The Integrated Designer

Creating integrated circuits requires a mind capable of juggling extremes of scale. On the one hand, you’re pushing electrons through components with dimensions measured in nanometers. On the other hand, there can be billions of these components on a single chip, interconnected with staggering complexity. Magaly Sandoval-Pichardo has just such a mind.

“I grew up in Costa Rica, was always drawn to science and math, and have always been very competitive,” Sandoval-Pichardo says. “In college—the Costa Rica Institute of Technology—I signed up for what at the time was the hardest engineering degree in my country to get into—mechatronics. I was one of the first two women in Costa Rica to hold this engineering degree.” She received it in 2015. While at college, one of her first experiences as a project manager was volunteering on the first satellite to be made in Costa Rica, which launched in 2018.

But following two internships, Sandoval-Pichardo realized that she “wasn’t into the mechanical side—I liked the electronics. Also, although my background is in large-scale automation, my passion is on the smaller—nanometer—size.” Subsequently, Sandoval-Pichardo landed a job at Intel, where she started as a SoC (system-on-a-chip) design engineer. “I helped close several ‘tape-outs’—bringing a chip from design through to manufacturing. So almost anybody using an Intel server is working with products I helped create.”

In 2021, Sandoval-Pichardo went to Synopsys, as senior analog and mixed-signal circuit design engineer and project manager. “We do EDA—electronic design automation," she says. “My team makes the rules and processes to be followed by every relevant part of a chip design from concept to manufacturing rules. And I also develop automation methodologies for circuit designers.”

In addition, Sandoval-Pichardo says, “I am working on a two-year master’s of science in engineering management degree at Tufts University, in Somerville, Mass., to add leadership skills to my toolbox. I’m a committed advocate for underrepresented minorities, including as a member of several DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) boards and as a volunteer. I dedicate an hour a week to watching programming videos on YouTube to keep current. And I’m a competitive extreme sports skydiver.”

“I have learned that I tend to perform better in dynamic roles where change is the norm—that’s very aligned to my diagnosis with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder),” she says. Last year she penned the online essay “Being an Engineer With ADHD.” Her variety of interests has also helped in other ways: “The first time I got asked about scripting in a job interview, I talked about how I played a lot of World of Warcraft, and how that taught me to identify repetitive sequences of events—attacks, usually—and generate my own single-keystroke macros,” Sandoval-Pichardo recalls. “It turned out that my interviewer also played World of Warcraft. I'm pretty sure my answer helped me get the job!”

Sandoval-Pichardo's general career advice is that “becoming and being an engineer is more about creating good study habits, and practicing—putting the effort in, rather than being supersmart or really good at STEM projects.”

In her specialty,using transistor-placement algorithms in chip designs, she says, “you need more than a programming background. You have to understand the physics behind it, like heat transfer, speed-of-light concerns, and interference. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t know something—that’s the quickest way to learn. Good engineers give good answers, exceptional engineers make good questions.”

This article appears in the April 2022 print issue as “Magaly Sandoval-Pichardo.”