I’m an Electronic Design Engineer and I make my living by designing silicon chips.
How did you get interested in what you do? What advice was available to you when you chose this career direction?
I've always been interested in machines, how they work and fixing them when they go wrong. Initially it was bicycles then from around age 12 I started taking apart electronics at home to see what was going on inside. I spent quite a bit of my spare time as a teenager (when I wasn’t cycling or playing music) designing and building electronics. I had several very positive role models; my elder brother, my physics teacher, older boys at school, and a group of friends who had the same interest.
I did get careers advice at school. It took about fifteen minutes! The school careers adviser seemed relieved that I knew what I wanted to do and shouted "Next!"
What was your journey to reach the role you are in today?
At school in Yorkshire I took O Level (equivalent to N4/N5 at Peebles) Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Technical Drawing plus French, History, Geography and English. At A Level I studied Maths, Physics and Chemistry. Then I took a four-year honours degree in Electronic Engineering. I didn’t do a gap year, or vocational summer jobs. I just spent the time doing casual work and playing music.
My first job after graduating was with a big firm in Edinburgh where I was lucky enough to be sat with a couple of old timers who really taught me how to design circuits. As a junior designer I spent four years designing circuits, performing design calculations, building prototype circuits and debugging them in the lab. A large company is great when you are starting out; people have time to help you, you get training, support and opportunities. However, the pace of change was slow, and it started to seem a little dull.
I spotted an ad for an engineer to work at Cambridge University designing cryogenically-cooled receivers for radio astronomy. Wow! I interviewed, got the job and spent 11 years working on telescopes and associated electronics in Cambridge, Hawaii, Edinburgh, California, Japan and Chile. It was completely fab. I worked alongside some of the best brains on the planet and saw some amazing sights.
We moved back to Edinburgh to start a family and I did various jobs, writing embedded software, designing electronics for underwater radio, an ophthalmoscope, and instruments for the oil industry.
About six years ago I was lucky enough to be hired into my current job where I design silicon chips, and it is the best commercial job I've ever had.
Talk us through a day in your life... what sorts of things would it involve?
I get into the office by about 8:45 am, grab a coffee, sit down in front of a big screen, and check the email. I work with teams in the Eastern USA and the Philippines and my first hour will be dealing with their enquiries. People in the office chat quite a bit but then the engineers get down to some work and the office becomes very quiet, like a library in fact.
So by half-past nine I'm working on circuits. I'll have a circuit to design with some level of performance in mind, such as "must work from 3V to 5.5V with a bandwidth of at least 20 MHz". The usual rhythm is to design some circuitry, use a large computer to simulate it, then update the design if it does not quite meet the performance I wanted. I use a little maths most days, but it's usually just basic algebra.
Reading academic papers on circuit design is part of the job, as is the reading and writing of patents. We have electronic access to all the major research publications in our field.
There's about twenty of us in the office, all engineers. Dress is very informal. Often people will gather to discuss some technical point of a design that one of them is struggling with, lively debates in front of a white board with sketches of circuits. These sessions are often very animated, full of humour, and we’re all challenged to defend our point of view. These discussions are at the core of what we do. We help each other a lot; teamwork is vital in engineering.
After lunch there might be a design review, a formal meeting where some new circuits are projected onto a screen and we all discuss them to determine if it is a good design, or could be better.
Also in the afternoons there are regular conference calls with our colleagues around the world to catch up on project progress and discuss any ongoing problems.
The chips don't always work, so sometimes I'm in the lab testing them and trying to figure out what might be going wrong. This debugging is one of my favourite activities; detective work with circuits if you like.
I leave work at about 17:30 and head home.
Was this your planned career when you were 18?
What did your parents want you to do?
My Father was a postman and my Mother was a housewife. My brother and both sisters had already gone to University so naturally they wanted me to do well at school, go to university and get a "good" job. Electronics was fine with them.
I did very well in my music examinations and my teachers suggested that I could consider a career in music. My parents were moderately against that and I think, looking back, it was good advice. I daresay I could have made a living in the music world but frankly, you have to be completely stellar as a musician to have a satisfying performing career. In recent years I've met plenty of working professional musicians who would like to get out, but can't.
So, I'm glad I chose electronics. It pays well enough, I like the people and, thirty years on, I still enjoy the work.
What advice would you give to someone interested in your career?
It is worth the effort to get into one of the good engineering Universities. In Scotland that would be Edinburgh, Strathclyde, Glasgow or St. Andrews. You'll get a better training and it stands out on your CV. Electronics is a tough degree with typically 25 hours of lectures per week.
Nowadays for a job as a designer you'll be expected to have a further degree of some sort. An M.Sc., or perhaps a diploma year tacked onto your degree. In my office of twenty engineers four have a Ph.D.
Get some work experience during the Summer holidays.
There's a huge emphasis on teamwork in engineering. Successful engineers don't fit the stereotype of the iconoclastic geek designing circuits in a corner.
Many engineers start off doing the technical side of the work but around age 30 to 35 they find they have an aptitude for management, technical marketing or even technical sales. Many take that route and do very well for themselves.
Be aware that commercial engineering (as opposed to research work) is all about developing products that sell, are ready on time and meet a specific budget. There's nothing quite like the thrill of designing something and hearing that Big Company X wants to use it in their next product. You've created something that hard-nosed business people are ready to buy. Very affirming.
But it's not always like that! Sometimes you're on a project that's running months late, circuits are failing all over the place, and the bosses are thumping the table demanding to know when the product will be ready. It can be a very high pressure job!
What other directions could you go in /work in within your field other than the job you have chosen?
Any company that sells a product that contains electronics or software will have engineers on the payroll. So, I could be working in mobile phones, telecommunications, factory automation, control systems for chemical plants, power stations, medical devices like ultrasound scanners or heart monitors, gene sequencing machines, nanomachines. The list is endless, really.
In addition to designing, one can go into electronics research or university teaching.
Another path is to work for one of the electro-technical government institutions such as Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, CERN in Geneva, or the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford.
Many engineers learn the ropes in a large firm and then work as self-employed contractors paid an hourly or daily rate. This can be highly lucrative, you have great freedom, you don’t have to be super-brainy and you can travel the world.