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Ask HN: Which hardware careers can be high-paying?
36 points by hw_engineer 5 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 48 comments
Last weekend there was an "Ask HN" question about engineering careers [1], mainly in CA, that reaches 300k+ salary. All the answers were by software engineers and the like, which is expected here at HN.

So, the question is: is there a highly profitable career (150k+) in your region (specially CA) or company for hardware-focused?

Which are these careers and what skills are in demand for them?

To give a more concrete situation (and avoid the XY problem): I feel a bit like the top answer of this thread[2]: I fell I'm wasting my skills and the prime earning ears in a not-so-high-paying industry (scientific facility) in a low-wage region (not EU or USA).

So, I'm planning to both relocate to US or EU, maybe China or Japan; and probably also change market so I can get my career in a better-paying track. I consider myself very broadly skilled, having designed high-performance electronics (board level, never IC level),done FPGA development, including DSP, and programming from embedded up in a few programming languages, even occasionally contributing to some open-source projects. I also oversaw several short-run manufacturing and deployment, which is a skill set by itself.

However, I have some anxiety on which path to follow. Should I focus on:

* learning a particular set of board-level design tools for getting my foot in SV consumer electronics companies?

* try to get a PhD and learn analog IC design?

* using my current experience to get a decent paying job in a FAANG (all of them seem to be doing HW now, except maybe Netflix) and set foot on the door?

As you see, I have some anxiety and maybe people here could help. Maybe my software skills could put me in a better track, but I first want to check if I can make better use of my 10+ hardware-focused career.

Thank you.

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16811454 [2] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16811968

My background is slightly higher-level than yours; CPU architecture. I have friends and colleagues with similar backgrounds, and the ones pulling in the most have either pivoted all but entirely to software, or have managed to find hardware roles within the big 4. They do exist. The latter get the best of both worlds, as they pay essentially the same as they do for software roles, and come with the rest of the usual perks. Banks are similar, but my observation which may or may not be completely accurate, is that they are pickier and narrower in scope.

I would be wary about getting a PhD in anything outside of computer science today, though. The roles are out there, but there are far fewer of them.

Thank you for your answer. This is the kind of info I'm looking for.

Maybe you got my background wrong: I do not design ICs currently, I was wondering if I should. I do design boards (high speed digital and analog RF in the higher end) and do FPGA programming to make them work. CPU design is an area of interest, but way to niche for my current field of work to accommodate.

Which areas a PhD could leverage both computing and my hardware design experience? Also, any ideas of skills or tools set required for getting into one of the big 4s?

I don’t have a PhD. In my opinion, if you don’t have a decent idea about what you want to get yours in, you probably should be thinking twice about getting one at all. There’s a huge opportunity cost, and the job market will probably change in non-trivial ways by the time you’re done. Only do it if you’re certain you want to become an expert in something specific. Microsoft and Google in particular are doing a lot of work with FPGAs. (Though, admittedly, the most interesting of these are probably research positions where relevant PhD’s are the norm) Apple does the full stack when it comes to hardware, and I’d expect them to have plenty of analog people. The best route might be to tell the right story based on your past experience and pair it with relevant positions at the bigcos. How to get their attention is unfortunately a topic that literally plenty of books have been written on, and I’m as far from an expert at it as possible. :p

Thank you. I'm finishing my masters while working and thinking a lot if I should or not get a PhD. The tendency is not to.

Which are you calling the "Big 4"? I'd have said there were five; has one dropped below the others recently?

My understand is that, unlike the others, Netflix does not have any in-house hardware development

Now I'm even more confused. Since when is Netflix considered one of the tech giants - they're a one-product streaming service...?

To me the "Big 5" are Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon. I didn't realize there were different lists. What's yours? :-)

What did you think the ‘N’ in FAANG was exactly?

I've never seen that acronym before. It is hard for me to imagine any way in which Netflix would be more similar to the other four than Microsoft.

edit: perhaps this is a regional difference; are you in the Bay Area? I imagine that Microsoft has less of a presence there, and perhaps Netflix is a bigger deal down south than they appear to be here in Seattle.

I had the same doubt when I first read FAANG (some time ago), and reached the same conclusion: it's not about the importance or size of the company, it's about the job market in the Bay Area.

Google has a whole division now called Google Consumer Hardware, and they’re hiring hardware engineers at the typical Google salaries. Google X, Waymo, and Verily all do plenty of hardware too. And of course Apple does hardware. Tesla hires hardware people too but I haven’t heard the greatest things about their salaries or work life balance.

Yeah, I've already read about Tesla, and was not considering them already.

Do you know how hard it is to get these Google opportunities? Do they do whiteboard interviews as with SE?

White board interviews are common across all kinds of companies in SV not just for SW roles. I was asked to invert a tree for a HW test role at Google and very recently asked to come up with code for a particular situation for a test role at Apple.

Oh god, I could not invert a tree in a whiteboard for my life. I took a MOOC algorithm class for fun, but never applied any of it at work and never intended too. The nearer I've ever got was FPGA implementation of some sorting algs, all just for fun.

Banks pay HW engineers a lot. I know a dude at JPMC (nyc) who is clearing 450k doing HW (dc/priv cloud) design. I wouldn't be surprised if folks at somewhere like two sigma make around the same.

Thank you! This is great to know. I surely could handle design server cloud equipment, do they use Open Computing or is all custom made?

For the bank world in the context of HW it's all about latency, I'm not sure what apps they run.

Well, if latency is the issue, most likely the software just loads data, models and supervisory systems (telemetry, setup, etc). All the processing must be done in the FPGAs straight to the firehose.

dc/priv cloud seems more like IT and infrastructure and less electrical engineering though right?

I should clarify, by private cloud, I mean a few custom designed servers running open stack or something, and DC I mean some built up "pod/rack" design you might colo. Ether way, I mean end to end, I was just trying to account for colo and on-prem (two sigma, for example, have a small private cloud in their office that's quite well architected.)

My guess is that he's talking about design custom equipment for efficiency and performance. It's a movement akin to moving from EC2 to in premises: if you're big enough, it starts making sense to custom build, often with in-house development.

May I ask what's D.C.?

Given the context, likely Data Center.

Many of your recent comments are asking for clarification of acronyms. While I sympathize with the desire to understand, it would be good practice to take a stab at it yourself (my preferred search engine is a common starting point for me—they're remarkably good at narrowing in on an answer given the acronym and some context); and ask for confirmation or clarification if it's still necessary.

Probably data center.

Thanks :)

You can live well in Germany if you can do a) FPGA+embedded Linux+OpenCV+PCB Design+microprocessors or b) FPGA+RF hardware+RF protocols+PCB Design. I am sure, that your skill set is sufficient. Though the opportunities are rare. And only it works in large enterprises paying according IG Metall tables. If you don’t have family, go to Silicon Valley or Switzerland.

Plan b sounds much better from my perspective, even thought I could hack a if needed. The rarity of opportunities is what scares me.

SV sounds obvious, but why Swirtzerland?

There are many reasons why people move here, I even wrote a blogpost about it: "Eight reasons why I moved to Switzerland to work in tech" http://bit.ly/2JxSQPt

Salaries are ~2,5x higher than in Germany with slightly higher living cost. You can win if you don’t need 4 bedroom apartment and kindergarten.

High frequency trading is largely done in hardware these days. It's a constantly moving target, dealing in nanoseconds. It's not my area of expertise, but last I heard, ASICs directly in the switch is where it's at these days.

Compensation-wise, if you have the right skills and can find the right place, it can make software engineering look like bagging groceries. Mostly concentrated around financial centres, so more New York and London, less so CA.

FPGAs are certainly extremely useful but most hft is moving away from purely speed focused stuff. Only one place that I know of does asics like that and it was a complete boondoggle. The difficulty of changing, printing and verifying an asic just doesn't make sense especially once your latencies are a tiny fraction of exchange jitter, and the smarter player saw the trade you wanted to make way ahead of time anyways.

Talking to some people in San Francisco, it seems like there is high demand for electrical engineers with hardware experience at the moment. There's tons of programmers, but few hardware people. Check out Lemnos Labs in SF, they just raised some money and are focused on hardware startups.

I would guess $100k-150k salary depending on the company and your experience.

Thanks for the Lemons reference. Maybe I'll get in contact, at least to get a sense of the market and opportunities.

That’s not much in SV.

FAANG+Microsoft and they have a division focused on Hardware operating out of their MV office off of shoreline Blvd next to computer history museum. They hire for board level HW engineers to work on Hololens and their other HW initiatives. Check out their websites for the actual listings

You're right: https://careers.microsoft.com/us/en/job/397873/Sr-Electrical...

The only problem is that I do not have any experience on consumer electronics, even thought I've worked with all these technologies in some level, sometime in my career. Would this be a show stopper?

  5+ years of experience designing and building electronics products with a focus on consumer and portable systems.

Don't think so. When I got into CE I came from a Medical devices background. All they are looking for is your ability to go from specs to schematics to pcb layout to overseas manufacturing builds transfer. This process though not set in stone is very common across various industries.

Thanks! This is the kind of information I needed!

I surely have gone in all these steps, just in smaller scale (few hundreds at a time). Now I quadrupled my confidence on these applications, given that I already worked on a varied of situations.

Send an email to the address in my profile. A team in my company is looking for talented hardware engineers and pays above what you want, along with great work/life balance and benefits.

Thank you, seems very interesting! Already sent you an email.

Trading. Check out firms like Optiver, Jump Trading, XR, etc. Big bucks for FPGA devs

IC design can still pay very well in Silicon Valley. So you are on right track with that, if that's what you really enjoy. Also, people who can wear both hardware and software hats are extremely valuable (aka highly paid), but for very specialized jobs. For instance, embedded programming for high-end chips.

Yeah, but IC design would be a long shot to me. I have lots of board level experience, but just the odd academic course on IC design. If needed, I'll do, but I'd rather leverage my board and system level expertise.

I'd bet that within the next 5-10 years, a lot of neural networks are going to shift from running on graphics cards to running on custom hardware. Probably some opportunities there, given the wide applicability.

RF/Microwave hardware design, DSP with FPGA, maybe SDR. Though those all would be specific to the military-industrial complex.

From my experience, he probably won't be able to leverage this to relocate, precisely because it is a bit military-prone and these things require clearance only a citizen may get.

SDR was actually an area I worked on while at college, and a bit in a few companies after that. Both CPU-based and FPGA-based, on the early days of GNU radio.

There's some niches SDR and RF may get outside military use: RF-based instrumentation (I currently work on a particle accelerator), TV and Brodcast equipment (I also worked before in these areas), but these are VERY niche.

Well, if anyone knows about some interesting opportunity that resembles this, I'd be glad to hear!

Medical testing lab on a chip hardware manufacturing can be pretty lucrative until the sec shuts you down

You talking about Theranos ? Never knew what they were doing was Lab-on-a-Chip.

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