Randy interned as a hardware systems engineer at Apple in Cupertino, California, United States. Keep reading to learn more about his co-op journey, what his job is like, and how to land a job in hardware!
How did you get to where you are today?
At the start of first year, I joined the Waterloo Rocketry student design team. I was unsure what I wanted to work on and how I could be useful to the team. Since I had worked with Arduinos a little bit over the summer and enjoyed creating those simple circuits, I decided to help out with developing some of the electronics inside the rocket, specifically within the payload of the rocket which was running a small scientific experiment inside during the rocket’s flight. During the second term of first year, I really enjoyed our introductory circuits class (NE 140), which further confirmed my interest in electrical engineering. Around this time, the payload team needed somebody to work on the PCB that would provide voltage regulation to the rest of the experiment, log the experiment data, and communicate to other boards on the payload and rocket. So, I volunteered to take on this project and began learning more about circuit design, building on what I had learned in NE 140.
While designing this board, I learned a lot about the various types of power regulation ICs and power electronics design, as well as the fundamentals of digital electronics, which is basically just data transfer and communication on a circuit-level. My experience designing power regulation circuits in particular helped me get my second co-op, where I worked at Ford Motor Company with the Power Hardware team, which is responsible for all the power circuitry on their new infotainment systems. At Ford, I learned a lot more about the intricacies of power circuit design and ICs. I was also able to gain more hands-on experience using lab tools such as oscilloscopes, power supplies, and soldering stations, which are all necessary skills for any hardware engineer.
After working at Ford, I continued learning more about circuit design by watching YouTube videos and reading articles created by chip manufacturers such as Texas Instruments. When the time came to apply for my third co-op term, I interviewed with Apple, and my experience and knowledge of circuit and PCB design helped me land the internship.
What are the main responsibilities of your job? What project(s) have you taken on?
My main responsibilities include circuit design and circuit debugging. The main project I have taken on is designing the schematic of a new PCB. This has included choosing ICs that fit our system requirements, performing circuit calculations and analysis, creating the schematic using CAD, and even a bit of using circuit simulation tools to help gain confidence in my design. Through all these steps, a large amount of my time is spent reading and understanding IC datasheets. After my schematic was completed and reviewed by the rest of the team, I was also responsible for communicating with the PCB layout engineer to give him some guidelines of how the ICs and other components should be placed on the board. I am also responsible for creating a detailed testing plan outlining the steps to validate and test my board to make sure it is working as expected within our design requirements.
In terms of circuit debugging, my main responsibility is to investigate and characterize hardware bugs that were found on existing PCBs. It is very common for newly designed PCBs to not work perfectly as expected, so time must be taken to understand the problems and how to fix them in the next edition of the board. Thus, I am also responsible for brainstorming solutions, figuring out how to prototype and test it on the existing board, and then validating that the solution works. This includes using lab tools such as oscilloscopes, benchtop power supplies, multimeters, function generators, and various soldering tools.
Any tips for getting a similar position to yours or entering a similar field to yours?
My biggest tip is to gain hands-on experience designing circuit schematics and PCBs, either through a student design team or creating your own projects. Not only will it help you learn more about circuit design and analysis, but it will also teach you many skills necessary for hardware engineering, such as how to read schematics and datasheets, electronic design automation (EDA) software, common IC and component footprint/sizes, debugging, and how to use hardware lab tools. Interviewers are also typically looking for students who already have some practical experience; I have even had some interviewers ask me to walk them through a schematic I had worked on, so having a project to showcase your knowledge really helps!
It is also important to get comfortable using electronics lab equipment, such as oscilloscopes, digital multimeters, function generators, and power supplies. You will most likely need to use these tools in any hardware engineering position, especially as a co-op student. The oscilloscope is particularly important as you can gain a lot of information from them, so it is important to be comfortable with their interface, settings, and the different types of probes.
In nanotechnology engineering, we don’t learn much about circuit design and digital communication, so you will have to study a bit on your own. Thankfully, there are lots of amazing resources online on YouTube or from chip manufacturers (I recommend Texas Instruments!).
What NE courses had an impact on your career goals? What NE courses, if any, are helpful in your job?
Linear Circuits (NE 140) introduced me to circuit analysis, and I found the last part of the course where we studied basic op-amp configurations to be pretty interesting. That course is pretty helpful in my job as it gave an introduction to circuit analysis and a basis for me to learn more in detail about op-amps.
Electromagnetism (NE 241) is also very useful in my job. When it comes to PCB design, you need to take into account the electromagnetic interference (EMI) that may cause one circuit to disrupt another. All traces on a PCB create an electromagnetic field, but the higher-frequency signals create larger electromagnetic fields which result in EMI that can disrupt other signals and distort your data, or cause your circuit to behave in unexpected ways. Thus, you need to understand concepts of electromagnetism to understand the sources of noise in your circuit and how to prevent those high EMI signals from interfering with other circuits.
Lastly, Semiconductor Physics and Devices (NE242) has also been pretty useful for my job. In that course, you learn about diodes and MOSFETs at a silicon level. Although that course does not go into circuit-level analysis using diodes and MOSFETs, understanding how they work at a silicon level is useful to understand how to properly choose MOSFETs and diodes for your circuit design, as well as understanding how they can fail and how to identify issues in their behaviour.