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"How many tape-outs have you done?"
asked the design manager of a semiconductor company. My colleague and I were on a call with him to walk him through an implementation training agenda. He further explained the intent of the question
“I am looking for trainer who has hands-on experience in implementing design. I want the training to be more design challenge oriented rather than just talking about command and switches”.
I found this to be an exact match for what we could offer. “Indeed. Application Engineers are involved in every single tape-out that has ever happened in our customer base. We are called upon when the challenges get really tough”, I replied. My colleague added, “As application engineers, we get to work on all kinds of designs, methodology, verticals and different nodes. This helps broaden our experience which in-turn benefits the designers with whom we collaborate”.
The inaccurate and yet common impression about application engineer (AEs) is that they support customers by unlocking some hidden switches to get around the problem faced while designing the integrated circuits (“chips” as they are commonly called)
Being an application engineer for 15 years, I gathered a few ways to “describe” this role to those who are not familiar with it
While these are all part of the application engineering role, none of them can fully describe the role. The combination of all comes quite close but it’s still not complete. There is more to application engineering.
When I graduated from my Master’s program, I aspired to build a career that allowed me to learn about the chip designing process for different end-applications like mobile, infotainment, graphics, etc. I imagined that I could become an expert consultant who would be called to solve tough problems. The beauty of being a consultant, as I imagined at that time, was that you are always solving some difficult problem without having to do the repetitive tasks.
For being a successful application engineer, one needs to bring in a great deal of technical domain knowledge. In fact, the depth of technical expertise will determine the success of an application engineer. After all, customers are looking for experts in the domain.
At the same time, an application engineer works with multiple customers doing different kinds of designs, etc. This provides an unparalleled learning opportunity.
Let me take an example. When an application engineer is consulted for design implementation flow, a wide variety of challenges needs to be solved. Most of these challenges are orthogonal. That way application engineer gets to work on those broad challenges at the same time. The opportunity to work on different design challenges for different methodology accelerates the learning process.
The exposure to different phases of design implementation and verification helps the AE comprehend the chip design process in a comprehensive way. By virtue of this role, one soon becomes what is commonly known as “full-flow” expert. The experience, thus gained puts the application engineer a step ahead of their peers in other roles in semiconductor companies. For this reason, very quickly AE becomes the trusted partners for solving challenging design problems.
The deep-rooted technical knowledge is one part of the role. The technical depth is necessary but not sufficient condition for being a successful application engineer. This role inherently also need good people skills. This is the only technical role that I know which demands good people skills early on in career.
An AE needs to interact with people from diverse backgrounds to understand their current challenges and future needs. Dynamic tuning of communication style is required on a daily basis. In my opinion this role needs a good mix of technical skills as well as good communication skills (listening with the intent to understand and asking right questions).
Good communication skills can also help to understand how the industry is evolving for next-gen innovation. Once understood, the application engineer can champion the cause and get tools future-ready. This, in my opinion, is the most significant contribution of an AE to technological advancement. Chip designing has been greatly enabled with one-step-ahead EDA tools.
I have personally experienced a lot of transformation after joining as an application engineer. Recent college graduates who started their career as an application engineer would also have many personality transformational stories to narrate. Some say that their communication has improved, while others are honest about admitting that they have developed empathy to a great extent. These are life-skills that one gains by choosing to be an application engineer. These help in personal and professional life. Some say the exposure by doing hands on work in multiple verticals, and nodes has made them a strong solution consultant.
The satisfaction of being an enabler of the future of electronics is indescribable.