As a senior design engineer at leading publicly listed integrated circuit (IC) company Solomon Systech Ltd, Lee Cheung Fai has seen that two things contribute most to a successful career-commitment and genuine interest in the field. There is also, perhaps, the element of luck which allows someone to find an opportunity where they can excel.
Mr Lee studied electronic engineering at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and went on to complete a Master of Philosophy qualification in 2001, specialising in circuit design. His good fortune came in being able to put these skills to immediate practical use. "There were not many choices, with only around five IC design companies in Hong Kong at that time, so I was lucky to get an offer from Solomon Systech," he says.
At first, Mr Lee focused on the design of OLED (organic light-emitting diode) drivers, which are used in a variety of consumer electronic products, such as MP3 players. Later, he moved on to the development of TFT display drivers for mobile phones and portable game consoles. His main duties involved product development and simulation and, since becoming a senior design engineer in 2005, he has also had the chance to lead several projects.
Since his first day with the company, Mr Lee has shown a commitment to developing and applying new technology. In his opinions, an engineer must have a proactive attitude and be on the lookout for ways in which new advances can be incorporated in products that will generate consumer demand and sell well. This has a major bearing on how far and how fast one can develop in career terms.
"You should also be ready to accept responsibility and take on new challenges," Mr Lee advises. "The best way to learn is by solving problems and achieving results."
In his current role, Mr Lee oversees entire projects from the initial evaluation and design to the development process and patent application. He also trains junior staff to handle specific parts of a project.
In the long run, he knows it will be necessary to choose between becoming a technical specialist or taking on more management duties and overseeing general business requirements. Either way, the central challenge is to come up with new products which appeal to customers and are both functional and price competitive. In achieving this, engineers must strike a balance which takes account of innovation, practicality, size, power consumption, quality and cost.
At present, the semiconductor industry continues to grow in Hong Kong and IC design is one of the key areas promoted by the government and the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation. New design houses are springing up creating many more openings, but applicants must be of a high calibre.
Employers require technical competence, a relevant degree and, preferably, some related work experience. Holders of a first degree are likely to start in a support team doing layout design. However, a master's degree is usually required for involvement in the core part of IC design.
Solomon Systech currently has 320 staff, which represents an increase of 40 per cent in the last year. Over 60 percent are trained engineers, with about 80 focusing on design and others taking care of technical tasks such as testing, quality control and the manufacturing process.
Mr Lee says that the company's engineers can expect to work twelve hours a day and many put in extra time at weekends or on public holidays. "We all do so voluntarily out of a desire to do the best job possible and to find the answers we need," he notes.
Although China has the fastest growing semiconductor sector in the world, the design aspect of the industry is still developing. Mr Lee indicates there are no "full function" mainland companies like Solomon Systech with its own product development, engineering, testing, manufacturing and sales functions. Therefore, he believes there are relatively few chances for IC design engineers to find jobs with a similar range of responsibilities on the mainland