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Hardware Engineers

Job descriptions and profiles of hardware engineers

By the editors of gecc

Pete Jarvis says that when he was a child he often took both mechanical and electrical devices apart—including several that he shouldn’t have—just to see what made them tick. Now that he’s working as a hardware engineer for Unisys Corp, an e-business hardware developer based in Paoli, Pa., Jarvis spends his time creating things instead of dismantling them. “One of the best things about being a hardware engineer is actually building a physical device that achieves your goals and then seeing that device working in a system,” he says.

With the advent of the Internet, computers have often taken on an ethereal quality. Cyberspace almost suggests another dimension—a place where information, images, sites and sounds exist but can’t be touched. But this world could not exist without the physical world of computer hardware and that’s where hardware engineers come in.

Generally, hardware engineers are concerned with the design, development, testing and debugging of computer hardware—the nuts and bolts of a system. It is this creating of a physical device that attracts many hardware engineers to the field. “I like the fact that I’m actually designing something I can feel and touch and show off to my friends,” says Raymond Miles, a hardware design engineer with Intel Corp. in Dupont, Wash. “I just enjoy understanding how it all fits together in making a computer.”

Computer hardware is an extremely competitive market, and companies are constantly working to produce faster, cheaper and more reliable products. Because of this, hardware engineers are often pressured to stay on compressed schedules and meet specific deadlines. “You need to be able to commit to a certain date to deliver something and then meet that commitment,” says Miles. “You can’t let yourself get sidetracked.”

With the growth of the Internet and the expansion of computers into almost every aspect of human endeavor, the demand for qualified hardware engineers is strong and doesn’t look to abate any time soon.

Name: Pete Jarvis

Title: Hardware Engineer
Company: Unisys Corp., Paoli, Pa.
Education: B.S. in electrical engineering from Drexel University, Philadelphia (1997)

Job Description:“My group is responsible for the design and development of the hardware platform that powers some of the industry’s most technologically advanced enterprise-class servers. These servers are used by many of the world’s largest corporations to help them handle their e-business requirements.

“Currently, I’m a member of a team of hardware engineers whose primary responsibility is the design, development and debugging of the processor chips, or ASICs, that serve as the central processing unit of our server lines. Personally, I’m responsible for designing and synthesizing digital logic using various state-of-the-art software tools. I am also involved in helping simulate that logic using hardware and software-based simulators.

“Recently, I’ve also branched off to other related areas, such as physical design, where the primary concern is placement and wiring of the logic, as opposed to the actual design. And of course, I have plenty of opportunity to go out and get my hands dirty on the actual hardware in our engineering labs. It’s really rewarding to see the hardware that I’ve designed come up and work in the real system.

“Right now we are nearing the end of a physical design cycle, so a typical day starts off with analyzing earlier system runs. We’ll start off a run on a given day, and when those results finish, we look at them to see if they meet the performance and routing requirements. So my day begins with looking at those results and determining whether or not we need to make changes in the design or changes in the process to achieve better results.

“As we get closer to the arrival of the hardware, more of my time is spent on the actual system debug, and once we do get the hardware design squared away, we focus primarily on getting the hardware to work and solving any problems that may come up.”

Why He Took the Job:“In this position at Unisys I saw the opportunity to work on various projects that are both enjoyable and challenging. Personally, I’ve always wanted to design and develop processor control chips, and there really aren’t many companies in the mid-Atlantic region that do that sort of work, particularly for large-scale servers. And with the success of the innovative new Unisys computer architecture called CMP (Cellular Multi-Processing) there are a lot of related hardware design opportunities available at Unisys.”

How He Knew This Was the Field for Him:“I’ve always been interested in computers. In the mid ’80s, I got a Commodore 128 as a gift and I thought that was the greatest thing. I’ve always liked finding out how things work.”

Biggest Surprise About Working:“I think what surprised me the most is how much working here at Unisys as a hardware engineer has changed my view of technology outside work. The obvious example is computers. Once you’ve done chip design there isn’t much inside a computer that you can’t understand and tweak if you’re so inclined. But I’ve also looked at things like improving the engine control system in my project car. And that’s something that if I hadn’t been a hardware engineer, I really wouldn’t have thought about trying. Working here has given me a much better understanding of technology and greater confidence in working with it.”

Non-Technical Skills Needed to Succeed:“Definitely good communication skills. If I can’t communicate effectively, I can’t do my job. That includes communicating with fellow team members and other people here at Unisys and outside of Unisys.

“Another thing that I think is equally important is the ability to learn quickly. A lot of what I do on a day-to-day basis, I picked up on the job, and being able to come up-to-speed quickly with new environments, new tools and techniques, makes my job a lot easier and that much more rewarding.”

Advice to Future Hardware Engineers:“Take as many computer and particularly digital logic classes as you can at school. If you can get experience with design tools such as VHDL and Verilog that is a definite plus. Above all, you should try to get experience building actual hardware. If you can’t get hands-on experience at school, you can go to various companies and get a micro control or design kit and just build something. Then you’ll be getting a lot of valuable experience that you can use in the future.”

Name: Raymond Miles

Title: Hardware Design Engineer
Company: Intel Corp., Workstation Products Division, Dupont, Wash.
Education: B.S. in physics from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Calif. (1995); M.S. in materials science from the University of Vermont, Burlington (1998)

Job Description:“I’m in charge of implementing workstation platforms. I am responsible for caption, schematic, component selection, creating off the schematic and working with the CAD engineers to route the platforms making sure that all the electrical design rules are met so that we meet all the timings for our platform.

“Once the platform is manufactured, it’s brought into our lab where I debug it. I work through the issues we find, whether they’re with the chipset or processor or the circuitry. Then we go through the validation phase and it moves on to production.

“A typical day on the job varies depending on what phase of the process I’m in. In the schematic/ capture design phase, I’ll spend most of the time either designing a specific section of the board or researching new components. In the CAD phase, I’ll be working a lot with a CAD engineer making sure that all the electrical design rules that we have in place are being met, checking the board file, and making sure that what I asked them to do is actually getting implemented. If I’m in the actual power-on debug phases, typically I’ll be in the lab doing measurements and basically debugging our platform.”

Current Project:“Right now I’m in the design phase of a new platform. As part of that, we have design reviews, and so right now, I’m very focused on capturing the schematic and getting it to what we call point 6 level. At that level, I can get folks from all over the company to review our design and make sure that we implemented it correctly.”

Why He Took the Job:“When I graduated from the University of Vermont, I was offered a position with Intel in the rotation-engineering program, which is a program that allows you to work in three different jobs in your first year. First, I worked in chip design, then I worked as a PME (product marketing engineer), and finally I worked in hardware design. I liked hardware design the most, so that’s the area I chose to stay in. ... There is a lot of engineering that goes on, especially in the single integrity realm, where my physics background helps out. I enjoy understanding how it all fits together and making a computer.”

How He Knew This Was the Field for Him:“I didn’t until I entered Intel’s rotation program. Being able to try things out was really important to me, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. When I finally got into hardware design, it gave me the opportunity to design something physical, and I was able to meld that with a lot of good underlying engineering knowledge especially electromagnetic theory. It was just a good fit.”

Biggest Challenges:“Being able to scope your tasks appropriately and making sure that you can meet your commitments, because there are always interruptions, there are always changes or data missing that you need to get from somebody.”

Best Piece of Advice Someone Ever Gave Him:“At Intel we have this saying that you own your own employability, and I really have found that to be true. I want to be a manager, so I made a development plan on how to get there. And that’s a very, very useful thing. As a result of making this development plan, I’m actually going to be going back to school in the fall. I’m going to get a technology management MBA at the University of Washington. That’s a result of having this plan and thinking about the phrase ‘you own your own employability.’”

Advice to Future Hardware Engineers:“For hardware engineers who design platforms like I do, it’s important to have a really solid understanding of electromagnetic theory. That means understanding it on a fundamental level, not just knowing a bunch of formulas, but really having a strong understanding of it.”

Name: Todd A. Felege

Title: Hardware Design Engineer
Company: Avidyne Corp., Lincoln, Mass.
Education: B.S. in electrical engineering/electrical systems design from the University of New Hampshire (1999)

Job Description:“My job centers on the design of integrated cockpit avionics systems. This job may include anything from programming FPGA devices and embedded microprocessors and micro controllers to placement and routing of printed circuit boards.

“My day-to-day schedule will evolve during a product concept-to-completion life cycle. In the beginning, a lot of legwork and high level product specification and documentation work is done. Environmental specifications are usually outlined here as well. This also includes a lot of meetings where 20 engineers are usually trying to buy-in on a development and architectural path to completion (not an easy task). This may take months.

“The next stage is lower level specifications where the system ports and interfaces are described and documented. There is a good amount of individual work that goes on here, so a lot of time is spent behind the computer. This also may take months.

“After all of the hardware specifications are available and agreed upon, the design stage is ready to begin. This may take two to three months, with the product group meeting on several occasions to review the design and express concerns or suggestions.

“Next the prototyping and qualification testing of the design is done. This may take a few months with much of the time spent corresponding with manufacturing to do the first prototype run of the design. Flaws in the design will usually become apparent during qualification testing. This means going back to the drawing board.

“Finally, we have a final product ready for shipping. Then the whole thing starts again.”

Why He Took the Job:“While working in college I worked for a subsidiary organization of the university known as the Space Science Center. This was a group of engineers and scientists that developed sensory devices for use in both solar plasma and high-energy particle physics. Most of this hardware was for satellite-based space exploration. Because of the relatively small size of the department, I was able to get involved in many aspects of any particular project. Very cool stuff.

“After leaving the university to explore the ‘real world’ I did not want to end up at a large company becoming specialized at one particular job function. That’s when I found Avidyne. Avidyne is a small but growing company catering to the needs of general aviation pilots looking for advanced situational awareness in the air. We are putting technology into the cockpits of many small, private airplanes to give them capabilities that, up until now, have been restricted to large commercial or military aircraft. With the company being the size it is, I am able to participate at all levels of a project from start, to FAA qualification, to manufacturing.”

How He Knew This Was the Field for Him:“I originally wanted to be a computer scientist when I was younger, but during my junior year in high school a computer electronics teacher introduced me to the transistor. That year I also started my first job laying out printed circuit boards and doing rudimentary digital design. I was hooked. Hardware was the thing for me.”

Biggest Challenges:“The biggest challenge a hardware engineer will face on the job is ‘the elegant solution.’ An engineer provides solutions to problems in a very basic sense. There is always more than one way to solve a problem. The real trick is in picking the most easily implemented, robust and least expensive way to go about the solution. At least one of these criteria will always be a trade off against another. This is where the science becomes art, and creativity will often be the key. There are many times, while looking down the barrel of a problem, I have had to ask myself, ‘Am I being as creative as I can?’ That is a very hard question to answer.”

Best Piece of Advice Someone Ever Gave Him:“Go to college.”

Worst Piece of Advice Someone Ever Gave Him:“Move to L.A. and join a thrash metal band.”

Non-Technical Skills Needed to Succeed:“Good language skills are essential. As an engineer, communicating one’s ideas clearly and concisely can be particularly critical. Everyday someone who is in a non-technical role must be able to sift through much of the documentation written by an engineer and understand a good deal of what is being said. This happens often when performing deviations and engineering change orders where the person on the other end of the documentation may not know why they are doing what they are doing.”

Advice to Future Hardware Engineers:“Read as much professional literature as you can during your time in school. By this, I mean trade journals and magazines. Be aware of the components and systems that you might encounter when first put on the job. During school I was taught to program simple PLD and FPGA devices using schematic entry methods. On the job I use VHDL and ten to hundreds of thousands of gate FPGA devices. Get and keep current with the technologies available for exploitation in your next design.”

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