Training Tomorrow’s Chip Designers

The semiconductor industry partners with academia in a variety of ways to support the next generation of electrical engineers.


With technology advancing rapidly and the growing number of open R&D projects, there is an expanding need for qualified engineers. To make this possible, practical education needs to start much earlier than after graduation.

One the best ways the EDA and semiconductor industry has embraced is encouraging engineering students to cooperate with experienced engineers, technologists and industry managers. All of the leading EDA providers, along with other significant industry players train and cooperate with students at universities of technology. In fact, many engineers started out this way.

“Based on our experience, best results can be achieved through development type of projects rather than in short-term training or technical presentations,” said Zibi Zalewski, general manager of the hardware division at Aldec “Even small development tasks allow students to grow, learn new tools and verify their work in real hardware, especially if they can be a part of real project problems and challenges. There is nothing like a real fix done for a real engineering project.”

Another approach is to provide engineering thesis topics at the universities so students can develop solutions required by the industry, with a company mentoring and guidance through the whole process.

“That’s the best way to turn the student into an engineer,” Zalewski said. “We also provide tools and licenses for universities so students can get familiar with industry-proven work environments. This approach equips engineers to be ready to work and participate in real projects right after graduation, not after a few years of training.”

This holds true across the semiconductor industry, not just for EDA. eSilicon has adopted a program to bring its next generation of designers up to speed fast, according to Mike Gianfagna, vice president of marketing at eSilicon. “Appropriately called the FAST Academy, the program consists of an intensive six-month work/study experience. New graduates and those approaching the end of an advanced degree are eligible. The students of FAST Academy are taken through a program that teaches them the practical skills needed for successful FinFET-class chip design. Classroom training, visiting expert lectures and the opportunity to work through real design examples are all part of the experience. We’ve deployed FAST Academy in a few places around the world with excellent results.”

Education and research
Interactions with universities always must include education and research, said Patrick Haspel, group director for academic partnerships at Cadence. “We definitely leverage the research competence directly for EDA, and for customers, for the expertise it brings to the industry in helping drive the evolution of EDA technology.”

On the education front, close work with universities prepares students to hit the ground running with the EDA industry’s customers, and this happens both on the student level, as well as with faculty.

“For example, we recently conducted faculty training [at a major university] to make sure that the professors understand how the technology works,” Haspel said. “We also organize student contests with hundreds of universities participating and thousands of students. Overall, it is important for the universities that their students understand the methodology and how tools have to be used. Further, they apply what they have learned in the lecture using state of the art technology in the lab.”

Fig. 1: Students at this year’s DAC. Source: Patrick Groeneveld/DAC

Digital badges
A more recent and practical benefit to students, based on the partnerships between EDA and universities, is the ability to earn a digital badge as a proof of successfully finishing a course, with an exam at the end.

“We are starting to offer these digital badges to all university students that have successfully completed a Cadence training in partnership with the education services department of Cadence,” he said. “The digital badges are a real advantage in hiring or a resume advantage for the students because they can add them to their LinkedIn resumes. Particularly for graduates in emerging regions in the world, the digital badge proves they have real world experience.”

The tech industry has been closely involved with universities from the outset. Mentor Graphics started its higher education program in 1985 to further the development of skilled engineers within the electronics industry. The program provides colleges and universities with leading-edge design tools for classroom instruction and academic research to help ensure that engineering graduates enter the industry proficient with state-of-the-art tools and techniques. Mentor’s acquisition by Siemens extended that coverage globally, noted Ian Burgess, higher education programs manager at Mentor, a Siemens Business.

“Our overriding goal is to empower the next generation of digital talent,” Burgess said. “We are committed to a future-proof workforce, ensuring that new graduates start their industrial careers proficient in the latest state of the art design and verification methodologies and are highly marketable to employers. Furthermore, as the electronic design methodologies change rapidly to keep pace with technology, our customers benefit from having students possessing these skills from the outset,” he explained.

Most important here is enabling schools to teach the latest methodologies, so Mentor works with key partner schools to develop and share curriculum with educators around the world. Additionally, the company supports workshops for students in key locations. For example, Mentor runs free summer schools in India for up to 100 undergraduate students per year in advanced functional verification using its Questa tools. “India is a hotbed for verification, and this skillset is highly valued by our customers, who we invite to meet the students and promote themselves. Indeed, a large number of the students on these courses walk away not just certified that they understand this methodology, but with internship and job offers,” Burgess said.

Beyond ICs, systems design tools, both PCB and automotive, are seen as just as important. Here, Mentor actively supports student teams in competitions, such as the Formula Student, with software grants and training to enable them to design and build small but highly sophisticated race cars, he continued. “These are even more important today with the emergence of electric and autonomous drive cars. These competitions enable the development of the key architects of the future.

Burgess believes Siemens has strengthened Mentor’s position in education, and the two academic program teams already are operating as one to provide the best in class for mechanical, electrical and software engineering programs, including student competitions support, with a complete product portfolio to colleges and students, as well as strategic awards for the best use of EDA software and the Digital Twin design and manufacturing methodology.

Similar to the digital badge concept, Siemens provides depth and infrastructure with certification programs for students where appropriate (Solid Edge has an online certification program and key countries provide certifications across the product portfolio). “Our combined organizations cover more territories directly than Mentor alone (or any EDA company) could, and are all dedicated to partnering with universities, colleges, high schools and STEM programs to develop and showcase engineering talent worldwide,” Burgess added.

In its approach to train and qualify engineers to address the huge shortage of this highly skilled field, Synopsys leverages the volume of materials and training information it has developed to train customers and extends it to students to prepare them for the unique challenges of chip design.

“We have our own line of business where we train our customers in how to use our solutions,” said Ken Nelson, vice president for the design group of the application engineering group at Synopsys. “As it happened, one of our customers approached me and said they weren’t able to hire students that know what they are doing, and gave me a list where they do a lot of recruiting from. That was the strong impetus to get involved and ask how we could leverage all of this material we generate for our business at the university level, and make sure they have access to all the tools and materials they can use to make them part of their curriculum.”

This generated other benefits. “As Synopsys became more involved with these efforts, the research arms of the universities quickly became very much connected with what we are doing because research is always done by the grad students, and these professors need to have TAs and grad students who are capable of lecturing in order for the professor to be able to teach state of the art. Here, we found we had to get into the research so that the TAs could be qualified to continue to update the curriculum. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem. How do you get people qualified so you can keep student moving along? In our industry, things move so fast. 3nm test chips have been taped out.”

Synopsys offers a standard ‘university bundle’ that covers everything from HSPICE to digital simulation, synthesis, place-and-route, and advanced verification. Optical solutions and IP are not included.

“We provide this standard package and try to keep that updated, but sometimes their needs grow beyond it because of what they are doing, so it’s always on a case-by-case basis. Similar to running an applications team, we find out what they are doing, and point them to special requirements like advanced node. We package our implementation products for some of these advanced nodes because there are very specific requirements for 7nm or 5nm routing and placement, so we’ll often advise that they need advanced node capabilities and make sure that they get those as part of their package to do that work,” Nelson remarked. “It really comes down to what they are trying to accomplish and giving them insight as to if I’m working with a university in san Diego, and we know the biggest employer in San Diego, we give them insight if they are a little bit behind what they need, how do we help them get there. We give them our materials on how we train our people with these advanced node technologies.”

New competition
Patrick Groeneveld, a longtime EDA advocate, university professor and chair of the DAC finance committee, observed that EDA has quite a bit of competition from Google and Facebook. “It used to be the case 20 to 30 years ago that the very best students went into EDA, but now there is competition because the money is so easy when you work at Google or Facebook even though it is a lot less interesting. We are always trying to think about what we can do to make students more interested in EDA.”

One way is to get students more deeply involved. “When it comes to the Design Automation Conference, we have a conference here where students can submit a paper, and they can travel to present it,” Groeneveld said. “But the bigger problem is that people need to get interested in this field. How do we get this generation interested? This idea spurred the current ways that the Design Automation Conference supports students.”

DAC has an annual $50,000 budget to sponsor travel for as many students as possible. This year, it sponsored travel for 72 students out of about 140 who applied. In 2018, DAC sponsored 71 students selected by committee.

On their side, students prepare a poster about what they are working on, and present it at DAC during the Ph.D. Forum on Tuesday afternoon of the conference. They also create a video about their favorite paper, and a prize is awarded to the best video.

Students participate in ‘EDA Summer School’ on the Sunday of DAC, attend the conference Monday through Wednesday, and attend a closing session on Thursday.

Groeneveld noted that 22% of the students attending DAC this year are women, and he hopes that number will increase over time.

Looking ahead, Cadence’s Haspel is optimistic about how the variety of new approaches to education will assist in training the next generation of electrical engineers and EDA tool developers.

One specific approach that is gaining traction at Carnegie Mellon and other universities is the swapped classroom, as opposed to the typical one-way conversation of a traditional lecture. In this model, the lecture portion of a course would be recorded, and the professor would spend most of their valuable time in the lab with students.

Another newer approach is to leverage the cloud to provide open online courses.

No matter the specific training method or style, it is a good time to be an aspiring engineer, particularly with the breadth and depth of resources, training and support available across the semiconductor ecosystem as it ramps to meet the challenges of electronic design at advanced nodes.

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david says:

I am an engineer. I always focus on these topics. They are interesting and valuable, good for students and good for enterprise.

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