Article | November 20, 2017

Role Call: Senior Hardware Engineer

By Marissa Stonefield

Role Call: Senior Hardware Engineer

Do hazy visions of your dream job keep you up at night? Or does fear of the unknown keep you from exploring your career options? Do you find yourself wondering what a certain job entails, how much you have to know, or what experience you might need to get started?

Role Call is a series on RF Globalnet that can help answer these questions by taking a “peek behind the curtain” at different jobs and career paths in the RF and microwave industry.

Our most recent subject (you can find other entries in the series here) is Tom Offer, a Senior Hardware Engineer with CommAgility. Tom has held various positions in the company for the past seven years, and landed his current role in April 2015. Tom’s experience has included work with embedded systems, FPGA, and digital signal processing within RF, LTE, telecommunications, and other wireless markets.

What does your position as a senior hardware engineer currently entail?

My main responsibilities are in schematic design, PCB review, and design verification. As part of the design process of CommAgility’s embedded DSP/RF hardware, I work on wideband RF transceivers with high-end signal processing ICs that target 4G and 5G development and deployment. My role is a versatile one, though, and I spend a lot of time in proof-of-concept work, research, software development, and writing automated test applications.

What education is required for this position, and what are the continuing education requirements?

I joined the company as a graduate engineer, which required any degree in electronics. My additional master’s year has served me well, particularly in the fields of software-defined radio and information theory. Additional training in PCB design at the start of my career was essential to my role.

Continuing education is typically informal, and involves reading a lot of early-access datasheets, application notes, and academic papers. Occasional training courses, particularly in regulatory standards, support this. Learning to use new tools and equipment is typically self-motivated, enabling me to respond quickly to new projects and requirements.

What types of things did you need to learn on the job, versus knowledge you had out of university?

University gave me a good theoretical foundation in digital and analogue communications, digital signal processing, control theory, and a range of supporting topics. I rely on this on a daily basis in my role. A year in industry with a test equipment manufacturer also provided me a range of "soft" skills.

However, a lot of practical aspects of hardware design had to be learned on the job, partly due to my module choices at university. PCB design in particular was not part of my degree, and the general need for calculating component values to decimal places went out the window fairly quickly! I've also learned a lot about practical aspects of RF that build on the underlying theory from university.

How big was the jump from “hardware engineer” to “senior hardware engineer,” in terms of both difficulty and on-the-job responsibility?

I became responsible for more aspects of a design and began to coordinate other team members, across disciplines, to a greater extent. I've also had more access to early customer engagements and product architecture discussion as the scope of my involvement and responsibility has increased.

Rather than being reliant on existing designs and working on the digital side of a product, I now work on novel elements across both digital and RF platforms. I rely less on design reviews to pick up issues, but rather as a forum for discussion of how I've chosen to implement something.

What does a typical day in your position look like?

I work on a project from the time of initial specification to production release, so my work is varied and depends on where I am in the project. It might involve reading a lot of datasheets and some schematic entry and academic research. It also could involve writing software prototypes of calibration techniques, or simulation of matching networks and resultant soldering of prototypes with 0201 components. The only constant is that I'll be juggling tasks on multiple projects and answering ad hoc questions from colleagues.

What are the biggest personal/professional challenges that your work presents?

Dealing with unforeseen problems whilst keeping the project on track is a perennial engineering challenge. This is particularly true in RF, where components can behave unexpectedly. High frequencies can be difficult to instrument, and design revisions might require a PCB respin.

It's important to mitigate these factors with robust simulation and intuition borne out of experience, and by allowing contingency time in project planning. With colleagues around me who have spent 25 years or more working in hardware design, we can make sure between us that each project is successfully completed on time.

What specifically drew you to this career path?

The varied nature of the work and involvement in all aspects of a project was a great draw for me. Working with many aspects of the technology, including analogue and digital hardware, firmware, and software means the work is always fresh and challenging. I have the opportunity to work with the latest silicon from major vendors, which means I help to bring genuinely innovative products to market.

What is your favorite part of your occupation?

It's great to get expected results from the first prototypes of a piece of hardware.  

I particularly enjoy the theoretical side of my work — whether that's RF simulation, algorithm research and development, or calculating signal budgets for the initial stages of a design.

I also enjoy engaging with customer requirements. Sometimes this is in the early stages of a customer-driven project. Alternatively, it might mean working with a customer to adapt a specific platform to their needs through modification of hardware, firmware, and software. It's particularly rewarding to see a product which I've worked on for months being exported in volume and used in the field.

When utilizing EM simulation tools for new and existing designs, what programs do you use and why? Are there any other tools, equipment, or programs that you use in a design process?

I use a mainstream RF simulation package which provides the main capabilities I need in a straightforward solution, whilst providing good value and flexible licensing options. This is important for me because I work on RF simulation periodically so I can get the tools I need as required. As we push frequencies higher for emerging 5G applications I anticipate moving to a more sophisticated simulation tool for full 3D EM simulation. Of course, calculators and spreadsheets are never far away when calculating power budgets in the early phases of a design.

What advantages – or disadvantages – have you discovered accompany remaining with the same company where you started your career?

Staying with CommAgility since graduation has meant that I've seen it grow from being a small startup to a medium-sized business with international reach, including acquisition by the larger Wireless Telecom group in the U.S. I've learned from the challenges we've faced and helped to overcome them.

Much of my practical RF knowledge has been learned on the job as the company diversified into RF hardware. I've supported our manufacturing capabilities as we've scaled up, and ensured system-level compliance with standards for international export. We have worked as a team to adopt new quality systems as part of our ISO9001 accreditation.

As a result, whilst I've been with the same company for my professional life so far, there's been no shortage of variation and development.

We all have interests that are separate from work. What hobbies or other interests do you have outside the office?

My wife and I recently celebrated the birth of our second son; a newborn and a toddler keep me busy most of the time! I'm a keen cyclist and ride whenever I get chance — everything from road cycling to bits of downhill. I'm also hoping to get back on skis this winter after a baby-related hiatus.

What advice would you give to an individual just starting out in this field, both in terms of component design and professional development?

Learn to use your RF simulation tools, and experiment where possible to verify results. Using the best-possible component models is crucial, especially if you're interested in non-linear behavior. Building a close relationship with manufacturers can help you get access to the best data on your components. Full EM simulation of your PCB becomes more important as you get above a couple of GHz, depending on your geometries.

Always take opportunities for new experiences and responsibilities.

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If you’ve ever wondered what a day in your RF dream job looks like, or you just want to discuss a job you’re passionate about, contact the author at mstonefield@vertmarkets.com with story suggestions, or to volunteer as a Q&A subject.

About the Author:

Marissa Stonefield is a Web Content Specialist for Photonics Online, RF Globalnet, and Med Device Online. She graduated from Messiah College with a B.A. in marketing, and from the Community College of Beaver County with an A.B. in business administration. She has previously worked as a content writer for Vanko Trading Inc., and as a journalist for Examiner.com, and Weddings Year Round Magazine in Lancaster, Pa.