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Science Careers: Processing Engineering Technician Interview

Name: Scott Kenison
Current employer: National Semiconductor Corporation
Job title: Processing Engineering Technician
Science Career: Engineering, with a focus on semiconductor-type processes
Time working in this field: 14 years

How would you describe what you do to a student?

What is a typical workday like? I run experiments using 8-inch silicon wafers, collect measurements, and summarize and report results. The goals of the experiments I run vary, but basically, my job entails adapting new processes to make certain kinds of computer chips for cell phones and other pieces of equipment. For instance, maybe someone comes up with a better idea for a product, which requires us to change our processes. I run experiments to find out how the process changes can be incorporated in the method of manufacturing the chip itself.

How would you describe your work environment?

I spend about 40 percent of my time at a desk with a computer, summarizing data and working on reports. Most of the other time is spent in the manufacturing lab, which we call the "fab." The fab is a large, open room. It's very clean, and the air is heavily filtered for particles and contamination. It has back-to-back computers and "tools," or manufacturing machines. To work in the fab environment, you have to "gown up" in a special suit to keep particles down, and wear gloves, a hair bouffant, and a beard cover if you have facial hair. I also spend about 10 percent of my time in meetings.

What are some of the key characteristics that are important for a person to succeed in your type of work?

Some important characteristics are attention to detail, good communication skills, and computer skills—you can't get around that. Also, math, some chemistry, and some physics. In my line of work, I'm running experiments on sophisticated pieces of equipment that take care of the "hard stuff." We buy machines that are full of complex math algorithms, so most of my job entails becoming familiar with the equipment.

How did you become interested in this area of science?

It was recommended to me by a friend who started working here and pretty much said how much he liked his job. He talked about the computers, the technology, and how interesting it was, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

What did you study in high school, undergraduate, and graduate school?

I'm one of the exceptions—I didn't study anything more than the regular curriculum in high school, and then went into the Navy, where I worked in a technical field. My college degree was in communications, but as things worked out, I was able to put in my time here and worked my way up. I started out as an operator—an entry-level job in manufacturing where you process wafers on tools, load and unload for 12 hours a day, that type of thing. After a few years of being curious, asking a lot of questions, and working hard, I was able to get into the development side, doing a similar job, but focusing on experiments and things that normally aren't run by manufacturing personnel.

What do you enjoy most about your work? Is there anything that you do not like?

I really like the opportunity to have hands-on experience with some of the newer techniques. I enjoy the new innovations and new changes we try out, especially at the hands-on level. I am one of the lucky people who really like my job, so I can't really think of anything I don't like.

Describe a project that you have worked on that was of particular interest to you.

I was once put in charge of acceptance testing. Let's say you go out and buy a sophisticated piece of equipment and the people who are selling it to you say it's fantastic, so you spend a lot of money to buy and install it. We have to run testing first, to prove that the equipment will do the job we hope it will—that's acceptance testing. I had to get up to speed with the procedure so I could run tests to assure the equipment was set to go, and that it was reliable and stable enough to be included in processes that we run. It was new to me, and involved quite a bit of responsibility, because the tool was expensive. I enjoyed learning the acceptance procedure, carrying out experiments, writing up results, and getting the okay for my work.

What can a student do pre-college to prepare for a career in your field?

I think a strong understanding of math, chemistry, and physics would really help, especially any kind of work with formulas and ratios. We rely heavily on statistical data.

Is there any advice you would give to someone interested in this field that you wish someone had given you when you were starting out?

I would say don't be afraid to ask questions, to show genuine interest in what's being shown to you, be flexible, and be prepared to do your time. You might have to work your way up. A lot of times, people are brought up from a senior spot in straight manufacturing because they have a lot of experience and have seen the things that go on every day. Education is important, but don't be afraid of starting at the bottom, because it will give you a lot of experience, helping you work your way up.

Science Buddies would like to thank National Semiconductor Corporation for making this interview possible.

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