Are you a budding electronics engineer confused about which stream will help you get your dream job? If technology is your forte, chip design is one of the many options you can consider to ensure a fast-track career.
From your personal computer to your mobile phone to your brand new digital camera, almost every electronic gadget has a tiny silicon wafer called ‘chip’ behind its intelligent functions. Chip designers across the world strive to make faster and cheaper chips that can automate part of or the entire function of mechanical devices.
Let’s figure out the opportunities in chip design and what all you need to secure a job in this sector.
The arrival of embedded systems (where intelligent devices are put inside everyday objects) and ubiquitous computing (where small computing devices proliferate to such an extent that even your shoes may be used to monitor your heartbeats) has given a boost to demand for professionals in chip design.
Today, as many as 23 of the top 25 semiconductor companies in the world have a strong presence in India. Also, there are more than 200 Indian semiconductor companies.
Some of the major recruiters are Texas Instruments (TI), PMC Sierra, Alliance Semiconductor, Analog Devices, Cadence, Synopsys, Cypress Semiconductor, HCL Technologies, Intel, Micron Tech, National Semiconductor, Philips Semiconductor, Qualcomm, Sasken, Moschip, Cradle Tech, Synplicity, Wipro and eInfochips.
Demand outstrips supply
Design firms in India continue to battle talent crunch. A recent report by the India Semiconductor Association (ISA), the apex trade body representing the Indian semiconductor and electronics industry, says that India’s chip design industry is growing at a rate of 20 per cent annually. While global and domestic companies working in this sector have significantly increased their presence in the country, the design-aware talent shortage continues to plague the industry.
“There is no dearth of jobs for chip designers in India. In fact, there is a demand of about 6000 VLSI design engineers annually, but all the NITs and IITs totally produce only about 800 in a year. There is a huge gap between the demand and supply. The demand is so high that when one year is left before graduation, each student has at least two offers in hand from highly reputed organisations,” informs Prof. V. Ramgopal Rao, Department of Electrical Engineering, IIT Bombay.
“The demand is so high that when one year is left before graduation, each student has at least two offers in hand from highly reputed organisations.”
— Prof. V. Ramgopal Rao, Department of Electrical Engineering, IIT Bombay
To address the shortage of engineers possessing the right skills, the Indian government has set up a special manpower development programme (SMDP) in this area and spent a huge amount to introduce VLSI in 25 institutes like NITs and IITs.
Roles you could choose
Chip designers are basically design engineers who define the chip’s architecture, create circuit designs, run simulations, supervise layout, tape out the chip to the foundry and evaluate the prototype once the chip comes back from the laboratory.
At the top of the ladder is the architectural team, which designs the actual chip. The defined design is then implemented in a high-level language by the logic design team. Verilog and VHDL are the two popular languages being used today to write the code. With the new paradigm of systemon-chip design, SystemC and System-Verilog are being used for top-level design.
The circuit design team synthesises the logic description into a circuit, producing a document referred to as ‘netlist.’ The physical design team then takes the netlist and performs a ‘layout’ of the chip.
It’s the job of an application engineer to make sure that the chip works in the system that has been designed or used by customers. Process engineers, on the other hand, are involved in new wafer process development, device modeling and other R&D projects. Packaging engineers develop precision packaging technology and new package designs for chips.
This is followed by testing and verification. For every two design engineers, there are five verification engineers. Freshers are entrusted with the job of testing a chip, while its designing is done only by experienced professionals, who ensure (at all stages) that the design bestows the chip with following attributes: low power consumption, less noise, less area usage, and higher efficiency in terms of speed and yield.
Jobs are primarily available in digital design, analogue design, electronic design automation, embedded software, and product and test engineering. There is a strong demand for talented system engineers and application engineers. Depending on whether a candidate is a fresher or experienced professional, his role in the organisation could range from a technical individual-contributor to a technical leader to an engineering manager.
How to get the entry?
A bachelor’s degree in electronics, communications or instrumentation is a prerequisite. Companies look for candidates with knowledge of the circuit design, VLSI design, microcontrollers, IC design, C programming, Assembly-level programming, etc.
“The salary across the market is very good for experienced candidates. It is also equally rewarding for freshers in terms of exposure and growth.”
— Teresa Mishra, general manager-talent acquisition, Wipro Technologies .
There are many universities in India that offer good education in this field. All IITs, NITs and other Tier I and II colleges offer high-quality education in chip designing. Some of the courses offered at these institutes cover microelectronics, microprocessors, VLSI design, and digital and analogue systems.
“We work closely with many universities in the country and help them with setting up of labs so that students get opportunities to work on practical aspects as part of their coursework. We also help universities to periodically revise their syllabus to ensure that students are studying the most updated technology and the latest breakthroughs during their study years,” says San-jay Bhan, director-HR, Texas Instruments India.
Wipro Technologies primarily looks for graduates in engineering and postgraduates in technology. “All IITs, NITs, BITs, Anna University, VJTI Mumbai and PSG Coimbatore offer good training on this subject,” shares Teresa Mishra, general manager-talent acquisition, Wipro Technologies.
IIT Bombay offers a dual-degree programme combining B.Tech in electrical engineering and M.Tech in microelectronics. The fee structure for this five-year course is the same as for all other IIT courses, i.e., Rs 23,000-24,000 per semester. Some of the subjects taught as part of this programme are VLSI design, analogue design, embedded systems, FPGAs, physics of transistors, systems-onchips, VLSI testing and embedded systems.
At IIT Kharagpur, students can learn digital design, analogue design and VLSI engineering. They are taught analogue VLSI circuit, digital VLSI circuit, semiconductor design modeling, architectural design of VLSI circuit and VLSI technology for fabrication.
The private sector offers lofty pay packages to candidates having a suitable exposure in the form of proper industrial training or systematic industry-defined project work. Typically, the starting salary for a fresher (diploma or degree holder) is Rs 400,000 upwards per annum, with the variation depending on the nature of the organisation and competency level of the candidate. Design engineers are the most sought after because of the industry’s emphasis on continuous new product development, miniaturisation and innovation in integration.
Sanjay Bhan shares, “A career in the semiconductor industry is highly rewarding both
“We work closely with many universities in the country and help them with setting up of labs so that students get opportunities to work on practical aspects as part of their coursework.”
— Sanjay Bhan, director-HR, Texas Instruments India
for new college graduates and experienced people. Today, in India, we have many local as well as international companies that are doing highly innovative work that is valued globally.”
“Apart from multinationals, the government also hires chip designers for space and defence research.”
— Anindya Sundar Dhar, associate professor and faculty advisor, microelectronics and VLSI design, IIT Kharagpur
“The salary across the market is very good for experienced candidates. It is also equally rewarding for freshers in terms of exposure and growth,” quips Mishra.
“The annual salary for postgraduates may range from Rs 600,000 to 800,000 and for Ph.D holders from Rs 1.1 to 1.8 million,” informs Prof. Rao.
Anindya Sundar Dhar, associate professor and faculty advisor, microelectronics and VLSI design, IIT Kharagpur, adds, “The salary for an M.Tech from IIT starts at Rs 1 million per annum. Apart from multinationals, the government also hires chip designers for space and defence research. They look for sound domain knowledge.”
Skills in demand
Intel, IBM, Texas Instruments, Analog Devices, Cadence and Synopsis are some of the big recruiters in India. Companies want students who have designed a chip as part of their curriculum and also tested it in silicon.
Prof. Rao shares, “Our students not only design the chip but also send it for fabrication to companies that provide this service and get it tested. They get exposure in design tools and silicon implementation.”
Texas Instruments looks for candidates with an understanding of the fundamentals of electronics. “There are many branches in electronics today such as VLSI, DSP, electronic communications, power electronics and embedded systems. We expect the prospective candidate to have studied at least one course in these branches. Although we do provide job-specific training, it is expected that the candidate has technical knowledge required to absorb the training. For example, a training session on VLSI may require the student to know about MOS transistor operation, CMOS circuits, logic gates and flip-flops, operational amplifiers, feedback amplifiers, poles and zeroes,” Bhan states.
Wipro Technologies, on the other hand, looks for candidates with specific knowledge on digital system design concepts, timing concept and semiconductor physics.
“Candidates looking for careers in this field should also be well versed with languages like VHDL, Verilog, Specman and System Verilog. Freshers are given an intensive training for three months,” informs Mishra.
Sunil Pathak, director-HR, Cadence Design Systems, says, “Cadence expects the candidates to have a good knowledge of the VLSI design flow. From the technical perspective, they must have strong fundamentals in analogue, digital and mixed-signal designs. This includes a good understanding of logic design and VLSI design concepts such as RTL and gate-level verification, synthesis, place-androute, design for test, signal integrity and power analysis. In languages, the candidates must be familiar with HDL (Verilog, VHDL, System Verilog), C and C++.”
VLSI design is an upcoming trend in India. “We look for chip designers in two areas: IC design and system design. The front-end work on IC requires traditional HDL-based designing. We look for candidates who know HDL Verilog languages as System Verilog is the upcoming method. For back-end processes, candidates must be familiar with foundries, their processes and EDA tools. They require skills in verification, like use of different tools and high-level verification, behavioural and post-verification skills. In system design, they should be able to put together applications. This requires skills in board design, hardware design, exact interface protocols, and domain expertise,” adds Rajesh Choudhary, head-HR, Xilinx India.
Opportunities for freshers
The chip design industry provides hardworking and competent freshers with ample scope to learn.
Texas Instruments recruits new college graduates every year. “Our campus hiring process is the foundation of our talent strategy and this has not changed over the years.
“We expect the candidates to have a good knowledge of the VLSI design flow. From the technical perspective, they must have strong fundamentals in analogue, digital and mixed-signal designs.”
— Sunil Pathak, director-HR, Cadence Design Systems
We also have a strong internship programme which gives the students an opportunity to spend quality time with our talented engineers in core semiconductor technology and interact with them closely,” avers Bhan.
What the students learn during their internship helps them to make good decisions when they start their career in designing chips or complex systems using semiconductors.
“After the students join us, we spend several months honing their skills so that they are effective in their first job. We also associate them with experienced engineers who teach them on the job. In fact, at TI, a majority of our leaders are those whom we hired straight from engineering colleges,” adds Bhan.
Getting hands-on experience in solving a problem bridges the gap between theory and practice. So take your internship and project work seriously.
“TI has robust internship programmes in select colleges in India. We have provided various types of tools and kits to students. Our technical talent teams also serve as visiting faculty members to universities. Additionally, we have joint development programmes with some universities where the students get to work on a cutting-edge technology research project,” shares Bhan.
“In system design, candidates should be able to put together applications. This requires skills in board design, hardware design, exact interface protocols and domain expertice
— Rajesh Choudhary, head-HR, Xilinx India
Cadence offers internship programmes for VLSI design students where they work alongside senior engineers on customer projects and tapeouts. In addition to technical skills, students get to learn soft skills like communications, problem-solving and multi-tasking. These internship programmes also provide an opportunity to identify potential candidates for upcoming positions. As the potential candidate is trained in the technology and has built up relationships internally and externally, the ramp to productivity is shortened.
Xilinx India, which recruits from NITs and IITs across India, has built relationships with universities like IIIT in Hyderabad. It offers internships and also plans campus placements in the future.
Learning beyond the textbook
According to design firms, there exists a significant gap between the curriculum of engineering colleges and the requirements of the industry. Also, many engineering colleges are not equipped with the latest toolkits and technologies—the fact that reinforces the need for an industry-academia interface.
It is possible that you are aware of most of the technologies from a notional perspective only. But keeping in mind the industry needs, you need the actual hands-on experience. As there are a number of directions for you while choosing a career in chip designing, be clear about your goals. Dig all the possibilities to gain practical exposure and stay up-to-date on the latest technological trends to get an edge over your competitors.