The job situation in field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) has seen an uptrend in the last few years due to increase in their use in different areas. An FPGA is an integrated circuit designed to be configured by the customer or designer after manufacture. The FPGA configuration is generally specified using a hardware description language (HDL).
FPGAs were first introduced into the market about 25 years ago and back then, it was a very simple technology. In the last few years, there are two main factors that have changed the landscape for the better.
“Earlier, people could easily create any logic on FPGAs, but now these are more technical in nature,” says Sanjay Churiwala, director, ADVS, Xilinx India.
“FPGAs today come with high-speed interfaces and serial communication protocols. Since these are more capable technically, they allow users to develop complex products and designs that were not possible before. Application-specific integrated circuits are an alternative to FPGAs that were commonly used before. But not many markets can expect such high returns and hence more people opt to work on FPGAs instead. As a result, there has been a huge increase in job opportunities for FPGA engineers,” Churiwala adds.
Today, design development at the block level is mostly independent of target implementation. Vasudevan Aghoramoorthy, vice president, semiconductor and systems, Wipro Technologies, explains, ‘’FPGAs have increasingly become the choice for new technology and low-volume products across markets like telecommunication infrastructure, industrial automation, aerospace and defense, and next-generation consumer electronics.”
As per semiconductor industry data, the total global programmable market was worth close to $5.1 billion in 2011, with $4 billion coming from FPGAs.
“We expect India to grow as a market for engineers equipped with FPGA skillset. In the coming years, engineers equipped with FPGA skillset will be in demand at two levels—technology/block development and implementation. From a technology standpoint, such skillset would be needed for block development and validation of custom differentiating and reusable hardware logic. Secondly, from an implementation standpoint, they will be in demand to achieve optimisation for high device utilisation and performance,” Aghoramoorthy adds.
The popular FPGAs available in the market are manufactured by companies like Xilinx, Lattice and Altera. Apart from FPGA manufacturers, candidates can also consider working for organisations that design around FPGAs. These include Cisco, Juniper, Samsung and Tejas Networks. Firms like National Instruments, Wipro and Infosys too have divisions for FPGA engineers.
This line offers creative and challenging work, which involves rapid prototyping of design ideas as well as verification of existing designs. Almost any area with design and verification tasks will have a requirement for FPGA-trained VLSI engineers to prototype the solutions of FPGA-based systems.
“FPGAs can be bought and programmed for a particular application. These are mostly used in embedded computing systems. All levels of companies—be it a manufacturer of high-end products like automobiles and cellphones, or low-end household equipment like coffee vending machines and toys—have FPGAs in their system,” shares professor M. Balakrishnan, deputy director, department of computer science and engineering.
Balakrishnan explains with an example: “If a car manufacturing company wants to manufacture a new technology for a car, it will opt for an FPGA-based design for prototyping as it is available for $5-10. It must have a good understanding of Verilog or VHDL language to design the slate, as FPGAs are a lot like a blank slate. The FPGA design engineer’s responsibility lies in synthesising different components inside and integrating them together.”
A professor from IIT Bombay explains the role of an FPGA engineer: “A fresher’s job will involve activities like testing, emulation and verification, while an expert in FPGA will be asked to handle digital system design, system-on-chip, embedded hardware-software co-design, digital communication sub-systems, hardware accelerators for various computing tasks, embedded control systems and digital signal processing sub-systems/systems.”
Rajesh Choudhary, head of HR, Xilinx India, adds, “Their work spans across areas like software tool development, system design, IP design and IC design. They are expected to work in domains like bio-medical, video surveillance, embedded systems and communication system. They can grow into senior design engineers and project leads. Soft skills start coming into the picture with managerial responsibility.”
Good digital electronics design skills, knowledge of programming platforms, a strong curriculum in VLSI design, good domain knowledge of digital signal processing or digital communications, computing architectures, control systems or appropriate engineering knowledge can take you a long way in getting hired by a good employer. Design work requires good understanding of the problem, not just programming or circuit design skills.
Where to study
To get an entry to work at Xilinx, a bachelor’s degree in electronics, electrical or computer science is compulsory. However, there is no pressure to take a postgraduation degree or specialisation for the same as the required topics are covered during graduation.
“We look for graduates from reputed institutes and we consider the university name very important while recruiting employees. We approach premium institutes like IITs and IIITs for placements as we have found from our experience that the quality of their talent is different. The two main factors we look for while recruiting people are technical capability in the subject and analytical power,” shares Choudhary.
National Instruments works with some specific colleges for hiring FPGA engineers.
“Some of the institutes which we work very closely with are BITS Pilani and IIT Bombay, both of which have excellent VLSI design programmes. SJB Institute of Technology in Bengaluru is also an upcoming institute in FPGA-based graphical system design development,” informs Karun Jain, senior technical consultant, National Instruments India.
One can also enroll in courses at private institutes such as Sandipani, Veda, C-DAC and TTM Institute of Information Technology to learn VLSI.
How to enter the industry
There are no specialised courses offered yet in well-known colleges in India. Professor S. Srinivasan, head-department of electrical engineering at IIT Madras, advises interested candidates to learn the subject at NITs, IITs and research labs such as DRDO and ISRO as these can also turn into potential employers.
“They can do experiments and learn the HDL well to program application. They get training on the basic digital design concept, and design engineering experience required. Later, they get placed in organisations that come to our institutes looking for such talent,” Srinivasan shares.
Choudhary concurs: “The best way is to do a bachelor’s degree in electronics, electrical or computer science at a reputed institute and either apply directly or get placed at large organisations.”
However, if you have already completed your bachelor’s degree from a lesser-known institute, there are other ways too to get into a good organisation.
Chaudhary explains, “One option is to join a small company like a service provider initially and gain experience in the field. Later, you can consider joining a bigger organisation. You can even join semiconductor companies as the skills acquired are similar. We do campus recruitment but most of our talent joins us from other semiconductor and EDA companies after gaining a good understanding of FPGA. Another way to get acquainted with FPGAs is to attend VLSI-specialised courses.”
There are particular skill sets which recruiters look for while hiring an FPGA engineer. “Problem-solving skills and expertise in FPGA design and verification tools like VHDL, LabVIEW FPGA and Verilog are the most sought after skills while hiring FPGA engineers,” shares Jain.
In Xilinx, freshers are given training in R&D, hardware, software and firmware to make sure that they get a basic understanding of the area they are expected to work in. As FPGAs are undergoing a lot of changes, training is a continuous process at Xilinx. This ensures that existing employees reach the next level by learning to work on new technologies.
The author was till recently a business correspondent at EFY Bengaluru.