Question Asked Question Answered: Transitioning out of Test Engineering and into Design Engineering

Hi pado,

I stumbled on your blog from one of your reddit comments. I appreciate your insights & thought to get some perspective on whether I should continue engineering.

I’ve been working as a test engineer for four years working on ATE to evaluate IC’s (analog). My undergrad in EE was unremarkable, as was my GPA, but I finished so it counts. I took a job in the defense industry & eventually became a federal worker. People gush about the stability of the job but rarely do so about the position/work, which I am now all too aware of. As a result, I’ve developed a considerable amount of cynicism for someone early in their career.

I have experienced the extreme bloat of bureaucracy where I am quite frankly at the mercy of the ego of some nameless head in management. I spend possibly 80% of my time doing everything but working on engineering & improving my skills. Once having a circuit that would have simply been fixed by an inexpensive resistor found on digi-key but would have taken two months to purchase, at minimum, through my org. I obviously found another solution. I know this is not unique in the world of jobs but from speaking with my peers elsewhere, some of my experiences are egregious to say the least.

I may be a bit jaded but my current experience has made me appreciate more also. Thankfully I’ve started to take financial independence seriously, with plenty to learn. Also trying to value life outside of work & pursuing things for fulfilment & peace rather than grind & prestige among my peers.

I’ve started to evaluate what to do next. At the top of the list is finding a new job. I’ve spoken with around 5 companies in the last three months. Even an offer from a reputable ATE company in the semiconductor industry, but I declined, as I would have shoehorned myself. I am looking for a new role in test/validation with the hopes to transition into design within an org as I’ve had a design interview that I thought I did well in but apparently not. More learning/experience may be needed.

I now wonder, “should I continue engineering?”. My knowledge doesn’t exceed that of a new grad & would probably sweat at a KCL/KVL problem. I sometimes think that I don’t do ‘real’ engineering work because it’s basic IC testing & the grind to put out fires at work is exhausting. I’m somewhat uncertain if my first job has warped my view of engineering or if I’ll truly enjoy it going forward. The work honestly is uninteresting, with a ping of excitement when working on a PCB or having an arduino turn on an LED.

I could go on & on but my rant is already a bit sour. There aren’t many experienced engineers I can turn to so do you have any advice you could throw my way?

Thanks

Hi Redacted,

Thanks for sending your question. Having started my engineering career working with ATE and eventually ending up in architecture, I will do my best to prescribe concrete steps for you to take should they make sense to you and you have the want to execute them.

First, you expressed a few things in your email that I am trying to unpack. You are unsatisfied with your current position because of bureaucracy, management, and the nature of the work (working with ATEs as a test engineer). You feel your skills are stagnating and you aren’t putting your hard-earned engineering education to work nor are you building the resume you need to move forward and upward in your career. Furthermore you are looking for ways to gain an increased sense of agency over your career and life via a job change. You’ve stated that you want to transition into test/validation and ultimately end up in design.

You are entertaining the idea of leaving engineering, but I think that’s more a reaction to your current work situation and management and less so about your overall interest in engineering. The old adage that people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses rings true. My recommendation here is to do your best to right this ship before abandoning your hard-earned engineering degree for another career path.

Also you’ve taken a shine to financial independence and pursuing fulfillment in life. I can help with the former but don’t have much to say about the latter since I am still very much on that journey myself. What I can say is that knocking out financial worries removes one significant hurdle to reaching fulfillment.

So let’s get started. I have a lot of respect for test engineers and their function in the product lifecycle and know many colleagues that have happily spent their entire careers there. That said, you are spot on about the risk of getting shoe-horned into this narrow subspace of our field. Working with ATE allows one to grow in narrow skill corridors but there are opportunities for growth that have adjacency to test/validation and design. I’ll identify several:

  1. Statistics and machine learning techniques. Working with ATE you are exposed to enormous data sets where you can develop your knowledge of statistics and delve into statistical analysis or machine learning. Statistics is a rich and deep field that extends to every function of semiconductor engineering. Designers and architects employ statistical methods when evaluating architectures and depending on what you are designing, will employ machine learning techniques in the design/algorithm space. Validation and verification engineers dive headfirst into behavioral distributions when evaluating designs. Mastery of statistics and bolstering it with machine learning are indispensable skills and is a valid avenue to pursue.
  2. Scripting and software libraries. If you are working with ATE you are probably using scripting languages to massage data or automate menial tasks. In your current job function you can turn your attention to the scripting and automation portion of the job to bolster these skills. Also, languages like Python are rich with software packages such as Pandas, Numpy, Scipy, etc as well as visualization tools. This is another extremely valuable skillset that extends into validation, verification, and design. In the architecture and design space, we evaluate new features by building prototypes in high level languages like Python to build ROI statements. Mastery of scripting is a fundamental skill if you want to transition to other jobs.
  3. Measurement, logic analyzers, and signal integrity. I’m not sure of the nature of the ICs you are testing on ATE but there is certainly a hardware interface that mates with the design under test. The test interface unit or PCB that mates the ATE to the IC needs to be designed and vetted via simulation tools and or vector network analyzer measurement. Similarly, if you have high speed interfaces, the highspeed connections need to be vetted in terms of signal and power integrity. Depending on the complexity of your ICs there can be a veritable rats nest of complexity that demand careful design. Also, most ATE have built in waveform or logic analyzers that are useful in test pattern debug. This requires understanding of timings, voltage levels, and state machine of the design for testability logic. These skill are indispensable in silicon verification roles.

Mastery in any of the above won’t make you an absolute shoe-in for transitioning into a design role but can absolutely springboard you into debug or validation type roles. If your current position doesn’t allow you to grow in these areas, you can find roles in other companies that will. You mention that you turned down an ATE role because you didn’t want to get shoehorned, but would it have allowed you to grow in depth in any of the aforementioned areas? If your current position is limiting, transitioning into a similar role with more depth might be the first logical step. This is especially true if you shoot for a large semiconductor company that has an ATE team, a debug/validation team, and a design team that works closely. Many times, these roles blend responsibilities and it is easy to make connections and transition into other positions. In fact, the best designers that I know have a background in debug and validation.

Let’s talk about graduate school. I am a big fan of an MS and less so of a PhD in our field. An MS is the perfect way to gain some depth, build confidence in yourself, and pivot your career. After obtaining an MS you can directly apply for design positions or validation positions that have more technical depth or obvious connection to design roles. You can technically pivot your career with a PhD as well but being a pragmatist and in the spirit of financial independence, I would not recommend it due to its enormously high opportunity cost. In the three to four extra years it takes to earn a PhD you could have earned upwards of 400,000 dollars. IMHO a PhD in our field is only appropriate if you are ultra-passionate about engineering in a research capacity. You mention that you had an unremarkable undergrad GPA but admittance to grad school isn’t all that hard. In the worst case you can enroll at a local school as a non-degree student and then reapply for the degree program after knocking some of the classes out of the park. The ideal case for obtaining an MS is to have your company cover your tuition expenses. If your current company doesn’t cover tuition you can search for companies that do and then move there. You need to use all the tools you have available and may need to put up with a few more years in a less then ideal work scenario in order to reach your end goal. A few years of sacrifice sounds like a long time but you need to compare this duration to the entirety of your career. Lastly, I would highly advise against paying for graduate school out of pocket unless you happen to be filthy rich.

With regard to financial independence, the starting point is to position your career for growth. You want to keep your economic overhead low of course but the pre-requisite to build wealth through an engineering career is to craft a forward and upward career trajectory. What I mean by a forward and upward career trajectory is one that is resistant to stagnation and will allow you to climb in terms of responsibility and compensation. I am sure you are already acutely aware that it’s hard to do this when you hate your job so unfortunately my brief and apologetically obvious advice in this space for your current situation is to first get your ducks in order.  

In summary, you need to identify the skillsets that you can currently grow that have adjacency to your target positions. If these opportunities are not available in your current position, you need to maneuver yourself into a company or into graduate school that will enable you to build the skills and leverage you need. When I think of transitioning career paths I think on a time scale in the order of years. To share my personal account, I had a five year plan and a timeline scribbled in a yearly planner marking what I needed to accomplish to get where I wanted to be. With no exaggeration, I marked off each day on the calendar with little X’s. I’m an ultra-minimalist and I normally don’t get attached to material things but I keep that calendar with me to this day because serves as a reminder of how I wrestled agency away from circumstance and took control of my life. I hope you can forge your own path and wish you the best of luck. Thanks again for your question and I hope that I was helpful in some small way.

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