In this interview, she looks back on her academic and professional path and sharing some of the experiences that shaped her as an engineer.
Integrated circuits are essential components of many electronic devices, ranging from smartphones to self-driving cars, wearable technology, and industrial tools. Maxim Integrated, a company based in San Jose (California), specialises in the design, manufacturing and distribution of both analog and mixed-signal integrated circuits.
The circuits developed at Maxim are already used by numerous technology companies worldwide, powering a multitude of devices of different shapes and sizes. Engineers at Maxim are continuously working to create circuits that can support the development of increasingly smarter, secure, and energy efficient systems.
Nutan Prasad first started working at Maxim in 2004, assisting with the design of audio codecs, video decoders and sensor-based integrated circuits. In 2012 she joined the company’s Advanced Sensors group and she has been designing sensors ever since.
Before arriving at Maxim, Nutan worked for several companies based in India and the United States. While she was still in India, she contributed to the design of microprocessor-based data acquisition and control systems for nuclear reactors. When she moved to the United States, however, she started designing integrated circuits, covering engineering roles at well-established companies, such as Texas Instruments and Infineon Technologies.
Nutan holds a Bachelor of Technology degree in Electronics and Communications Engineering from the National Institute of Technology in Karnataka, India. Interestingly, back in 1981 she was the only woman among 250 engineering students to graduate from her college.
In the third of a series of interviews with established women in the EE industry, Nutan talks about her experience while training as an engineer in India, while also reflecting on some of the lessons she learned throughout her professional journey.
Nutan Prasad, Lead Digital Design Engineer at Maxim Integrated.
Ingrid Fadelli: To start, could you please tell us about your background in the engineering field and your role at Maxim?
Nutan Prasad: I am Nutan Prasad and I am originally from India. I obtained my engineering degree in Electronics and Communications from one of the leading universities in India.
I worked in India for a few years and then moved to the U.S. looking for more challenging opportunities. I also took several advanced courses at top universities in the U.S. that I thought could help me to progress in my career. I have now been working in the industry for more than 25 years and I am completing 15 years at Maxim this month, in November. I work in the Industrial and Healthcare business unit, focusing mainly on biosensors for fitness trackers. I lead a small digital design team.
IF: What inspired you to enter the field of engineering and electrical engineering in particular?
NP: When I was in grade school, I was very good in science and mathematics. I had very good analytical skills and an aptitude for studying engineering. In those days, very few girls went to engineering colleges. My parents encouraged me to study medicine.
My uncle was the one to recognise my skills and suggested that I study engineering. When the time came, I applied for both medical and engineering colleges. I considered taking up engineering—specifically electronics and communications engineering, mainly because I like being challenged, and that was the most difficult branch of engineering to get into at the time.
Once I got accepted into an electrical engineering course at a leading engineering college in India, there was no looking back.
IF: What aspects of your job do you find most gratifying and which ones more challenging?
NP: In my job, I get the opportunity to work on cutting-edge technology. I am currently working on biosensor ICs for wearable fitness trackers. This is a very challenging area, as there is a lot of innovation involved. There is also a lot of competition and we want to be market leaders. I find my job particularly gratifying when we get major design wins for the products to which I contributed.
IF: We have learned that while women now make up approximately 18% of the engineering workforce, at university you were the only female engineer in your class. How was that like for you?
NP: When I was accepted into the engineering college of my choice, the principal of the college let me know that I would be the only girl in a class of about 250 students, all branches of engineering combined. In addition, there was no hostel (dorm) for girls. As a teenager it seemed very daunting, but my ambition led me to accept the admission. I had alternate arrangements for my lodging during the first year. When I was in the second year, three girls joined the college. The college then converted one of the campus houses into a hostel for girls and provided us with accommodation and other provisions similar to the boys’ hostels. It feels good to remember that the four of us were pioneers in starting the girls’ hostel. I believe that 30% of students in that same college are now girls.
IF: Did you feel that you were treated differently by your university peers or instructors due to your gender?
NP: Yes, I did feel that I was treated differently by my peers and instructors at the university. They felt awkward when talking to me. It was mostly I who would reach out to them when I needed help with something. Otherwise, I was mostly alone and spent a lot of time in the college library.
We now have a class group on a social media platform and my classmates invited me to join it. It is amusing to realize that they communicate with me more freely now than they did while in college. I guess maturity matters.
IF: Why do you think you were the only woman in your program?
NP: Engineering was considered to be a male dominated profession, so girls hesitated to pursue a career in engineering. There was also uncertainty about getting jobs in the field.
IF: How did you first become interested in engineering and why did you decide to move to the U.S.?
NP: I had engineering and problem solving skills since I first started grade school. I was very good in math, so I used to teach math to some of my fellow classmates in high school. My aptitude for applying science and math to problem solving became apparent to me when my uncle pointed it out and encouraged me to study engineering.
After my graduation, I took on a few jobs in India, mostly in microprocessor-based board level designs for control systems and data acquisition systems in nuclear power plants. The projects took years to complete and I felt that I was not sufficiently challenged. I wanted to work on leading edge technologies and projects that would be completed faster. I specifically wanted to design ICs. As there were not many opportunities in IC design in India at that time, I moved to the US and I have been designing ICs for more than 20 years now, for various applications.
IF: Did you notice any differences between working as a female engineer and engineer in general in the U.S. and India, while covering different roles?
NP: There was certainly a difference in culture in the Indian companies I worked in compared to companies in the U.S.. As for being a female engineer, however, I don’t believe there was any significant difference. Both in the U.S. and in India, engineering being a male-dominated profession, there were very few women engineers in the departments I worked in. Most often, I was the only woman in the meetings I attended. This is still true now, at Maxim.
IF: How was it for you to accommodate different tasks in different roles throughout your career (e.g. working on IC designs, control systems, microcontroller and DSP cores, etc.)?
NP: When I graduated, I joined an atomic research center in India. My department built control systems and data acquisition systems for nuclear power plants. With my electrical engineering background, I contributed to board level circuit designs and firmware development. The projects took too long to complete and I did not feel challenged enough.
I changed a couple of jobs and developed an interest in IC design. At the time there weren’t many IC design opportunities in India, so I decided to try applying for roles at companies in the U.S.. Although Silicon Valley would have been an ideal choice for opportunities in IC design, moving to Dallas proved to be right for me at the time, as it was cheaper.
In Dallas I worked on ICs for digital compression products for a major semiconductor company. As that was my first IC design project I had a lot to learn, but it was gratifying to see that my part of the design worked in first pass silicon.
After a few years in Dallas, my husband and I moved to Silicon Valley. I joined the microcontroller group in the first company here. Our microcontrollers were designed to be used in automotive products, where the quality and reliability of the products were extremely important. For this reason, it took a long time to introduce our products to the market. After a few years I was promoted and started leading a design team, so I had a fairly large team reporting to me. After my promotion, I missed being a hands-on design engineer. So when the time came, I decided to look for individual contributor opportunities. I also wanted to work on smaller designs, as they could be completed faster and I could move on to a new project.
Mixed signal applications were among the fastest growing market segments in the electronics industry. This is when I started thinking about mixed signal products. They were small, but very challenging. My work experience was in digital design. By working on mixed signal products, I could use my digital design skills and get exposure to analog design, as well as to the challenges of integrating analog and digital designs in a single IC. That is how I landed at Maxim 15 years ago.
At Maxim, I have worked on more than 30 mixed signal ICs for audio codecs, video decoders and biosensor products with significant amount of digital signal processing. We have had several major design wins for many of these ICs.
IF: What are your hopes for your future professional development and for the development of the electronics engineering field at large?
NP: At Maxim, I consider myself lucky to be working with very talented mixed signal design engineers. I have a small team of very smart digital design engineers reporting to me. This allows me to continue contributing as an individual, which I enjoy more than managing large teams.
I got promoted three times since I joined Maxim. In regards to professional development, I am always optimistic that something new will open up for me when the time comes.
With new applications, such as drones, autonomous driving, Internet of Things, cloud and data centers, network on chip, etc. there is always a lot of innovation in the field of electronics engineering.
IF: Before we conclude the interview, would you like to share any ongoing projects that you are currently involved in with our readers?
NP: Without getting into details, I would like to add that our group is now working on a couple of new biosensor ICs for new applications in next generation fitness trackers. I find that these are very exciting technologies to be working on.
Over the past decade or so, Nutan has led the design of several sensor-based mixed-signal integrated circuits created and distributed by Maxim. She has played a key role in the creation of numerous products, including ambient light sensors, proximity sensors, gesture sensors, and biosensors to measure pulse, heart rate, blood pressure, BIOZ, and temperature.
Nutan and the rest of her team are currently working on new sensors for wearable devices, such as fitness trackers. The sensors they are designing could ultimately facilitate the development of smaller, smarter, and more efficient electronic systems.