In looking at the SemiWiki analytics over the last six years it is clear that the average age of our readers is trending down. (Yes, Google knows how old we are). The 25-35 age group now represents our largest readership and that is supported by the conferences I have attended recently. At the Design Automation Conference last month I met with Chris Henderson and we talked about the next generation of semiconductor professionals and how to better prepare them for the future.
Chris is the founder and President of Semitracks, Inc. Semitracks is a privately-held company that provides training solutions for the semiconductor industry, its suppliers, and users. Chris started Semitracks in 2001 and began operating it full-time in 2004. Semitracks is probably best known for their push into online training. They are the only company I know of to offer a comprehensive library of training courses for product realization (manufacturing engineers, product engineers, test engineers, etc.). This topic is for the greater good, absolutely, so please spend some time here.
Chris, why did you decide to start Semitracks?
One interest that I have had for many years is developing methods and techniques to facilitate learning about semiconductor technology. I was trained as an electrical engineer, with specialization in VLSI design back in the 1980s. I did my thesis work on the electrical behavior of defects, and how to test for them. I spent quite a bit of time early in my career at Honeywell training failure analysts on how to analyze failed ICs. Our field is extremely broad, and also requires deep knowledge in one’s specialty area. However, that is not sufficient. Interactions between disciplines (for example, wafer fab manufacturing and packaging) require that one understands adjacent disciplines with some competency. The problem is how to provide that knowledge. Searching Google is useful, but the information is not available in a format that lends itself to quick learning. Searching through IEEE Xplore is useful for deep knowledge, but it is not effective for understanding context or background on a topic. In a sense, you really want a learning tool that can provide information that is 10 feet wide and 10 feet deep, as opposed to a mile wide and an inch deep, or a mile deep and an inch wide. Nobody was addressing this problem, so I decided to launch Semitracks and see if we could.
But isn’t the best way to learn sitting with an instructor?
I realized that some training would need to be face-to-face. A face-to-face interactive training session cannot be beat in terms of comprehension and satisfaction. However, this form of training is very expensive and doesn’t lend itself well to today’s fast-paced environment. That’s where online training can help. This approach can be done at a much lower cost point, and be provided directly to the scientist, engineer or technician at the time when he/she needs the training. Online training may not be as compelling as face-to-face training, but this environment is continually improving. Better bandwidth, better intelligence in web applications, and virtual/augmented reality will all help make online training more compelling. Our industry will continue to require knowledgeable engineers, but many of the universities have moved on from semiconductor technology to newer “more exciting” topics, like cyber security, AI, and biotechnology. More generally, if our education system is going to provide value to today’s employees, it must move towards increased use of online training. Education is becoming much too expensive for the average student, and the value proposition is decreasing.
How does your Online Training System work?
We use an open source Learning Management System (LMS) known as Moodle. We can house presentations, videos, documents, quizzes, tests, and interactive applications within the environment to help people learn using 3 modalities (seeing, hearing, and doing). We have customized the software extensively to allow us to create multiple customer systems that can share common content if need be, while allowing for customized content that is customer-specific. We have also created customized publishing routines that allow us to seamlessly publish new content into as many of the systems as need be. This flexibility also allows us to develop custom training solutions for our customers. For example, we are currently developing a custom solution for the Silicon Integration Initiative (Si2) to help them provide training for their clients on the OpenAccess standard and OAscripting.
Where do you see this field going in the future?
Right now, we still do about 75% of our courses as face-to-face courses. Many individuals and some companies still prefer this method. Increasingly though, we are getting requests to do more online training. Companies are beginning to realize that face-to-face training is expensive and difficult to scale, whereas online training can provide an adequate alternative, even though it is not perfect. I believe that 10 years from now, the ratio might be reversed, with 75% of training online, and 25% face-to-face. We believe we’re at the front end of this revolution, and that training will change radically over the next decade – it must if we want our industry to continue to move forward.