Job: Firmware quality assurance engineer
The role: This job deals with the communication between digital code and the physical output. Engineers ensure that the commands provided by software are properly executed by hardware for physical technology products.
“It’s trying to validate that gap between writing code and, for example, seeing a motor spin, or making sure a phone vibrates in the proper manner, which can include duration, intensity, things like that,” said Daniel Dixon, a Coquitlam, B.C. native who recently graduated from Simon Fraser University with a bachelor's degree in applied science.
Mr. Dixon spent a year working for automotive manufacturer Tesla as a firmware QA engineer as part of SFU’s experiential learning program, and is now preparing for his new role as a haptic firmware QA engineer at Apple. The role, he explains, is divided between working with code and working with physical products. “My job is partly in the desk, partly in the lab,” he said.
Though the role is relatively new, Mr. Dixon says it’s very common in Silicon Valley and can be found almost anywhere hardware products are designed. “Any tech company that produces a physical product would have at least a firmware team that does its own QA, or a dedicated QA engineer for firmware,” he said.
Salary: Within the competitive hiring landscape of Silicon Valley, where most of the world’s biggest technology companies design and test their products, Mr. Dixon says most firmware QA engineers earn between U.S. $100,000 and $120,000 annually.
“By the time your salary got to around $120,000 or maybe even $125,000 you’d be moving on to a different role,” he said. “Usually the natural progression is you move on to become a firmware developer or a manager, [who] earn more.”
Unfortunately, salaries aren’t quite as high outside the Valley or on the other side of the border, where competition is far less fierce. According to career resource website Payscale.com, quality assurance engineers in Canada earn an average of about $60,000 a year. “Firmware is slightly more specialized, but I wouldn’t expect a starting salary averaging more than $65,000 to $75,000 [in Canada],” explained Mr. Dixon.
Education: While there are no mandatory licensing or educational standards, a majority of those in the industry hold at least a bachelor’s degree, typically in computer science or engineering. “An engineering degree in general will get you in the door,” said Mr. Dixon.
Job prospects: While a large proportion of the industry is based in Silicon Valley, job prospects are on the rise in Canada as the country’s technology industry continues to mature. Since there remains more demand for software-specific roles, however, and since the skills are easily transferable, Mr. Dixon says many with the necessary background ultimately end up working on the software side.
“Because that degree is so adaptable I know a lot of people who, even though they had the hardware experience, elected to go pure software just because the availability of jobs is greater,” he said.
Challenges: Firmware QA engineers are tasked with managing a lot of fast-moving pieces, literally. Pinpointing the source of an error in a large and complex system can be frustrating. “There’s a lot of things that can break, and it’s your job to figure out what it is,” said Mr. Dixon.
He adds that the task is made harder by the fact that firmware QA engineers can transfer between drastically different companies and product types. For example, Mr. Dixon’s previous role at Tesla pertained to thermal control systems, but in his new role he will be tasked with applying those skills to iPhones. “As a firmware engineer you need to learn how to adapt, and become an expert in that realm,” he said.
Why they do it: While becoming an expert in a new and complicated realm has its challenges, Mr. Dixon says the mobility of the job is also one of its greatest perks.
“The interesting part of the job is how many fields that you can touch while still just being in a firmware QA role,” he said. “It all boils down to software converting into hardware at some point, which is what makes it cool; you can go into an entirely new industry with the same set of skills.”
Misconceptions: Mr. Dixon says that the industry is so new that few have any understanding of what it is he does, and most assume the role is similar to any other computer-engineering job.
“Even other people in the tech industry – but not necessarily in firmware – think I just program stuff, but they don’t realize the scope and the difference, that it’s about software talking to hardware and all the details in between,” he said.
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