Breaking Down the Job Description: The Digital Design Engineer

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Ruling the roost in every industry which is cropping up, since the advent of the integrated chip technology, which forms the crux of the latest computer systems and related worlds, here we get to you the most anticipated, dream job of a person who wishes to carve a new niche in the millennium of computing- the digital design engineer. Beginning with the most ubiquitous word in use today, DIGITAL.

What is Digital Electronics?

The electrons, whose movement is tapped upon to produce a felicitous result, occupy the bottom-most strata of the technology funnel. These are combined to produce transistors, which aggregate to form the combinational and sequential circuits. These circuits, deal with discrete inputs, called digital numbers, and produce digital outputs. The continuous waveforms, which is the conventional one, is converted into discrete numbers, with the help of unique mapping rules. The mapping rules are known as number formats- binary, ternary, hexadecimal, and more. Usually, the inputs are converted to a series of zeros and ones- the binary format. These numbers, wriggle into the circuitry, which operates on them to produce results in the binary format. Mathematical tweaking and tinkering on binary numbers, using the different types of digital circuitry, designed to operate only on such inputs is termed as digital logic, and the circuitry, digital electronics.

Though transistors, can cause misconceptions into believing that this is completely analog circuitry, although the fundamental is analog, the behemoth view turns out to give discrete outputs.

Who is a Digital Engineer?

One of the most sought out jobs, a Digital engineer is a versatile, creative persona, who is accredited for the following-

1. Design of digital systems, based on the given problem statement, and optimization.

The design should be crafted from the bottom to top approach. This approach provides effective utilization of logic, space, power, and modularization. The input voltage and output voltage should be carefully specified. Facilitating the circuit board with amplifiers, attenuators, resistors and capacitors, for efficacious control of power dissipation, and power levels.

2. Design for Test and manufacturability

Recurring bottom-up approaches towards, formulating the best forms of integrated systems. The design for manufacturability, evidently deals with the production of integrated circuit boards simplistically, with reduced redundancy and increased versatility. The design for test involves the addition of testability features to the board, invoking easy testing procedures, and accurate debugging.

3. Hardware implementation

The hardware implementation is handled by the architects. Though the machine does the job, (It is always the case), the architect overlooks the job for discrepancies, defects, and obstinate design, which may incur heavy losses for the company. The hardware implementation revolves around effective planning, placement, and routing.

4. Simulation

The simulation on Computer-Aided Software consists of the frontend and backend developments. The frontend development is kick-started with the input of design followed by the simulation. The simulation delivers the Register Transfer Level(RTL) view of the circuit. This is technical jargon used is a functional simulation. Consequently, to account for the speed of the circuitry, the backend simulation technique is used. This is where the true underlying architecture of the system is reflected. Synonymous to the civil engineer, the digital design engineer, needs to strategically plan the placement of the different functional blocks, and the interconnectivity between them so as to have a minimalistic design and high speed.

So having said the specifications of the job, what are the specifications the job applier needs to possess?

The fundamental degree in electronics, The clichéd engineering degree in Electronics and Communication Engineering or Electrical and Electronics Engineering Or Instrumentation and Control Engineering or any other degree which offers courses in electronics is strictly mandatory as most companies consider that as a prerequisite.

The Courses to pay attention on:

  1. Digital Circuits and Systems: The aspirant should have obtained a stronghold in the Digital Circuits and Systems course, usually taught in the initial phases of the degree. This degree provides the fundamentals in mathematics of binary numbers, combinational and sequential logic. The design in the modularity is dealt with. The aspirant needs to understand the scientific temper and the proper conceptual understanding of design methods is imperative. However, it does not provide details about the internal circuitry. The reading material for the Digital Circuits and Systems course- ‘Digital Fundamentals by Floyd and Jain’, ‘Digital Design by Morris Mano’. There are interesting video lectures also available online. I particularly find the one by NESO Academy on youtube, crisp and intriguing.
  2. Digital Signal Processors and Applications: It is a vital course to understand the functionality of various microprocessors and controllers. This courses also introduces the reader to assembly programming. In addition to that, the microprocessors and microcontrollers course is necessary to have a knowledge about the different interfacing techniques and programming of the same.
  3. VLSI: A course on Very Large Integration Design and Systems form the heart of digital design. It deals with the internal circuitry and architecture of the various systems with an intuitive understanding of design for testability and manufacturability. The different levels of integration studied from the transistor level to the FPGAs and ASICs give an overall view of functionality. Design of lower level circuits is studied. The appropriate material for studying VLSI system design would be ‘CMOS VLSI Design by Weste’, apart from the myriad of NPTEL lectures available online in the website.
  4. In accretion to these, Electronic packaging, Computer Architecture and Organisation and embedded systems can add to the “basic idea” package.

The other crucial course apart from design is Networks and Protocols. Defining the language of communication between and within circuits, and the vehicle required for the transportation, this course will define the type of circuit designed and how it is interfaced and optimized. TutorialsPoint as has a quick and robust tutorial on this course that covers most topics required in a simple and efficient manner.

To be equipped is to be aware. To be aware, is to learn. Courses that can give specialization towards the making of a digital engineer are as follows-

  1. VLSI system testing concerned with the different fault models available, clocking schemes, CMOS testing, built-in self-test (BIST) and more.
  2. Design of ASICs gives an introduction to the design of ASICs and FPGA based systems. ASIC refers to the Application-specific integrated circuit, that is often found in embedded systems. The ASIC is a System on Chip design, where the entire computer is present within a rectangular board that can fit in your palm. This course also deals with the different tools and technology to create ASICs.
  3. Digital system design: Designing high speed,complex digital systems given the requirement is the objective. It deals with timing analysis, finite state machines, hazards, datapath and array subsystems and reconfigurable computing which allows design reuse.
  4. Mixed signal circuit design: Though the data processed is digital, it needs to be derived from analog and converted back to the same form. Hence, every digital engineering aspirant needs to have an idea about the modules required to do the same.

Having said about the courses for digital fundamentals, we need a bolster to put these to the best use. Then comes the analog electronics and signal processing. Every aspirant should have taken the primitive level courses of both the domains- in case of analog electronics, it is Linear integrated circuits, and in case of signal processing, it is digital signal processing. Though it may seem to contradict that a digital engineer should also be aware of the analog basics, it is perceptive that though the signals are digital in nature, the operations done are in the analog form. Consequently, the recipe is the signal.

A masters degree in electronics engineering or VLSI systems adds on and give a good edge against other aspirants.

Skills required

We have compiled a list of most sought skills that recruiters may look for when hiring based on numerous job postings on Linkedin.

1. MATLAB;

MATrix LABoratory, often called with its acronym MATLAB. What chisel is to a sculptor is what MATLAB is to an electronics engineer. A repository of different functions enabling to account for the functional operability of the circuits, MATLAB helps in brainstorming sessions as well as at the upper layer of designing.

2. Verilog HDL:

Verilog is a hardware descriptive language, aimed at creating RTL views of the design. This helps in the front end simulation, checking for functionality and modularization issues. It is majorly used as a synthesis tool for design entry. Verilog is a user friendly language, usually coded in Xilinx ISE, or ModelSim from Mentor Graphics.

3. Cadence/ Synopsis:

The Cadence Virtuoso and Synopsis provides tools for backend simulation. A specific software license is required for its access. Learning can be done from YouTube lectures.

4. Scripting languages like Perl,Tcl

Perl is a interpreted language, used for text, file and process manipulation. It is used to generate code for test benches, stimulus vectors, etc. Tcl (Tool Command Language) is used for integration application needs. It has become the embedded command language for electronic design automation.

5. SystemVerilog

It is a hardware description and verification language. It combines the best of both worlds- Verilog and C++/Java. Using Verilog for the hardware description, object-oriented programming is used in for verification.

6. Lint

Lint is a verification tool for used to checking the RTL source code, synthesis vs simulation errors. It is a coding rule for checking the programming language and style.

All the above-mentioned tools can be learned from the lectures present on the Internet. The Job requirements, of a digital design engineer, often focus on ASICs and SOCs, clocking and RTL design, bus protocols and networking protocols, and obviously interfacing guidelines. The digital design engineer has numerous openings from eminent companies like Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, Mediatek, Nvidia, Analog Devices and many more.

Qualities required:

Often people tend to think that digital electronics is easier than analog electronics. Though it is true, the attitude towards it is certainly not. The catch lies in the word ‘easier’. Something which is easier becomes more competitive in the industry. As a result, the aspirant should be keen to get his hands on as much experience possible to land in a job. Particularly, one has to have landed in multiple jobs at multiple levels to gain access to the varied exposure. So the following are the qualities required-

1. Facing new challenges every day

2. Tenacity

3. Quick learning

4. Ability to adapt easily to different work environments

5. Good socializing skills

To land in a job, there needs to be a striking uniqueness to grab it. Everyone would have gained a beautiful degree, or maybe even a super specialization, but an aspirant needs to stand out in a certain quality to overcome the heavy competition which is present.

Digital era is upon us right now. With everything getting digitized, no wonder the needs are equally satiated by the gluttony present. I personally think Gordon Moore would not have envisioned such a kind of future, but bet he is happy!

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