Engineers working as ASIC designers have a pretty rosy career future. That is, if they don't stand still too long when it comes to boosting their skill sets.
As one longtime engineer explains, it's not that less ASIC designers are needed today; it's more a matter of how technology is morphing engineering roles within the tech industry.
Ten to 20 years ago ASIC was the most popular design approach but more than a few factors have slowly been pushing it off its pedestal, explains Jan Rabaey, the Donald O. Pederson Distinguished Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at the University of California at Berkeley. Rabaey's current research interests include the conception and implementation of next-generation integrated wireless systems.
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"Higher costs from design to fabrication to risks are all playing into why it's not the attractive model it once was," he explains.
While companies are clearly still using ASIC design, there is a new breed of design work taking hold—FPGA, the programmable design approach that doesn't require hardware and can help companies avoid the increasing costs associated with ASIC. Yet FPGA design brings it own high costs in other areas, such as power costs.
The career goal for any engineer should be determining which design path to take—ASIC or FPGA—and then focus on broadening their skill sets.
"There is a lot of opportunity for engineers working on the system level with FPGA," says Rabaey, who admits to entering engineering back when ASIC wasn't even on the design map. The only drawback with that route is that it's likely to be more competitive as it's the easiest reskilling path to take. Moving into FPGA can be easy if engineers already have some input language skills under their belt, he notes.
"If you have been working in ASIC for 10 to 15 years but haven't improved skills it's likely easiest to take the system level path, with some courses and short classes. But I see the biggest need being engineers who can design on system levels for new applications for programmable devices," says the professor.
To move ahead, and stay employed, engineers should consider gaining application-level knowledge, take courses to learn about the systems they're building for, and for those who want to move into the wireless industry, a good education in networking would prove beneficial.
"Engineer design is becoming a multi-disciplinary profession," says Rabaey, who has clearly seen a great deal of evolution within his chosen profession.
"Back then [when he started out] it was a craft, an art. Now it's become more a science with tools that keep getting better as we build more complex systems. Engineers have to keep up with the changing technology."