African American hardware engineers are shaping tomorrow's products

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The need for hardware design engineers will grow faster than the average employment rate over the rest of this decade, according to U.S. Department of Labor projections. And companies continue to look eagerly for minority engineers.

At black-serving Tuskegee Institute (Tuskegee, AL), "mechatronics," combining mechanics, electronics and computer control theory, is emphasized in the engineering curriculum, says Dr Legand L. Burge, Jr, dean of the college of engineering, architecture and physical sciences.

"Companies are coming to campus looking for people who've had both hardware and programming experience," he notes.



Howard University (Washington, DC), another historically black school, is focusing on microprocessor hardware design. This fall the school will introduce a new undergrad degree in computer engineering, and Howard's EE department will become the department of electrical and computer engineering.

Dr Clay Gloster, who proposed the new program, says, "Microprocessors are everywhere you look. The essence of computer engineering is not computer system design, but the microprocessor. Some 80 percent of what Intel sells goes not into computers but into things like cable boxes, VCRs, big screen TVs, microwaves and cell phones."

It's evident that hardware engineers are in demand, and if they combine hardware savvy with software aptitude, that's better still. Of course computer hardware, while important, is certainly not the only hardware around. We spoke with African Americans who are designing a wide selection of the products of tomorrow. Here are their stories

National Semi's Nick Gray:
observing evolution


"I am not what most people think of when they think of a hardware engineer," admits Nicholas Gray. Nevertheless, he's been involved in electronics-related hardware, in a number of different functions, since 1968. Before that he completed his BSEE at Gonzaga University (Spokane, WA) and served for three years in the U.S. Army.

"A lot of evolution has occurred in the electronics industry," Gray reflects. He lists transistor design and topology, circuit techniques, semiconductor geometries and fabrication techniques, and the faster and faster speeds at which circuits are running today.

"Engineering has come full circle," says Gray. "Before my time all engineering was analog. Then came the digital revolution. Now digital speeds are so fast that analog issues dominate, and today's electronics engineer needs to understand analog techniques."

Gray began his hardware career with Philco Ford Corp (Philadelphia, PA). He started as a circuit-design engineer and went on to teach in the company's technical school, which took him to California.

He moved to Fairchild Semiconductor (Mt View, CA) as a product marketing engineer, then settled at Signetics Corp (Sunnyvale, CA). He was there for fourteen years, as production planner, production foreman, product engineer, application engineer and section head.

In 1989 Gray joined Siliconix (Santa Clara, CA) as a senior strategic marketing and application engineer. In 1991 he came to analog chipmaker National Semiconductor (Santa Clara CA), first as staff marketing manager and now staff application engineer.

He still does some hardware design, but his role now is much broader: he talks with National's IC customers about their needs, then defines products to meet them. He shows customers how to get the best performance from their designs, and sometimes helps with the design itself.

"I get a real sense of accomplishment from seeing my designs function," Gray says. He's especially pleased when his work "helps other engineers accomplish their own goals. I also get a kick out of doing something that relatively few people know how to do." He has published several technical papers, and hopes to complete
a book on mixed-signal electronics before he retires.

While Gray feels that he "seldom faced identifiable discrimination," he admits that "It's difficult for me to rule out the thought that if I were not black I might have advanced farther in my career than I have." But the big thing, he affirms, "is to look beyond prejudice and bigotry, apply ourselves and do the best job we can."

And to enjoy the work. "Being part of the evolution is exciting," Gray concludes.

IBM's Alan Mingo enjoys
an upwardly mobile career


For Alan Mingo, hardware design was just the first step in a career in development and beyond at IBM (Armonk, NY). Now director of business partner/commercial e-business solutions in IBM's global applications management group, he started with the company as a co-op at its Poughkeepsie site while working for his 1984 BS and 1985 MS in computer engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI, Troy, NY).

After graduation Mingo joined IBM full time as a senior associate in the IBM development lab (Poughkeepsie, NY), a position he held for five years. In 1990 he became a VLSI chip development manager in large system development. A year later he was named executive assistant to the Mid Hudson Valley Development Laboratory director.

In 1993 Mingo moved to Austin, TX, as product development manager in IBM's Power Personal Systems division. In 1995 he was promoted to development re-engineering lead for the RS-1600 division, and became manager of RS-1600 workstation and entry server development the next year. Then he moved to Raleigh, NC to direct Aptiva development in IBM's personal systems group.

In 1999 he moved back to Poughkeepsie to take up his present post - the first he's held that was not directly concerned with product development. He has offices in both Poughkeepsie and Southbury, CT.

"IBM has given me the opportunity to gain skills in different areas," says Mingo. "My career has progressed from large systems to medium to low-end systems, and now back to the big systems of e-business. In large systems your focus is on integration; you have very long cycles because of the complexity. With mid-range systems there's a focus on cutting-edge technology. At the low end you're focused on speed and flexibility."

It's no longer a question of hardware vs software, he says. "At the chip level, even hardware design is fundamentally software. If I were coming into engineering now, I would focus on understanding as much as I could about software with a strong understanding of hardware as well."

What skills have served him best in his career? "Being able to take a large problem and dissect it into components so you can see what's critical as opposed to what's simply important."

His status as a minority hasn't been a factor in his career, Mingo says. "There's a certain level of discomfort you have to go through as an African American but that's true in all of life. Nothing has limited me in any way."

Mingo's professional progress at IBM probably wouldn't surprise his RPI classmates at all. Back in 1984, they voted him "most likely to succeed."

Octavius Farmer:
embedded server lead at Dell

At computer maker Dell (Round Rock, TX), Octavius Farmer is putting his 2000 BSEE from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, GA) to use as a lead engineer in embedded server management. His responsibilities include the design and development of firmware for platforms, peripherals, applications and tools.

It was when Farmer interned at Dell in the summer of 1999 that he began to develop interests in both hardware and software. He says he's "into low-level programming" and enjoys being hands on.

"If you're working purely in software you're probably implementing and running applications. With firmware you can see what the hardware is doing, drive in signals, see LEDs flash. I can see the actual responses to what I'm developing.

"At Georgia Tech I initially thought it was tough," he says, "but once I got into the program, team building made it easier." And atDell he finds it more comfortable still.

Dell's workforce is roughly 50 percent minorities and females, and the company is actively recruiting. Farmer gets into that, going back to Georgia Tech to talk with the kids coming along behind him.

"I tell them Dell is very fast-paced. They'll be working on the fly. But I tell them they'll always have things to do. They'll be given responsibility and be working on new development.

"I like to get them excited about engineering," Farmer says.

LaTanjia Robinson works on
rocket engines at Aerojet

LaTanjia Robinson is a 1987 aerospace engineering grad of the University of Southern California-Los Angeles. She started her career at Aerojet (Sacramento, CA) as an associate project engineer in the company's Delta II rocket engine program.

Robinson has focused most of her career on this launch vehicle that sends satellites into space. Her design work has dealt with composite thrust chambers, nozzle extensions and valves.

Now, as a project engineering specialist, she evaluates discrepant components for Delta II second-stage engines, determining if they are acceptable for flight or need to be repaired or scrapped. Her most rewarding role, though, is representing Aerojet at Delta II launches at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL.

"Early in my career my management worried that it would be tough for me, because some people might have a hard time accepting a young African American female as a technical authority," she recalls. "But supervisors and lead engineers fought for me to get there, and I appreciated that. Over time, people came to respect my abilities and contributions."

At college Robinson found very few racial minorities or women in the aerospace program, so she thought she was prepared for corporate America. But Aerojet "was still pretty much of a culture shock," she says. "The majority of the workforce was not only Caucasian but males over fifty. Today, it's much more diverse.

"I've been fortunate to work with supportive people and people who are not only technically astute but very open-minded," she says.

LaTanjia Robinson is married to Aerojet chemist Michael Robinson and the mother of two. She's active with NSBE through her college alumni chapter. And she enjoys being part of community outreach programs like Junior Achievement.

Previously she was a mentor/tutor in a program for troubled minority youth. "I wanted to show them that what they thought was unreachable is reachable, that they can do it," she says.

Curtis James: project lead
at Sikorsky

Curtis James, who comes from New York City, got his BSME at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1995. "There were very few African Americans at RPI, but we all stuck together. We still talk to each other frequently," he says.

He began working at helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky Aircraft Corp (Stratford, CT) as a test fixtures design engineer. In 1999 he completed an MSME at RPI's Hartford, CT extension. And in November 2001 he moved into the role of project lead for material value engineering.

James started out designing facilities to simulate conditions aircraft would experience in flight. Now he examines design in relationship to cost.

"I'm always trying to figure out if we can make a part more cheaply," he says. "The great thing about designing test fixtures is that in two or three months you can go downstairs and see the fixture perform the test function, or see a part you designed flying on the aircraft."

Today James is part of Sikorsky's engineering diversity council. "All engineers should help other engineers, whether of color or female, to feel comfortable in the workplace," he says.

"Working, you may encounter people you know are thinking 'He's not really qualified.' But that's usually overcome after one or two conversations. Most people here are friendly and have been since day one."

APL's Dawnielle Farrar works on
hardware and software

Dawnielle Farrar is an EE/physicist at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL, Laurel, MD). In 2000, under a special five-year program, she earned a BS in physics from Lincoln University (Oxford, PA) and a BSEE from the University of Maryland (College Park, MD).

As soon as she arrived at APL she started on her MSEE. While graduate work is fairly routine for technical staff at the lab, Farrar expects to get her degree in two years rather than the usual five. She's already looking ahead to a PhD.

"Balancing work and school requires a lot of discipline and effective time management," she says.

Farrar's professional responsibilities include design, simulation, worst- case analysis testing and implementation of hardware and software for both space and commercial applications. Right now, she's working on a technology demonstration project through NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC, Greenbelt, MD).

The mission, called Space Technology 5 (ST-5), will validate variable emittance coatings used for thermal control. Farrar is responsible for designing the electronic control unit that will drive the variable emittance microelectro-mechanical systems (MEMS) based thermal control radiator.

"Traditional radiators have a lot of mass and large power requirements," she explains. "This mission will provide an alternate means of thermal control that can be used on future micro- and nano-satellites."

Farrar was first exposed to space technology in 1996 and 1997, while working summers at GSFC. Then she was one of six students asked to join a summer 1998 pregrad program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA).

As an undergrad Farrar was active with NSBE, SWE and honor societies Alpha Chi and Beta Kappa Chi, and mentored minority students in physics, chemistry and math. "My desire to help others is not limited to race," Farrar says. "It's the philanthropist in me. I choose to share what I've learned, and hope to interest more people in the engineering profession, regardless of their race."

Farrar enjoys working with both hardware and software - hardware because she likes putting things together, software because it drives the hardware and enables her to draw on her programming skills.

Jason Lee: managing
powertrains at Ford

Jason Lee received his BSME as a Meyerhoff Scholar at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (Baltimore, MD) in 1996. Then he went on to the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI) as a Tauber Manufacturing and GEM Fellow.

His idea was to earn a double masters, "So I would have something unique to offer when I went to look for a job." In 1998 he got one MS in manufacturing and another in ME.

He was recruited by Ford Motor Co (Dearborn, MI). The company appealed to him for many reasons, including its diverse workforce and its proximity to a big city.

Lee began as a production supervisor and moved into a manufacturing engineer position. Today he is a powertrain project manager, responsible for Ford's F series industrial trucks in both Dearborn and Louisville, KY. His work involves liaison with the power group, which deals with transmissions, drive shafts and axles, and the management team charged with bringing the trucks to market.

"An important part of my job is understanding design and what various components do," Lee says. "If there's an issue at the plant I have to be able to diagnose it and get information from the design community about what the solution is."

In college, Lee was president of his NSBE chapter and a regional board member. Now he's part of Ford's core recruiting group for the NSBE convention.
Lee says he's seen a lot of surprised faces when he meets people for the first time. "Knowing my name is Lee and I'm in engineering, a lot of people expect me to be Asian," he says with a smile.

In the manufacturing environment, he notes, age and experience count more than race. "I had one guy tell me he has shoes that are older than I am. That made me laugh."

Adam Amali does R&D
for International Rectifier

A native of Nigeria, Adam Amali graduated from Ahmadu Bello College (Zaria, Nigeria) in 1982 with a degree in physics. He stayed on there for five years, working in research. In 1987 he headed to Arizona State University (ASU, Tempe, AZ) for graduate work in physics.

"I had read about the challenges I was likely to face, particularly in a state like Arizona where there are not many minorities," Amali says. "But when I got there I didn't feel any negative reaction, racial or otherwise. Of course it took me a while to adjust to the culture and make new friends."

He found it surprising that his fellow students knew so little about Nigeria. "Not only could they not find it on a map, but they'd ask me questions like, 'Do people live in houses there?'"

He received a masters in physics in 1992 and a PhD in 1995, specializing in new imaging techniques in electron microscopy. He stayed on to do postdoc work at the ASU center for solid state science. "Part of the satisfaction of graduate school was the opportunity to teach, mentor and motivate young minority students," he says.

In 1997 he joined semiconductor manufacturer International Rectifier (El Segundo, CA), drawn by the rotational program that would give him the opportunity to try out many of the company's departments.

"At the back of my mind I always wanted to be in the semiconductor industry," Amali says. "The rotational program gave me that opportunity and confirmed what I had always suspected, that R&D would be most satisfying."

Amali has been working on the design of more efficient metal oxide semiconductor field effect transistors (MOSFETs). He enjoys "the opportunity to be innovative and creative. We're constantly trying to improve and stay ahead of the competition," he says.

James DuLaney:
servo motors at Seagate

For James DuLaney, military service was a way to further his education and secure a future in engineering.

A 1989 BSEE graduate and ROTC member at the University of Tennessee (Knoxville, TN), DuLaney joined the U.S. Air Force in payment for his schooling. While in uniform, he earned a 1993 MSEE from Wichita State University (Wichita, KS), and a 1998 PhD in EE from the University of Dayton (Dayton, Ohio). Balancing school and work, he says, required a lot of support from friends and family.

When he left the military in 2000, DuLaney posted his resume on line. Seagate Technology, Inc (Oklahoma City, OK), a maker of storage drives for PCs and high-end servers, recruited him to work in its servo group.

DuLaney was very familiar with motors, having done his PhD dissertation on sliding mode control, and supportive mentors quickly brought him up to speed on hard drives and debugging.

He likes working with hardware because "It involves putting pieces together." He's currently immersed in Seagate's 36ES and 36ES2 products.

"The day flies by at Seagate," DuLaney says happily. "I definitely want to learn as much as I can about the disk-drive industry. I'd also like to pursue a managerial track."

Felix Rodgers of Sony:
apps after college

Felix Rodgers was an "army brat," living overseas, when he started college at the University of Maryland campus in Munich, Germany. He returned to the U.S. to complete a 1994 BS in business administration at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. All his present expertise in applications engineering was gained after college, from courses, independent study and on-the-job training.

In college, Rodgers began working as an operations clerk for Electronic Data Systems (Charlotte, NC). When he graduated he returned to EDS, and was later promoted to manager and transferred to Detroit, MI. In 1998 he became a field engineer for Dell Computers, responsible for technical sales to schools across Ohio, Kentucky and Michigan.

Then he applied to Sony Electronics Inc (San Jose, CA). In 2000 Sony hired him as an applications engineer for Sony desktops and notebooks. Currently his team is working on Sony's Movieshaker and Sonic Stage editing software.

Rodgers is also involved with Sony's MX desktop project. And he's spent time in Japan, helping engineers refine Sony's minidisc MD player for U.S. consumers. "It's been really cool to work on integrating the hardware and the software," he says.

"When I was in Germany I was an American; when I returned to North Carolina I was black," Rodgers recalls. "You start to be sectioned off by your race instead of your culture. It wasn't something I was accustomed to.

"But when I came to Sony I was interviewed by a white person, a Japanese person, a Chinese person and a woman. I knew I was applying to a company with a multicultural environment. And that told me I could aspire to bigger and better things."

Given his dual interest in technology and sales, Rodgers sees unlimited opportunities for advancement at Sony. "One person can do major things at this company," he says. Having lived around the world, Rodgers wants to do them in California.

Hardware is at the heart of everything. And maybe, whether it's microprocessors, satellites or Ford trucks, hardware is at the heart of a better tomorrow. That's a hope shared by many African American engineers who are helping to design the hardware of the future.
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