Denver Humphrey, a Chief MMIC Designer and Radio Frequency Engineer with Arralis in Limerick, tells us about his career path so far.
What are the main tasks, responsibilities and skills required?
I design MMICs, which are small (< 8mm2 in area) radio frequency components used in all types of equipment from mobile phones to WiFi transmitters. However, the components I design are more complex and advanced and found in equipment used in space for telecommunications, debris detection (and avoidance) and remote docking/landing AND at frequencies over 40 times higher than those used in your WiFi router.
As MMICs are expensive to make, most of my time is spent on computer aided design to ensure that the circuits will perform correctly when made and when they are made, to measure their performance to make sure that they work the way they were supposed to.
Describe a typical day?
My day starts typically at 8:30am, and (after the obligatory cup of coffee) begins by checking to see what design requests or questions have been e-mailed to me over night. This is a good experience as you get to find out exactly what customers want your components to do and to question why they can’t get it to work.
The exciting part of the day however is spent designing and simulating how a component will perform, on a computer. When this goes well it’s great, when things go bad, it’s….unpleasant!
Some days however I get to work in the lab using equipment that only a few hundred people in the world will ever use. It’s amazing to think that I’m one of them.
What are the things you like best about the job?
As someone who has designed parts for satellites in space, when a satellite is launched that contains a component that you have designed (although it is only a small part of a much bigger machine) you feel proud because you know that if it wasn’t for your contribution, all they would have launched was a large pile of space junk!
What’s not so cool? What are the main challenges?
Fault finding – that is, when your design doesn’t work and you have to find out why. This is the most embarrassing and frustrating thing that I face.
Who or what has most influenced your career direction?
The most helpful guidance I was given was that I was told to choose a career using subjects that I enjoyed doing. I always enjoyed maths and physics at school, so I was interested in choosing a career that needed me to use both.
It took a bit of research and effort, but I settled on Electrical and Electronic Engineering and haven’t looked back since.
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
Although at times (and particularly as deadlines approach) you may be required to work more hours than normal, in general you are able to maintain a good work-life balance.
I am a huge sports fan and in particular a big Ulster Rugby fan and spend a lot of my free time supporting (and worrying about) Irish rugby.
One of the best things about being an RF engineer however is that it has enabled me to work all over the world – including the US and Japan.
What is your education to date?
At A-Level I studied Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Further Mathematics at Cambridge House in Ballymena (because I enjoyed and liked them) and then went on to study Electrical and Electronic Engineering at The Queen’s University of Belfast.
I enjoyed University so much that I stayed on to research microwave circuits for a PhD in High Frequency Electronics (again at Queen’s) and graduated in 1996.
I have been very lucky to find a career that used my research skills as I know lots of people whose career path hasn’t been so fortunate.
What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?
Whilst at university, I had the opportunity of working within the engineering team on a shortwave radio station during work placement. As a result I specialized in Radio Frequency (RF) engineering when I returned to college.
I also found my understanding of mathematics helpful.
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
Have you ever asked the question, ‘Why does that do that?’ If you have, then you could possibly consider engineering as a career. Engineers (and indeed scientists) have a curious nature, and so they try to understand why things behave the way they do.
Sometimes however, engineering is all about determination. When things don’t work, do you give up or do you keep going?
It’s been said before that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I guess the same could be said of my job! The thing is though – we always seem to find a solution in the end!
So when your studies seem endless, don’t give up. Keep going. You’ll get there in the end.
What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
There are a surprising number of companies in Ireland involved in the space technology sector. This means that it is possible to experience a number of different opportunities – it is better to visit a number of different companies and experience different technologies rather than to just experience one.
Work experience in university engineering departments would also enable you to do this and many universities now run courses for school pupils to learn more about the subject.