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Careers in VLSI: who gets the best salary?

Analog, mixed-signal or digital design engineer?

None of them get paid what they are worth. Let’s be clear about that. And this is good nor bad, it is the way it is. The stoic does not attach an opinion to an observation.

Furthermore the skills for hardware engineers are quite specific and hard to find. Especially if we compare ourselves versus our nemesis, software engineering. Obviously, I am joking here. I consider the animosity between hardware and software something to make fun of. So, back to the skills, I am estimating there is a ratio of 25:1, maybe 100:1 in software versus hardware engineers availability. Still, we make as much as a software engineer. And this is not bad at all. But software is a lot more commodity. Hence, the question is why the mechanism of supply and demand doesn't work for us? And, the answer is simple and obvious: who can define and assess if a person is a good or a bad design engineer? It takes one to know one.

Let's look at the three profiles I mentioned above.

Analog design engineer

Analog design is quite particular since they have no automated design flow like digital design has. And designs are not (always) portable from tech node to tech node. To be clear, shrink nodes are not really "new" nodes so let's not complicate my brilliant expose too much 🀘. Normally, every tech node needs a new analog design. That means they need to verify if the calculations of the parameters and simulations are still valid. If you are ever shopping for analog IP, make sure they can prove the following:
  • The IP is silicon proven, if not don't bother if you need it fast.
  • It is silicon proven in the same tech node with the same foundry as you are planning to use.
One extra massive important tip when you talk to analog designers. Whenever they are debugging an issue they found on their silicon, they will start discussing the root cause. Usually I follow that discussion for a while. And then I say the magic phrase "it sounds like parasitic capacitance". BAM! You will earn their respect for life! You are welcome, most respected reader of this awesome article! 🀘

Mixed signal design engineer

Mixed signal is the cross-over between analog and digital design. Hence the term "mixed signal". What makes it special is that they are a few tech nodes behind the big "Systems On Chip" (SoC). Older fabs are their playground, partly because the safety rules for automotive and industrial mixed-signal chips are tough. Above all, mature technology is the key to their success.
I worked as a digital designer on mixed-signal chips. The first thing I noticed is that they are not always aware of the latest digital design methodology. The reason is because the digital inside a mixed-signal chip is usually small. We are talking a few 10K or 100K of NAND2 equivalent gates. Big digital chips have millions to tens of millions of gates.
Probably the major issue in MS design is the boundary between the analog and digital part. Analog designers will verify their part. And digital will verify their part. But the latter needs to take the analog models of the analog design team and translate them to verilog. To include them in the digital toplevel simulation (pads included). Most mistakes that kill MS silicon are because of assumptions that both sides make. And one or more are not consistent.

Digital design engineer

Todays tech nodes are challenging (static leakage power, dynamic power consumption, DFT, …). Unfortunately, the ways of doing digital design projects has not kept pace. Back in the day (2005), the teams were about 20 people for a big system on chip. Today the biggest teams are 150 to 200 people.
In 2020 we are confronted with a worldwide virus outbreak. Unsurprising, semiconductor companies are not prepared to make all work from home. The VPN routers and the connection have not enough capacity. Not enough laptops available. IT is in worse shape than engineering. But essentially CHANGE is hard for semiconductor companies. It is a bad quality in times of big disruption. While in origin, resisting to jump on to the next hype is a good thing. With hype I mean, verification hype, project management hype, EDA tool hype, ...

The salary paragraph

Since my best quality is laziness, I chose digital design. What is simpler than ones and zeros, I ask thee? Seriously, it is crucial to focus effort on the important work and not on repetitive, boring and error-prone tasks.

In (western) Europe, I have the feeling that analog designer is in more demand. All high speed protocols, USB, PCIe, thunderbolt, ethernet, need an analog front-end. And the higher the speed, the more complex it becomes. Hence, they get the highest salary versus the other two in my experience.
Mixed-signal is growing as well. Compare a car of the nineties with a car now. A few decades ago we could use some piece of clothing to fix a broken car. Or just open up and clean the delco. Today, even your car key is a wireless electronics device. Thousands of chips and all with a probability of failure. If you think about it, it is a statistical miracle that all systems work when a car comes out of the factory.
Last but not least, digital design is really edging towards commodity today. With more focus on AI, a lot of people with a software background can now easily develop a circuit on an FPGA. Prices are low for the basic dev board today. As long as it works for their purpose it is fine. Again, not good or bad, just an observation. It is easier to get into, it is easier to study it on your own. Hence, the trend 

For Western Europe, the ASIC design gross salary for 0 to 15 years of experience is less than 100.000 EUR for sure. There are exceptions of course. Plus this is not considering a 200 person team manager. Analog designers usually make more than commodity digital design and verification resources. DFT, STA, synthesis engineers will make more than commodity as well.
In the US, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, ,.. all have taken their "Application Specific Integrated Circuit" design (ASIC) in house. This is remarkable since software companies usually stay far away from hardware. It is not their core business. This implies that in 2020, it IS crucial to their business. Salaries for senior ASIC designers go upto $150K and higher.

Conclusion

Salary isn't that important the first years after graduation. Choose something you (a) like to do (b) are good at and (c) that is worth something in the future (timeline 10 years). Just remember, like software, hardware design is also becoming more and more commodity. Some niches are less prone to the push for cheaper but that is just a matter of time.

As I said many times before, it is not about the sector, the salary or the job. You need to build a talent stack. That is what you take away from every employment. Learn for life, increase your skill set. That increases your value. More chances to make it in life.

Applause for ourselves!!! πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚

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