How easy is it building chips during a pandemic?

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Accellera and the Electronic System Design (ESD) Alliance (formerly, EDA Alliance) co-hosted a conference today on: Remote work, remote chip design: Building chips during a pandemic.

Chip design and verification engineers are faced with new limitations. Verification flows and project cycles may have taken a hit given the VPN tool and system access, Zoom-based team collaboration, and necessary, deep thinking interrupted with everyday home activities.

The participants in the discussion were Martin Barnasconi, Technical Director System Design & Verification Methodologies, NXP, Lu Dai, Senior Director of Engineering, Qualcomm, Dr. Ashish Darbari, CEO, Axiomise, Mark Glasser, Member of the Technical Staff, Cerebras, and Patrick Lynch, Senior Engineering Manager, Xilinx. Tom Fitzpatrick from Siemens EDA, was the moderator.

Lu Dai, Qualcomm, felt that the challenge has been with meeting efficiencies. People are doing WFH. Meetings are happening at all times. Dr. Ashish Darbari, Axiomise, said pandemic offered some challenges such as meeting with people, or customers and engineers. The expectations changed quickly. Working out of London, there were also time challenges. Mark Glasser, Cerebras, said the challenge has been to maintain contact with people.

Patrick Lynch, Xilinx, said the main challenge has been time management. It took zero time for him. For the team, it took 1-2 days to get online. He left the office thinking the pandemic was a short-term thing. 10 months later, it is still the same. Martin Barnasconi, NXP, said they work with many teams and online tools. They are adapting to new ways of working. WFH is the general theme. We should also do more networking and learning from home.

Work routine
How much has the work routine changed? Lu Dai said most of the technical work is handled properly. There is a whiteboard challenge. WFH has been close to 100 percent. We have college hires coming in. They have been doing WFH for over a year.

Dr. Darbari added he had to buy some tablets and write things down for his team. It depends on the nature of work. Face contact makes a big difference. Glasser noted a third of the company have never seen each other, so far. We were meeting our deadlines, though. Lynch added that they needed access to the labs to test equipment. We added cameras and took that on remotely. You can power cycle all of the equipment.

Impact on schedules
Was there any impact on the schedules? Dr. Darbari said they are now working more efficiently. Being connected to the computer is important. Lu Dai added we still need human interaction during WFH. There are one-on-ones. It is little different from the manager-worker interchange. We also do virtual events for our teams that helps a lot. A lot of junior engineers live in apartments. They lack social interaction. There is need to have work-life balance. Dr. Darbari added that there were chances to travel to Munich earlier. When doing WFH, he went out for coffee just to see a human being. We need to find things that make us socially and mentally happy.

Barnasconi said you should see meetings where webcams are on. We have shared working lunches over video. Dr. Darbari said the pandemic has impacted badly. However, the world has not fallen apart. We need to find things that we can do and enjoy. Lynch added that the company provided one day a month off for mental health reasons. That was a welcome gesture. It helped us a lot. Glasser noted we have some time for ourselves, and not spend time overworking.

Juniors stress
There could some overwork from the junior engineers. Lu Dai said a lot of stress was actually coming from juniors. Sometimes, they were typing from their beds. We encouraged them to set up home office in the living rooms, rather than bedrooms. We ensured they had some fun things to do. We set up new findings and secret places.

Dr. Darbari said he worked with an intern from India. There were lot of expectations. We advised the intern to do some pair programming, etc. We also asked about the families, etc. You don’t want people to feel overawed. Barnasconi added that they are seeing juniors on camera. You really want to hear other things, besides yes and no. You can also record meetings and send to them, for viewing later, as it helps those people. Lynch noted that communications with juniors is very important. There can be fear of missing out. Glasser added there were junior engineers that we trained. We assigned problems to them to work on.

Working from everywhere is good!
Do you see hiring from different countries as a problem? Dr. Darbari said hiring people from everywhere is good. It has been happening for a long time. Lynch added that contractors have been working remotely.

Glasser said they rent space on a commercial cloud. It’s pretty much the same as before. Lu Dai added they have had setups. The top management has understood the importance of WFH. Most of the companies would be doing remote work post the pandemic. Dr. Darbari added there could be some challenges for the remote workers. They need good, reliable broadband. Employers should also pay for the remote work and provide all support and equipment needed, as per Lu Dai.

Did people encounter any engineering problems? Lynch said they didn’t have any major problems. However, they are sourcing laptops, including one for him, and that is taking a while. Dr. Darbari added we don’t go to the labs. Glasser said we produce hardware boxes. There were some people in the labs, about two people at a time.

Is there any preference for employees? What are the plans for bringing people back? Glasser said that so long as work gets done, it should not be an issue. It does not really matter where you are. The pandemic has shown that people can be productive. As long as you are getting work done and meeting expectations, we need to take advantage of that. Dr. Darbari concurred, adding the employees also need to be happy where they are. More companies can work with a wider group of people. Lot of money gets wasted in relocating people, as the pandemic has shown.

Barnasconi said that there are activities where you have experts. He can do brainstroming with pen and paper online. Glasser noted that discussions are very valuable. There is value in collaborating together. Lu Dai said technology exists for whiteboarding. WFH and remotely is huge opportunity for companies. They can hire across the globe. Any concerns about productivity is not impacted. Majority of the engineering community can do their work properly. This is now an opportunity for standing out.

Barnasconi added that you can now talk to people with whom you could talk to easily, while doing WFH. You should take courage and also ping the seniors. He used WFH to talk to management to get things done. Dr. Darbari said corporations can outsource work. However, that could impact salaries.

Going back to work
Lynch said there are mixed feelings regarding going back to work. He would probably go for a few days, but not for the entire week. Lu Dai said they had to fire some people. Barnasconi said some had people also retired. We had to give them party and send-offs remotely.

What skills will help in this scenario? Barnasconi said they offer homely culture and working. UVM is a good example. The EDA domain can be a good space to start work on design and verification. He would like to help teams go up the learning curve. Lu Dai showcased some of virtual events they had organized. Lynch wanted back-to-back meetings, and also wished to take a flight out of the country.