The Road Not Taken

Fork in RoadI’d like to offer you the opportunity to help someone out who needs to make a key decision in her life.

As I’ve written about and spoken about recently, the economic woes of the past year have impacted many of my peers and I’m sure yours as well. Especially hard hit seem to be those in the middle of their careers, a group that I count myself a part of. For those of us who have faced or are facing these uncertainties, I think it’s only natural to second guess the key decisions we made in our careers and wonder if we made the right choices. Some may have decided to take a chance on a new opportunity only to have it evaporate. Others may have passed on that opportunity only to see their current “safe” position turn out not to be so safe after all.

It’s with this in mind that I received an email from a young woman at a crossroads in her career, having to make just such a decision, one that she prays she will cherish but fears she will regret. She has the opportunity to move from her current “safe” position of many years to a new opportunity filled with uncertainty. In order to afford her the best possible insight and advice, I’d like to open this up to you (with her permission) since you all collectively have a ton more experience than I will ever have.

As you read her email, you’ll realize that she is facing several smaller decisions as part of this one big decision, namely:

  1. ASIC vs. FPGA
  2. ASIC Design vs. IP development
  3. Existing company that she knows vs. a new company that she has to learn
  4. Comfort zone vs. Temporary Incompetence
  5. Hands-on Technical Work vs. Management
  6. Expert vs. Generalist

Each of these decisions could be the basis for a debate on its own. Feel free to comment on any of these or all of these or on other aspects that you find important. If you can take some time to respond, I think this will not only serve to advise this woman, but will also be a great guide to anyone looking to make a career change.

__________

I am a Lead ASIC Designer with 13 years of experience in front end ASIC design and have worked on multiple ASICs to this date at a company in India. Everything is fine here, just that the work is getting very repetitive lately. I have an offer from a IP development firm and need to decide soon. The following things come to my mind when I think about the offer:

1. The work would be mostly on FPGAs (no ASICs involved).

2. I won’t work with the Physical Design guys anymore.

3. I may get good exposure on different networking IPs.

4. I am currently leading a sizable design in a big ASIC. Though this position is glamorous and coveted by many, there is nothing new to learn since I have been doing it for the past several years.

I have the following queries,

  1. If I join the new company and start working on FPGAs, will it take away something from me, e.g., my “ASIC Gal” tag?
  2. Will taking up the manageress role and doing project management ‘formally’ be better that working as a Lead Engineer, from a long term employability perspective? or will it be detrimental?
  3. Will it be a one way path with little chances to come back to ASICs without a compromise? (after, say, 4-5 years).
  4. I want to move towards system design/architecture in the future and am thinking that the more IPs I work on, the better it will be for me. Is this assumption correct?
  5. Overall, any other advice as to what I should consider and whether I should take this position.

I would appreciate your reply.

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8 Responses to “The Road Not Taken”

  1. mux Says:

    Ah! What an apt title!

  2. Lou Covey Says:

    Everytime I hear a story like this I am reminded of Helen Keller’s statement:

    “Security is an illusion. Life is an adventure or nothing at all.”

    In the first place, she says she is learning nothing new in her current job. If an engineer doesn’t gain new skills, they might as well prepare to be laid off. In the second place, ASIC starts are declining and FPGA starts are increasing, which will open up opportunities to do new things. Third, IP is one of the few market growing.

    I am on my seventh career right now. Business sucks, but I know I’m doing the right thing and I may actually have gotten in on the ground floor for a change. I am working with stealth technology companies and am integrally involved in strategy development. I have no idea if any of it is going to succeed but I’m not ready for retirement anyway.

    I have known so many people who passed up a chance to travel the road less taken that have all ended up being laid off or losing everything. I may end up the same way, but at least I went down trying.

  3. Harinder Says:

    Pretty interesting post and I would say answer to such query would be very personal and depends on the risk level a person wants to take.

    1. If I join the new company and start working on FPGAs, will it take away something from me, e.g., my “ASIC Gal” tag?
    I do not think so. Its always good to learn new skills and the more skills you have in your resume, the better it is. Nobody can take out all those years and experience of ASIC design from her.

    2. Will taking up the manageress role and doing project management ‘formally’ be better that working as a Lead Engineer, from a long term employability perspective? or will it be detrimental?
    This is a tricky answer. The question to ask is: what makes you happy? I have seen many people, same position as hers leading a team going to Project Management and ended up less happy or less satisfied some times.
    I have seen people getting frustrated with PM roles and getting back to lead design after couple of years. Its just a personal preference and risk level she can tolerate and experiment, given her personal circumstances.

    3. Will it be a one way path with little chances to come back to ASICs without a compromise? (after, say, 4-5 years).
    Contacts with people matter. So, even if someone plans to take PM role with such uncertainty, they have to make sure that they are doing extra steps to keep in touch with technology, tools and people. In that way, if they decide to come back or switch, it will help them.

    4. I want to move towards system design/architecture in the future and am thinking that the more IPs I work on, the better it will be for me. Is this assumption correct?
    As one should always want to diversify, personally I think this is true. System design and Architecture are the areas I would also want to have some expertise into (my background is in backend physical design)

    5. Overall, any other advice as to what I should consider and whether I should take this position.
    Just think about your risk tolerance level, with things surrounding you and your family. In order to be happy and successful (definition varies for various people) a lot of time you have to take risks. Weigh out pros Vs cons and make an educated decision.

  4. JimF Says:

    Are you happy in your job? Is your company successful? Are they likely to be still doing ASIC designs a year from now?

    If so, your best strategy is probably to stay where you are. You’re in a good spot. Learn management and leadership skills by managing your work well and leading others. Become known in your organization for getting things done and done well, and being a great co-worker. Promote yourself within the company by sharing your knowledge, helping others, and demonstrating success on your projects. Show off a little. You can continue your technical education on the side by reading, but likely you should master the non-technical parts of your job.

    On the other hand, if you’re not happy or scared about your position or company’s prospects, learning FPGA design and how the IP business works is a good strategy.

  5. Dee McCrorey Says:

    Increasingly your career success will be based on the company you keep: the company you work for (their long-term innovation potential), your professional network, communities, and tribes.

    Career Portfolio Management
    ——————————–

    Reinventing yourself requires a certain amount of personal risktaking. As mentioned by Lou and Harinder in their sound, practical advice is to look at the bigger picture of your career and your life.

    How much risk can you afford to take in your job? If your personal life is financially stable and without a lot of “life’s drama”, e.g., raising children, serving as caregiver for your parents/ guardians, health issues, etc., then, you might consider diversifying your career portfolio by raising the bar for yourself and adding more “risk” to it.

    Start by asking yourself four key questions:

    1) Do you have a career strategy–immediate, short term, and long term?

    2) How comfortable are you in dealing with unknown situations and new people?

    3) Do you enjoy working with people who “think outside the box” (see Harry’s great post on contrarians) or those who follow the rules? Or a mix of both?

    4) How entrepreneurial is the culture of the IP dev company you’re considering? What does reward / accountability look like and how “politicized” is innovation? Ask to speak with people who have assumed greater risks at the company and a) have been successful or b) experienced failed attempts (for whatever reason). You can learn plenty from this question alone!

    Here are a couple of different tacks you might consider:

    Remain with your current company
    ======================

    You can innovate your way to success without changing companies, or even jobs, to differentiate yourself at work, while positioning you for future opportunities. As JimF suggests, change begins with yourself and your perspective. Of course, there’s a fine line between staleness and complacency and that can be more risky for you/your career over time.

    Consider adding to your career portfolio by introducing new investments, such as soft skills (communication, negotiations, EQ / relationship management), grow your finance acumen, technical knowledge, etc. Increase your visibility by leading / participating in more high-impact, high-visibility initiatives / projects.

    Or you can do what I did years ago. Identify missed opportunities, “orphaned” teams, political hot potatoes and turn them around (I referred to them as UDPs–Ugly Dog Projects). This allowed me/my team to take some killer risks because these projects were off the radar screen and no one was paying attention (sometimes these projects were in my “spare” time).

    We learned how to boot strap projects (practicing all those soft skills mentioned above) and where I earned the handle (before “career branding” was popular) of someone who could “Fix it, Get rid of it, or Reinvent it.” It opened many new doors and opportunities for us.

    Depart for a new company
    =================

    You are starting from scratch no matter how much the company wants you. This is a different type of risk and, once again, it really depends on your comfort zone with unknown situations and how effective you are in building early trust and influence. You won’t be able to persuade others to act differently unless you’re credible with the leadership team, stakeholders, your staff, colleagues, customers, and partners.

    You have about six weeks to do this.

    Changing jobs can provide you with a great creative boost! You could find yourself achieving more in six months than in the last five years. If your personal life is stable and you’re comfortable with some of the other questions I’ve posed above, it just might be a good time for you to make a move.

    Best of luck!

  6. Ben Says:

    Harry,
    Here is my two cents on the woman who asked about making a career change. My net recommendation is that she stay placed with her current company. Here’s my reasoning:

    1. If she works on FPGAs and not ASICs, it will erode some, but not all, of her ASIC expertise reputation. My external perception is that having expertise in ASIC design is more valuable than having expertise in FPGA design.

    2. I think there’s a better chance taking up the managerial role will be net detrimental to her long term employability as opposed to be a lead ASIC designer. Not only are managers more replaceable, they are more likely to get caught in political battles than highly experienced ASIC designers.

    3. Not working with the physical design team will be a loss to her knowledge building. FPGAs have grown to be much larger and more complex and have floorplanning, etc, but it is not the same as the essential skill of physical ASIC design.

    4. Leading a sizable ASIC design, and there’s nothing new to learn? No new technology, software tools, verification? Don’t get caught in the “green grass syndrome.” There’s plenty of brown grass out there. If she has been with her current employer for 13 years, everything is fine, and they have treated her well, she is taking on a significant risk by changing companies. What assurance does she have that the new company would treat her well while she would have to rebuild her reputation?

    5. If she wants to work on system design in the future, the value of the exposure to IPs would depend on their applicability to the system she architectures. Tough to know in advance how that would turn out.

    6. Most likely the path is unilateral, it could difficult for her to go back to ASIC design in the future when she is older and not as current with the tools, etc., also depending on how much time has lapsed. It is similar, although less dramatic, to an engineer going from design–>AE–>sales. How often has a sales guy been able to go back into design if desired? I think engineers often get faced with the hands-on technical work vs. management or sales decision and get swayed into non-technical role during their career, and lose the option to go back into design if so desired. If she doesn’t feel she is learning much a lead on a big ASIC, wait till she gets into management.

    It sounded like she already knew the answer before asking the question. My recommendation is for her to stay put.

  7. Hemant Says:

    I second Ben. And for reasons that would cause buffer overflow in my *Windows OS*.
    Still - I think IP company and FPGAs to rid of a repetitive ASIC project with mentioned attributes probably don’t even compete in the same category and I can say this from my past experiences with both the types of firms I have worked for.
    I could go on. But I guess there is not much to answer in here I guess.

  8. Jeremy Ralph Says:

    >>there is nothing new to learn since I have been doing it for the past several years

    Without getting into the technical details of FPGA vs. ASIC and so on. I would say do what you are most passionate and excited about. If it was me and my current work was dry, and not so exciting, then I would move on, shake things up and try and find something that gets me excited. Life is too short to do something that is not challenging and enjoyably.

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