Aspiring Participants And Job-Seekers For #FabInIndia Must Learn To Ask The 'Why' Questions

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  • Most interviewers, especially those speaking with first time job seekers in "field jobs", look at how strong your fundamentals are, and not at the jargon that you can throw around.

The day before this year's Republic Day, on 25 January 2021, I had in my inbox a mail from an IIT Bombay microelectronics dual-degree final year student.

He had written a detailed email to me in October 2020 essentially asking for suggestions on which career path to take after he graduates - a PhD in a premier institute in India, a PhD in a US University or take up a job in a fab outside India.

My reply was short, two or three sentences, and frankly, little did I expect that he will mail me again three months later, informing me of his decision, thanking me for my suggestion and further asking what points to keep in mind when he starts his new journey.

Like me, and like many others, he too dreams of working for a #FabInIndia - let us hope one day that will happen.

The day after Republic day - that is on 27 January, I got a direct message on Twitter, this time from a "VLSI aspirant".

He apparently has been looking for a job in "PD" (Physical Design) for two years with no success, and his question was why is the job market down and when would it change.

I am no career or job market expert, but I keep getting such emails and queries every now and then - partly due to my articles (this one is my 12th in Swarajya and 17th overall) and perhaps more due to this video uploaded by Swarajya:

Hence I felt like penning down a few thoughts. By no means is it a comprehensive career or interview guidance.

In my own interview experiences, while some were passionate, I also often came across "MTech in VLSI with no inherent passion" and "PhDs who miss the forest for the trees" among "VLSI aspirants" in India and that prompts me to share a few thoughts.

Let us "rewind"...that time when you are in 11th or 12th.. and whether you "want to try for.. ''Medicine or Engineering or "any other" is likely already decided.

For the sake of brevity, let's consider the case of "got through the entrance exam for engineering".

Perhaps much of the choice of "which branch for engineering" still happens with either the parents' advice, or with the "hey, ask that so and so uncle about which branch has scope these days" or with the consensus of the "friends' circle" gyaan or simply with "this branch for this rank in this institute" mapping logic.

I'd say fine so far. In my own experience, the Bachelor's degree study time is when most people actually realise their career passion. Some realise that they are in the "wrong branch"; however, in my opinion there is still time for course correction.

It has been nearly two decades since my Bachelor's graduation and so I may be not in perfect sync with ground reality, but from what little I know, chances of a "branch job" are less likely these days with a Bachelor's and so many opt for further studies - a big number for MTech in India.

The unfortunate part, perhaps is that the same attitude is sometimes shown when it comes to choosing a specialisation for Master's - the "scope", the "rank-college-branch mapping logic" and so on and this leads to many Master's students doing their course in a passionless way - and I shall quote some manifestations of this in "VLSI" field.

Firstly, more often than not when a question is asked in an interview, jargons like "PD", "Verification", "Netlist" , "LVS", "DRC","PEX" and so on are thrown back in a non-coherent way. When asked to give a big picture of where each of these fit in the end-to-end flow, more than half of the candidates struggle.

Here is my "2 paise" worth of "advise" -- the best student is the one who can "teach" the rest. In other words, try explaining what you have learned in your MTech to a friend not connected to the field and if you can teach him the essence of what you have learned, I would say you are half-ready for an interview.

Arjuna was a great warrior not just because he excelled as a student, but as a teacher too, his student Satyaki is described as "aparaajitaha" - never defeated in a war.

One learns best when one tries to teach or share -- I can vouch for that with my own experience in the last few months of writing articles.

Secondly, even for those among the VLSI aspirants who know the overall flow, things "end" with a "gds submission" or a "tapeout" - a term used by design houses to signify a Physical Design (layout of how the various layers of the IC should be on Silicon, stacked one over the other) - there perhaps will be just one box each saying "fabrication", "testing" and "packaging".

It is not surprising that the VLSI curriculum in India is built in such a way to look at these steps as "black boxes" without getting into much details, for predominantly two reasons.

One is that the job offering "Design houses" in India and their design engineers - do not demand knowledge of those aspects.

Even after starting the job as a "design engineer" one may end up as "click this button", "run this code" kind of engineer rather than someone who who has a good feel for what exactly is happening.

The second reason indeed is that there is no commercial #FabInIndia yet which would have naturally triggered more interest, more aspirants to learn what happens after the "gds submission" - and mind you, many things happen, especially for advanced technology nodes, so much so that what finally ends up on the photomask may look quite different from the layout that was "taped-out" by a design house, and these in turn have implications in the design world too in terms of rules and restrictions.

So back to the career aspects - given that there is not yet an ecosystem, what should one do?

I can only say "ask questions". Do not stop at just the "what" that is being taught, ask the "why ?".

If there is a "design rule" that so and so layout must follow, ask 'why ?'.

When one sees that across tech-node generations (350nm, 250nm, 180nm, 130nm, 90nm, 65nm,...) there is a ratio of approximately 0.7 ask yourself 'why ?'

When "they" say that there is area reduction, speed improvement and power reduction for newer tech-nodes, ask yourself 'why ?'

I think most interviewers, especially for first time job seekers in "field jobs" look at how strong your fundamentals are, as compared to the number of jargons you can throw around and asking yourself "why" often helps you learn the fundamentals.

For the PhDs that I have interviewed, the issue that I have often seen is that they are deep in their own world - often research on some new material or type of device - and very oblivious of what happens in the industry and large scale production.

Indeed, I am not saying all are such but I have no doubt that there is a big disconnect between the semiconductor industry - especially technology side - and the academic institutes of India, even the best of them.

So much for the job aspirants. What about those who are already working in an allied area and want to see #FabInIndia happen ?

I am glad that there are more and more voices now in support of commercial #FabInIndia.

MEITY has extended the deadline of project proposals for fabs to 28 February 2021, and among other things, I hear that there may be attempts to make business houses interested.

However, barring a few engineer-turned-article-authors in Swarajya, hardly anyone is still getting into the details of matters like tech-nodes.

Waiting for the government or associations to come up with 10-20 year #FabInIndia roadmaps, so far seem futile.

Hence, experienced engineers too, don't stop at routine stuff - keep expanding horizons with new learning and ask the "why" questions.

Share your knowledge and learning, in a coherent, easy to understand way - who knows, you may get to design India's "fab"ulous future !

Arun Mampazhy has a BTech from IITM and MS from University of Maryland in semiconductor fabrication and over a decade of industry experience. His dreams of seeing a commercial fab takeoff in India has changed from black and white to colour over two decades. He can be reached via email nanoarun(at)gmail(dot)com or @nano_arun on twitter. Views expressed are personal.


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