As the fortunes of the tech sector rise and fall, some technical pros seem especially proficient at riding out the fluctuations. Among them are RF and microwave engineers, who work in areas as varied as cell phone reception, military antennas and microphones for entertainment superstars.
One prime factor in their favor is supply and demand. There simply aren’t enough people in this EE specialty. Which, of course, puts good RF engineers in the catbird seat for job selection.
The professors have their say
Richard Snyder knows a lot about RF. Snyder is president of RS Microwave (Butler, NJ) and general chair for this year’s IEEE International Microwave Symposium. He’s also a professor of EE at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT).
For at least twenty years, says Snyder, EE has been seen as a less glamorous field than CS. Among the kids who do select EE majors, many opt to follow the digital route. And on the analog side, only a few typically choose to specialize in RF/microwave engineering.
That, says Snyder, has meant relatively few new RF engineers entering the workforce, and explains why RF jobs are more secure, more available and, ultimately, likely to pay better than many other technical positions.
Gerald Whitman is another NJIT EE prof. As he sees it, the RF specialty attracts the best students and requires strong math and analytic skills. But most universities offer only limited RF coursework, partly because there’s also a shortage of faculty who can teach it. As a result most EE graduates have, at most, a year of course work in electromagnetics or high-frequency communications.
Whitman points out that a lot of RF training comes at the masters level. NJIT, he notes, has one of the few programs in the state that offers good RF for undergrads.
|Dr Seong-Hwoon Kim, an RF tech manager at Lockheed Martin, gets into hands-on work.
Dr Seong-Hwoon Kim: antennas at Lockheed Martin
RF engineers work on antenna technology at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control (Orlando, FL). Seong-Hwoon Kim, PhD, is an RF technology manager with the research and technology group.
Kim earned his BSEE at Pennsylvania State University-State College in 1986 and went on to a 1991 PhD there. He helped develop radar systems for the Naval Air Warfare Center (NAWC, Warminster, PA) at the same time he was writing his dissertation on antennas and electromagnetics.
After graduation Kim continued at NAWC until 1993 when he joined Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin). He worked on antenna development for Aegis, the Navy’s ship-based radar system.
The next year he moved to Geneva College (Beaver Falls, PA) where he taught EE. Kim likes teaching, but after six years of it he thought he should get back to R&D; in order to stay technically current. So in 2000 Kim made another career shift, taking his current job.
In Orlando, Kim works on antenna development and radar systems for missiles. His development work is aimed at keeping up with missile technology. “The threat changes fairly dynamically,” Kim says. “The challenge is not trivial.”
Kim is part of a matrix organization with rotating projects. He may work independently or with up to a dozen other techies, depending on the scope of the project.
He’s also part of a Lockheed Martin effort to develop technologies for the future. For example, he works on RF apps for micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS), wafer-sized components used in vehicle airbags and biomedical equipment. He also works on nano-scale devices, even smaller than MEMS and with a high strength-to-weight ratio. These are designed for unmanned aerial vehicles.
As his career evolves, Kim sees himself as active in government research, corporate research and academia. “The three areas are fairly fluid for me,” he says, meaning that he enjoys them all.
But now that he’s a project manager he’s “had to let go of being in the nuts and bolts.” Not only does someone else do the actual lab work, but Kim now wears a suit to work instead of jeans. Still, “My promotion is a positive thing,” he’s quick to add. It gives him an overview of many projects and an interest in them all.
Kim encourages new RF engineers to spend as much time as they can in the lab to increase their experience and familiarity with the technology. Don’t be afraid to try things, he advises. “Even the most successful engineers have blown something up or done something else wrong and learned from it.” Making a mistake or two early in your career, he thinks, can actually be a benefit.
|Dexter Walker of Verizon Wireless: a shift from wired to wireless solutions.
Dexter Walker does RF design for Verizon Wireless
Dexter Walker is an RF design engineer for Verizon Wireless in Williamsburg, VA. He received his BSEE at Virginia State University in 1996, and went straight into telecom with a job at Lucent Technologies (Richmond, VA). They sent him up and down the East Coast installing and testing telephone switches that process calls.
The next year he moved to MediaOne Business Services, a part of MediaOne Cable. He worked directly with customers while doing similar technical work. He was also exposed to more Internet and networking applications.
By 1998 he was working for Hyperion, a company that was bought by Adelphia Business Solutions. There he became a network/customer premise technician. He worked on provisioning – service activation – and installing networking equipment like Cisco routers and switches.
But, “I could see there was a shift from wired to wireless solutions, and I started looking for opportunities in that sector,” he says. Two years later, when a job opened up at Verizon Wireless, he was ready to make the change.
He was assigned to a management team where he could observe and learn the wireless end of the technology he’d been working with. Today he’s up to speed, juggling ten to twenty projects at any given time.
He’s deep into the fun and excitement of RF, designing new cell sites and redesigning existing sites for improved wireless reception. He also goes into the field, working with performance engineers to find spots for new cell towers. He tests coverage by computer simulation and follows up with “dry” field tests. Sometimes he and his colleagues swing the equipment up on a mobile crane and cart it around to various sites to test the reception.
|Thomas Tsige is working on a project to improve reception for Sprint PCS customers.
Thomas Tsige improves networks for Sprint PCS
Thomas Tsige, an RF engineer at Sprint PCS (Overland Park, KS), is stationed in Cincinnati, OH, working on a benchmark project to improve cellular reception for customers. A field group locates antenna sites based on the needs identified by Tsige and his colleagues. Then Tsige uses an RF propagation simulator tool to determine optimum locations.
Tsige, a native of Ethiopia, traveled to the U.S.S.R. in 1985 to earn a BSME specializing in diesel power plants at the Leningrad Higher Naval Engineering College in what is now St. Petersburg, Russia. He moved to Washington, DC in 1992 and took business courses. He spent a week at the White House during National Volunteer Week, logging incoming mail for President Bill Clinton.
Then he entered the University of the District of Columbia, graduating with a BSEE in 1998. The next January he got a job as an associate engineer at Telnet Inc (Rockville, MD), a consulting company that works with Sprint PCS and other carriers, and moved over to Sprint last year.
Tsige enjoys his job as an RF engineer. It’s not easy: he interfaces with many different engineers and sometimes works long hours. “Every day is different,” he says with relish.
|At audio maker Shure, Gail Gurevich spends her days immersed in music.
Gail Gurevich: immersed in music at Shure
Gail Gurevich is an RF engineer at Shure (Niles, IL), a maker of microphones and wireless audio devices. Shure recently won a technical Grammy for its contributions to the music industry, and the engineers there spend their days surrounded by new technology and immersed in music.
Gurevich completed her BSEE at Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) in 1993 and went to work for Motorola (Schaumburg, IL) in an RF engineering group. For four years she designed and tested base-station components. Then she moved to Zenith (Glenview, IL) where she worked with HDTV tuners, doing design, development and testing.
In 2000 she came to Shure. New engineers at Shure go straight to work on a project with the help of a mentor, notes Marcie Austen, director of associate services. So Gurevich was soon working with a personal monitor system – a body pack, receiver, earphone and transmitter – that lets entertainers hear themselves as the audience does during a performance. She also works with wireless microphones, most recently the Shure ULX that can search for clearer frequencies to improve sound quality.
Shure is a team-oriented organization. Gurevich meets with other engineers and marketing folks to plan approaches to the project goal.
Both Austen and Gurevich affirm that Shure is a fun company that links technical engineering skills with music appreciation. “Many people here have musical talent,” Gurevich notes.
|Evelyn Benabe is a senior RF engineer with Raytheon’s Network Centric Systems.
Evelyn Benabe: design work at Raytheon
Evelyn Benabe is a senior RF engineer at Raytheon Co (Lexington, MA), working with Raytheon Network Centric Systems (NCS) in St. Petersburg, FL.
Benabe earned her 1995 BSEE at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez and went to work for Motorola (Plantation, FL). She worked on tuning and testing VHF, UHF and 800 MHz two-way communications radios.
In 1998 she returned to school, receiving an MSEE from the University of South Florida-Tampa in 2000. “Part of my motivation for going back to school was that I wanted to get involved in design work,” she says.
She joined Raytheon just a few months before she received her degree, finally into the design work she craved. She started out with a group of five or six engineers, working on the transmitter side of a new UHF payload product. Today she’s advanced to designing high-power amplifiers, splitters, combiners, filters and transceivers. She begins with a program relying on simulation to come up with a proof of concept; then she and her colleagues work with a prototype in the lab.
Benabe keeps herself up to date with technical magazines, seminars and company training. She sees technology trends moving toward more efficiency, smaller packages with more functionality as well as better simulators and design tools to help reduce design cycles and make projects succeed.
Her advice to other engineers is to “Be very persistent. Sometimes you have to try different things,” she says.
She can do that herself anytime she likes, because Raytheon offers a dual career path for its engineers. Some go on to be managers, others stay in the technical ranks and move up that way. “There’s nothing worse than forcing engineers into management when they want to be on the front lines,” points out Vickie King, a Raytheon spokesperson.
|Dolly Mallian of SBC Communications: looking for engineers with aptitude.
SBC’s Dolly Mallian: practical application of principles
Dolly Mallian is general manager of network planning and engineering at wireless provider SBC Communications (Hoffman Estates, IL). She’s always looking for good people, she says – engineers with aptitude in scientific and mathematical principles and the ability to “take those principles and apply them practically.”
The company, she explains, needs people “with practical experience” who can ensure operability and interactivity while still considering the economics of each situation. SBC engineers must create designs “that are not overbuilt or underbuilt,” she declares.
The RF engineers interviewed for this article are building good careers because they have acquired the skills that the industry needs, and that are often in short supply. Most of today’s employers are seeking people with solid industry experience, ready to hit the ground running – and designing RF apps.
Claire Swedberg is a freelance writer who lives in Somerset, NJ.