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Continuous Education For Engineers

Companies that invest in their employees’ education often get rewarded with more productive and happier workers.

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Continuous education is essential for engineers, but many companies don’t recognize the value or they are unwilling to provide the necessary resources.

This should be a line of questioning before every new hire makes the decision about where they want to work, because it not only affects their future career, but also impacts the value they can provide to that company during the course of their employment.

“Everybody owns their own career,” says Bonnie Willoughby, technical education thought leader at Siemens EDA. “Everybody is responsible for coming up to speed on industry advances. Everyone should work with a mentor or a manager to make sure that it is an environment where learning can happen.”

Learning needs a structure. “In many organizations, management assumes the engineer could solve any problem with a stack of manuals and a little time,” says Nancy Henson, principal practice manager for National Instruments. “Other misconceptions include expecting vendor training to be sufficient, or presuming that engineers prefer working in silos. After decades of neglecting learning and letting training devolve to an after-thought, many companies now seek guidance on training engineers.”

There are benefits for all involved. “An effective engineering training program could increase engineering efficiency by at least 20%.”

In some companies, this is part of the culture. “Continuing education is important for us, and that should not be a surprise given our ties to École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL),” says Amin Shokrollahi, founder and CEO of Kandou. “In fact, it’s part of our corporate culture.”

Others see education as being a part of the products they provide. “The future of work is really about the future of talent,” says Shivananda R Koteshwar, group director at Synopsys. “Training helps our users stay ahead of the curve with expert-led courses and allows users to strengthen their skills. The users also provide valuable input via unique use cases, which serve to further R&D cycles for the product.”

That feedback loop can be even more pronounced for some companies. “Education of the market is virtuous,” says Isabelle Geday, general manager of Arteris IP deployment. “Having this position understood by potential customers is a very good start for a relationship. They tend to trust us, not only from a technical point of view, but from a company point of view. When they perceive that we want them to be smarter — to be able to gain ownership of the standard, and of the solutions that come with the standard — that’s something that is really good for our image. It’s beneficial for them, and it’s also beneficial for us.”

Some people take it on as a personal responsibility. “Twice in my career, I’ve been a visiting lecturer or professor at universities,” says Simon Davidmann, founder and CEO of Imperas Software. “The role is to provide interesting information about the state of the art of current technology. I try to help undergraduates understand the area of electronic design, which isn’t really covered much in universities. I believe you have to move people forward and educate them.”

Where should one turn to get the necessary education? “Continuous education is an important part of every engineering job,” says Ashish Darbari, CEO of Axiomise. “It can come from a variety of sources, including tool vendors, independent training houses and consultants, internal experts, or the Internet.”

Making that selection can be important. “Selecting the best source of training can be a complex decision, and the best option depends on the type of content and the needs of the project team,” says Matt Rushton, training manager for partner enablement at Arm. “Trusted content direct from a provider is the obvious approach — those who are directly involved in the creation and the support of the products in question sharing their vast amounts of knowledge and expertise. However, using an approved training partner or consultant has its merits too, offering a broader and perhaps more agnostic outlook with a diverse industry perspective. Training in whichever form is critical, saving time, effort and money by avoiding costly design mistakes.”

The source may change, depending on the type of training required. “Some areas, such as training associated with language and tools, can be learned using training programs and material available online,” says Olivera Stojanovic, business development and project manager for VTool. “Other skills, such as debug, can only be gained by hands-on experience, and can be enriched by learning from more senior engineers.”

And training is evolving. “The information and the technology are changing at the speed of light,” says Siemens’ Willoughby. “If you had asked me 10 years ago how it is possible for engineers to be up to date with what’s happening, maybe you would get a very different answer. The industry trend with education has changed significantly.”

Management commitment
All training has to start with a commitment from management. “Success requires a commitment of resources,” says NI’s Henson. “Training efforts that fail are usually those that follow the historical model of hoping someone finds enough spare time to pull together a training plan. Management must invest.”

For some companies, that starts with the hiring process. “Continuous education starts during hiring with a well-ordered training program,” says Abhijit Chakrabarty, general manager for India operations at Verific. “We don’t expect new hires to be experts in SystemVerilog, C++, compiler technology, and digital design.”

Without training being an integral part of a job, it can be difficult to get the necessary approvals. “Maybe you have to ask to have your schedule free so you can attend five days of training,” says Willoughby. “New types of education may make that easier, and hopefully if you went to your manager and asked them to invest in a year’s subscription for you for online education, where you can get educated as you go along the way, and as you’re using the tools to be able to research something to do the labs on your own — then hopefully you’re going to have an easier time getting a ‘yes.’ That is an investment in you. That is an investment in the company.”

But it is not just technical training that is important. “Most engineers do not go through soft skills training,” says Milos Mirosavljevic, verification engineering manager for VTool. “This encompasses communication within the team, with the client, how to mentor and lead others, goal setting, time and attention management, and active listening skills. These are all especially important when an engineer becomes the leader of the team. In most cases, skilled engineers become the team leaders, and that role requires a completely different set of skills.”

In many cases, that requires additional training. “While pure technical skills are most certainly the main determinant in what constitutes a good engineer, when soft skills are also added to the pool, an engineer becomes more complete,” adds Mirosavljevic. “We have recognized the importance of these skills and are actively developing dedicated programs to develop our engineers and help them accelerate their careers.”

Instructor-led training
Going to an offsite location for several days of training traditionally has been the way most training happens. For large companies, vendors often will bring it to them, but it still requires concentrated blocks of time.

“Immersing oneself in a single topic for multiple days helps ideas stick,” says Henson. “I can sleep on ideas, pelt my instructor with questions, and learn from my peers in the classroom. Ideally, once the pandemic is over, many of us will return to in-person instructor-led training (ILT). We understand more fully when we are in the room with the instructor who is observing either the quizzical look or the ‘I got this’ look on the faces of the course attendees.”

One-size-fits-all training can be inefficient. “There are training programs for verification languages and methodologies, as well as demo sessions for EDA tools,” says VTool’s Stojanovic. “However, engineers often use only 20% of tools’ capabilities, so we see this as a potential area of improvement for tool vendors. By investing more time in education, for a wider range of tools functionalities, we can show them the usability and value of each capability. Tool vendors should apply a more assertive and more frequent approach toward users, as well as promote the availability of new features. Also, the flow of information should be in both directions, listening and taking into consideration the problems and pains that engineers are facing in their everyday work.”

The pandemic had a serious impact on this. “The pandemic, whether we like it or not, forced the entire community, even non-engineers, to accept other methods of education,” says Willoughby. “If we had suggested online education 15 years ago, there were so many more people saying, ‘I need an instructor.’ Now we’re able to do a lot of virtual online classes, where they still have access to an instructor. It is more cost-effective. You don’t have to leave your office. You don’t have travel costs. There are more cost-effective ways to do education, and hopefully that’s making it easier for the manager to invest in their employees and provide them with the necessary education.”

Initially, this was not without some difficulties. “People used to attend a workshop or the training sessions and they got the material,” says Arteris IP’s Geday. “It was a little complicated to do the hands-on exercise using Zoom, but we managed to do that with smaller groups of people.”

Workflow-centric or self-paced training
There are many engineers who prefer to do self-paced learning. “We have a budget, mostly used by our engineers, to attend conferences, courses, talks, or even engineering classes, and take advantage of an active university program at EPFL,” says Kandou’s Shokrollahi. “Our engineers view this as a reward for good work. The best way to learn is when engineers teach themselves, and today plenty of university-level courses are available online through YouTube or EdX and similar websites.”

Virtual learning is advancing. “With the increasing popularity of virtual classrooms and on-demand video-based training, accessibility is rapidly improving,” says Arm’s Rushton. “Training can now be delivered in shorter sessions, and live sessions recorded for access by those that can’t attend. Users also have the option to attend only those sessions relevant to them, driving efficiency. We continue to work to maximize the benefits these new approaches offer, and partner feedback is extremely positive.”

There are downsides, of course. “It is a lot of work to create self-paced, online training,” says Geday. “Plus, we still want to have that connection with those who are new to the standard because they are potential customers. We want explain and attract them to using the standard, and in the end, our software platform.”

There are several ways this can be done. “Several years ago, we created Open Virtual Platforms,” says Imperas’ Davidimann. “We created some videos, created a forum for Q&A, and we monitor this. It was a resource that people could come to and make use of. We would keep it up to date, answer their questions, but it was really a low contact way of trying to help people learn and understand.”

On-demand provides additional benefits. “Engineers are able to do online education when they are ready for it,” says Willoughby. “With traditional training, they would show up, go through something, and then go home and six months later it would be hard for them to remember anything. With online education, everything is at your fingertips. If you have a question, you can go back and look. The quality of online education has changed so much. Now we have videos, we have demonstrations. You can view something, you can watch a YouTube video and it will stick with you because you were learning something when you needed it. You will apply it as you needed it, not just somebody dumping information on you.”

In some cases, instructor-led and self-paced can work together. “Efficient onboarding for multiple tools and languages requires custom learning paths,” says Henson. “The custom learning path includes small nuggets of learning (videos, checklists, articles, etc.) organized around the engineer’s workflow. It reinforces the knowledge gained from the ILT course and guides the engineer along a route to success.”

And courses can be tailored. “As you develop the material, we include everything that somebody might want to use,” says Willoughby. “Then we tailor that to a customer’s needs. The very first step of the process is a meeting of the minds. We discuss with the engineers, the engineering managers, what part of that specific tool they’re using. With that we are tailoring and condensing the material. Everyone is busy, and with five days of training, it is possible that two days of that will be totally boring. What are they trying to get accomplished? We can augment the material so engineers get just what they need and hopefully not be bored to tears.”

That requires knowing the customer. “Knowing my audience is the most challenging part,” says Axiomise’s Darbari. “I have to determine what they know, what they would like to know, and how much time they are willing to spend in a training room. No one size fits all — certainly not for formal methods, which is considered a deeply mathematical topic and needs to be learned by engineers to stay productive if we want to build designs with no bug escapes.”

The open-source community is also bringing about change. “If you go to DAC, you can buy the proceedings and you can read the papers,” says Davidmann. “Public webinars provide online resources. If I want to learn how the privileged spec works in RISC-V, I can watch the architect present at one of the open forums, then I can watch someone else the next year. For example, Andes did a three-hour tutorial, which is open and free to everybody, on the vectors in RISC-V. Fantastic. The world changes, and people can do it on demand.”

Internal training
Companies often have experts within the company who know exactly what the engineers need to know. “Often, the engineer needs to learn the on-the-job (OTJ) processes used within a group,” says Henson. “Documenting team practices, workflows, and essential documents saves time and removes frustration. When I asked a client how he would measure the success of a team reference guide, he responded, ‘My phone will stop ringing.’ The guide facilitates the day-to-day knowledge for the young engineer, and it frees the veteran engineers to pursue new technical challenges.”

Verific builds that into the new hire process. “We often engage with students as summer trainees,” says Chakrabarty. “Initially, they are provided with LRMs of the SystemVerilog and/or VHDL language, and they play with simulators and in-house designs. They are then introduced to the concept of synthesizable designs. After six to eight months, they are tasked with writing applications using defined APIs while following a strict coding guideline. During the entire training process, all senior members of the technical staff are available for guidance and help with technical queries. When developing core software, senior developers are there to provide code reviews and lots of feedback. The whole lifecycle is continuous learning.”

VTool employs a similar process. “The training of junior engineers is organized through mentorship programs, during which time engineers have one-on-one support from mentors for practical labs and access to training material. Verification engineers should go through each step, gradually becoming more independent. By learning from verification leads and managers, and working with them side by side, engineers eventually reach the final step in the learning process, which is verification strategy and abstract thinking.”

Kandou makes learning part of the usual way of working. “We host minicourses where a senior engineer teaches other engineers about his or her specialty,” says Shokrollahi.

Henson recommends that companies “designate a technical lead(s) or a group of mentors to oversee coaching for younger engineers. The technical lead may conduct informal mentoring, meet regularly with a small group, drive regular team meetings around new technical topics, or all of the above. Learning together inspires innovation and collaboration.”

Conclusion
While this is not the end of the story, all participants appear to have one notion in common, put into words by NI’s Henson. “A happy and engaged engineer is not interested in mundane, repetitive tasks or spending days searching for training and learning material. A thriving and engaged engineer is empowered daily to solve the next big challenge.”

Editor’s Note: Different approaches may be required for different types of education and the maturity of the subject matter. Part two of this article will focus on education that requires evangelization, the changes being brought by open communities and costs.

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