First Day Rejection

Well, it’s my first day out on my own and I have already had a rejection. Whee!

In reality, it was a contract job that I bid on without too much expectation of getting the work. I definitely was not counting on this work as part of my survival in my new jump to self employment. Mostly it was an interesting problem that I would have enjoyed working on and I would have been able to work with some good people; this is my main disappointment with not getting the work.

However, I did get feedback on my proposal, which is great. A lot of times, people will just blow you off and you later get the, “Oh, we went with someone else” a few months down the road. The feedback was positive, that the proposal was well enough done, which was reassuring because I haven’t submitted many in the past. The reality of the situation was that they decided to go with a completely different architecture for the project, which I had no chance of doing well. As such, their decision to not go with me was a good one.

I suppose the biggest disappointment after “not getting the work” was that I failed to convince them to see my solution as the best solution (really the point of any proposal). I knew this would be an uphill battle from the beginning as the project manager seemed to favor the other way of architecting the solution. But how do you change someone’s mind when they have been envisioning a particular type of solution from the beginning? This isn’t isolated to this situation, I have experienced a preconceived notion by managers in the past.

I could complain about a manager making a decision in a vacuum, but the truth is, I don’t know if this decision was made in a vacuum. In fact, it could be that the solution that was asked for is in fact the best way to go forward. If I really wanted (or needed) the work, I suppose I could tailor a solution to the manager’s preconceived notion, quickly iterate on it and show how it ultimately will fail as a final solution and then be ready to propose the alternate (better) solution. Is this realistic as a contractor? No. I think from the outset if you plan on failure, you’re going to hurt your reputation. Plus, as I mentioned above, I have no way of actually creating the (preconceived) solution, so this wouldn’t have even been an option for me. I think the only real way for me to win this (long term) would be to develop this solution on my own for fun/educational purposes and then be at the ready to offer it up later as a possible solution, assuming the preconceived method does ultimately fail. In reality, I have other things to get done, so I’ll just wait and see if they call and I’ll start on the work then.

So yeah, first day out of the gate and I’ve already had a rejection! It feels good to get it out of my system…I’m sure no more will happen in the future…right? RIGHT? Riiiiiiiiiiiight.


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?

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.