If you were looking to hire a student still in school for an internship position at a high-tech company (say, Microsoft, Apple, or Google) for hardware design. What kind of skills would you be looking for?

What can I do with limited time and budget to attain those skills outside of what my school covers?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Try actually making things - pick a thing, try to make it from scratch. Learn from the problems. Pick another thing, repeat. Google "smart and gets things done". \$\endgroup\$ – John U Mar 21 '13 at 17:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ This question will probably be closed because it incites discussion, but the reality is you can't just learn to be a hardware engineer in a limited amount of time. I've been working at it for years, and I'm still nowhere near good enough to go after a position at Microsoft or Apple. You'll be competing against guys with MS degrees at those companies, and that is an almost impossible challenge if you're only a freshman or sophomore. By your junior year, you should have some sort of clue, and couple that with a good GPA and some other experience (ie. research) and you may have a change. \$\endgroup\$ – Matt Young Mar 21 '13 at 18:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ For a big company? A, know someone there. B, do a lot of extra curriculars. C, learn to be real charming and do A. Internships are less about what you know, because you don't know jack compared to real employees. \$\endgroup\$ – Passerby Mar 21 '13 at 19:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Passe makes a good point. It's not what you know for interns, it's what you can grow into. Interns is about growing potential future employees, so the companies want to see real interest and passion. If you have that and a little talent, then you are a good candidate to train further. \$\endgroup\$ – Olin Lathrop Mar 21 '13 at 21:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Let's move this to meta.EE.SE or to career.SE . Overall, this is not a bad question. \$\endgroup\$ – Nick Alexeev Mar 21 '13 at 22:05

There is no substitute for having actually done stuff. I have not and would never hire a EE that hadn't done a bunch of personal projects on the side. Electronic components are cheap and available, so anyone that has a true passion for electronics will have tinkered and built a few things, usually starting at least by late grade school. If you want to be a nuclear engineer, you can't get a kilo of plutonium and start messing around with it, but EEs have no such excuse.

These projects don't have to be pretty, don't have to work, and don't have to do what you originally intended them to. The point is that you did them because you wanted to, and hopefully learned something from them, and you have to be able to talk about them intelligently.

However, this is not something you should do because it will help you get a job. If that's your only reason, bail out now, EE isn't for you. In fact, if you're in college and you haven't already done some tinkering on the side, bail out now, EE isn't for you. I know that may sound harsh, but you seriously have to ask yourself why you want to be a EE. The right answer is that electronics fascinates you, you want to understand how circuits work and how to make circuits that do what you want. You are always thinking about ways to hook up available components, dreaming up things to build just to see them work and to be able to say you designed that. In other words, the right answer is that you have a passion for it. Anyone that has a passion for it will have done considerable tinkering, which will always be ahead of any formal education on the topic. When you do finally get to a electronics class, you already know all the basics, but occasionally you learn something that suddenly explains that puff of smoke you got when tinkering in high school, why that amplifier you tried to make from a few transistors just made a motor sounds, etc.

So no, there is nothing you should specifically go out and do to help get a EE intern job because if you are going to be a great EE you are already doing these things. If not, you're just kidding yourself. You might be able to squeak past some hiring managers that themselves squeaked past someone else. However, that is a short term gain at best. If you get someone that knows what they are doing, and you probably will, you won't be able to bluff your way thru the interview.

I once interviewed someone that had just graduated with a BS in EE from a local college. He brought his transcript and had impeccable grades. I think they were all As with maybe one or two Bs the whole 4 years. One question I always ask in a interview is to have you pick a project you have worked on and start describing it to me. Of course I don't know anything about your project, but I can tell a lot about how you think about things and how you present them. I'll ask questions how various things worked or how the design of this or that is. There is no way to bluff thru something like that. When I asked this kid about such a project, he said they hadn't done any in school. That's a little strange, but OK, so I asked him what he'd done on the side. I still remember his exact words, which were "What do you mean? That wasn't required.". Immediate end of interview.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ All around good answer. My only issue is your assumption that electronic components are affordable for anyone that wants to be an EE. I love anything to do with electronics and have built my own computer tower but I can't afford to buy components just to play around with and risk damaging. \$\endgroup\$ – Dyne Mar 22 '13 at 13:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Unless I don't know where I can get these cheap components. Would you have a recommendation for somewhere to buy some stuff to play around with? \$\endgroup\$ – Dyne Mar 22 '13 at 13:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Dyne: Take a look at Jameco. That's a pretty good place for hobbyists. Even real distributors like Mouser are accessible to hobbyists too. \$\endgroup\$ – Olin Lathrop Mar 22 '13 at 14:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks. If you don't mind answering another question: I have a friend's old laptop that is completely dead and I tried to open up some time ago. Is there anything I can do with those components or are they too complex to be reused for anything? \$\endgroup\$ – Dyne Mar 22 '13 at 15:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Dyne: Individual components like ICs are hard to re-use since they are so specific. Small surface mount resistors and caps are so cheap that it's easier to get new ones. Capacitors aren't even marked anymore usually. Picking off the inductors could be useful. The power supply might be useful as a whole. The disk might have a motor or two that can be salvaged. \$\endgroup\$ – Olin Lathrop Mar 22 '13 at 16:36

"Hardware design" covers a wide range of tasks, so it's all-too-easy to focus on tasks that are only applicable to particular domains. General skills that would serve you well, that you can learn relatively cheaply, include:

  • Circuit design
    • Logic power supply
    • Signal amplifiers
    • Overcurrent/overvoltage protection
    • Embedded microcontrollers
    • Thermal management/heat sink selection
  • Schematic creation (Multisim or similar)
  • PCB layout (Ultiboard or similar)
    • Proper voltage clearances
    • Proper trace widths
  • PCB assembly
    • Good soldering technique
  • Circuit testing and debugging
  • Clear documentation

What's going to get you in the door is attitude. If you do something that they can see, something that demonstrates that you do more than what's required of you because you want to learn, that puts you well ahead. If you've done something extra, and done it well, that will make you look very good. And if you can explain what went wrong, and how you fixed it, that's best of all. You're going to make mistakes. Dealing with them is possibly the most valuable skill on that list. But you only develop that skill by making mistakes, and you only make mistakes when you do stuff.

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