never encourage any engineer to be anything but outstandingly ethical. However, there are situations in the show where the crew of the Firefly work indirectly for the Alliance in hard times, which I think is reasonable. In engineering terms, I imagine a small design firm of the future working on fixtures for a large factory that needs to outsource some work. Or working in conjunction on a project because the small team is a preferred vendor for a particular part of a product (the embedded system in a robot, for example) and the large corporation provides “the rest” (the remainder of the robot and the expensive moving parts, to continue the robot example). These are all plausible situations in the future and even happening today.

To compare engineers and engineering firms of the future to the Firefly crew paints kind of a bleak future (if the analogy is to be believed). It will be hard to find work because much of it will be dominated by larger companies. And why wouldn’t it? The corporations offer more manpower, lower costs and the potential to create larger things. However, all is not lost. Smaller engineering groups can offer many things which also have parallels in the Firefly universe. These are lessons which can be used today and are a reason I liked the analogy so much. Let’s go over how and why a smaller engineering crew might succeed.

  1. The ability to take jobs that larger companies cannot or will not.
    • Large companies may not want to take on jobs that are small and do not provide a likely return on investment (ROI). However, a smaller company may be willing to gamble on these sorts of things. Historically, the smaller ideas have larger risks but much larger rewards, which could be beneficial for a smaller company willing to take on some risk. An example might be a new product idea brought to a smaller engineering company that is radically different or not fully funded. By going into a joint venture and partially funding the project (assuming they believe in it), they could see large payoff. The lesson here is to investigate opportunities, but be willing to take risks that larger companies will not.
    • In the show, this often meant working with unsavory or misunderstood people in society.
  2. Agility in all aspects. Smaller companies are more likely to be able to adapt to situations.
    • This could mean picking up a new piece of software quicker, responding to a customer’s changing needs quicker, not being bogged down with corporate bureaucracy, being able to fly under the radar of larger competitors, really anything that means you have the advantage as the little guy.  The lesson here is to maintain that agility (even if you begin to grow as an organization) in order to succeed.
    • In the show, they had lots of tricks up their sleeves to maneuver around the Alliance, often outrunning them or tricking them when in a tough spot.
  3. Your jobs will be almost entirely referrals.
    • Almost all work is found through connections, either by word of mouth recommendations or prior experience with a customer. It’s important to remember that your reputation as an engineer can lead to future success, so to maintain that like you would any other skill. New work will also be an active social task, either asking current connections who needs help or asking for recommendations. And yes, social media can count as a social activity to find new work, though I would not count on it as the only method of finding work today.
    • In the show, the reputation of the crew got them jobs and respect while continually mobile and moving from planet to planet. They also had to take a few not-so-fun jobs.
  4. Trust the people on your team. And make sure you like them.
    • If you’re working in a small team, the likelihood that you spend more time with them than your family is pretty high. It’s a reality that smaller businesses don’t have structured hours. That’s because much like the Firefly crew, finding work and getting the job done is all you can do to survive. It’s not until you are successful that you can be choosy about which jobs to take and which you don’t. And in the mean time, the job at hand will be very time consuming; so choose your team wisely.
    • In the show the crew was basically like a family and their isolation from others while in space was pretty drastic.
  5. The focus is on completing the job, not necessarily perfection on all fronts.
    • This is exemplified by the scrappy nature of Malcolm Reynolds and his crew and is a necessity for small engineering businesses. When resources and money are tight, the main design constraint is getting the job done. This often means going with proven solutions–so you might start with a reference design or development board instead of trying to start from scratch. This means favoring simplicity and elegance in design solutions over complexity, regardless of how “cool” the complex solution might be. The emphasis on completion can help you plot the fastest course to get to the end of the design, and then focus your energy on removing the obstacles that are guaranteed to pop up (boards are late, can’t get parts, etc).
    • In the show they did what they had to and often improvised in order to get the job done. Also since it was a show luck seemed to favor them a few times…

So there you have it: how I view the future of engineering, especially for those not choosing to work for corporations. Both have their benefits and drawbacks, but I believe the choice between the two will continue to be much more polarized. Those choosing the later and striking out on their own may have hardships along the way, but will be rewarded with the freedom to do what they choose and when they want to do it (with the ultimate restriction being putting food on the table).

I’m sure I could compare engineering to a lot of things, but this one seemed to fit. Did I miss any aspects of being a small engineering business? What do you think?

Engineering Work

Recruiting In An Emerging Age Of Makers

I’ve started reading resumes from the bottom up.

What does this mean? It means I’m looking for passion. It means I’m looking for interest. It means I look for people who do electronics for fun. It means that classroom experience–while important–is not getting you the job. In fact, quite the opposite. If you’re spending all of your time in the classroom, how useful are you? Yes, understanding the basics are important. But if you’re going to quote me an equation you learned instead of going out and soldering and desoldering components to a board, how will I know that you’re a legit worker that is willing to get their hands dirty? (solder-y?)

Thanks to the global economy, no job is secure anymore. OK, we can handle that. But in an increasingly independent work force, we’ll see more contract work and less (yes, even less than current levels) loyalty to corporations. As such, the recruiting (and hopeful retention) of talent will become one of the most important jobs. Innovation will now be negotiated for and fought for instead of attempting to induce it in a laboratory setting. The risk takers will be encouraged to continue to take risks once they are plucked from their garages and basements.

I believe hackerspaces will be the new recruiting grounds. We’ve already seen people that are targeting them for sales (chips, discretes, software) because the projects that are made often are spectacular advertisement; the open source hardware people develop in these collaborative workspaces often become platforms to seed many other projects as well. In the future, we’ll also see recruiters hanging around hackerspaces looking to pluck talent before the person realizes they’re not just working on an Arduino for fun, they also have a future as an embedded system. You just wait, it’ll happen. For at least one person interviewing potential candidates, it already is.

Analog Electronics Engineering Learning

Follow Up Post: Electronics People Online

I really don’t have much to say in response to my last post about where all the electrical engineer sites are online other than: message boards. I alluded to the idea of message boards when I mentioned EEVBlog, though unknowningly at the time; I thought EEVblog was only videos. Working with Dave on The Amp Hour has shown me that a message board can really help hash out ideas (if you’re one of the content generators), get suggestions, or get questions answered (if you’re watching or reading and don’t understand something).  So I started hunting and found some other quite active electronics-only forums:

  • All About Circuits Forum — The main site is a great online open-source textbook that explains lots of electronics concepts.
  • Electro-Tech-Online — This is an intense amount of posts, namely about electronics.
  • Eng-Tips — This is actually a site for all types of engineering but the link is for the electronics part of the site.
  • EEVBlog Forum — Like I mentioned above, this is Dave’s forum and it has some great chatter going on it.

Then there are the hacker/maker/DIYer type forums. These often span multiple disciplines and include questions from people who may have never seen a resistor before but you can usually find some good answers (or answer some questions yourself if you are so inclined).

  • Instructables Community – Not limited to electronics but there are enough electronics projects that there are forums about it.
  • MAKE forums — Hard to find a bigger group of DIYers than MAKE and you know they’re bound to have questions for one another (or you!).
  • Hacked Gadget Forum — Alan’s site is usually a great aggregation of new, fun hacks that are popping up on the web; but the forums are a good place to ask about them!

Vendors often get in on the action as well. Why not? You buy the parts or kits there, you should be able to ask questions to others you KNOW are using the same things, right?

  • Adafruit Forum — Great way to ask about their popular kits. I’m disappointed they don’t sell the RF jammers that LadyAda designed though.
  • Sparkfun — The biggest hobbyist kit manufacturer out there, with over $12 million in revenue per year. With those kinds of numbers, you know people are hanging out at their site (even when they’re NOT giving away $100 of free stuff in a day). More people = more questions = more answers for you.
  • Parallax Forums — A kit maker that utilizes the BASIC Stamp chipset. When you can’t ask the Arduino heads about your issues, you’re going to need a forum to talk to.
  • Element 14 — They are a sub-company of Farnell, one of the largest distributors of components in the world. There’s extra useful content now that they own EAGLE (the CAD program)…but you can find some good general answers there as well.

There are also more specific types of forums out there, which makes a lot of sense. You wouldn’t care about working on precision op amps if you have a question about how to get an Arduino to control a relay.

  • DIY Drones — Want to know how to make a quadcopter? I bet this is a good place to ask about it.
  • AVR Freaks — Talking about AVR (the chipset in the Arduino) can get very specific. These members will help you with your specific questions.
  • Society of Robots — All things robotics, including the electronics needed for them.
  • DIY Audio Forums — High end audio electronics, built by you. Talk to others on the board to figure out if the sound is “warm” enough.

The thing is, even though I like the tailored nature of a message board (ask a question, get an answer), I’ve never really thought of them as a place for electronics people to congregate online. I was quite wrong though. The message board system is democratic in nature because those with the most involvement and the best answers will rise to the top as experts (though I like the StackOverflow/Chiphacker style for this better). Aside from the democratic nature, there can be contrasting voices in case there is a wrong equation or a better way to execute a design; this is important for checking engineering ego and ensuring a design will work properly. I think most of all though, it’s easy: easy for the website creator to set up and easy for people to understand how they work. All of these factors point to a pooling of collective electronic resources online.

So if you’ve never tried it out, give a message board a shot! You can find some great information, connect with some really smart people and maybe help one or two others as well. And if you find any not mentioned here, let us know in the comments.

Engineering Jobs

Just Colorado Jobs

Dr. Dave from was nice enough to drop me a note recently. He is also in the field of analog electronics, but much more experienced and has written some really solid technical articles (such as this recent one about low noise discrete amplifiers).

He also mentioned that a friend of his (Bruce Gammill, no relation) was the chairman of a group dedicated to promoting Colorado’s tech region. While I’m not here to say whether the area is the next silicon valley or anything, I do appreciate the fact that it is another resource available for electrical engineers. Specifically, the “beta” section of the site shows a wonderful map of all the companies that are located on the 40 mile corridor from Denver to Fort Collins.

The reason I even mention this at all is that my previous post about where the technical areas are in the US completely glossed over the state of Colorado. While I blame my primitive search capabilities and the fact that the informal survey was based only one who is hiring now, I think it’s still important to point out where there are potential jobs for electrical engineers (and others!). Thankfully readers both here and on the ECE thread of reddit where I sometimes plug my posts were sure to point this fact out to me.

Does anyone know of other “chamber of commerce” type organizations that promote other technical areas in the US or even abroad? Having information about relevant companies in the same location can be a powerful tool for any job search. Using targeted company searches and good job hunting/interviewing techniques, the time searching for a job can be cut down considerably. Looking forward to seeing everyone’s tips!

Economics Engineering Interview

A Talk With An Electronics Industry Analyst

I recently had the opportunity to ask some questions to Mike Demler, electronics analyst and writer at The World Is Analog. He has many years of industry experience, culminating by recently joining DIGDIA, a strategic consulting service that helps with market analysis and business planning. Let’s see what he had to say:

Chris Gammell: Can you please explain your background?

Mike Demler: Explaining it may not be that easy, but I’ll give it a try.

I grew up in the city of Buffalo at the peak of the U.S. space program, and had an early interest in science. My parents nurtured that a lot, and my Dad always had some TV parts around from his part-time repair business. Those were the influences on my decision to study electronics in high school, and then as an EE student at the University of Buffalo.

In the summer after my junior year, I vividly remember reading the book “Analog Integrated Circuit Design” by Alan Grebene. It’s probably more accurate to say I tried to read it, as I know I didn’t comprehend it all so I kept borrowing it from our public library. I very much wish that I had a copy today. I was fascinated by the combination of electronics and physics involved in actually being able to create something in silicon, and that’s when I decided what I wanted to do… I wanted to design integrated circuits.

It wasn’t easy, as UB was about as far as you could get from silicon valley both geographically and academically, but through lots of luck, some independent study, the help of our department chairman and being in the right place at the right time… I got my first job as a Product Engineer for Texas Instruments in Lubbock, TX. That was my launching pad. Someone once told me that ‘TI’ stood for Training Institute, and it certainly was for me. I completed an MSEE at SMU after moving to Dallas, then went back to NY and the GE R&D Labs. We developed some very advanced (for the time) analog technology there, and my TI experience prompted me to move on to GE-Datel where I commercialized the semiconductor process and led development of a new ADC product line. After GE once again exited semiconductors, I took on a similar role starting the semiconductor product line at Unitrode-Micro Networks. I was working there when I wrote the book “High-Speed Analog-to-Digital Conversion”.

Starting up new product lines led me from engineering to sales, marketing and business development. It was during the dot-com startup/IPO boom, and I moved into EDA at that point. I worked for small pre-IPO companies like Meta-Software, then did a startup in Antrim Design Systems that moved me to California. I have also worked for Cadence and Synopsys, and completed an MBA a few years ago. Now I work as an industry analyst, focusing on new disruptive technologies in mobile wireless.

CG: How does your experience in the EDA industry and the semiconductor industry affect your work now?

MD: I’d say that it gives me a unique perspective on the role of those components in the broader electronics ecosystems, such as the wireless industry. When I was in EDA I worked for a while on vertical market strategies. Though they wish it was otherwise, EDA is a small component in a much bigger picture, and most design tools are not easily differentiated by end-market application. Now I get to have the higher-level view of where the customers of the customers are going, and I try to provide insight on how it all fits together both top-down and bottom-up.

CG: What kind of companies do you interact with as an analyst?

MD: I mostly focus on the wireless industry, and currently I am working on an analysis of the Android ecosystem. The variety of companies is almost endless, especially since I try to provide that unique point-of-view from chips to consumer electronics, to services and applications, networks, etc. There are big companies like Cisco, Intel, Qualcomm, Motorola, HTC, LG, Verizon, AT&T…. the list goes on… to numerous small companies, some that are behind the scenes that you are unlikely to hear of unless you are in the industry.

CG: How soon before a product comes out do you get to hear about it?

MD: I don’t get that much special advanced notice of future products, but I think that one of the values I provide is that because of all the sources of information I have, I can tell where things are going ahead of time. Companies sometimes provide advanced information under NDA, that could be from one quarter to a year before you see it in a product. You can also learn what sources of “unofficial” information to trust. The most pointless advanced information I get is when a PR rep send me an unsolicited press release “under embargo” before a major trade show or conference. I haven’t seen one of those yet that was a big deal.

CG: What kind of impact can your work have on the industry? Are there consequences to being right or wrong about your industry predictions?

MD: I wouldn’t presume that I influence the industry in general, but I can have an impact on individual companies that use my research and insight. I stay away from far out predictions, and you won’t see any press releases from me that say “DIGDIA forecasts X million users of Y in 2014”, that you see every day from other analyst firms. Those forecasts are vaporware designed to get repeated on the internet. If I am right about trends and I point out important factors in one of my strategic analyses it improves my credibility. If I am wrong, then not.

CG: Your blog is called “The World is Analog”. How do you view the role of analog in devices today and what role do you think they’ll have tomorrow?

MD: My point of view in “The World is Analog “ goes back to my answer to your first question. At the risk of being seen as a technology bigot, everything is in reality analog. That is not to say that I don’t appreciate the aspects of design that are digital, or computer science in general, etc. but nothing works unless you build it, and all devices are governed by the (analog) laws of physics. Digital is just an abstraction of the underlying analog behavior. Those analog physical aspects of a design are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore even in digital design; factors such as dynamic voltage variation, power management, statistical process variation, etc. On the other hand, analog circuit functions are enhanced by digital controls, and that inter-dependence will continue to grow going forward.

CG: What do you see as the future for electronics? What kind of devices will people own in 5, 10, 20 years from now?

MD: Electronics will continue to grow and enhance so many aspects of life. The 5-year horizon is what I am focusing on, which will be dominated by ubiquitous wireless connectivity to the internet. This is going well beyond smartphones–to other areas of consumer electronics, energy management, home security, and health and medicine. Those describe some of the broad categories of devices people will “own”. I also see bioelectronics, I suppose you can call it call it bionics, as one of the big growth areas. Today we have devices like pacemakers that help to control heart function, but imagine how nano-electronics and smart wireless sensors can be used to monitor and control other body functions. Transportation is another area where we are just beginning to see what embedded electronics can do. I think the cars that can automatically parallel park are amazing, but people seem to take an advance like that for granted. We will see more “connected vehicles”, with real time 4G wireless connections for information, traffic control and numerous other functions.

CG: It seems that you have transitioned to the business side of things from your early days in engineering. How do you interact now with managers, engineers, marketers and others in the electronics world?

MD: Well, I’ve been in all of those roles, so hopefully it helps me to better understand where people are coming from when I interact with them.

CG: Where do you view the industry itself going? Will all electronics end up in Asia? Will things ever move back towards the US?

MD: There is no “moving back”. It’s like Thomas Friedman wrote in “The World is Flat”; manufacturing will always go to the lowest cost location. Everyone needs to take a global view in every industry today.

My greatest concern is education. By growing up during the Apollo space program, I benefited from a societal focus on developing advanced technology. The U.S. needs to work harder to develop more scientists and engineers amongst our own citizens. I hope that environmental concerns might stimulate the current generation of students in a similar way, but I can’t say I’m optimistic at this point.

CG: Is there a maximum growth potential for the market? Won’t people stop needing devices? What happens then?

MD: No, the market for electronics devices will grow many times over where it is today. I don’t limit that statement to mean only consumer electronics devices. We can only carry or interact with so many. But the connected world is only beginning to be developed; for in-body, in-home, in-vehicle, in the environment.. the list is endless.

Many thanks to Mike for taking the time to explain his view on the (apparently analog) world. As you may have noticed from other posts on here about talking to various professions, I’m very curious about the electronics ecosystem.  I find it fascinating how different job functions look at similar situations, especially when those people are selling or buying products from one another. The customer in one scenario often turns around and becomes a supplier to someone else. The interdependencies are intriguing. You may also notice that I have been targeting people that write for their own sites or for their companies sites. While I intend to focus on the less well-known positions eventually, why not show off the great content they have already written on outside sites? Be sure to click through to their relevant posts from the links above.

Two questions:

  1. Do you (the reader) enjoy seeing these perspectives? I know I always appreciate the freshness that other perspectives add to this site, but am not sure that others feel the same.
  2. Do you have any questions for Mike specifically? These can be questions about the future of the industry (though I thought he gave some good explanations on the direction) or his past experiences or really anything!

Please leave your notes or questions in the comments area!

Analog Electronics Engineering Interview

A Talk With An Analog Chip Designer

People who have read this site before are sure to have seen some of the witty comments from our friend Fluxor, who writes on his site, Flying Flux. What you may not have taken the time to find out is that Fluxor is a successful analog chip designer and has worked on myriad designs throughout his career. In my continuing quest to learn more about analog electronics, and specifically the difference between an analog system designer and an analog chip designer, I asked Fluxor if he’d answer a few of my questions. He was very gracious with his time and gave great insight into the world of analog chip design.

CG: Could you explain your background? What kind of schooling did you get and what subjects did you focus on?

Fluxor: I studied Electrical Engineering at the University of Waterloo (largest engineering school in Canada) where there’s a mandatory co-op program which allowed me to get a peek inside industry during my undergrad years. I worked for a laser company (now defunct), a telecommunication giant (now defunct), an aviation equipment company (now defunct), and my own company that I started with classmates (now defunct). I was especially interested in analog circuits (see It’s a Digital World…) and pursued that interest in the form of a Master’s degree at the University of Toronto (largest EE grad school in Canada).

CG: What kind of demand was there for engineers with your skill set when entering the job market? Do you think those same demands exist today and into the future?

Fluxor: When I finished my Master’s, it was the golden age of hi-tech, a few years before the dot-com bubble burst. Within 2 weeks of starting my job search, I had four job offers in my hands. Today, new grads have a really hard time finding jobs and the future job growth in hi-tech is no doubt in China and India. My company’s CEO, who I like to call the Big Flux, recently said explicitly that the company intends to hire mostly in these two countries with only very targeted hiring within North America.

CG: What kind of (technical) software do you use on a daily basis? How much time in a day is spent with that software?

Fluxor: I used to use Cadence software on a daily basis until I moved into a team lead position. Nowadays, I mostly use Microsoft products in my role as a “PowerPoint Engineer“.

CG: You work with leading edge technologies. How do you begin to rectify the theoretical knowledge with the on-chip realities? Does simulation take care of most problems or is some kind of other prototyping possible?

Fluxor: Simulation accuracy depends on model accuracy. Model accuracy depends on a stable manufacturing process. Leading edge, by definition, means that the manufacturing process has yet to become stable. Designing with ambiguity is part of the job, but the situation is getting worse as technology advances and transistors move ever so much more into the nano-world.

Theoretical knowledge provide you with a starting point in design and is great for understanding first order or perhaps even second order effects. Beyond that, simulations are necessary. But because the models may be unreliable, engineers must either over-design or ensure designs are inherently insensitive to manufacturing variations.

Prototyping is possible — that’s called taping out a test chip. You don’t get too many testchips as they are very expensive (millions of dollars for each iteration). Most of our designs have one testchip. The next one is supposed to be the real product, although with design bugs, multiple iterations (or sub-iterations, such as metal changes) are not uncommon.

With chip design, you not only have to make the chip work, you have to make sure that out of the millions of chips that are produced (one product that I worked on is now in production — 1 million parts per week), almost every single one of them will work across varying supply voltage levels and temperatures. That’s called designing for manufacturability or designing for yield.

CG: What is the granularity of the pieces of the design you work on? Are you creating entirely new transistors or piecing them together into larger structures? Who does the architecture for the entire chip? How do you interact with people that create other components in that architecture?

Fluxor: I rarely do circuit design nowadays, but not too long ago, when I designed a PLL, I had to design at the transistor level for almost every single sub-block of the PLL. This means VCOs, charge pumps, loop filters, dividers, etc. That means deciding how large of a transistor you’d need and then stitching them all together to make, for example, a charge pump. Then at a higher level, stitching together the charge pump with the loop filter with the VCO, etc. to make a PLL. At the PLL level, system level simulations can be done with Matlab or other high level simulators, like Cadence’s AMS (analog mixed-signal).

Architectural work can be done at the block level, sub-system level, system level, chip level, board level, etc. How many levels you have in the chip depends on its complexity. There’s a good amount of architectural work that’s required at each level of design. Some are done by circuit designers, some are done by “architects” that do mostly Matlab simulations, and some are done by digital folks who are responsible for stitching each component of the chip together.

As for interactions with other groups — meetings, meetings, and more meetings.

CG: How much interaction do you have with the process people in the fab? Do you have any design decisions on low level characteristics (doping, etc) or is that preset as building blocks you are allowed to work with? Do you spend any time in the fab?

Fluxor: None, no, and no. Our company does have a group that deal directly with the fab. They have more say in how things are done.

CG: Once you receive first silicon how much time do you spend on the bench verifying the design? Do you take care of that yourself or is it left to test engineering?

Fluxor: Testing can go on for a year or two. Some of it is done locally in our new expensive lab, but most of it is left to test engineering with guidance from the circuit designers.

CG: How much do you hear back from end users on the implementation of your device? How does this feedback affect your future design decisions? Are you told to design to a certain specification or is it more of “As good as possible” for all characteristics?

Fluxor: Our customers are not end users. They take our chips and put them into a larger product that then gets sold to end users. We only hear back from our customers and their feedback can very well impact future design decisions. Our specs are a combination of hard specs (non-negotiable) and soft specs (I’ll do my best to meet them). Mostly, they’re hard specs.

CG: What, if anything, do you wish was different in your specific job? Do you wish you did anything differently in your career?

Fluxor: For me personally, I wish I didn’t have to work with the Psycho Colleague. But overall, this is the best company I’ve ever worked for. For one thing, it’s not defunct…yet; for another, I get free food! It’s also best job I’ve ever had and I feel awfully blessed to be in such a position; my last job was the absolutely worst job I’ve ever had (yes, even when compared against my high school job as a french fry maker).

If I had to do it all over again, I would have tried to work for Goldman Sachs. One year’s worth of bonuses is enough to retire on. I can then take that money and do all the cool and wacky engineering that I’d really like without worrying about money.

It was really great of Fluxor to take the time to explain the kinds of experiences he has had in the industry. In my own position I have realized that there are lots of different roles throughout the “electronics food chain”, from the chemical suppliers to a fab, to a test engineer in a packaging factory in China, to a board level designer such as myself, all the way to the sales people that hand you the cell phone you just purchased. I hope to find and talk to more people throughout the industry and get their perspective on how they view their positions and how they fit into the larger electronics scene. If readers know anyone, I would welcome suggestions. And of course I would try to focus on how the jobs of those I talk to specifically relates to analog electronics.

If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments and be sure to click through some of the links above and read Fluxor’s daily experiences!

Engineering House Learning Life

On The Importance of Prototyping

Sometimes I dive head first into problems and it gets me in trouble. Other times, this is called “prototyping”, which is encouraged in many engineering circles, and sometimes even required! The best case scenario is when you can flesh out the details and downfalls of a project before you make costly design decisions. You can realize not to use a particular op amp or even decide if a project is feasible at all.

I’m not shy to say that Google SketchUp is one of my recent favorite prototyping tools. While it’s not the SPICE simulation or the rapid circuit prototyping that most people might think of for analog system designers, it is useful in myriad projects. Even just knowing what form factor a future analog board might need to take (by making a quick drawing of what you envision your product to be) can save lots of time, money and headaches.

My experiences with Google SketchUp  prototyping (drawing, really) has been to help me realize what kinds of components I’m looking for when making design decisions. And it could help you too, at least in a mechanical perspective. Perhaps you know that a certain connector shape and size will be better than another. Or that you’re space constrained and can’t use a particularly large inductor.

My most recent (home) project has been building myself a home theater PC (or HTPC). I use it to watch shows on and surf the internet in my living room; in the future I might also task it with home automation type functions as well (turning on lights, closing blinds, etc). Quite convenient and the first PC I have ever built. But I wanted to mount the HTPC in a nearby stairwell to keep it out of sight. I first did a mockup drawing in Google Sketchup:

As you can see, the models are 3D; they’re darn easy to make too. I can’t speak highly enough of the program itself.

Aside from the program though, the results allowed me to figure out what I would need for my build. The first requirements were easy. I wanted to make sure my HTPC didn’t fall down the stairwell. I know, I’m a stickler for protecting my investments. But figuring out the shelf and strap idea was a breakthrough in my design. It would be low cost and sturdy. Here’s how it ended up looking:

Notice I ended up buying cheap off the shelf wall mounting brackets instead of trying to create my own out of 2x4s cut at funky angles. This was an iteration on the original design idea I had in the SketchUp drawing.

And a picture of the component that the model pointed to as critical for the design:

So would I have been able to design all of this without the “prototype” I made? Yeah, probably. I would have figured something out or used duct tape or something to get it all together and working in some capacity. In the situation shown here though, I was able to determine troublesome components and think of a workaround before they became an issue (i.e. it only took me one trip to the hardware store, pretty good given my past record).

So next time you’re doing a home or work project, try prototyping, even if it isn’t necessarily electrical (hey, maybe that’s even more reason to try it, right?). It could save you time, money and frustration.
Engineering Learning

Thoughts on the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam

Welp, it’s over. And I survived. We’ll see in about 10 weeks if it was worth it.

Overall, it was an interesting experience.

The test itself was very stringently administered. Imagine going to an airport. You stand in line for a long time. You get through the door. You make sure you have your ticket and your government issued ID out and ready to be checked. “Walk through the door please!”, they say.  Hold up your belongings. Are they all in a clear ziplock bag? They’d better be, otherwise they take them away. No cellphones during liftoff. No cellphones at all, you’ll get kicked off the plane in a second. Once you’re ready to disembark you need to wait for the attendants to finish checking. Everything. Thoroughly.

So what did I really learn? Something quite interesting:

I no longer plan to go to graduate school. (I had talked about possibly going back in a previous post)

That’s not really the subject of this post, I’d like to focus on that later, if at all. The short version is that I don’t think I am capable of the things that graduate school demands, at least from students who also work full time. Studying on a nightly basis, giving up all hobbies and time with loved ones; all of these things drive me away from the idea of getting an advanced degree. It’s not that I believe it wouldn’t help my career; I really just am not willing to give up my quality of life in order to get that particular piece of paper at this point in my life. Who knows? Perhaps there will be a time when it is truly required of me to have an advanced degree. However, from a learning perspective I feel that I would be forced to learn just as much–if not more–starting a company; plus that would be much more fulfilling in terms of having a similar time commitment and potential payoff (i.e. if I’m going to spend all that time, why not have a company instead of a piece of paper? Both look good on a resume, right?).

So back to the test. I had been studying for a month or so, perhaps a little bit longer in name only. I borrowed a used review book from a friend:

Everyone uses it, as I’m pretty sure it’s the only one out there. Want to know my personal/(possibly)professional (engineer) opinion? It was way overkill. 40 some odd chapters on every section that could possibly covered by the test. It went pretty deep about each and every topic, to the point that you might see the hardest question on the afternoon general section (the same range of topics as in the morning session, just more difficult). I think it’s important to note that depending on the year the testing board might throw one curveball after another your way or they might just keep lobbing softballs in your direction. Either way, you probably won’t need to learn (or re-learn) all of the material in the depth each chapter goes into with rigor.

Me? Well, I’m not allowed to tell you any details about the test itself. Our flight/test attendants were very sure to remind us over and over again that we were under non-disclosure agreements not to even talk about the test questions amongst our friends. What I believe I can say is that I enjoyed the afternoon section much more than the morning session. If you don’t know about the FE, the morning is 120 multiple choice questions spanning all of the knowledge that an engineer is expected to know after four years of engineering school. I would disagree. I would counter that the morning session is 120 questions for the mechanical and civil engineers. Now, it could be they have greater breadth in their respective disciplines, and even some crossover. It could be that being an engineer other than an electrical engineer requires greater cognitive capacity. Hell, it could be that I just didn’t study enough. But I’ll tell you, an electrical engineer such as myself has never known that much about beams, trusses or adiabatic systems…and never will! To add insult to injury, I think the EE questions were some of the softball-like questions on the exam. Let’s just say I probably had a much harder time with the mechanical/static stuff than the mechanical engineers had with electricity. Or maybe I just don’t care when a beam is going to start deforming irreversibly.

The afternoon session is 60 questions in your discipline, unless you decide you enjoyed the breadth of topics covered in the morning session or your particular discipline isn’t tested (BME for example). The section I decided to take was based upon electrical engineering topics, even expanding away from the typical circuits/power/E&M type questions into the DSP/communication/control disciplines (to all the NCEES people out there, this isn’t information that isn’t available in your lovely handbook). I definitely had to stretch my mind around some of the questions and even learn some before unseen topics while in the session. But that’s what engineering is really all about, right? In the end, if I passed the FE exam, I feel like these questions were much more in the direction I would have to take for the PE exam (to get final certification).

Would I do it again? Well, no, I don’t plan to (if I didn’t pass). I’m glad I tried it at least once. Does that make me sound like a quitter? Maybe. But I justify it as me not needing to be certified by a board that requires such stringent knowledge of beams. Ugh. Beams. Thank goodness there are people out there that enjoy studying and working with them. And that they’re certified to sign off that the beams won’t in fact bend.

Engineering Learning Work

Back to School?

Much like I’m not going to say that I’ve been too busy to post anything for the past 2-3 months, I’m not going to say that I’m definitely going back to school to get an advanced degree. However, I’ve considered saying both.

Really, I’ve considered going back to school as soon as I started my first job and was dissatisfied. I mean, who hasn’t? Aside from the fact that I was previously on a co-op cycle of (work, school, work, school, and so on), I really felt nostalgic for school; I found myself saying things like: “It’s so much less work when you’re in class for a few hours a day!”, “I’ll definitely love all those new subjects I’ll be studying!”, “I’ll have lots of free time during the day to get things done and then study at night!” and many others. They’re all complete bull of course, none of those things are true for full time grad students. In fact, school can be much harder at times. I often found myself so overloaded between (continued) work and school that I would be sleeping four hours a night; plus I’m guessing I would have been sleeping those same four hours had I not been working, the waking hours would have just been spent more effectively on my classes.

The only problem now is I can’t be a full-time student.

Well, I could, but all the kinds of debt I’d get myself into would be really unrealistic for the amount I would gain from an advanced degree. Since buying and fixing up my home last winter, I have taken on some markedly adult-like responsibilities in my life. And so I began investigating options. Going back to school is not something that I take lightly, nor should anyone out there; in the event that I make it back to school in the near future, it will be a long slog through homeworks and tests and unrealistic deadlines and the such. And all for a piece of paper. Luckily I had some great advice about school/work/life balance from my former boss and mentor:

Based on my experience, I would say make sure that all of your house projects are complete before you start and don’t plan on starting any new projects until you get your degrees (both of ‘em!). Also make sure your personal life is well-organized and in good working order. Don’t take in any more dogs, cats, or other mammals. You may also need to (*gasp*) scale back your musical activities.

While he was obviously joking about certain things there (no more music??), I take his advice to heart; I’ve also seen similar behavior from co-workers who are also in school right now. You really have to throw yourself into studies to get the most out of it. I think my perspective now that I’ve been out in the working world for a while will really allow me to succeed, both in the things I have already learned and how I approach problems.

The first kind of decision I will need to make is what kind of Master’s degree I would want to attain. I was actually quite surprised there was even more than one option available. The first degree I think most people think of in Electrical Engineering is an Masters of Science in Electrical Engineering (MSEE of MScEE). I already missed the boat on the BS/MS program that my alma mater offered; this was a program that allowed students to automatically segue from their undergraduate studies into an advanced degree, often taking Master’s courses early to help push the amount of time spent on the MS down to 1 year. So the next option I could have done was go back to school for a Master’s degree (the normal way) and then write a thesis at the completion of my studies. This would likely involve research with a faculty member and the thesis would be based around that research. I doubt this option would be possible for me, because of the aforementioned house, mortgage and “grown-up” responsibilities, up to and including my job (which I wouldn’t want to give up either). Yet another option would be a “project-only” MSEE offered at some schools that would involve the same coursework as any other master’s degree; however, the thesis would be replaced with a project, possibly in conjunction with day-job projects (but probably segmented in some way or another). At the programs I am looking at, this option is only allowed when working full time and going to school part time; luckily, that is one of my few options. The other interesting option is something that is called a “Master’s of Engineering” (in Electrical Engineering in this case). My alma mater offers such a degree (abbreviated as “MEng”) and has a streamlined course offering for engineers in my situation. The degree leans more towards mixing business and science, as many engineers do on a daily basis. In that regard, it could be a very helpful degree, in the event it imparts the necessary business acumen to get by in the hard business world. However, I question the degree and how it would be viewed in the working world once I am finished:

  • Will employers view it as a lesser degree if I try to stay in the technical field?
  • Will a MEng degree limit where I can go in my career?
  • Do I ever want to get a PhD or am I OK with a “terminal degree” such as an MEng?
  • Will I be able to learn all the technical things in a more balanced program such as the MEng?

I’ve also been considering which schools I would even be able to attend. Thanks to the digital age, commuting distances have been shortened to only the time it takes for light to travel down a wire. What that means for John Q Public-school-graduate such as myself is that a lot more schools are now accessible to a full time worker. And not just the University of Phoenix here either. We’re talking top 50 engineering schools. Who you ask? How about:

  1. Stanford
  2. Georgia Tech
  3. Purdue
  4. University of Florida

Even those four provide a pretty heavy hitting list of top research institutions offering the course work entirely online. Sure, this might be a more difficult way to collaborate with others in your class or work on projects or communicate with the teacher; but it also means that geographical barriers are becoming less and less of an issue. If I had an online electronics store that I ran out of a shack in the backwoods of North Carolina, I could now attend the number 2 engineering school in the country just as well as someone living in Palo Alto (assuming I was accepted). So while I do have a wonderful institution and my alma mater in my backyard (CWRU), I also have more options and more specialized coursework for whatever branch of EE I would like to explore more.

So what next? I guess now I have to take the GRE and get applying (and eventually figure out how I would pay for it all…). As much as I’ve thought about the potential convenience of going to an online version of a school, it’s applying just like any other Master’s Student. So really the online programs are more like you’re enrolled at the school, you just can’t ever make it to class because you’re sick all the time; plus the professors are nice enough to send home your schoolwork (but not in a folder like back in elementary school days).

In the coming weeks/months/years (who knows?), I’ll try not to write about school plans too much. However,  think there are some issues that merit discusion on here and elsewhere (and hey, I like getting help from people responding in the comments). I’ll probably write at least once about my potential area of studies (should they be similar to what I’m doing right now? Should they be more towards my interest in DSP?). I’d really love feedback from anyone that happens to read this, especially students who went back to school after being in the working world for a while. Please leave any tips or tricks you might have in the comments.