Philps Research – 3d Graphics and Computer Game research, Imagination Technologies – chip design
Principal Software Engineer – Codec team.
Altera – High Wycombe
Designing silicon chips for storing or playing movies.
I’m the Architect for the video codec project at Altera. That means I get to make the big decisions about how we are going to build the silicon chips we use to take the pictures from your camera and squeeze them to make the files small enough to send or store. I write computer programs that models the way I want the chip to work, and discuss with the team how to turn that into reality. The design changes quite a bit as we go along as we invent better ways to do the job – smaller, faster, or better pictures.
Altera makes a particular type of silicon chip that means we can change the way it is wired up after it’s been made into a phone. That means we can carry on improving things for the customer using what we learn as we go along.
Before that I worked on the IPhone video, and that had to be just right the first time – it costs millions of pounds to correct any mistakes you make on that sort of chip and testing it was a very big part of the work.
My Typical Day
Thinking, talking, and writing computer programs.
A lot of the day is spent thinking – staring out of the window, scribbling on white boards, even when I go out running or cycling at lunchtime. Once I’ve thought about the problem enough, actually writing the computer program to do it is often quite easy. Making it work properly – proving it will always work – can take longer though, but that is rather like a detective following little clues to track down the problem, and it can be a lot of fun – or very frustrating. One of the tools the team uses is a waveform viewer – a graph of what is happening on the wires in a chip as time progresses . With 500,000 wires changing 200,000,000 times a second, it’s easy to get confused.
That is broken up with lots of conversations with my team about the problems we are facing and how to fix them. It’s very much a group effort, and it can be quite exciting to see ideas changing very quickly as we discuss what to do.
Some days I spend time talking to customers on the phone or video conference to make sure we understand what they want to do, or visiting them. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to some interesting places with my work and lived in California for a while.
I’m also part of the international committee that decided how the most modern way of storing video should work – that can mean weeks away at conference in Europe, China, the USA.
What I'd do with the money
Buy Raspberry Pis for schools and clubs
The Raspberry Pi is a highly powerful – no frills PC. Its about the closest things you can get to the machines I bought when I was young – the ZX81 and Acorn Atom. I’m not quite sure how people learn computing these days when everything is wrapped up in layers of software so you can’t get at the nuts and bolts of the machine underneath – but for me these brilliant bits of kit unlock the joy of being able to really make something work from scratch.
I’d buy a number of these and give them to schools and clubs, with some support if I can and see what gets invented.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Curious, stubborn, bald.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
Spicy – Thai, Mexican, or Malaysian
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Playing in the mountains in California after work – either on snowboard or mountain bike.
What did you want to be after you left school?
An electronics engineer – I was sponsored at University by an electronics company.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
I didn’t do it, nobody saw me do it, you can’t prove a thing!
What's the best thing you've done as an engineer?
Working on Apple products – It’s great to see people using your work to facetime friends, or look at movies of cats.
If you weren't an engineer, what would you be?
I’d want to be making something.Carpentry perhaps. But why wouldn’t I want to be an engineer?
Tell us a joke.
I told my wife she had drawn her eyebrows too high. She looked surprised.
My workplaces have always been supportive of some of the less sensible ideas – such as entering Robotwars, or building a car in my lunchbreaks.
That taught me a lot about managing my time, and I found it immensely rewarding when the engine we pulled apart and rebuilt sprang into life.
At the moment we are building a video conference system using the latest video standard and need to test it for hours at a time with a moving subject….
This involves a lot of debug, working out which squiggly lines is wrong.