How to Apply FPGA Programming Skills to Grow Your Career

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published April 26, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Field-programmable gate array (FPGA) devices are a type of electronic that allows you to program functions by manipulating the configuration of logic gates, the physical form of binary operations. Because FPGA programmers design and implement new technologies, careers in this computer engineering role are often in high demand. Learning about FPGA systems can help you determine if pursuing work with this type of technology suits your interests. In this article, we define FPGA programming, explain how to develop this skill, and list career opportunities in this respected field of technology.

What is FPGA programming?

FPGA programming refers to customizing the function of field-programmable gate array systems to perform a specific function. These electronic devices comprise circuitry that allows you to adjust the logic gate arrangement, or how the circuit makes decisions, to manipulate data. This can allow you to apply multiple operations while still helping the function execute as efficiently as possible. For example, many search engines rely on updating FPGA setups to optimize their algorithms and offer customizable results.

The opposite of an FPGA is an ASIC, short for application-specific integrated circuit. This works for the multipurpose, complex functions in many devices, from processors for cell phones to the speakers in children's toys. Unlike FPGAs, these are non-customizable, making ASIC technology better for mass production. Conversely, FPGA design focuses on customization, enabling you to reprogram functions and focus on a single purpose. As a result, they demand less power and work more quickly than their diversified ASIC counterparts. There are three elements of an FPGA that you can program:

Static RAM

Static RAM, short for static random access memory, is a technology that stores temporary data for efficient access. SRAM cells are the fundamental components in an FPGA responsible for routing connections and configuring logic blocks. Static RAM programmers can arrange these cells in different configurations to perform specific functions.

Anti-fuses

Anti-fuses are a safeguard against reverse engineering, protecting technology against theft. You can program the anti-fuse elements of an FPGA only once. These small, two-terminal electronic devices operate with low levels of resistance and capacitance, allowing quick function. Retailing FPGA systems to earn a profit requires a proprietary program that is secure against imitation, making anti-fuses an important FPGA component.

Flash EEPROM

Short for electrically erasable programmable read-only memory, programmers use this to hold bit files internally. The non-volatile technology resides within the FPGA and remains effective even if the system loses power. These programs operate efficiently by using a two-, rather than the more standard six-transistor cell design. Flash is the opposite of static memory and is more flexible as it allows ongoing program manipulation, rather than setting a fixed configuration in advance.

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How to learn FPGA programming

There are several FPGA certificates available through private institutions. The coursework requires you to understand basic computer engineering, as it involves specialized training common to those with an existing bachelor's degree in a relevant technology field. FPGA programming classes reinforce the material with practical examples and use standardized testing to prove your skills. You can also learn to operate FPGA systems independently by following these steps:

1. Choose a hardware-software interface

To begin programming, the first step is deciding on a hardware description language (HDL) to interface with the gate array. There are several options, including MATLAB, Verilog, Simulink, SpectreHDL, HJJ, Clash, and Bluespec, each varying in ease of use and functionality. First, you may determine the inputs and outputs and create a partition to separate them. Most programmers rely on system-on-chip (SoC) architecture for its combination of multiple hardware components. A SoCFPGA includes a core processor, embedded logic, memory, and peripheral functions. You can reprogram the functions and incorporate anti-fuses after you write a program.

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2. Practice designing systems

Writing in your chosen programming language usually involves trial and error approaches to achieve a fixed goal as efficiently as possible. When programming, you may employ existing algorithmic functions to execute a command.

The FPGA design streamlines a continuous data flow by incorporating fixed-point operations. This is the practice of storing decimal values of fractions only to a certain number of digits, eliminating memory of the remainder. It can speed up computing, and when partitioned correctly, even isolate a function. For instance, proper FPGA design can allow you to total the purchase value for an online store without risking system errors or inaccuracies.

Read more: Understanding the Difference Between Coding vs. Programming

3. Test your designs

Once you write a program, testing its operation is an essential step to determine whether your program works as intended. Many rely on the testing platform supplied by the programming language's parent company. Alternatively, you can use Universal Verification Methodology (UVM), a downloadable program that tests code to ensure its safety and function. It's important to test the program while the gate array is separate from an interconnected network of computers to prevent data breaches and unintentional malicious code.

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4. Apply the program

After determining that your FPGA code is safe, you may synthesize it using logic gates, the physical form of binary functions, and register-transfer level (RTL) systems, which control electrical flow. This can synchronize the function of your program against clock parameters, the settings that dictate when your code runs. Trial and error during synthesis can allow you to reduce the operational demand that timing places on the gate array.

Next, you may integrate the FPGA into the system for which it's designed. A standalone FPGA requires the terminals, converters, and clock to connect properly to an external system using the reference design dictated by the recipient technology. If you use a SoCFPGA, these include pre-wired components that translate the hardware language into software instructions in a process called a bitstream.

5. Maintain the live version

Once you activate the program, you can assess its function as a part of the whole computing system. Live operations can determine the power demands and reveal how the gate array interacts with existing programs. During this period, you can encounter logic issues that may require rerouting. Routinely testing the program, checking for redundancies in the code, and identifying bugs can be an ongoing process. Effective systems administration can allow you to increase the FPGA's utility regularly.

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6 careers in programming

The following 6 career opportunities may allow you to use your programming abilities with FPGA devices to achieve business goals:

1. Quality assurance engineer

National average salary: $60,903 per year

Primary duties: Quality assurance engineers plan to perform functional testing on FPGA systems. They identify issues by implementing test scripts and monitor the program's responses through a tracking system. Quality assurance employees work with developers to fix any technical issues with the system, often fixing them using a field-programmable gate array.

2. Electronics engineer

National average salary: $69,903 per year

Primary duties: Electronics engineers work with technology companies to research and design hardware, including whole systems and components. They create electronic prototypes and design, then perform tests to determine efficacy. These engineers work in conjunction with software and hardware developers to establish innovative solutions that meet business needs.

3. Software engineer

National average salary: $77,789 per year

Primary duties: A software engineer develops and designs various software applications using different types of hardware, including FPGA devices. They develop integrated systems using various programming languages and install the software. Software engineers routinely update the script by analyzing the quality assurance testing results.

4. Firmware engineer

National average salary: $85,464 per year

Primary duties: Firmware engineers work with a specific class of software that directly interfaces with computing hardware, including FPGAs. These specialists develop specialized software for different industries, businesses, departments, and projects. Firmware is unique to the device, so many engineers use system-on-chip field-programmable gate arrays when engineering software for its versatility.

5. Hardware design engineer

National average salary: $94,200 per year

Primary duties: Hardware design engineers create the different components computers require, such as circuit boards, microprocessors, and gate array structures. These system architects work in research and development to design and test prototypes. Design engineers oversee the development process, including testing, integration, and implementation.

6. FPGA engineer

National average salary: $98,929 per year

Primary duties: An FPGA engineers work with businesses to research and develop technological solutions for various needs, including data storage, informational analysis, or energy efficiency. They develop and implement programs, then create firmware and hardware tests to determine functionality. These engineers work with the hardware and software aspects of integrated circuits on projects of all magnitudes.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions, or organizations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed. Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at the time of writing. Salaries‌ ‌may‌ ‌‌vary‌‌ ‌depending‌ ‌on‌ ‌the‌ ‌hiring‌ ‌organization‌ ‌and‌ ‌a‌ ‌candidate's‌ ‌experience,‌ ‌academic‌ background‌, ‌and‌ ‌location.‌

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