DesignCon names Mike Steinberger Engineer of the Year

-January 28, 2015

From communications analysis to IC design to microwave to software and more, Mike Steinberger has done a lot in his more than 30-year career. Here at DesignCon, Steinberger was named Engineer of the Year, an award sponsored by National Instruments that comes with a $10,000 gift to be used as a grant or scholarship at an institution of higher learning of the awardee's choosing.

Mike Steinberger (center) was named Engineer of the Year at DesignCon 2015.

Currently responsible for leading SiSoft’s ongoing tool development effort for the design and analysis of serial links in the 5-30 Gbps range, Steinberger has been instrumental in the development of high speed digital backplanes at various industry leaders.

Steinberger spoke to EDN about his experience, both professional and personal, how they seem to intertwine with each other, and the values that make him a great engineer. What follows is an excerpt of that conversation.

EDN: With such a rich and varied career history, you are a hard engineer to define. How would you describe yourself?

Steinberger: Wired at the factory as an engineer with firmware installed. As close to a purpose built human being as you'll ever find, I am an engineer. I am not any particular kind of engineer. What I do is use scientific knowledge and mathematics to solve practical problems. It just so happens that electrical engineering was hot when I was going to school so that was the career I started in on and that's how I've made my living. But I'm really an all-around general-purpose engineer. I've learned what I needed to learn in order to solve the problems I happen to be working on.

EDN: You started off at Hughes Aircraft designing microwave circuits in the 1970s, then worked at big names including Bell Labs, and are now lead architect at Signal Integrity Software (SiSoft). What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Steinberger: Maybe the thing I'm most proud of is my involvement in the development of high-speed serial channels. At Bell Labs, I became responsible for a generic high-speed backplane for our transmission product line. I realized that if we had nets with multiple drops on them, there would be a severe limit to the data rate that could be achieved. It became clear that we needed to go to high-speed serial channels to get significant improvements. In July 1995 I presented to a room full of people stating that we needed serial links at 622 megabits/sec. That room full of people told me all they would ever need was 155 megabits/sec. In December of that year, my department head asked if I was serious about 622 megabits/sec. So the company [moved ahead with 622 megabits/sec].

Then I worked in embedded software for a couple of years, then moved to Cray where when I joined 2.4 gigs was normal business. My job was to take Cray to 6. When I left Cray, we were talking about 18 gigs as the right choice. Since then -- working at SiSoft, and in high-speed serial channels and supporting that development in several ways -- that's really been the story of my career for the last 20 years.  

EDN: There's a trend of teaching the basics in your DesignCon presentation history and you note in your LinkedIn profile that you are good at mentoring less experienced engineers. Why is it important for engineers with your experience level to teach the fundamentals and mentor less-experienced engineers?

Steinberger: That's a part of my fundamental value system. Totally off topic, when I was courting my wife, she started singing in the church choir. I'm an experienced choir musician who has been singing sing the 2nd grade. After she had been going to choir for a couple of weeks she brought me along. When I met the director, he asked what I sang and I said bass. Then we started singing and a couple of phrases into it, he looks up at me with this big smile and says 'He can lead!' I learned a lot from that guy. One of the things about him was that he ran a choir where everyone was welcome. I learned just how important it is to contribute to an inclusive community. That's a really important value.

Translate that forward 40 years and I'm still an assistant choir director, but what I do is still what I learned: Try to create a welcoming, inclusive community. That's what I've tried to do as a supervisor and one of the things I try to do in my job now.

One of the things I really value about the DesignCon community is that it is an inclusive community. It is the kind of place where there doesn’t tend to be the type of exclusiveness or rejection that you get in a lot of other communities. I'm all about enabling others.

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