Last week, we took on questions from the lovely Redditors on the subreddit /r/Engineering along with the help of Steve Johnson, the President and CEO of Digilent. As the “AMA” format would suggest, the questions we were asked ran the gamut from general job market questions to specific FPGA forecasting from Steve. We’ve gone through and pulled some of the highlights (note that some of these were asked on /r/FPGA simultaneously). CLICK HERE for the original link.
Will There Be Any Courses to Learn FPGAs?
Our Response: That’s something we’ve thought about deeply. There are some that feature our boards on Coursera and Udemy already, but it’s a low-hanging fruit that we should probably provide for you all! There are several courses out there that feature products like the Basys 3 and Arty S7 boards.
What is the Future of FPGAs?
Steve’s Response: I don’t think it will be confined to a small number of niche applications, but I do think that RTL design will become increasingly specialized. There will always be a need for highly cost-constrained and space-constrained applications where higher-level design methodologies may not prove the most efficient solution, and there will always be RTL specialists underlying the technology that makes HLS come to life. Folks with these skills will be highly valued. We are still trying to convince many educators that starting off with 74-series SSI/MSI logic in labs isn’t necessary, so there’s no fear that the curriculum will somehow jump past the fundamentals. My guess is that we’ll see more collaboration between the electrical engineering and computer science departments as HLS becomes more mainstream and with that collaboration, we’ll see more advanced courses that tackle these concepts.
Our Response: The consolidation is a natural part of the industry and seems to work out well. It creates the massive volumes and scale that helps drive costs down (benefitting everyone) while also creating the environment needed for new companies to start-up and foster innovation.
In addition to our focus areas around data acquisition and measurement systems, FPGAs are really well suited to digital signal processing applications, machine learning and AI, and I see it happening more often.
VHDL or Verilog?
They just had to ask, didn’t they? Luckily, we know how to respond – we did a very popular post on this very subject years ago, and it’s still relevant!
What Will Become of Pmods?
The story with PMOD is that it came about as an I/O expansion scheme in 2004 for our early microcontroller trainer boards and was then applied quickly to our early FPGA trainers where the small number of parallel I/O and simple serial communications (like SPI) was a good fit. Our higher end development boards (like the very popular Zedboard and Genesys boards) utilized the much higher density (and more costly) FMC expansion standard. We were missing a good solution for a smaller yet higher density and cost effective that fit between those two, until we found the SYZYGY standard, the basis for our new line of Zmod ADC and Zmod DAC expansion modules.
How to Become an Embedded Engineer?
For this recurring question, we had to let /u/commiecomrade take over. As they eloquently put it:
The strong point behind FPGAs vs. programming, for me, was in the fact that the designs themselves are very intuitive. You have few keywords compared to programming, you don’t have to deal with things like threading, mutexes, “volatile,” “static,” etc. A design more likely than not just works. I couldn’t stand library dependencies, hunting through a million files to find things, or working with IDE dependencies.
That said, it is harder because everything is parallel, and is working in hardware. The ubiquitous phrase we all know is “Well, it worked in simulation!” If your design seems right on paper, but it is not working in practice, it can be very difficult to figure out. You can only open the hood to fix the engine, you can’t look at it while it’s running with the hood down. That turns programmers off. So you should fit these strengths and weaknesses with what you’re comfortable doing. Those who can’t will switch to pure software or pure hardware.
The FPGA market is only expanding. Self-driving cars are the most recent “exciting” application where FPGAs are making a good impression. Even synthesizers (the musical instrument) are adopting FPGAs to handle most of their brains. You’ll get some cool boards to hook up in a lab and fiddle with. LOTS AND LOTS of running through 400 page datasheets and such.
Learn technical communication and how to be clear. Sometimes I feel like a class or two on just how to teach would help so many engineers get their points across.
The FPGA market is changing in the sense that a lot of tools are gaining traction that abstract away the standard process of simply writing VHDL/Verilog code directly. Manipulating block diagrams graphically, defining modules in OpenCL, all of that is making it difficult for my more senior level coworkers to adapt. More designs involve MPSoCs, that have a processor and FPGA fabric in one chip, so for example, I’ll do my logic design in Vivado, hook everything up in Vivado’s Block Design editor, export that to use Vivado’s SDK to load C code, and all of that bundled together goes on the chip. So when you’re using a tool, be sure to learn the ins and outs of it.
Be prepared to go into defense. Be prepared to need a security clearance, and all that entails. It is not a prerequisite and is becoming slightly less so over time as those markets I mentioned expand, but you WILL find a much easier time landing a less stressful and easier job starting out in government work. FPGAs do safety critical very well, and there’s nothing more safety critical than ensuring a plane always stays flying or a radar always detects an incoming missile. The big contractors like Lockheed and Northrop churn out a bunch of new grads for a few years as they get the experience and use that to land jobs close to home or do things they’d rather work on.
Lastly, when you do get the job, do not be afraid to take some autonomy. This isn’t frequently the case with the bigger guys, but smaller companies are more likely to put you on a bunch of projects that are already over time and under budget, and you need to have the tough skin to be comfortable with that. However, “know your rights”! If a schedule is too aggressive, if you are being pulled in too many directions by too many managers, speak up before it’s too late. And don’t fret if things are looking bleak. Your managers were once in your shoes and everyone understands if things don’t go perfectly. I remember being on or hearing about a few teams that were so far into shit with time and budget that the higher ups couldn’t help but simply laugh it all off in meetings. The job is frequently as stressful as you make it out to be. Took me years to realize this.