Don't tell Shachi Kakkar that chip verification is for nerds
By Mike Cassidy
Mercury News Columnist
Originally Posted: 09/20/2012 03:48:32 PM PDT
Anybody who's 17, or ever been 17, knows that any suggestions your parents make are nothing but lame. But every now and then, one of those lame ideas turns into something surprising, and OK, pretty cool.
When Shachi Kakkar's dad, an electrical engineer, started hinting around that Shachi might want to check out the same field, Shachi's first instinct was to run screaming from the room.
"I don't want to be an engineer," he says he first thought. "I don't want to be the stereotype of a South Asian."
But his father, Sunil Kakkar, is a persuasive guy -- and not all that bad -- and so Shachi decided to humor him. Besides, as a high school senior, he was starting to think about applying for college and it wouldn't hurt to have an internship or some similar experience to talk to the college admissions folks about. So, he started talking to his dad about what it is he does: design and verification work on computer chips.
"I just briefly explained to him verification, right?" says Sunil Kakkar, who founded SKAK, a chip design and verification company. "I gave him a brief rundown of some of the challenges involved. He got the bigger picture of what verification is and what's challenging about it."
Yeah, he got it, Shachi says. And something else, too.
"It actually kind of intrigued me, to my surprise," says the 17-year-old Shachi. "The whole process kind of intrigued me."
It was the sort of epiphany that makes you
want to tell the world what you've discovered. And this being 2012, the way you tell the world is through a blog. Sunil Kakkar had a friend who knew a friend who knew the editors at EDN Network, a website that is one of the bibles for electrical engineers looking for "deep-dive technical content," as the site itself likes to say.
And Shachi had an idea: The design and production of a semiconductor is not simply some inscrutable process, involving mind-numbing calculations leading to decisions made on a scale so small that they're beyond comprehension. It is also a very human process, a collective effort by dedicated troupers with a common goal and diverse expertise.
In fact, the process is a lot like a high school play, and Shachi knows something about those since he's acted in a few at Cupertino High School.
Shachi wrote it down. The gist: A play has a director and a team of actors with specific roles. It has technical people in the background. Lines are broken up into chunks to be learned a little at a time. The play is rehearsed again and again to increase the chances the play works right when the big day comes.
A verification team has a manager and a cast of engineers with specific roles. Sections of code are scrutinized. Engineers perform tests again and again to increase the chances the chip works right on the big day.
Sunil Kakkar's network got in front of EDN's editors. Both father and son thought that just maybe EDN would publish the thing. It would be kind of a kick.
"I read his first piece," says Suzanne Deffree, EDN's online managing editor, "and I was like, 'Would you like to do your own blog?"
"I was honestly shocked," Shachi says.
But Deffree was serious. Yes, his own blog on EDN, www.edn.com, where Shachi has published three more pieces relating engineering to everyday life -- and where his thoughts have sparked comments from the veteran engineers who read EDN.
It's a wonderful accomplishment, but it's something more. Much has been written about how hard it is to get young people interested in technical fields like electrical engineering. The reasons are many, but most agree that one factor is that kids don't think they're "cool." But Shachi is in a position to change that perception.
"There is a lot more to it than nerds typing stuff on a computer," he says of the highly technical chore of making electronics work. "That's one of the biggest mis-perceptions that I try to clear up with my articles, that we're not all nerds."
It's just the sort of perspective that EDN needs, says Deffree, as the site pushes beyond the deep-dive stuff and into building online communities as well.
"When I came across this young man who so absolutely gets it, he gets what an engineer is about, he has that excitement," she says, "when we find that, we want to celebrate that, and we want to connect the established generation with the younger generation."
And that's a very good thing. Because when you're 17 there are those rare occasions when something your parents say makes absolute sense. And invariably those are the times when you and the old folks are speaking about something you both love.
Contact Mike Cassidy at email@example.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.