01 February 2003
Routing a specialized career path
By Ellen Fussell
As an engineer, you might have heard the advantages of broadening your horizons-learning more about management and writing skills. If so you'll be glad to know engineering skills aren't defunct.
Bert Kyle, a graduate of Duke University with a degree in computer science and math, is taking the specialized road of computer programmer, yet he's having to learn engineering skills to do it. He started his career as a computer software programmer, writing code to ultimately be used by developers of computer chips, at ViASIC, a small electronic design automation company that offers tools and technologies to application specific integrated circuit (or ASIC) designers.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE?
There's a lot of math in the job, Kyle said, and math is something he's got down. Yet he found he also needed to know engineering, which he was short on.
"I took one class in college, so I had to learn a lot on the job," he said. "The engineering class I took was mostly a logic class. It was very useful for technology mapping but not so useful for routing."
ROUTING MADE SIMPLE
Bert Kyle explained the routing process this way: A computer is made up of individual gates that do simple operations for you. There are two wire signals coming in, and each wire is high and low voltage. Gates are little pieces of a chip. A chip might have millions of gates, but they all have to be connected with a wire. A router connects those gates with a wire. Routing is only one stage in the whole process of designing a chip. "It's not much different than connect the dots," Kyle said.
The router ViASIC is building will be just a piece of the puzzle. "It's likely we'd end up working closely with another company to provide a more complete solution," Kyle said.
Kyle's major duties include writing code for a new global router the company is developing. Sometimes Kyle's day involves working closely with the field application engineer who runs the program through a test. "He might find a case where we're doing the wrong thing-we call it a bug," he said. "Whatever solution we found, he can see a better solution."
Another part of his day might entail writing a new piece of program, which is "more enjoyable than debugging," Kyle said. "We used to work on a legacy product that was mostly geared toward one-masked architecture," Kyle said. "There are different ways of building a computer chip-each mask is the level of a chip, and each chip has five to eight layers."
The company's goal is to build the best router in the industry, which Kyle said would be easier if he had an engineering degree. An electrical engineer would have a "deeper understanding of what's going on and a better feel for what the router should be doing," he said, but his computer science degree helps him write more code and get it to run faster. "It used to be that engineers would route chips by hand," he said. "That's still done today if there's a super hard section, but in general, designs are too large and too time-consuming to be done by hand."
WHY A SMALLER COMPANY?
While starting out at a large company might work for some, Kyle felt right at home at this eight-person start-up company in Chapel Hill, N.C. He had been an intern at EMC, a Hopkinton, Mass.-based company that specializes in information storage systems, software, networks, and services. "It was a tough choice," he said. "I had a nice offer from ViASIC and promises of an offer letter from EMC."
But Kyle felt he'd get more personal attention and learn more from a smaller company. And since he was the first employee of the firm, he's definitely done that. When he was hired, "it was just me and the founder, Bill Cox," he said.
Plus, Kyle said his job duties weren't half as interesting at EMC as they are at ViASIC. But he admitted the comparison may not be fair.
"I was an intern at EMC. When there was a program to be written, they'd give me a spec with a note saying there was probably no need for this program, and it may not be used, but just in case."
So that didn't really make Kyle feel like he was making a difference in the company, and "I want to make a difference," he said.
He's definitely done that at ViASIC. Since the project of developing the router began, Kyle has written a third of the code or more.
But Kyle believes he made his biggest contribution while working on the whole flow of design and computer synthesis placement and routing. "I sped up the router by a factor of two or three," he said. "It now takes half as long or a third as long to run, so instead of running in, say, two hours, it runs in 45 minutes."
That accomplishment gave Kyle a sense of pride in his work: "It was the first time I could say I made something better," he said. IT
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