This interview and the sketch above were done in 2014
by Carolyn Sun from Saratoga High School
Beryl Chen is an electrical engineer and she works as a Senior Staff Verification Engineer at AMD (Advanced Micro Devices).
Could you describe what you do in your current work situation?
I work at AMD, a company that makes computer chips. You know how before a hardware chip is taped out, it needs to be verified to make sure the functionality is correct? What I do is the verification of the hardware chip. However, it’s not really like I’m working on the real hardware. Nowadays, the hardware design and verification are more like software, so even making a circuit and writing Verilog code is still like programming code. Then, there are tools to translate Verilog code into the circuit, and we just make a simulation on top of it. I am not really touching the real hardware at this stage. Only when the chip comes back from the factory, is put into the board, and brought to the lab is when the engineers really touch the hardware to see whether it’s working.
Is this recent technology?
No. A lot of companies make silicon chips, and the design of those chips start from writing the code. It’s more like hardware code. The tools, like Synopsys’ product, will translate your hardware and those programs into the circuit-like language, making the circuit design. It’s been like this over 20 years; it’s just that technology becomes more advanced these days.
How do you keep up with the changing technology?
For sure, you have to keep learning. For example, when I was in college, hardware design was drawing the circuit, making the boards with resistors and capacitors, and then connecting them into a circuit. But these days, it’s on the computer; you can make designs and simulations all on the computer. A lot of things I learned in the past aren’t in use anymore. You have to learn the new technology to keep up.
Do you learn it as you work?
It’s kind of like learning with the work you’re doing. There are also opportunities to get training in the workspace.
Why did you choose engineering? What got you started in engineering?
When I was in high school, I liked subjects like math and physics. I was not really good in literature. I could go into either science or engineering, and I just chose engineering, probably since it’s more hands-on.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have?
I attended college in China, and then I got a master’s degree in the US. In China, I went to the University of Electronic Science. It’s a college really focused on electronic engineering. Here, for my master’s degree, I first went to the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. I was there for two years, and then I got my master’s degree. At the time, my husband was relocated to Wisconsin, so I went with him and attended UW-Madison (University of Wisconsin, Madison) for two years. I didn’t get any degrees from UW Madison; I just studied there for a year and a half, and then I left for a job.
What did you major in?
All these years I majored in electrical engineering. There are different areas in this big field.
“You have to keep learning, so you have to stay curious. As Steve Jobs said, ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish.’ Keep your curiosity going.”
How is your education related to your current work?
Even though I said some of my college education isn’t very useful since, these days, technology keeps advancing, those required courses for electrical engineering from back then are still useful. For instance, circuit design, digital circuit design, microprocessors are still a foundation for my work. You have to understand those to understand the hardware and know how to verify chips.
How long have you been an electrical engineer?
I came to Silicon Valley in 2000, so almost 14 years.
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work?
Because I am a verification engineer, to test the hardware, I write the programs to run those hardware simulators. I write code, I use C++, and I use a more-hardware related language, system Verilog. Using those software languages, I write test programs as well as models. Then, I run those programs onto the hardware simulation.
Do you work with other people often?
Yes, these days, it has to be teamwork. The scope is getting bigger and bigger, especially in the chip business. If you go back five years, computers probably had one CPU core, and it was slow. Nowadays, the speed increased and computers are running four CPU cores or even more. As the chips are getting bigger, the verification job is getting more complicated.
What do you like best about being an engineer?
In terms of work relationships and people-management, being an engineer is relatively simple. You have a job assigned, and you just need to do your work and deliver your work, and then that’s your achievement. You can also see it if you have a computer running. You can really visualize what you have done; you see your achievements.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of?
Being an engineer, it’s more like seeing if your design is working. For verification, if the verification environment you have built up and the test program you have written can really thoroughly test the hardware, that’s an achievement. Another thing is that, to effectively verify the hardware, you have to build a software environment that needs architectural work, so if the architecture I proposed and also implemented really works, I feel accomplished.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career?
In the engineering world, there are always times when you’re like “why doesn’t this work?” You have to debug code and get it working, so there is a lot of cycling through those processes. And nowadays, when the team is getting bigger and bigger, you have teams overseas in China or other countries. You have to have time to engage in conferences with them, especially when you work with a team overseas. It’s hard to see where they are, and the coordination is challenging, especially when there’s a time zone difference.
How do you usually communicate with teams overseas?
If [the team] is in China, I can speak Chinese on the phone, but we mainly communicate through emails. If we can find some common time, we will have a conference, but otherwise, we work with emails, since there will be the turn-around time. I go to sleep, and they work; they go to sleep, and I work. Sometimes it will delay the schedule. Nowadays, that’s a little challenging for me.
Please tell us a little about your family.
My husband is in the IC (Integrated Circuit) industry and works in Silicon Valley. He is in marketing. I have two boys, one is 12, and the other is 10. Another reason why I chose engineering for my career in college was influence from my parents. My parents were also electrical engineers, so back then I saw them assemble TVs from little parts, and I guess they strongly influenced me. I also have a younger sister in China, but she prefers the art and literature side.
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals?
Being an engineer in this field for many years, I have tried to manage a team, but it wasn’t very successful. I will still stay on the technical side, but for long-term goals, I would like to be an architect in the verification field. For short-term goals, I just need to finish my current project. I started architectural work in a team, so it’s getting started. I’m trying to go down that path, and not manage people.
You mentioned your parents having an influence on you becoming an electrical engineer, but was there anything or anyone else who had a big influence in your life choices?
In college, I met my husband, so we helped each other, and we understand each other. It’s a good combination. When he talks about something, or I talk about something, we both understand what we’re talking about, so that’s a factor for me continuing my path.
“...if you’re too focused on one point, and you just understand that one point, it’s very hard to apply your knowledge to other areas. Have a wider understanding of what you do.”
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering?
In choosing your career, first, you have to like it. If you don’t like it, you’re going to suffer through it. In this field, it’s not like you’re doctors, who build up experience. The older you are, the more valuable you are. In engineering, it’s not like that. You have to keep learning, so you have to stay curious. As Steve Jobs said, “Stay hungry, stay foolish.” Keep your curiosity going. If you’re like “I’m tired of learning,” then you will be left behind. Technology is developing so fast.
Was electrical engineering your initial choice for your career?
In high school, I liked circuits, theory, and circuit design. As I said, my parents had an influence on me, and I grew up in that environment. They worked in the institute and the factory, and there were all types of transistors. I thought it was really amazing. Even though I am a girl, I like hands-on stuff, and I like to build things. If you like it, you will keep on going down that path.
What is it like being a female in a male-dominated field?
Actually, you will feel lucky. Because you’re a female, you are a minority, so you get a lot of advantages. For instance, in universities, when professors are hiring students for their labs, they do need to balance the genders. Even when you go to work, they seem to like female engineers, since there are just too many men in the field. The hard part of being a female engineer is when you start a family and have kids. If you consider continuing working, you have to balance your family and work.
How do you think a woman can balance family and work?
To me, family is still first. Work is second. Priority is on the family and kids. I try hard to balance the hours. The company you’re working for and your boss are main factors in helping you balance. For instance, my boss is really good. Sometimes, I can go home at 3:00 p.m. to pick up the kids and then work from home. In Silicon Valley, a lot of companies have flexible hours, as long as you deliver your work. I have that flexibility, but it’s still hard to balance family and work. Basically, your time is getting divided into pieces. Sometimes I have to work late hours after my kids go to sleep. Some women choose to have part-time jobs. Others can handle it very well.
What do you think are key characteristics/attributes or skills to being successful?
I think the mindset is important. Don’t narrow your mind to one point. Even if you’re just assigned one piece of work, you still should step back and see the bigger picture of the whole system. Talking to people in other fields really helps you understand. That helps you stand out from others. Otherwise, if you’re too focused on one point, and you just understand that one point, it’s very hard to apply your knowledge to other areas. Have a wider understanding of what you do.
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book.
I like to listen to music and watch TV; it’s relaxing. I like to watch comedies. I also like to walk on the trail near our house since it’s very nice. Walking on the trail is very relaxing; it calms my mind. Playing with my kids is also really fun.