An increased adoption of field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) in the semiconductor industry has opened tremendous opportunities for FPGA engineers. Current usage of FPGA varies from a simple interface logic implementation to FPGA as the main processing device in the system.
Paramita Kapat, head—human resource, eInfochips adds that, “With increased resource size and powerful DSP blocks, processor blocks, transceiver blocks and large on-chip memory, FPGAs play a major role in a variety of domains including video processing, networking, avionics, ATE and as hardware accelerators.” This has increased the demand for competent FPGA engineers in the industry.
Growth of FPGA usage driving career scope
FPGAs are widely being used in various industries ranging from medical applications and handheld devices to aerospace and military segments. “Hence the FPGA industry offers an immense potential for both the industry and for aspiring engineers to work, learn and grow,” notes Rajesh Chakkingal, lead architect, Mistral Solutions.
On a similar note, Rajesh Choudhary, HR head, Xilinx India informs, “FPGA as a technology is evolving and has become predominant in various domains such as telecommunication infrastructure, industrial automation, aerospace and high-end consumer electronics such as 3D TVs and personal digital assistants. The career scope of FPGAs is also increasing with their increased usage.”
These days, there are various career choices available to engineering graduates as well as postgraduates. With over 20 years of industrial experience, Yogesh Soni, senior technical director, Mattozetta Technologies believes a career in very-large-scale integration (VLSI) is one of the best choices available today.
Although, he says, “It is tough for a fresher to enter into VLSI as a career, but once you are in, you would have a world-class career. Within VLSI, a career in FPGA is an evergreen choice.” As technology nodes have shrunk to very low level, thereby skyrocketing the application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) development cost, FPGA provides a very good alternative to quick and faster design, and development for any product.
Multitude of roles
The two broad opportunities in this field are with designing FPGA-based designs and then verification. Both these areas are equally challenging, and require high level of involvement. Chakkingal adds that, “At the entry level, engineers are expected to learn hardware description languages (HDLs) such as VHDL/Verilog and use them for register-transfer level (RTL) coding and verification of test benches.”
Also, entry-level engineers can target jobs in logic design/verification in the FPGA application areas. Choudhary says, “Today, many companies are using FPGAs for prototyping many ASIC/ASSP applications, hence the opportunities are huge in this field.”
As an FPGA engineer, one is expected to handle design, verification and validation tasks. As a fresher, it is necessary to start with training in HDL and FPGA tools.
“At entry level, it is preferred that the engineer works on verification and validation of the design. Identifying and evaluating various scenarios to test, creating test environment and verifying and debugging the design can offer them a good overview of the development cycle,” notes Kapat.
She further adds, “They can further mature as a designer, by owning and designing less complex modules to begin with.”
There are many other roles available for FPGA engineers, such as IP design for FPGA, IP porting onto FPGA, FPGA validation, system prototyping using FPGAs and silicon validation using FPGA-based boards.
As per TimesJobs.com’s statistics, 42 per cent of FPGA-related jobs are offered by the IT industry, which sort of justifies Soni’s statement—“If you hate to do coding, FPGA job is not for you.” Thirty per cent of the jobs are available in the manufacturing and engineering sector, 14 per cent in the semiconductor/IT hardware/networking sector and about 4 per cent of the jobs are available in the healthcare sector.
Geographically speaking, majority of the jobs, which in numbers turns out to be 59 per cent, are in Bengaluru followed by Hyderabad having 16 per cent of the jobs. Delhi currently has about 9 per cent of the jobs and Pune and Chennai have 6 per cent each.
A fresher graduate needs to be strong in basic fundamental areas such as digital electronics, digital logic design (RTL) and microprocessors. A good grasp over languages such as VHDL, Verilog and C is an added advantage. Some firms also expect potential employees to be knowledgeable about digital signal processing (DSP) and communication systems while recruiting them for work in the FPGA domain.
HDL coding skill is a must in any FPGA job. Highlighting the importance of coding in the FPGA domain, Soni says, “If you hate to do coding, an FPGA job is not for you. Besides coding, a good understanding of digital design concepts, logic gates, logic design and verification would help any FPGA engineer to do a good job, to shine and advance in his/her career.”
Good problem-solving skills enable an FPGA engineer to analyse different solutions to a given problem and zero in on designing the solution. A good debugging skill makes one quickly find the design bugs and allows a designer to fix it. He adds, “Though this skill comes only with experience, a strong analytical ability helps an engineer to build expertise quickly.”
Talking about experienced graduates, Kapat says, “For experienced graduates already working in this field, we strongly rely on their digital design fundamentals. If the experience level is of around five years, we expect the engineer to have worked with complete FPGA development cycle. It is expected that the engineer is well acquainted with FPGA development tools from any one of the FPGA vendors—preferably Xilinx/Altera, simulation tools and have hands-on experience with board validation with FPGA-specific debug tools such as ChipScope/SignalTap.”
The engineer should be aware of the FPGA architecture and features of the devices he/she has worked with. She further adds, “But most importantly, we test if the engineer can create a digital circuit for given specifications and requirements.” So, digital design, VHDL/Verilog HDL, synthesis, floor planning and board validations are the skills an experienced engineer must acquire.
“FPGA is a growing field for electronic engineers and a majority of the jobs in this specialisation are focussed in the silicon valley of India, namely, Bengaluru. This highly specialised skill is greatly in demand by the IT consulting, engineering and knowledge process outsourcing industries. While starting salaries are not very spectacular—with the correct exposure in this field, a professional with a couple of years of experience can draw seven-figure salaries,” explains Vivek Madhukar, COO, Times Business Solutions.
Talking about eInfochips, Kapat shares that for fresher graduates, the pay package is Rs. 150,000 to Rs. 200,000 per annum whereas for experienced professionals, it varies from Rs. 200,000 to Rs. 1,200,000 per annum depending on their skills.
With respect to Xilinx, “For new college graduates, we recruit from IITs/NITs only at this stage but we will be open to visit other institutions as well as our need will grow. We recruit a very small number of them, and therefore we do not have a need to visit other engineering institutions at this stage from a hiring point of view,” notes Choudhary. “Our compensation packages are competitive and comparable with any other MNC product companies operating in semiconductor and system-level domain,” he further adds.
According to the data provided by TimesJobs.com, 50 per cent of the jobs are for entry-level engineers in the FPGA domain and they are paid anywhere between Rs. 150,000 and Rs. 500,000 depending on their skills and capabilities. Once they gain experience and elevate to junior level, their package lies between Rs. 500,000 and Rs. 1,000,000 approximately. Currently, about 43 per cent of the jobs are for fairly experienced, junior-level professionals. About just 3 per cent and 4 per cent jobs are for mid-level and senior-level experts in the FPGA domain.
FPGA industry is an evergreen industry. The FPGA engineer, especially in a service industry, is expected to work on all aspects of the development cycle. In most of the projects, the RTL design, STA, floor planning and board-level validation needs to be handled by the same FPGA engineer. Based on the project complexity for certain projects, the FPGA engineer handles both the design and verification as well.
Because of many factors including cost and ease of prototyping, more and more designs are getting done in FPGA. Soni says, “You can have smaller design cycle, faster time to market, lower cost for low-volume products, no NRE and many other benefits when doing designs in FPGA.”
“So study well, choose a good project and do it completely, get a good hold over basic concepts and hop onto the niche career in the FPGA industry,” he adds.
The author is a senior technical correspondent at EFY