India is fast emerging as a global technology hub: various multinational design labs, R&D houses, and product-centric start-ups are cropping up. In recent years, India's core competencies in software services, design, and R&D have attracted a lot of outsourced jobs. The innovations happening in the course of product design and developing software have put us on the global tech map.
Now, when you think of product design, embedded systems immediately come to mind. They're everywhere-in products in all categories.
We use smart devices and electronic equipment for various tasks, from enabling a smart door lock to watching a DVD on our home theatre. Smartphones, laptops, consumer electronics, automotive electronics, medical equipment, industrial machines, and, in fact, anything with a digital interface, have their computing power in the form of microcontrollers or microprocessors on the integrated circuits "embedded" in them.
Certain embedded systems in products such as cell phones and PDAs have operating systems (such as Windows Mobile, Palm OS, and Symbian) specifically developed to perform various application functions besides the basic task of communication. Embedded systems in products such as industrial automated machines, automotive electronics, consumer electronics, etc. that are developed to perform a pre-defined task have a logical program written to the hardware. But what exactly are embedded systems?
In brief, embedded systems are a combination of hardware and software with some mechanical or other parts added, which perform discrete, limited functions. A program for performing a pre-defined function is written permanently onto the hardware such as a ROM chip.
For the hardware of the embedded system, microprocessors and microcontrollers of different architectures are used. Also, Real-Time Operating Systems (RTOSes) are used by software programmers to write programs for the hardware interfaces.
Emerging Career Opportunities
Embedded technology is one of the fastest growing sectors in India, and is likely to remain so for a long time. The proliferation of digital devices and equipment across various industry verticals such as automotives, telecom, consumer electronics, etc. is pushing the need for embedded systems engineers and professionals.
Semiconductor-based products such as VLSI chips are used in the development and design of hardware for embedded systems; the semiconductor and embedded design industries are closely connected.
"India is playing an important role in the progress of the global semiconductors and embedded technology-driven industry. A number of factors such as a rapidly growing domestic market, a strong education system, short product lead-times, reduced entry barriers, government support, and improved infrastructure have resulted in the semiconductor and embedded systems industries emerging as the sunrise sectors in India," says Joe Lazar, director-Human Resources, Analog Devices Inc., which deals in embedded processing and Digital Signal Processing.
In this field, one can develop or design a completely new product, add features to or improve over the current line of products, or provide solutions to problems.
Needless to mention here, the demand for qualified people is greater than supply. There is the scope of building a bright future outside India as well.
Multinational companies that have R&D labs and design houses in India send their employees to their home countries for special training or on special projects.
A Choice Of Streams
As mentioned earlier, embedded systems are a combination of hardware and software, where developments take place in both areas separately-and have an impact on each other. Opportunities in terms of hardware development range from the design and development of simple products such as consumer and home appliances, to complex tasks such as automotive design, product debugging and testing, and more. On the software side, opportunities include embedded software development, working with RTOSes, debugging, and designing interfaces for embedded operating systems.
There are two teams in organisations involved in the development or designing of embedded systems-hardware and software. Developing a program to be written onto the firmware/hardware is a challenging task: it involves working with RTOSes.
Embedded operating systems, too, are developed for certain specific products. Programmers need to have knowledge of the interface between different OSes, the hardware of the embedded devices, and the intricacies of the hardware while coding.
Programming and developing applications for embedded systems is considerably harder than that for personal computers. In the case of personal computers, the system can be given a reboot if there's an error in the code, but that's just not possible in the case of embedded systems (imagine just having to "restart" your washing machine if it goes dead!).
Teams of hardware engineers will have to understand and cope with issues, solutions, updates, and developments in software that may have an impact on them, and vice versa, software engineers need to have some hardware knowledge. Hardware engineers need basic knowledge of programming in C and assembly languages.
Essentially, hardware and software engineers work in sync with each other. There is an equal requirement for hardware as well as software engineers in the field of embedded systems and so one should select the stream of his/her choice-hardware or software.
The Basic Requirements
The key to starting off on an embedded systems career path is to pursue an education in engineering or computer science. The foundation for a successful career could be laid by acquiring a Bachelors or Masters engineering degree with a specialisation preferably in electronics, electrical engineering, or computer science. Aspirants from the telecommunications, industrial electronics and automation, instrumentation design, and VLSI design, too, have a chance to pursue a career in the field of embedded systems by opting for various diploma and post-graduate short-term training courses offered by institutes both government and private.
Some engineering colleges offer degree courses in embedded systems, while some offer embedded systems as an elective during the graduating year. Candidates must have knowledge of programming in C or C , as well as hardware languages such as Verilog or VHDL. Also offered are courses for Masters or Research-level degrees in embedded systems and VLSI design. (For more on VLSI chip design, refer to Chip Your Way Through, Digit, September 2006).
The R&D labs and design houses of the companies that are into embedded systems usually look for engineers with a strong background in electronics, as such candidates tend to have the core knowledge and basic fundamentals of working with such things as circuit boards, microprocessors, and microcontrollers. Companies involved in software development for embedded devices look for candidates with strong C programming skills and the ability to work with RTOSes.
"Some of the hardware skills an aspirant must possess would be the ability to understand circuit schematics, knowledge of microprocessor and microcontroller architectures, writing code for device drivers in C or an assembly language," says Sanjeet Banerji, senior vice president, Telecom & Embedded Systems, Datamatics Limited-a company that provides IT consulting and services.
The academic curricula at engineering colleges such as the IITs, NITs, and others consist of the introduction of the concepts of hardware and software used in embedded systems, programming in C, C , Java, and assembly languages; working with RTOSes on single or multiple platforms; writing code for embedded device drivers; and more. Projects are also part of the curriculum. These consist of the development of embedded operating systems, embedded device drivers, RTOSes, etc.
"At the entry level, a good exposure to the concepts of embedded electronics and operating systems, and good command over C are a must. At more senior levels, domain knowledge is just as important as the knowledge of enabling platforms," says Prabhakar Koushik, Training and Manpower Development, Mistral Software Pvt Ltd, which provides services for product design and development in the embedded space.
According to K Ravindra, founder and CEO of Agent Technologies Software Pvt Ltd, which undertakes design, development and implementation of software and hardware in embedded systems: "A professional should possess 30 per cent software skills, 30 per cent hardware skills, and 40 per cent skills to map them together to a product for a specific purpose. The person should have analytical skills and logical thinking capacity to be able to build something new that can be useful to the common man."
Awareness And Recruitment
A large number of students today remain unaware of employment opportunities in embedded technologies. With the current dearth of talented engineers, the industry makes constant efforts to create awareness of career opportunities amongst students through seminars, presentations, internships, and scholarship programmes.
Seeking engineers at every college is time-consuming and adds to recruitment costs. Some organisations in the embedded systems industry have come together and are reaching out to the talent pool through a common platform. The recruitment process is no different from that of any other field: selections are made via basic-level tests to assess the embedded systems fundamentals within what has been studied by the candidate at college.
Hardware skills such as knowledge of working with ICs, the ability to use CAD for VLSI tools, working with EDA (Electronic Design Automation) tools, knowledge of memory chip architecture, analogue and digital design techniques, etc. are required. Software skills such as programming in C, C , Java, etc. are most hunted for.
Besides this, soft skills-communication skills, team spirit, and so on are also assessed. The industry makes efforts to reach potential talents by accessing the campuses of universities through panel discussions, seminars, presentations, internships, campus interviews, and sponsored programs.
The Necessity Of Training
Training is a crucial aspect in this field. After recruitment, employees undergo training that might be basic induction training, all the way to high-end training in embedded systems tools and technologies.
"Freshly-recruited candidates undergo training and workshops on embedded technologies and communication protocols. The training period ranges anywhere between three to six months depending on the domain specialisation.
"These candidates are deployed into projects immediately after completion of training," informs Anup Sable, vice president-Automotive and Embedded Line of Business, KPIT Cummins Infosystems Ltd, which provides solutions and services for hardware design and software for embedded systems.
Why we mention training is because companies want embedded systems professionals to work with the best available technologies and EDA tools to innovate products. With the trend of finishing and training schools cropping up, a candidate can get registered at the schools while pursuing their regular degrees. At these schools-private and government-short-term courses are provided to enable students to get hands-on experience with the tools and applications used in the industry.
"Training of whatever duration is important since it is different from
conventional, commercial application development. Polishing of skills and upgrading of technology knowledge is required due to the emergence of new standards, platforms, and development tools" avers Sanjeet Banerji, senior vice president-Telecom and Embedded Systems, Datamatics Ltd, which provides a wide range of solutions and services, including those for the embedded domain.
The Growth Path And Remuneration
The exact designations differ from company to company. An aspirant can choose either to be on the hardware front or on software development. It is very important to maintain a balance between the two, as the embedded control software works closely with the microprocessor and microcontroller.
There are separate teams for hardware and software groups. The stages of the growth path can be divided into entry-level, senior-level, and top-level.
At this level, fresh recruits are assigned the tasks of testing, validation, design, and such. They are typically designated "trainee engineers" or "trainee testers."
During this stage, one needs to apply the knowledge, basics, and fundamentals of embedded systems to get hands-on skills of working with industry-standard tools and technologies.
The employee is physically involved in combining hardware, software and other mechanical parts using EDA tools to make a product for a specified purpose. Intensive learning takes place at this stage; senior-level engineers act as guides during the process of developing a product.
The time taken to advance to the next level ranges from two to four years.
Remuneration: Rs 2 to 2.5 lakh Per Annum.
Here, one is referred to as "engineer," "senior engineer," "team leader," or "principal architect." They are in charge of the entry-level engineers and the developments taking place under current projects. A senior design engineer leads a group of entry-level engineers working on specific areas of development in a particular project.
The time taken to advance to the next level depends entirely upon the contribution to the projects and the results derived, but an indicative figure would be three to four years.
Remuneration: Rs 3 to 4 lakh P.A.
When one reaches here, the individual can choose a track either on the technical side-such as "project lead"-or the management side, as a "project manager." The top-level consists of project leaders, project managers, and general managers. The project leader is the incharge of a project, and keeps track of project developments. Project managers are involved with client relations and quality management. They check the progress of the projects and report to the general manager, who takes the strategic and managerial decisions related to the projects.
Remuneration: Rs 6 lakh and above P.A.
Wrapping It Up
According to a report-Indian Semiconductor Industry and its Impact, by The ISA (Indian Semiconductor Association) and Frost & Sullivan, there would be a requirement for 7,81,780 engineers in the semiconductor and embedded design verticals. Universities do provide formal education, but changing curricula in tune with rapidly-changing technologies and trends of the industry verticals is hard.
This field is for innovators: those who can take up challenges and develop new products and applications. A league of smart brains is behind building your cell phone, washing machine, your television. You can choose to be a passive user of those smart devices-or be the innovator of smarter ones!