Semiconductor careers are great for
EEs and others
Techies are certainly needed, but some companies are cautious about hiring
Most semiconductor engineers get a lot of interest and even enjoyment out of their frequently stressful jobs
Sue Marquette Poremba
There’s a definite need for engineers in the semiconductor industry. Part of the problem is
a shortage of electrical engineers and other techies to take on the job. The other part is the economy, which has slowed hiring to a lower rate than many managers in the industry
Anna Kochka is HR director at Sequoia Communications (San Diego, CA), a growing
RF semiconductor company. She’d hire more EEs if she could find them. “We have a definite need for EEs,” Kochka says. “The trick is
finding the right ones.”
Sequoia Communications principal engineer Carrie Lo agrees. “I’ll get calls to give job references for my friends,” she says, “but
when the recruiters find out my background, they start trying to recruit me!”
At STMicroelectronics (San Jose, CA), however, the economy is a bigger concern than the supply of engineers. Ted Daniels, HR director, says he’d like to bring in more engineers, but the company wants him to take a conservative approach. ST is doing very well, he notes, but there’s always a trickle-down effect when the economy shows signs of slowing.
Diversity is welcome
In the semiconductor industry, diversity is sometimes achieved more by a company’s global outreach than through specific initiatives. Applied Materials (Santa Clara, CA) is a major supplier of production equipment to the worldwide semiconductor industry.
“We have a very diverse global workforce,” says president and CEO Mike Splinter. “I am proud to be part of a company that embraces and leverages different thoughts, experiences, style and culture. In order to think strategically at the enterprise level, we must position and use our diverse culture as a competitive advantage.”
STMicroelectronics has no specific affinity groups for its diverse employees, but HR director Ted Daniels says that employees act as “ambassadors for the company” at meetings and career fairs of many minority-serving national groups. “It’s voluntary, but we encourage that relationship,” Daniels says.
Li Liu is an apps engineer at STMicroelectronics
“It’s a constant juggle between work and family,” says Li Liu, mother of two and applications engineer at STMicroelectronics. “I think in Silicon Valley the jobs are more demanding than in other places. If we have an urgent issue, we have to solve it today, or certainly no later than tomorrow!”
Luckily, she adds, ST is a flexible company and “very family oriented. I can work from home if I need to. If I need to do something with my children I tell my boss, and I work different hours to make up the time.”
Liu graduated from Central South University in China in 1992 with the equivalent of a BS in engineering. She came to the U.S. for her 1996 MSCS from the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. She went on to work in Silicon Valley, the famous California Bay Area hotbed of semiconductor technology.
Her first job out of college was at Philips Multi-Media, focusing on multimedia and embedded systems. She moved on to HP for a few years, then a succession of startup companies.
“I had both my kids while working at different startups,” she says. “When I came back from maternity leave after the second baby I decided I didn’t want to work at startups anymore.” STMicroelectronics offered her work she was interested in, and she’s been there since 2005.
She’s currently working on an HD satellite receiver to let satellite TV viewers record shows or pause live TV. “You’ll be able to record multiple channels simultaneously, including HD channels,” she explains.
Liu has a prototype box at home for research. “I don’t usually let my son watch TV,” she says, “and he complains when I watch it myself. I told him this is for work, and now he wants to get a job like mine.”
She’s worked on this project for less than a year and is thrilled to see her box already in production. “I feel like I accomplished something,” she says. “And, just as my son surmises, it’s fun to use!”
Liu enjoys the multicultural environment of her workgroup. “I have colleagues from the U.K., Russia, Italy and India,” she says. She is the group’s only Chinese member and one of two women engineers.
“But I don’t feel isolated,” she says. “We discuss issues and share stories. We’re all trying very hard to solve the technical issues because we want our products to be successful.”
Jessie Johnson manages embedded chipsets at AMD
Advanced Micro Devices (AMD, Austin, TX) makes a variety of products for desktops, mobile devices, servers and workstations, as well as embedded products.
“My job is managing and defining core-logic chips that go into high-end embedded computing systems,” says embedded-chipset manager Jessie Johnson. “Core-logic components are the large I/O chips that go around
the microprocessor and allow it to control I/O devices such as hard drives, network controllers, graphics displays and so forth.” It’s a complex job. “You have to look
at the whole system, not just the processor. All the components come together to make the system work.”
Part of his job is keeping existing projects on course by helping the sales team and working with the engineering teams. “The other part is like being a clairvoyant,” he says. “I have to read a crystal ball and figure out what we’ll need during the next five years.”
That’s just fine, because Johnson is enthusiastic about technology. “Growing up in a small town in Mississippi there wasn’t a lot to do, so I watched a lot of PBS and Star Trek,” he recalls. He was already thinking about the technological future.
He also liked creating things, and he turned to electronics. “One year my mom gave me a Radio Shack electronics kit for Christmas,” he says, and his career direction was set.
After completing his BSEE at Mississippi State University in 1988 and his MSEE at the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1991, Johnson was an engineer in the semiconductor industry with IBM and several other companies.
He joined AMD in 1999. He was drawn to his chipset manager job because “I wanted to try
a technical marketing position,” he explains. His idea was to be a liaison between sale teams and the engineering teams of a microprocessor company, and the AMD job gave him that opportunity.
To deal with customers, Johnson relies on his in-depth understanding of how the chips work in a given system. He listens to what the customer needs, explains it to the engineering team and trains the sales team.
“It requires understanding of the technology, the existing chips, the way chips are made and the infrastructure around them,” he explains. And since it can take a year or more to develop a new set of chips, Johnson also has to keep up with changes in technology and compliance specs during the production cycle.
“It’s a new level of creativity,” Johnson declares. “What I do is certainly not as detailed as building a product in a lab, but now I define it on paper, drive it through the infrastructure, and interface with people.”
Dr Carrie Lo: principal engineer at Sequioa Communications
Carrie Lo, PhD, knew as a child that she liked math and science, and her father’s career as an EE made her familiar with the field. “In my junior year at the University of California-Irvine, my advisor got me really interested in EE,” Lo says. “It was the first time I got to use math to make something happen.”
She went on to a 1985 BSEE, a 1986 MSEE and a 1992 PhD in EE at UC Irvine.
Lo was born in Taiwan. When she was fourteen she moved to the U.S. with her family when her father’s job was relocated. She became a California girl right away. “It’s hard to leave California after you’ve lived here,” she says.
She worked in several semiconductor industry jobs in the Irvine, CA area. But seven years ago she moved to San Diego with her husband. “I had always worked for large companies,” she says, “so I decided to make a change and work for a startup. I liked the idea of working on a lot of things and being part of the decision-making, which doesn’t always happen in a large company.”
Sequoia Communications (San Diego, CA) was an excellent fit for her specialized skills. “Not many people do polar modulation,” she says. “It’s very cutting edge.”
Sequoia makes multi-mode RF transceivers for wireless devices. The company patented the first single-chip transceiver, which reduces the size and cost and extends the battery life of wireless handsets.
When Lo joined the company it had less than a dozen employees and only a few design engineers. “We put out entire chips,” she says. “We went from design to layout and test. Basically we did everything ourselves. It was great!”
Today the company has grown to more than fifty employees. Lo is now a principal engineer, currently working with her team to build a system on a single chip. It’s a new product to be released later this year.
Lo has also been working on the next generation chip. “We’re trying to come up with ways to make our polar transmitter even better,” she says. “We’re looking at future standards for 3G and 4G.”
Carlos Dones took his EE degree into management
Carlos Dones is a commodity business manager with Applied Materials (Austin, TX). “The position lets me expand my management capabilities at the executive level without drifting too far from my technical roots,” he says.
He’s currently managing five supplier accounts worth some $170 million.
His job, he explains, is to negotiate contracts and manage business-to-business relationships between Applied Materials and its suppliers. “An operationally excellent supply chain is a definite competitive advantage in our industry,”
After graduating from DeVry Institute of Technology (Oakbrook Terrace, IL) in 1994 with a BS in electronic engineering technology, Dones began at Applied Materials as a manufacturing technologist. He went on to get a 2003 MBA from the University of Phoenix Online and a 2005 master of project management from DeVry’s Keller Graduate School of Management.
“I always enjoy knowing how things work and if they could get better,” he says. “I guess that’s the engineer in me.”
Dones is involved in mentoring at Applied Materials, and he’s chair for professional development in the company’s African American affinity group. “At the end of the day it’s good to help someone else,” he says.
Angelika Kononenko designs microchips at Teledyne
Engineering is in Angelika Kononenko’s blood. “I always wanted to be an engineer,” she says. “Both my parents are mining engineers and so were
both my grandfathers.”
At first she wanted to be a mining engineer, too, but by the time she was ready to start school her native Ukraine no longer allowed women to follow that career path. It wasn’t considered safe, Kononenko explains.
She decided to go into EE instead. She got her MSEE in 1993 from Ukraine’s Donetsk State Technical University.
Coming to the U.S. was more or less an accident. “My family won a green card in the lottery,” she says. “We weren’t adamant about moving to another country; we applied almost as a joke. But after we won we thought that destiny might be telling us something.” So twelve years ago Kononenko moved to Southern California with her husband and baby daughter.
Kononenko thought a degree from an American university would make it easier for her to pursue a career. She got her MSEE from the University of Southern California in 2000. “I considered a PhD, but I wanted to give my daughter a good life sooner rather than later,”
Kononenko joined Teledyne Scientific & Imaging (formerly Rockwell Scientific) in 2001 as a research scientist. “I’m an imager designer,” she explains. “I design microchips used in imaging applications like HDTV and camcorders.”
When she begins a project she starts with the architecture, which she thinks is the most fun part of the job. “Then you transfer the concept to a transistor level, performing schematic capture of the future chip. Every day is different, depending on the lifespan of the chip.”
“It’s like bringing something to life,” she says. “Creating the chip is like a birth.”
Kononenko is surprised at the small number of U.S. women in engineering, both in her college classes and at her job. In Ukraine, she says, engineering is considered a good career for women because it’s a well-paid, five-days-a-week job. “When I was growing up my mom was an engineer, and all the other engineers in her group were women, too,” Kononenko says. “In my class in Ukraine there were three men out of 120 students. But at school here only 25 percent of the class was women.”
Today there are forty-three women in her group at Teledyne’s imaging sensors facility, Kononenko reports.
Joe Yu combines marketing and engineering in his job at NXP
Joe Yu is director of strategy and innovation for NXP Semiconductors (Santa Clara, CA). He moved into the position last year.
His job is a combination of marketing and engineering. “Often marketing and engineering get to be adversarial, and things don’t work out too well if you let the two sides fight,” he says. “My team is in the middle, trying to refine ideas and work with engineering to make the ideas into products: in this case, semiconductors.”
“I try to be a good listener,” Yu notes. “I try to figure out what’s going on in the industry by talking to customers, and I try to encourage good ideas. There’s no monopoly in ideas.”
Yu’s group makes microcontrollers. “They already have a long history, about thirty years. With everything going digital, it’s one of the most exciting areas. Everything seems to be more and more intelligent. Microcontrollers are so inexpensive nowadays that you find them in light switches and cars, basically anything you touch.”
Yu got his BSEE from Santa Clara University (Santa Clara, CA) in 1988. He went to work as an application engineer at Atmel, where he found himself helping customers use the chips the company produced. “I was always curious about the bigger picture,” he says.
A manager who acted as a mentor convinced Yu that he could grow beyond his application engineering job. Because he was comfortable working with customers, and also out of curiosity, he decided to try his hand at marketing.
“I wanted to have exposure to many types of semiconductors,” he says. “But I decided microcontrollers were the most exciting, and I came back to this field.” That’s what led him to join NXP nine years ago.
His job today is to help maintain a balance among engineering, marketing and sales. “It’s the vision versus reality: what marketing dreams up and what engineering can do,” he says. “This process can take a long time.”
Yu’s group breaks down those two very different approaches and helps the groups understand each other. “We also need the customer’s ideas or software to translate the microcontroller’s functions into bits and bytes that our chip understands.”
Dr Lauren Liu: leading edge at Cymer
Dr Lauren Liu, an optical engineer, went to work for Cymer (San Diego, CA) because of the company’s strength in optical science. “Their technology is leading-edge,” she says. “I wanted to see how I’d fit working in this field.”
Cymer is a lithography equipment company that makes lasers used in the creation of semiconductor chips. Liu’s role is to help design optical systems that collect light. “We develop systems that tell the light where to go and then specify the properties of the light,” she explains.
Liu earned a 1991 BS in physics and a 1998 PhD in optical science from a university in China. She enjoyed the international scope of her research thesis so much that she came to the U.S. to do post-doctoral work at the University of California-San Diego. “There are so many new things happening in optics right now,” she says.
After so many years in school, “It was time to go out into the real world,” she recalls with a laugh. “After I finished my research project I was looking for opportunities at a company.” Cymer is the second company she’s worked for, and she’s been there two years.
Liu finds she prefers industry to academia. “In a university you may be doing frontier research, and that’s great,” she says. “But industry produces real stuff.”
But her time in academic research has proved very valuable to her current work. “It teaches you focus, and that’s a good skill to have no matter what kind of work you’re doing.”
As an international company Cymer has a naturally diverse employee base. “We want a diversity of ideas as well as a diversity of culture,” says HR director Diane Richards. “The two things often go hand-in-hand.”
OPPORTUNITIES IN SEMICONDUCTOR ENGINEERING
Check the latest openings at these diversity-minded companies.
|Company and location
|Advanced Micro Devices
(Santa Clara, CA)
(San Diego, CA)
|DUV and EUV light sources for semiconductor manufacture
|Microprocessors, microcontrollers, DSPs, RF, sensors and analog ICs
(Santa Clara, CA)
|Microchips and microprocessors
(San Jose, CA)
|Inspection and diagnostic process control solutions
|Microchip Technology, Inc
|Microcontrollers and analog semiconductors
|National Semiconductor Corp
(Santa Clara, CA)
|Analog and mixed-signal semiconductors and subsystems
|NEC Electronics America, Inc
(Santa Clara, CA)
(San Jose, CA)
(San Diego, CA)
|Teledyne Scientific & Imaging
(Thousand Oaks, CA)
|High-speed electronics, MEMS sensors and actuators, compound semiconductors
|ICs for high-performance network applications
Back to Top