Analog Electronics Interview

A Talk With A Science and Engineering Journalist

In this continuing series about the electronic food chain, I thought it would be interesting to hear the perspective of  someone who writes about leading edge technologies on a regular basis. We’ve already heard from an RF analog chip designer, an EDA software consultant and an electronics industry analyst. There will be more interviews to come in the future and suggestions are always welcome.

How do most engineers get information about projects they aren’t working on directly? I often hear it is from technical magazines. I have also been told by my mentors the benefit of keeping up to date on innovation that might eventually become the new standard. Just think, one day however many years ago, they were discussing WiFi in magazines–even though it was not widespread. And now it’s so standard that I’m using it for free in an airport while writing this post! The point is, keeping up on technology is important. But who gathers all this information for us to later digest?

Dr. Sunny Bains is a journalist and editor who covers many different scientific and engineering topics. You’ve probably seen some of her pieces in magazines like EEtimes, The Economist, Wired and many other large scale publications. I first found her site while looking around the internet for more writings on analog topics. She is very interested in both the use of analog information in electrical and biological systems and how these might advance computing power in the future.

Chris Gammell: What kicked off your desire to study these subjects?

Dr. Sunny Bains: Actually, the first thing I fell in love with was holography: I saw my first hologram when I was about 9 when I went to visit my dad in Canada and we took a trip to the Ontario Science Centre. They also had a laser show there, and between the two I got hooked on the technology. Science fiction also helped: I remember being inspired by various shows and movies: Star Trek, Blakes 7, Tron, 2001… Being a girl, I think I was a bit behind my male colleagues in doing actual practical stuff. A number of my male friends got their first computer when we were about 13 (ZX81). My younger brother had computers all through high school. I only got one when I had been at college for a year and decided to start a magazine about holography.

Holography took me towards lasers and optoelectronics, optical computing and signal processing, and then more widely to machine intelligence and vision.

CG: What made you decide to then pursue journalism?

SB: I always knew that writing would be part of my scientific future. I imagined myself sitting in my office doing work and writing articles when people asked me to. I don’t know why… I wasn’t a huge writer when I was in high school. But I actually started applying for science-journalism related jobs when I was still in high school.

CG: I see that you’re a lecturer and researcher at Imperial College in London . What kind of work do you target? Is it still holography?

SB: My favorite subject for some time has been neuromorphic engineering: building analog circuits with brainlike structures. However, I’m still interested in all sorts of things in the area of emerging computing technologies, machine intelligence, optoelectronics and displays.

My PhD (you can see the introductory stuff on my website) was about physical computation and embodied artificial intelligence. Basically, I’m interested in analog information, and using physics rather than digital algorithms to do processing. That theme often comes through in the writing I do these days on my blog.

CG: How about the work you do now?

SB: These days I focus on three things work wise…my company, my teaching (communication skills for engineers) and my writing. Although I will say, it’s hard to write in a recession: advertising budgets are slashed, the number of editorial pages go down, and freelancers like me are cut. Since my PhD I haven’t done any research in the science/engineering sense of actually doing my own work, just in the journalism sense of finding out what others are doing.

CG: Do you think this neuromorphic type work will lead to a singularity, a la Ray Kurzweil?

SB: I hated Ray Kurzweil’s book… you can see my review on my blog.

CG: If a student were to want to go into a field like neuromorphic engineering, should they focus on the analog side of things or the biological side of things?

SB: I think it’s MUCH more important for students to focus on analog electronics side of things. All that math is really hard, but once you’ve mastered it you can do anything. The biology you can pick up by osmosis I think. Anyway, you’re often focusing on some very small system in very great detail, and you’d have to learn all that at the time anyway. In some ways I wish I could be a neuromorphic engineer: I’ve got a fair bit of knowledge and a lot of interest. But I think being an engineer is the most important thing to make progress. That’s not to say that pure biologists don’t play a crucial role… it’s just that they can’t do much to create device: just find things/build models for the engineers to copy and, in some cases, do experiments to determine how well the engineers have done. Of course, I live in an Electrical and Electronic Engineering department, so I would say that…

CG: I’d be more interested in hearing more about your typical day, both as a publisher and a scientist. What is your typical day like?

SB: No such thing as an average day I’m afraid. From mid-September to mid-March I’m pretty busy with teaching and spend the most of the rest of my time running my company. If I’m lucky I write the odd piece if I have time. In the summer I try to work on other projects. That could be writing, research, or something for the company. This summer I’m working on a book about technical communication for engineers and physical scientists, and a new project for the company. As such, I don’t really have time to work as a scientist now; I only really did while I was doing my PhD (although that was for a long time). However, I think it’s quite likely that I’ll go back to scientific research at some stage as I tend to go back and forth between my various areas of interest.

CG: How do you first find out about the topics you write about? It seems like you often break stories that are very leading edge.

SB: I get my ideas from three main sources: conferences and other events (like one-off talks, workshops etc.), lab visits (where you just go to a lab and let them show off what they think is cool), and journals. I used to love going to the university libraries in the various cities where I lived and looking at all the new issues… Of course this is all done electronically now (no photocopying, hooray!). I’ve got some great stories by just seeing patterns in papers over a period of time. I do wish I could go back to writing regularly again. I know I could write more on my blog, but it was always supposed to be a byproduct of my freelance work, not a substitute for it.

CG: Do you have any predictions on the future of analog (since your articles are often very forward looking)?

SB: I am convinced that analog is the way to go for applications that are heavy in signal processing, and especially AI. Unlike with symbolic information, the “meaning” of signals does not always translate well into bits. Probably the story in the past that I’ve covered that exemplifies this best concerns Leon Chua’s cellular neural network. But the whole of neuromorphic engineering is built on the same idea: don’t break things into bits if you can just as easily use physics to do the computation for you.

Many thanks to Dr. Sunny Bains for taking the time to talk about her line of work. I was actually surprised when I first learned that she had so much exposure to neuromorphic engineering, a topic someone had previously suggested on the skribit portion of this site. It’s interesting how those futuristic ideas seem to dovetail with much of the analog knowledge of today; that often the most effective signal processing is still done in analog. Hopefully we’ll continue to see this trend and I’ll be able to write about it here.

If you have questions for Dr. Bains, please leave them in the comments!

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!

Blogging Conferences Digital Electronics Learning

ESC Chicago and Sensors Conference and Expo, Day 2


What a whirlwind day. I started at 7:30 am and I ended at 10:30 pm, my mind still reeling. I was talking Beagle Boards and Agile processes in the morning and discussing the media (with the media) and visiting hackerspaces in the evening. But the best part about it? I felt like there were a lot of people around me that cared about similar stuff to what I do.

I am lucky enough to work with some of these people as well. But the nerd population in Cleveland isn’t at the critical mass that occurs at conferences nor at hackerspaces. So yesterday was a great opportunity to converse on some of the topics I love with people who were interested to hear it (in person of course, I realize there are many great people who “listen” to me on this site…thanks!).

The theme I kept finding throughout the day (or perhaps was seeking), was figuring out where the communities are and why hardware engineers (or even embedded engineers) don’t seem to congregate in one place. This started in the morning talking to James Grenning, a consultant and coach on Agile methodologies; I got talking to him and found that many of the same issues I’ve seen in trying to find analog communities, he has also seen in the embedded community. “Where are they?” we ask. “Why doesn’t there seem to be as much involvement online from the electronics community?”. James specializes in bringing Agile to the embedded community; easy to find people to speak with about the Agile part, less so for the embedded folks.

Towards the end of the day, I had the opportunity to talk to the folks at Element 14, a new engineering community site. I had heard about them earlier in the day; they were on the conference floor giving away iPads and the usual conference swag.  How does a “community” site have the money to attend a conference though? I later found out that they are a subsidiary of Premier Farnell, one of the top 10 electronics components distributors and recent acquirers of the EAGLE CAD program. As of right now, I’m underwhelmed with the site itself (NI uses the same interface and it’s not all that friendly to the eye nor the user), but not necessarily the content. It seems to have some involvement right now, but not the levels that I really desire (I’m hard to please!); I do like that they have qualified “experts” on hand, but haven’t taken a good enough look at them yet to judge how “expert” they might be (assuming I could even tell something like that). I will keep an eye on Element 14 though, because of one of their innovative programs: linking manufacturers to customers. They offer beta services, as in finding and requesting feedback from users on a range of products. In terms of value a site can have for both the user and the sponsors, I believe this is a strong one.

Next I got to meet Karen Field, the head of the new EETimes community, EELife. While this site hasn’t been released yet, the article I saw on it looked like a fancy implementation of a location to share info with other engineers. In fact, it may have been a little too fancy–the release of the site was pushed out from its proposed date. Still, I’m hopeful that the site could actually bring people together. EETimes has a great following in print and online; if there’s one place that people might think to go to first, EETimes might have the name recognition to do it.

Here’s the thought that keeps irking me though: the corporate world isn’t great at “social”. It doesn’t help that engineers aren’t quite social creatures by nature. Sure, some companies use social media to their advantage, but a lot more are using it wrong.

I got a chance to talk to Jason Kridner about why this might be. Jason is one of the many passionate members behind the Beagle Board group, a high powered open-source hardware board based on the TI OMAP processor (though Jason explained that the Beagle Board is a separate entity in every way from TI). When I asked him why communities such as the Beagle Board developers come together, he stated it simply and succinctly: “They unite behind a common purpose”. In the case of the Beagle Board, it’s about having a high power processor on an open platform (possibly contrasted with a slightly simpler Arduino board using an AVR processor, also on an open platform). And the community shows; there are many open projects you can pull down from the GIT tree and start immediately on your Beagle Board. The ones that excite me most are the DIYdrone types of projects.

At the meet and greet later in the evening, I started talking with some conference attendees that also happened to be members of the local hackerspace. They invited me to attend one of their weekly meetings at their location. The Pumping Station 1 (PS1) hackerspace/makerspace has been around for about 2 years now and is one of the only in Chicago as of now (more are forming). It was great seeing this area of shared tools, DIY projects and a general atmosphere of collaboration, for no reason more than these people wanted to make stuff in their spare time. And one of the things I found most interesting is that many of the projects going on at the space were embedded projects! The desire to have things talk wireless almost demands that you start to delve into low level code and be able to get your device talking to another device. So while I came to learn about the broad range of sensors and embedded devices this week, I ended up finding the lower-end (in terms of system complexity) but used for unique and intricate implementations (they had built their own MakerBot to CNC parts right there in the lab…amazing!).

So what was the conclusion to my small quest for finding community among the different factions of the electronics industry? There isn’t one general location or place to gather. And possibly for good reason. It’s more like a democratic republic in that way, where members get to vote with their feet. Say a platform really starts to bog down and no one is developing on it anymore. People aren’t tied to it because the “community” is locked in; instead they just pick up and move platforms. “Don’t like the PIC anymore? Switch to an OMAP! OMAP too expensive? Switch to an AVR!” So perhaps the real need is instead an active listing of where to find all these different communities, in whatever form they take; message boards, blogs, video tutorials, anything and everything–as long as the list stays current, it will be valuable. In fact it would be much more valuable than trying to pull in every single person into one platform.

I didn’t come to these two conferences for this purpose. I could have looked for it at home while browsing the web (I’ve done that before too). But in the midst of walking among many smart people and many products made by other smart people I’ve collected hints. Where to look and who to talk to in order to find the most people interested in technology, in whatever form or level of complexity it may take.

Analog Electronics Conferences Learning

Going A-Conferencing!

I recently found out that I’ll be attending the Embedded Systems Conference in Chicago early next week. I also will be attending some of the events at Sensors Expo & Conference, which is being held in the same conference center. I couldn’t be happier that I get to attend two conferences in one shot AND that I get to visit Chicago in the process.

So why embedded systems? “I thought this was a site about analog electronics,” you say. Well, it is. But good luck making an all-analog system these days. These days, analog is more about signal conditioning, power, control and accuracy. I mean, everything is analog in the end. Even digital signals will look analog if you clock them fast enough; but the point is, digital is an important topic to know as well. Embedded systems let you interface to the fun analog systems at a lower level (think running code in C instead of a full blown implementation of Windows) so you can run your systems even faster, cheaper and using less power.

The sensors expo will fit in nicely. Sensors are what analog is built on. They are how electronics interact with the real world! So I look forward to reporting on all the new interface products that are out there.

Finally, this will be my first real conference, at least the first I’ve traveled to outside of a 30 mile radius of where I live. I’ve encountered conferences before–and the culture that they have–but never on a scale like this. It will be interesting to see an electronics conference this large. I recently read “Never Eat Alone” by Keith Ferrazzi. He has an entire chapter about the benefits of conferences, how to work them more effectively and most importantly, how to meet people. I hope to make some connections and add to the growing section on this site of interviews with people from industry.

What about you? Have you ever been to any large electronics conferences? Anyone happen to be going to these conferences? Any tips for this relatively new guy? Any new technologies I should be on the lookout for? Let me know in the comments!

Analog Electronics Digital Electronics Interview

A Talk With An EDA Consultant

As more circuits get pushed into SoC (Systems on a Chip), the software that designs them becomes more and more important. Well, it’s been important for a while now. Important enough to be a multi-billion dollar industry. Biiiiig money.

Harry Gries is an EDA consultant with over 20 years in the electronics industry in various roles. He now consults for different companies and also writes a blog about his experience called “Harry…The ASIC Guy”. I love hearing about the different pieces of the electronics food chain and Harry was nice enough to take some time to talk to me about his work. Let’s see what he had to say…

CG: Could you please explain your educational and professional background and how you got to where you are today?

Harry The ASIC Guy (HTAG): My education began when I was raised by wolves in the Northern Territory of Manitoba. That prepared me well for a stint at MIT and USC, after which I was abducted by aliens for a fortnight. I then spent 7 years as a digital designer at TRW, 14 years at Synopsys as an AE, consultant, consulting and program manager. Synopsys and I parted ways and I have been doing independent consulting for 3 years now. A good friend of mine tricked me into writing a blog, so now I’m stuck doing that as well.

CG: What are some of the large changes you see from industry to industry? How does company culture vary from sector to sector?

HTAG: Let’s start with EDA, which did not really exist when the aliens dropped me off in 1985. There were a few companies who did polygon pushing tools and workstations and circuit complexity was in the 1000s of gates. Most large semiconductor companies had their own fabs and their own tools. Gate arrays and standard cell design was just getting started, but you had to use the vendor’s tools. Now, of course, almost all design tools are made by “EDA companies”.

As far as the differences between industries and sectors, I’m not sure that is such a big difference culturally. The company culture is set from the top. If you have Aart DeGeus as your founder, then you have a very technology focused culture. If you have Gerry Hsu (former Avant! CEO), then you have a culture of “win at all costs”.

CG: How hard was it for you to jump from being a designer to being in EDA? What kinds of skills would someone looking to get into the industry need?

HTAG: The biggest difference is clearly the “soft skills” of how to deal with people, especially customers, and understanding the sales process. For me it was a pretty easy transition because I had some aptitude and I really had a passion for evangelizing the technology and helping others. If someone wanted to make that change, they would benefit from training and practice on communicating effectively, dealing with difficult people, presentation skills, influence skills, etc.

CG: With regards to the EDA industry, how much further ahead of the curve does the software end up being? For instance, is EDA working on software necessary to define the 13 nm node currently?

HTAG: As you know, the industry is never at a single point. Rather, there is a spectrum of design nodes being used with some small percentage at the most advanced nodes. Most EDA tools are being developed to address these new nodes, often in partnership with the semiconductor manufacturers developing the process node or the semiconductor designers planning to use them. The big EDA companies are really the only ones, for the most part, that have the resources to do this joint development. Whatever is the newest node being developed, some EDA company is probably involved.

CG: You have written about the nature of the industry and how there being few players affecting the nature of the system. What kinds of limitations do you see in the industry due to the economies of scale (TSMC dominance, for instance)?

HTAG: Consolidation is a fact in any industry and a good thing in EDA. Think of it as natural selection whereby the good ideas get gobbled up and live on with more funding (and the innovators are rewarded); the bad ideas die out. Most small EDA companies would want to be bought out as their “exit”. At the same time, there are some “lifestyle companies” also in EDA where the founders are happy just making a good living developing their tools and selling them without having to “sell out” to a larger company. For all these small companies, the cost of sales is a key factor because they cannot afford to have a larger world-wide sales direct force as the larger EDA companies have. That’s where technologies like Xuropa come into play, that enable these smaller companies to do more with less and be global without hiring a global sales force.

CG: What drives the requirements placed upon new technology in the EDA space? How are the products developed? Are there a lot of interactions with specific big name designers (i.e. Intel) or does it shade more to the manufacturers (TSMC)?

HTAG: In fact, a handful of key customers usually drive the requirements, especially for small companies. When I was at Synopsys, Intel’s needs was the driver for a number of years. Basically, the larger the customer, the greater the clout. Other customers factor in, but not as much. The most advanced physical design capabilities of the tools are often a collaboration between the EDA company and the semiconductor manufacturers (e.g. TSMC) and the also the designers (e.g. Qualcomm). Increasingly, EDA tools are focusing on the higher-levels and you are seeing partnerships with software companies, e.g. Cadence partnering with Wind River.

CG: A good chunk of chip design is written and validated in code. This contrasts with much more low level design decisions in the past. In your opinion how has this changed the industry and has this been a good or bad thing? Where will this go in the future, specifically for analog?

HTAG: Being a digital designer and not an analog designer, it’s all written in code. Obviously, the productivity is much higher with the higher level of abstraction and the tools are able to optimize the design much better and faster than someone by hand. So it’s all good.

For analog, I am not as tied in but I know that similar attempts are being tried; they use the idea that analog circuits can be optimized based on a set of constraints. I think this is a good thing as long as the design works.  Digital is easy in that regard, just meet timing and retain functionality and it’s pretty much correct. For analog there is so much more (jitter, noise margin, performance across process variation, CMRR, phase margin, etc, etc). I think it will be a while before analog designers trust optimization tools.

CG:It seems that the EDA industry has a strong showing of bloggers as compared to system level board engineers or even chip designers. What kinds of benefits have you seen in your own industry from having a network of bloggers and what about EDA promotes having so many people write about it?

HTAG: I think blogging is just one form of communication and since EDA people are already communicators (with their customers), they have felt more comfortable blogging than design engineers. Many of the EDA bloggers are in marketing types of positions at their companies or are independent consultants like me, so the objective is to start a conversation with customers that would be difficult to have in other ways. A result is that this builds credibility for themselves that then accrues to their company. I think there has also been a ton of sharing and learning due to these blogs and that has benefited the entire industry. On a personal level, I know so many more people due to the blog and that network is of great value.

CG: How has your career changed since moving back out of the EDA space and into consulting? What kind of work have you been doing lately?  How has your experience helped you in consulting?

HTAG: It is interesting to have been on the EDA side and then move back into the design side. Whenever I communicate with an EDA company, whether a presentation or a tool evaluation or any conversation, I can easily put myself in their shoes and know where they are coming from. On the one hand, I can spot clearly manipulative practices such as spreading FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) about a competitor and I can read between the lines to gain insights that others would miss. On the other hand, I also understand the legitimate reasons that EDA companies make certain decisions, such as limiting the length of tool evaluations, qualifying an opportunity, etc.

Most recently I’ve been working on some new technology development at a new process node. It’s been interesting because I’ve been able to dig deeper into how digital libraries are developed, characterized, and tested and I’ve also learned a lot more about the mixed-signal and analog world and also the semiconductor process.

Many thanks to Harry for taking the time to answer some questions about his industry and how he views the electronics world. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments or pop over to Harry’s main site and leave a comment there.

Analog Electronics Blogging Learning

Clueless About Income

I’ve been going over my personal finances lately. I’ve decided that I would like to increase my wealth (shocker, I’m sure). I’ve always been a bit of a cheapskate and I’ve cut back more thanks to the recession. And so I need to go in the other direction. And why not? Making more is just as effective as spending less on the road to wealth.

So how do I make money?

I’ve never really thought about that before. I guess there are the conventional routes:

  1. Ask for more money at my current job — We’re in a recession, remember? Try again.
  2. Get a new job — I could, but I like my current job and there are a lot of hidden costs with changing jobs. My move from Austin was pricey, and that was with help from my current employer. Not to mention I would have to win out over the many other qualified people out there who are currently employed. No thanks.
  3. Win the lottery — Ah yes, the illogical man’s backup plan. This wasn’t serious, I’m just trying to illustrate how little I’ve thought of making more money for myself in the past.

Wasn’t that a fun exercise? I’m not saying that’s all there is, I’m saying that’s all that came to mind before I really started thinking about it. So what other options are there?

Well, I’m sure at least one or two of you have noticed that I run a website. I could pretend that I could make money on here, selling links and putting up ads for people, but I just don’t think it will work; plus I usually hate how that stuff looks on websites. Aside from the fact that you really can’t make money with a blog, I’m not even sure I would want to. If you focus all your efforts on your one endeavor (such as writing), you lose the spice that makes your perspective so unique. Why else would an online comic artist go back to school for physics? (duh, to get good jokes about nerds!) I’d prefer to write AND continue working with analog electronics every day to be able to use skills I learn from one in the other.

Then there’s consulting. Ah, the money that can be made from consulting, so they say (you know…”they”). The thing is, I really don’t have that much experience yet nor do I have the contacts necessary (the most important part, so I hear). And this whole model is still dependent on others giving you a salary of sorts (albeit with more independence). While this is a possibility in the future, I just don’t see this as a possibility yet. (FYI: I also group “freelancing” in with this category. Freelancing is just consulting for a much lower price in my opinion).

Well why not make something? Selling a product has probably never been easier. The supply chain is set up, you can get prototypes up quickly and cheaply and there is a whole region of the world just waiting for you to send ideas their way that they can manufacture. The problem is, I said I want to make money, not spend it. And spend you will if you ever try to launch a product in any capacity. There’s always the homemade versions of electronics, such as kit manufactures and hobbyist board houses, but they’ve got those models down pat and I don’t have a lot of interest. So as of now, I’m counting the “product” idea out as well.

I wrote this post because I wanted to point out that there may be lots of ways to make money, but I’m stuck in a mode where I am dependent on others to give me a salary. That’s a dangerous position and one that will limit your earning potential over the life of your career. I’ve stated that one of my long term goals is to start my own company, but I’m thinking that I should perhaps start in sooner than later. That way I can get the mistakes out of the way early and decide if it’s a hobby or an actual money making endeavor. The main thing holding me back is that I have zero clue as to what I would do.

What about you? Have you broken out of the conventional model of going to work every day and earning a steady paycheck? I’m on the beginning steps of a long journey that could take many directions and having one or two people wave at me from down the path might make me feel a little better about thinking about finally leaving home.

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.