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Transition from the Academe to the Industry Unraveled (Part 2)

Transition from the Academe to the Industry Unraveled (Part 2)

The Miguel de Benavides Library at the University of Santo Thomas (where I attended school) dates back to the early 17th century. (Image courtesy of UST)

Some few months ago, I wrote an article contrasting academe and work life as well as the adjustments and precautions that had to be made by a typical fresh graduate. However, experience changes a man’s perspective, and my insights and reflections were from one who had only worked in the electronics industry for a few months. Now, to commemorate the anniversary of my hiring date, I would like to share my point of view with one year of experience.

How did the university prepare me for the work environment?

It is my opinion that the university wouldn’t be able to fully prepare its students (especially electronics engineering students) for their work, because the work for each particular technology demands a unique skill set.

For example, an electronics engineer working in product support would need a good set of communication skills and a good foundation of knowledge over the product. A design and verification engineer would need to exercise proper office working habits aside from an excellent command over theoretical principles and critical thinking skills. The university should only play a passive role in preparing the student, while the student himself/herself plays the active role.

Academe vs. Industry

It is indeed worth reiterating that a sense of discipline and responsibility is more established in a working environment. I would add that this sensibility is not the same for all kinds of work (I’ve had experience working as a humble cashier, and all you had to worry about were grumpy costumers and presence of mind while conducting transactions).

Things are on a totally different level when working on a multi-million dollar integrated circuit that will be mass-produced and integrated on a mobile device. Again, errors at school provide a good learning experience, but errors at work can cost you your reputation toward customers, company profits, and in very unfortunate cases,  bankruptcy.

I’d like to share a very similar and related story by the late Bob Pease on this matter. A technician working on a schematic blueprint was having problems on the testbench. He had been tackling this problem for weeks until the supervising engineer helped out and pointed out a defective component. However, there was a miscommunication between the technician and engineer, so when the ECO was written, the specifications on the revisions weren’t quite right. The engineer didn’t read the ECO and just signed off on the document. Then, the engineer took a two-week vacation.  Upon returning, the engineer found out the mistake on the ECO, but alas, the schematic had undergone mass production and was failing spectacularly in the field. The company ultimately went bankrupt. It is really interesting to analyze how a simple overlooked routine can lead to the demise of a company.

The main point here is to pay close attention to details, no matter how negligible they seem at the time. I could write a completely new article about incidents that occurred due to something slipping from an engineer’s mind.

The Internet Becomes a Game-Changer

Leaving the university was, at the same time, a happy and sad moment in my life. It was happy because I’d finally be able to help my family with finances and become productive toward the benefit of society and sad because I felt sentimental and that my further studies would be briefly unguided. I say briefly unguided because of the wonders of the Internet.

Thanks to the Internet, I was able to start a career in the semiconductor industry (and write my opinions for Electronic Design). By checking on the careers page of company websites, one would be able to choose the work that matches well with his/her skill set. Though many other existing websites also fasten the company-employee search and hire process, I do not recommend depending on them when it comes to negotiations because of high risk (especially those that hire overseas).

Aside from job hunting, the Internet also can help find the right university to take up a master’s degree. Several even provide scholarships and compensation for living expenses. Sometimes, if the university is located overseas, being proficient in the local language is an important requirement.

Thinking Win-Win Among Good Working Habits

An important lesson I’ll never forget from one of my college professors is the seven habits of highly effective people. I’ve memorized the seven habits by heart, and one of them is to think win-win. When it comes to the employer-employee relationship, mutually beneficial decisions are the best ones to make. For example, expenses for a good working environment and just wages are taken from a company’s profits, but they won’t be feasible if the profits are low due to poor employee performance. The same goes the other way around—impeccable employee performance is sustained through a good working environment and just wages. Thinking win-win increases the feasibility of both parties getting favorable results from the each other.

In the semiconductor industry, thinking win-win also means sharing one’s know-how to your co-workers (this contradicts what I mentioned in my previous article, keeping in mind a non-disclosure agreement). In spite of being a freshman, I have been able to share some things with my colleagues, such as a modified program that takes two transient measurements from a temperature sweep, a modified program for efficiency measurement, hitting the UVLO protection of an IC when evaluating PSRR, a self-made GUI for controlling instruments, and so on. The thing is, proactively sharing one’s know-how decreases the chance of mistakes being repeated by another engineer (Bob Pease used to have some problems at National Semiconductor that were solved incidentally by a technician, implying that anyone with knowledge of the problem at hand is obliged to share them).

Good working habits cannot be summarized better than the “5S.” Most have heard of them at some point. The 5S stands for seiri (clearing), seiton (organizing), seiso (cleaning), seiketsu (standardizing), and shitsuke (training and discipline). I find them so important that I’ve created two semantics just so I won’t forget them. In the short term, they seem like petty tasks, but they are crucial in the long run. It is tempting to ignore them, particularly seiri and seiton. I remember a friend who was working on his bench troubleshooting a snivet. It just so happened that one of his failed transistors somehow made its way back to the circuit because he did not “Widlarize” it, and it cost him a lot of time. In the industry, time is gold when trying to meet a deadline.

Academic Materials vs. Current Industry Standards

As I mentioned in the beginning of my first article, the debate between engineering graduates with skills that do not meet what the industry is looking for has gone on for years, and even spawned the “shortage in STEM” phenomenon. But this time, I will not pursue the argument from an opinionated point of view. I’ll just convey what the curriculum has, putting aside the possibility of any statement being biased.

The engineering curriculum starts with the introduction of the basic sciences, as well as a few unrelated courses. No divide exists between engineering students during this period for two years. In the third year, students are separated according to their majors (i.e., electrical, mechanical, industrial, electronics, etc.).

In electronics engineering, they teach advanced math up to numerical methods. Applications involve filter design and analysis of electronic feedback systems. Discrete mathematics is taught so that students understand digital signal processing. Some electrical-engineering concepts, such as operation of motors, generators, and alternators, are also taught. Microelectronics precedes microprocessor design (building your own ALU, ISA and stuff).

In the last year, the students were asked to choose a course of specialty: telecommunications or electronics. There were rumors that telecommunications was more challenging, so I chose that track. The rumors were true, and it was an enjoyable ride. It taught us how to make contour maps of theoretical transmitters and how to set up microwave links. It also gave us the chance to further our knowledge in networking (CCNA III and IV).

Comparing the academic materials to those in the industry, the academic topics and textbooks in electronics seem to border more on analog design, with almost nothing on industry standards or rules of thumb, or application to other engineering fields aside from industrial electronics and robotics. The process of photolithography is taught, but what machines do they actually use and what is the step-by-step procedure? When is an electronic load preferable over ordinary resistors? What chemicals/materials make the best transducers for this voltage range? You’d have to find it out for yourself through the Internet.

On the bright side, the underlying content and principles in textbooks and in lectures are very similar to the procedures employed in modern electronic design. Lectures on vacuum tubes and vacuum-tube amplifiers are considered obsolete, but are still taught.

Again, the preceding paragraphs are based on what the school would typically teach. However, things may be different from university to university. BSIM3V3 is developed by Cambridge University and is now at level 11.

Technology is changing at an ever rapid pace, but it should follow the rule of backward-compatibility. This rule ensures that the academe will never get left behind in terms of underlying content and principles. When it comes to modern procedures and trends, the Internet is sufficient. Maybe someday we could gain evidence and data to exonerate the academe from unmet industry demands.

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