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Creating IC Design Centers of Excellence


Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Amid the recent, intense discussion of semiconductor supply chains, one key element is often overlooked: the need for alternative sources of design expertise. Traditionally, an advanced system-on-chip (SoC) design is achievable in only a few geographic clusters of expertise formed around an outstanding university engineering model—and thriving symbiotically with it.

However, the demand for advanced chip designs is outgrowing the capacities of these legacy clusters, as skilled engineers are scarce. Meanwhile, global trade uncertainties are pressuring organizations to diversify or near-shore their supply chains. Additionally, the escalating demand for innovative new IC designs for AI, edge devices and data centers intensified the global need for more chip designers.

An obvious solution is establishing new IC design centers of excellence in new geographies, including developing countries. But how do we do that? Often, there will not be any world-class university engineering program present on which to build. Luring experienced expat designers—the early model for Taiwan—is expensive and increasingly complex. We need another model.

Faraday and EDA firms Cadence and Synopsis identified Vietnam as an ideal location for training new designers. The country already had a semiconductor supply chain comprising packaging, testing and prototyping that exported products to countries outside Vietnam.

More importantly, Vietnam has a large young workforce, and 40% of the country’s university graduates have technical and engineering degrees—a large population of potential design engineering experts—and we have found a way to hire and train them.

An apprenticeship solution

As a design services company with operations based in Vietnam, Faraday believes it has an answer. In Ho Chi Minh City, Faraday Vietnam Technology has a design center for advanced SoCs fabricated using leading-edge processes at UMC, Samsung or Intel. The company’s growth model looks back not to the early experiences of Taiwan or Japan but to the apprenticeship programs in Germany—one of the foundations of that country’s economic strength.

Rather than hiring only experienced engineers, Faraday sees value in recruiting new engineering graduates from top Vietnam technical universities and, less often, from among Vietnamese graduates of U.S. schools. By enrolling selected applicants in an intensive apprenticeship program lasting up to four years, a stream of experienced SoC design specialists participating in the most challenging projects can enter the talent pool.

The right candidates

Finding suitable candidates might seem simple: Pick the graduates who did the best on their EE or computer science courses. But it is not that easy. Companies are hiring a person and a future team member, not a set of grades. Certainly, relevant coursework is essential, as is participation in research projects or an actual chip design. Demonstrated skills are crucial, including an understanding of design fundamental concepts and design flows, experience with EDA tools and experience with scripting languages.

But design today is not about following cookbooks, and it is not about isolated geniuses. Companies must look for mental agility: the ability to decompose complex situations, to see through symptoms to root causes and the flexibility to seek creative solutions that are not in textbooks. Agility also means receptiveness to continuing education. At the leading edge, design practice changes fast.

At the same time, candidates must show an aptitude for collaboration, accurate communication and emotional resilience necessary for working in dynamic teams. This is not about keeping one’s head down and blending in. It is about self-confidence and resilience to share one’s initiative and creativity within a group. It is about communicating clearly and quickly, both spoken and written.

The apprentice’s path

Apprenticeship programs like the one Faraday Vietnam offers should aim to help students become exceptional engineers in a fast-moving, risk-receptive environment that vastly differs from the typical academic world. And the industry must do so without creating risks to the schedules or quality of customer designs. This requires a process of many distinct stages, leading from the classroom to full membership in a design team.

The apprentice’s first week should be about adapting to a new reality. Culture is an essential part of this. Graduates who may be coming from an academic world of competitive grading and individual effort need time and encouragement to adjust to a very different life. Any programs should strive to be warm and inclusive to these young engineers as the industry accustoms them to perhaps two unfamiliar behaviors: Ask when you do not know and risk public failure.

At Faraday, we realize that most graduates will have little or no hands-on design experience, and many will have gaps in their knowledge. As an industry, we must tailor specific training early to fill those gaps, but this depends on the apprentice asking questions.

In addition, programs should also depend on the principle of trying a lot, failing fast and learning quickly from failure. For many, this is a new and emotionally challenging experience.

But let us come back to another facet of any new program: inclusiveness. The industry should put its best foot forward toward improving inclusivity in EE, such as beginning with community outreach before university, and encouraging young women to consider science and technology degrees.

Mentors are vital

The first week of any program should include another critical step: introducing the apprentice to a mentor. Mentors are experienced design engineers who will work with the apprentices one-on-one throughout their program and beyond.

Mentoring has many facets. Initially, much of the work will be helping the apprentice settle in and get comfortable asking questions. It is important for mentors to reply with indirect answers first, coaching the apprentices to find the answers themselves. This is necessary to build the young engineer’s professional and personal confidence. Also, the mentor should develop an individual training plan for the apprentice, laying out each step, explaining the background and requirements for each task and coaching along the way.

Step by step

Along with any needed technical training, the mentor should guide the apprentice through a structured sequence of steps. The focus in the first two months is foundational. For example, at Faraday, we tailor the training in this period to each individual’s needs so that by the end, they have command of Linux use and scripting, Verilog, System Verilog and UVM. They will be familiar with simulation and debug tools and techniques and know their way around a design kit.

The second step gets more specific. For the next month or two, the mentor takes the apprentice into their area of specialization. This could be CPU architecture, digital design, physical design or some verification facet. Faraday does this through a sequence of small, achievable projects, increasing in complexity as the engineer advances. Again, it is actual practice that builds both skills and confidence.

The final step is integration into an actual design team. This process can take three months or more, depending on the individual. It begins with evaluating the apprentice’s performance so far, the skills they have mastered and their potential for further growth.

Maturation

But this is the beginning, not the end, of the process. The mentor should stay with the young engineer, coaching on questions, arranging continuing education and monitoring their social integration into a team. Meanwhile, the team leader should give the now ex-apprentice increasingly challenging tasks on real projects.

From here, the apprentice has the potential to become a full member of a design team, making the possibility of growing a world-class design center in a developing country more plausible.

By: DocMemory
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