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So, You Want to be a Chip Designer?

Readers:  I need your help! A young graduate has approached me with basic questions about a career in the chip design profession, e.g., needed skills, most popular tools/programs, list of books that provide a good introduction to the field and more (see below). While I have my own answers to these questions, I’m sure this future chip designer would greatly benefit from your answers as well. Thx, all! – John Blyler, EiC

November 7, 2008:  Hi Mr. Blyler. I have some questions about becoming a chip designer. I know that you are very busy man but I think you can point me on the right direction. I have a BS in Math: Computer Science. On December I’ll finish as second BS in Electrical Engineer from the same university and for the last 4 years I have work as a Systems Administrator for a medical science group on the university.

I would like to start a career as a chip designer but don’t know where to start. I have look at job description for this career at Intel and AMD but they ask for lots of experience (which I don’t have). My Engineering degree is more based on power and control design. I know that many of this material are discussed at a Masters Degree level, but I was wondering if I could something in this field with my current education?

I would also like to know:
> What skill can help on this field? (I already know C/ C++)
> Any books you suggest I could read?  (Please keep in mind I don’t have much knowledge on this field)
> Which jobs I should be looking for to obtain experience from?
> Which tools and programs I should know?

I really appreciate you help with this and give my thanks to you in advance.

11 Responses to “So, You Want to be a Chip Designer?”

  1. Lou Covey Says:

    Speaking from a NON-chip design background, I’d advise getting as much knowledge and experience in software development…because that’s where the jobs will be.

    He might consider moving oversease. A lot of people would say India, but I know Scotland has 400,000 skilled job openings available and they can’t find enough applicants. Scotland is a GREAT place for a young professional.

  2. John Blyler Says:

    Good feedback, Lou. Software development is a prerequisite for anyone in today’s chip design world. Of course, they should also know what a transistor actually looks like.

    I’d love to work in Scotland for a while. :)

  3. killer Says:

    Are these guys joking…what has software development got to do with chip design; absolutely nothing.
    I am a chip designer (specifically memory chip design). Let me lay it down for you in a simple bullet point overview.
    knowledge needed:
    . understanding of digital or analogue circuit design
    . understanding of design methodologies
    . understanding of transistor process technology
    graduate skills needed:
    . use of high level design languages such a VHDL or Verilog or analogue
    . Standard cell / full custom design flows or analogue design flows.

    therefore you need an Msc in Microelectronics nothing less will do.

  4. John Blyler Says:

    Hi Killer. Thx for responding and of course you’re correct. Electronic Engineering – semiconductor focus – is the prerequisite knowledge.

    I think part of the difficulty is that chip hardware and software (including device drivers, RTOS and even application level) need to be designed at the same time (as closely as humanly possible) in the early phases of the product life cycle. This means that, in addition to the prerequisite knowledge, hw engineers should know how to program in C/C++. I believe most EEs now use C/C++ as the design language in their basic circuits analysis course. (I used Fortan, but that was a few years ago.)

    Tighter design times mean that programmers (CS degrees) need to understand more of the basics of hw devices. I’m seeing this push in the local PSU CS program, but it has a long way to go.

    Perhaps a tangential question would be: What is meant by a chip designer?

  5. Alan Coppola Says:

    I agree with Killer,
    and suggest either going to a school that both has a strong program in the level of chip/system design that the student is interested in, and has a co-op, course or thesis
    program that allows to the student to experience making a chip/system before
    they look for a job.

    Getting practical knowledge by doing systems/chips is the only way to actually
    get into this line of work.


  6. John Blyler Says:

    The experts have spoken! To do chip design, you’ve got to have the right education and experience!

    BTW: Congrats Alan on your (OptNgn) new optimized FFT library suite for FPGA designs, sold and supported by Impulse Accelerated.

  7. Dave Chapman Says:

    Well, I’ve been in and out of the chip design world for many years,
    mostly in a support role (software, verification, and project management),
    so I guess I can make some comments:

    1. Hiring managers do not respect book learning. Spending money on
    classes is a waste of time. Only on-the-job training counts.

    2. When going for a job, pay attention to which language they are using.
    System Verilog is the up-and-coming language. VHDL is used for military,
    aerospace, and European stuff. Plain old verilog rules everywhere else.
    Nobody in the real world designs chips using C++.

    3. Try not to get stuck in verification. They will tell you some fairy tale
    about how you do verification for a couple of years and then you get
    to do design, but it’s not true. You’ll get type-cast as a verification guy
    and will never get to do design. (I have 5 years of verification.)

    4. FPGAs are steadily taking market share away from ASICs. This is good
    news and it is bad news. The good news is that FPGAs are a lot easier
    and cheaper than ASICs. The bad news is that FPGA tools are cheaper,
    and they are not very good.

    5. Systems increasingly have embedded processors, usually some kind of
    32-bit RISC machine like an ARM or a PowerPC. This means that you will
    have to have a fairly high level of knowledge of real-time embedded
    software if you want to be a senior chip designer. The ability to write
    a device driver for VxWorks is going to be good enough.

    As regards the issue of how to get that first job, there are two
    basic approaches:

    1. Go to some place like Silicon Valley, Northern Virginia, or Southern
    California and keep applying for jobs until you get one. This will take
    a while, considering the fact that we are in a recession.

    2. Apply all over the country for ASIC designer jobs and/or FPGA designer
    jobs. Move to Lexington, KY if that’s where the job is.

    Oh, yeah. Every day that you are unemployed, call your Congressman
    and tell them that there is NOT a shortage of Engineers in this country
    and that we do NOT need to import any more H1-B slaves.

    That last part is kind of important.


  8. Andre Powell Says:

    I agree there are a lot of points in there but let me take a slightly different approach.
    He has a software background thus the knowledge of how to assemble a design and think through logically.
    I am a great believer in hands on experience so an interesting route would be to start programming something like a microcontroller (there are lots of companies out there who will provide cheap and small boards). This would actually start forming a bridge between his present software knowledge and actually interfacing with real hardware. This provides two sets of things.
    1. Some practical Electronics (ie interfacing etc).
    2. The concept of TIME will appear. I have spoken to some software people who have no concept of time in the respect to how things are done, their background is that it’s all instantaneous (trying to explain a pipeline was painful !).

    I would hope that because of 1 he would start to understand analogue electronics and also digital electronics. Note also that a lot of Microcontroller boards come with various example circuits so this would help.

    The next step from there is that he would want to create something complex digitally yet this would be cumbersome using discrete logic. Thus moving on to a CPLD or FPGA.
    To use this he would then have to learn a HDL.
    Dare I say (and this make me slightly grind my teeth ! :) ) as he is familiar with C/C++ then he would have more affinity to Verilog, but VHDL would be (IMHO) be a better option. He would have to learn how to describe a circuit by drawing it and then describing it.
    Cypress used to do something called Warp, it even included a book on using VHDL and another describing various circuits and designs.
    However Xlinx and Altera do the design packages for almost nothing if not free these days that come with a simulator.

    If he went down that route (and it isn’t a short one) then he could demonstrate enough of a skill set to allow him in as a graduate working on some low level IP.
    From there he could then start to get really into chip design as his experience grows.

    Also he would be exposed directly to things that may make him think that there are alternative options that he might enjoy.

    Even with an education that is designed for chip design it does not directly give you the appreciation of how to design a chip, it’s like all Engineering, you have to do it to understand it.

    By the way as to the remark from one of your previous respondants, where exactly are these 400,000 Chip Design jobs in Scotland ?

  9. Steve Says:

    I’ve been in chip design for more than 10 years doing verification, silicon bring up, and more recently FPGA emulation and design. I agree mostly with what Killer and the others have said. The best path forward is an MS in EE with a focus on microelectronics. For many entry level jobs we hire for MS is a requirement, for more senior jobs either MS or significant industry experience.

    If that path isn’t available then the next best is what Andre described. Leverage the programming experience into a job working on embedded systems which will provide exposure to hardware and the opportunity to do some FPGA hardware design using verilog. This is a satisfactory job in itself, and if the desire to move to real ASIC design is still there it’s a path to ASIC style synthesis.

    There is a broad spectrum of jobs in chip design, from the front end design and verification, synthesis/placement flows, custom or semi custom circuit design, to back end implementation and assembly, to packaging and test, silicon bring up and lab work. There are also side tracks into library development and characterization, analog design, putting together design flows, specializing in structures such as memories or clock trees, even EDA tool development.

    Some of these endpoints are much further away from his starting point than others but I believe any of them are reachable over time assuming he has “the knack” and keeps his career goals in mind and continues to strive to achieve them.

    Dave’s verification trap does exist but verification isn’t quite the dead end he describes. Some spend their career there and like it. There is a design element to verification, plus the thrill (not everyone gets it) of bug catching. I and others have successfully moved on from verification. Besides, he’s currently working in IT — talk about a trap!

    good luck,

  10. Noah Aklilu Says:

    I have to disagree that a MSc is required to start in chip design. When I started working at a major networking company at the end of the tech crash (having just finished a MSc program), a number of my new colleagues were recent grads that got involved in digital ASIC design. They were paired with a more senior designer, and within a couple of chip designs could work dependently. Given the growing scripting capability of various EDA tools, I would say a healthy understanding of software methodology is worthwhile.

    I found my productivity was greatly enhanced by my ability to write programs to generate reptitive code or add paramization. Areas like physical design and verification use a lot of object oriented concepts which don’t seem so foreign if you have some software development experience.

    One thing about job ads, is that if you are starting right out of school you should focus on new grad positions. Other job ads tend to be written by managers who have an ideal picture of a candidate. One job ad put out by a company I worked for wanted someone with 10 years ASIC experience and strong C/C++ skills. Somewhat eliminating most candidates out there.

    In a “downturn”, a new grad has the advantage of not requiring a six-figure salary to do ASIC work. Keep that in mind.


  11. John Blyler Says:

    Hi Noah. I agree – having some software development background can only help.

    A strong C/C++ background (for modeling, I assume) plus 10 years of ASIC experience (read “RTL” expert) is a bit much too expect, isn’t it? Thx for sharing.

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