[Interview] - IC Design – John Gough

Posted 27/11/2018 by Georgina Deas


We’re chatting to John Gough, director of West Coast Semi Design, this week. With many years of experience working within the semiconductor industry in the UK and more recently China, we thought we’d ask him about his career journey, his thoughts on the industry and his advice for pursuing international engagements.

Hi John, thanks for chatting with us. Firstly, could you tell us a little about yourself and what you do?

I graduated in 1984 with a degree in Electronics and Electrical Engineering. I started my working life as a Design Engineering graduate at National Semiconductor in Greenock, working my way through the system to become a Design Manager at both National Semiconductor and Texas Instruments (TI). I laterally took on the role of Technologist at TI for two years before the design centre was closed in 2016.

Just under one year ago, I set up my own company called West Coast Semi Design, in Glasgow. I have a client based in Shenzhen, China, and we are presently designing a power management chip for them. All of my team are also previous Texas Instruments employees, who I have worked closely with in the past.


You were a lecturer at the University of Glasgow for a while, could you tell us what that was like and why you decided to move back into the corporate world?

It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience; I had always wanted to try lecturing as my previous job at TI allowed me to present one-hour seminars at various universities in Scotland to promote analogue and mixed signal IC design to undergraduates. I taught 4th year Control Engineering and I also had to prepare lab experiments and tutorials. It was something completely different but seeing “the penny drop” with students is what really motivated me and made the job very enjoyable. I made some very good friends at the university, which of course makes collaboration between industry and academia all the more tangible.

I decided to move back to industry because, although I really enjoyed teaching, I realised I really missed the coal face and being at the customer facing end of IC design. I had the privilege of working with a company called PCS Semi for a short period and jointly we worked together on cultivating the close relationship I now have with my client in China (the President of the company is Roy Jewell, who I feel I would like to mention).


Has there been anyone/anything that has influenced your career choices?

When I was a teenager at school I always enjoyed science fiction, and in those days electronics was a young science. I really enjoyed building electronics kits and had wonderful support from my parents, who worked extra hours to pay for home correspondence courses for me in electronics whilst I was still at school.


What challenges have you had to overcome in your career?

One thing you can guarantee is that there are always many challenges in the job. There are the obvious technical challenges; from designing smaller and smaller devices with improved performance to reduce overall system cost; all the way through to working with major OEMs in developing design specifications and schedules that can meet their challenging needs, as well. However, there are additional challenges, such as managing a proper work-life balance, which I found particularly difficult when my children were young.


What are your views of the semiconductor market in Scotland?

In terms of semiconductor manufacturing, we have seen this move East over the past few decades to the extent that silicon fabs in the North are extremely rare. On the other hand, IC design is buoyant, with major design houses based in Edinburgh and Glasgow showing a very positive trend in hiring and expansion. We are also seeing smaller start-up companies joining the fray and this is a testimony to the excellent skillset we have here in Scotland, both at the senior and graduate level. So I would say the future for the semiconductor industry in Scotland is looking very bright indeed.


What excites you about the semiconductor market at the moment?

More and more emphasis is being placed on power delivery and efficiency in portable and mobile applications. There is also great growth in emerging markets such as Asia, with which West Coast Semi are actively engaged right now. Customers are looking for innovative and cost-effective solutions that also help them to place themselves at the leading edge of their markets. To be able to influence this and be relevant in the industry is very exciting.


What do you think makes a great tech company?

A company that allows its employees the freedom to be creative and innovative, as well as a fun place to be, has to be high on my list; along with every employee being made to feel they are playing their part in making the company successful.


Can you tell us a little about West Coast Semi Design’s involvement with Desay?

Desay is our client at the moment. So we are presently engaged in a design project for Desay that will enable the company to have a presence in the power pack market in China. We work very closely with the design team in Shenzhen and also participate in cross design and layout reviews. Furthermore, we are planning on opening a larger R&D centre in Glasgow in the not too distant future, in collaboration with Desay.


Working with a Chinese company, what is your vision for technology globalisation?

The growth in connectivity speeds now allows remote design to be done for any company, anywhere in the world. The barriers that prevented long distance networking are being addressed through much more efficient network speeds that increasingly make the world a smaller place.


You have worked for a US company, how does that compare?

Desay appreciate the fact that the design expertise they are looking for exists within West Coast Semi Design. As such, they are very much hands off because they trust us to deliver what they need and they are also very supportive in providing the tools required to do our job, in a very expedient manner. I have seen, on the other hand, some companies, due to size or financial infrastructure, take a long time to make things happen for the engineers at the coal face, which can lead to frustration in the field.

With Desay, we have a great relationship with the CEO and senior VP of our division, who move very quickly to support us in order to maximise the value of the experience that we bring to them.


With first-hand knowledge of the Scottish Higher Education system, where do you think Scotland fits in its ability to nurture future talent for the UK tech industry?

In terms of the emerging new digital media companies, Scotland is already proving its value; as can be seen by the talent that flourishes here already. In terms of IC design, there is a lot of research amongst local universities in the area of efficient DC-DC converter architectures for use in future electric vehicles, as well as wireless charging for automotive batteries.


What do you think it is about Scottish Educated Engineers that makes them so attractive to global electronics companies?

I believe that in Scotland universities still teach the classical analytical approach to analogue design but there are challenges. I think it’s important that people from industry liaise well with universities to help shape what we view as important for undergraduate study, that will be relevant to the demographic that exists in Scotland.


Universities are still seemingly encouraging overseas students to do masters degrees and PhDs but current immigration policy makes it difficult to retain this talent in the UK. How do you solve the problem of not enough people/talent in engineering? 

Actually, when I was lecturing in UESTC in Chengdu, the UK wasn’t the most popular place for post-grad studies. Most students were applying to US universities as the interest appears to be in AI and Software. One of my students has come to Glasgow to do a PhD and another went to Edinburgh to study AI. In fact, the final year number of students studying VLSI (which was not my subject) was 23! So I think there is a view that IC design is not where the growth is, and instead, it’s in autonomous cars, planes etc.

We should focus on home-grown students and canvas universities to find good candidates that we can sponsor and nurture. Unfortunately, the number of students keen on IC design seems to be decreasing but I think it’s up to us as employers to reignite that interest and show there is talent and opportunity here in Scotland.


Do you think academic and industrial collaboration in Scotland is sufficient? If not, how might this be improved?

There are strong companies that do encourage this, for sure. When I was at TI, this was a big part of our planning; and when I was a manager there that’s what I tried to do also. As I mentioned above, you cannot beat going to universities and lecturing to 1st and 2nd year students (4th year is almost too late) and find keen, early students that can be trained in a very exciting discipline, with plenty of exposure to a design environment. At TI, we took on students from 2nd year and it was quite successful. For our new company that will also be the plan, in order to have a healthy mix of youth and experience.


What opportunities do you see for people coming into the semiconductor market: are there more jobs available, is it challenging, is it a good market to be getting into?

Although we are based in Glasgow, the market is worldwide. We are developing devices for the growing China market and the expertise that’s offered in Scotland is what is making this possible. We cannot be complacent, however, in that we are very aware that these skills are also being developed elsewhere and so we need to always remain ahead of the curve in innovation, passion and desire to be successful.


What advice would you give the tech industry in Scotland on pursuing international engagements, like the one you have with Desay?

China is the place to engage with. They appreciate and respect design experience and a track record. So it’s important when engaging companies over there that we have something to show and something we know they need.  In fact there are many small design start-ups all over China, however, they lack experience. They usually get funding partly private and partly state. So it’s really a matter of finding a niche for our expertise and engaging with China OEMs to develop an understanding of the ecosystem of the market and target the key players. This is, in fact, our strategy right now to further our business.

What’s one key piece of advice for people to navigate the industry?

Don’t be afraid to take risks, don’t be frightened to fail, explore, experiment and never give up when the unexpected arrives.



Enigma People Solutions is an award-winning technology recruitment consultancy. Visit our job search page for the latest vacancies in photonics, electronics, semiconductor, and software in Scotland. Check out our blog for the latest in the technology industry. You can get in touch with us hello@enigmapeople.com or call us on 0141 332 4422/0131 510 8150


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