“Just Knowing A Tool Only Makes One A Good ‘Tool-Jockey’, Not A Chip Designer!”

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With technologies evolving each minute, unless you continuously learn new technologies and explore new tools, it is very difficult to make a good career in this competitive world. There are a lot of opportunities that can help young engineers to do this, all you should know is where to look for. With over three decades of experience in the industry working in private sector, semiconductors, policy-making and many other roles, PVG Menon, President and CEO, VANN Consulting speak to Ankita KS from EFY Group on the trends, skillsets, opportunities for academia, new initiatives by govt. and industry for the engineers in the electronics industry. Excerpts follow…

Q: What are the trends that you see in the Electronics-Semiconductor industry today?

PVG Menon, President, and CEO, VANN Consulting
PVG Menon, President, and CEO, VANN Consulting

The electronics industry is quite broad, so it would be good to look at this from two broad perspectives – Products and Design Services.

For Electronic Products the trend is mixed. There is a large number of imports happening.  Even in products that are being manufactured or assembled in India, the level of domestic value addition is worryingly low. The reasons are many and all are linked to the structural disabilities to manufacturing high-volume electronics in the country.

Urgent steps will be needed to support the growth of the domestic electronic component industry. In general, while assembly activities are rapidly increasing, the import of components has gone up by a factor of 5 to 6.

Execution of policies for supporting domestic manufacturing has been extremely sub-optimal, and there are yawning gaps between the intent and implementation of these policies. This presents an extremely worrying picture at the macro level.

The key is for India to grow its own Domestic Products industry, and I am afraid there is a very little happening there. I believe the government needs to step in here and have a clear vision of what needs to be done. Markets needed to be created for domestic companies, and I do not see why we should be ashamed of tweaking our policies to fully support companies who add value in India across the value chain. There are shocking instances when domestic companies have been discriminated against in government procurement. In some key areas, domestic companies have products where technology is on par, or even superior, to products from overseas. Yet they struggle to sell in India. This has to be corrected.

After all, if we as a nation do not support our own companies, who will?

Turning to the Design Services industry, I believe it is doing well. There is a mushrooming of VLSI and embedded software Services companies in the last 7-8 years, and some of them are doing exciting work. There has also been a lot of mergers and acquisitions and consolidation happening in this area, which has encouraged several mid-level experts to start their own services companies. The slow trend of hiring in multinational ODM’s has led to more business for these services companies.

Q: Is ‘quality talent’ a challenge that the Electronics industry is facing/going to face in India?

Yes. This comes down to a few different sets of issues.

In the past VLSI Design and Embedded systems were considered to be ‘glamorous’ jobs. Then came the explosion of opportunities in newer areas – e-commerce, deep learning, A.I., etc. So young talent started to go there, as the “cool” factor was much higher there. In the meantime, systems got more complex and the performance demand on the IC’s powering them grew — leading to the need to design more complex chips. Software complexity also went up and Systems Design became a challenge.

Second, youngsters need a strong grasp of the fundamentals. While the tools keep changing, emphasis on developing strong basics cannot be over-emphasised.

Third, professionals need to be in a mode of “lifelong learning” and not fall prey to complacency. May believe that a degree is a passport for earning – I would like to ask them to change it to “learning.” An education give one a framework, tools and (hopefully the temperament) to build knowledge and understanding. Application of these is what builds a career.

The electronics industry is a living example of the phrase ‘change is the only constant.’ A young professional cannot say that s/he has got a job in a dream company, and then sit back and relax. They must guard against the tendency to just mastering (design) tools. Just knowing a tool only makes one a good “tool-jockey” — and not a good chip designer. To be the latter, you need to know a lot more.

On the embedded software side, it used to be that if one were an expert at a certain OS, then he or she had ‘arrived.’ Today, as systems become more and more complex, there is often a need to support multiple OS’s. So technologies like Hypervisor etc are now very important. Developing reusable code which can work on multiple platforms is very important.

Q: What is the key technology skill sets that are in demand in the industry today?

The core skills for VLSI design remains knowing how to use VHDL/Verilog, physical design, Perl, TCL, etc. EDA tools are increasing in complexity and now quite a few colleges have these installed in their labs. There are also government programs like the Chips-2-Systems program of the Ministry of Electronics & IT (MeitY) which enables students to do real-world chip design and even tape-out their design. Students should check through their colleges.

On the software side, knowledge of embedded C++, embedded operating systems, simulation tools like Matlab or Simulink, knowledge of networking and communications protocols, etc.

Q: How would you advise an aspirant on the right steps to follow while aiming for a job in the semiconductor sector? 

First and foremost, young professionals should remember that there is no substitute for hard work. Focus on learning as much as possible and leverage all available resources – internet, online courses, libraries, etc. Be hungry for work and grab every opportunity that comes.

Second, let me repeat about learnability. Please remember that You, and only You, are responsible for your own career progression. Please be under no illusions that anyone owes you anything – a project, a promotion, etc. So learn as much as possible and develop the ability to extract conceptual learning from each project that you work on.

Third, chase work-content, and not titles. In my career, I have seen bright youngsters rapidly change jobs hungering for bigger and bigger titles. Soon, they have a fancy designation, but no ability to deliver as expected against that title. Remember, technology companies’ value 3-4 years of deep domain/technology experience far more than 6 months each in multiple jobs, with rapidly increasing titles. Even worse is rapid job-hopping, as it indicates instability.

Fourth, try and understand the big picture of what one is doing. This helps one to understand how his/her module or project, fits into the bigger system and will help one to grow professionally.

Q: What would be your advice to the academia–how should they reinvent their curriculum to create techies suitable for the industry?   

This is a fundamental question! First and foremost, academia needs to focus on laying very strong foundations for students – their fundamentals need to be very strong. The pedagogical focus needs to be probably on ‘teach-test-repeat-refresh’ on this aspect.

Allied to this is the need for strengthening the internship system and making it mandatory for industry exposure during the internship. This helps students to relate what they have learned to real-world situations. Colleges need to build strong links with industry so that their students can get internship opportunities. Do away with 1-month internships, as they add no value, and is a huge distraction for the industry. Instead, try and work out meaningful 6-month internships for students so they also can sink their teeth into meaningful projects.

Second, academia needs to involve industry faculty to come in and share their experience and wisdom with students – perhaps as adjunct faculty. With the structural changes to AICTE rules, an industry expert with a certain number of years of experience is now eligible to teach graduate students, without necessarily having a Ph.D. Academia should reach out to industry professionals – their own alumni being a great starting point for this outreach.

Third, faculty will have to reinvent themselves to be Mentors and Facilitators, rather than unidirectional teachers. With the plethora of learning resources on the internet, students often get confused. A good faculty member will be a guiding light for the student.

Finally, and very importantly, Faculty members themselves need to stay current. Without elaborating, we have seen several faculty who were quite out of date in their own knowledge base. So the points about learnability apply to Faculty also.

 Q: Are there any new initiatives where bodies like IESA collaborate with academia and industry to bridge the gap between them?

The association between trade bodies like IESA etc and academia is an on-going one. But IMHO, a pre-requisite for making these interactions successful are two criteria:

  1. What is the desired end-objective?
  2. How passionate are the Champions driving these type of initiatives?

Most of these tie-ups fizzle out since either one, or both, parties come to the table with skewed expectations. Many colleges are looking at this from a short-term point of view – internship opportunities, placements, etc. Associations also tend to place this on a lower priority and deal with this in an ad-hoc manner.

The tie-ups which have been successful are those where a long-term view has been taken and the effort is driven in a focussed manner with a few passionate people on either side.

For more articles on trends in the electronics industry, click here.

For more articles on career guidance, click here.

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