In the rubric ‘Afterlife’, Electrical Engineering alumni from the University of Twente look back at their time as a student. They take us along their study time and subsequent career path and share what defined their period at Scintilla and the University of Twente. In this edition: Olaf van der Meer.
Study years (2014-2020)
Studying Electrical engineering wasn’t a clear choice for me, but Twente certainly was. When asking freshmen why they come to the east, most refer to some kind of ‘atmosphere’, although no one can really put it in words. I suppose it’s the incredible amount of associations that make the UT what it is. On the downside, there’s almost too much to choose from. Every ‘clubje’ will convince you that they are the place-to-be. I recall being unsure about what to do next to studying. As many people like to remind me of, I spent a considerable amount of time in my Kick-In with a certain pink hat. Luckily, I lived in a great house on the Campuslaan, full of older students, who were not in the least hesitant to point out why I was about to make a huge mistake. I ended up taking their advice to heart and joined a sports association, Phoenix Lacrosse, and Scintilla instead. Near the end of my first year, I was asked to take up the role of chairman in the bartending committee. This quickly launched me into more activism at Scintilla and would eventually lead up to doing a board year at Scintilla. I finished my bachelor thesis in 2017 at the Biomedical Signals and Systems (BSS) group. The topic was time-frequency analysis of pain signals in the brain using a MATLAB environment. Although the human biology aspect didn’t speak to me as much as I’d hoped, I was convinced that the signal processing part was something for me. After my bachelor thesis, I wasn’t sure what master direction to pick. Also, the prospect of working on non-technical skills appealed to me more than purely technical courses. In other words; time for a board year!
Doing a board year at Scintilla was a great experience, which I can highly recommend to anyone who’s not sure if studying another year is the right choice for them. I was lucky to have a “full” group of 6 for our board year, meaning we had the luxury to pick up more work than only maintaining the association in its status quo. As commissioner of Internal Affairs, I focused mostly on committee business and member bonding, although general board member responsibilities take up a large part of the time. I won’t go into detail into what a board year is or should be, I think people who are curious should find out for themselves! It’s a time where you can develop yourself in a way that you feel suits you. In any case, I enjoyed working on soft skills and working with other people, in contrast to the individual studying.
During the board year, I also joined the study tour to China, meaning many weekends and lunch breaks were committed to raising funds and endlessly scrolling confusing websites to figure out how stuff works on the other side of the world. I can highly recommend taking the opportunity of going on a study tour when it presents itself. Having travelled China feels like a big bonus when working in an electronics company. Of course, it’s also simply a fun experience that gives you a broader perspective on life and work in the Netherlands. After seeing the factory of the world and the heart of consumer electronics, I was more confident in what I wanted to do for my master’s degree. I studied at the Integrated Circuit Design group, combined with a large number of embedded systems courses. I figured this would set me up nicely for a career in a consumer electronics company. I enjoy working on things that you interact with in daily life. I find it incredibly cool to see your own design end up in the local Mediamarkt. Luckily, I had an exciting internship at a consumer electronics chip design company already lined-up at Axign. For those that don’t know the company, Axign is a fabless chip-design company that focusses on class-D amplifiers that offers high-end audio quality for consumer electronics prices. I followed the company for a while already and figured it would be a great mix of my music “hobby” and electronics “profession”.
I first walked through the doors at Axign in september 2018 and did a study on current-driven speakers. Unfortunately, an interesting assignment ended in a physical challenge when I ended up home with joint inflamations (tenniselleboog & golfarm) on both sides. Changing form a dynamic student life to a 9-to-5 desk job is quite a difference, and unfortunately quickly takes a toll on your body if you’re not used to it. Anyone who ran into this as well will tell you it’s an awfully long recovery. After several months of rest, I slowly got started on my thesis on high-resolution class-D amplifiers. After a slow and quiet thesis period due to a pandemic hitting the world, I graduated in the first week of September 2020. Writing the thesis is not only an anxious time for many students due to the pressure of generating results in their research, it’s also the end of your student life rushing towards you that is confronting. I figured the best way to deal with the end of student life was to have an exciting job prospect to have something to look forward to. Luckily, I was very confident in where I wanted to go; Axign made me an attractive offer several months before graduating. Remembering the advice to never take the first offer, I made a counterproposal which was happily accepted. I started my job as Application Engineer in October 2020.
Application Engineer at Axign (2020 – now)
I joined the Application Team, a team that I had never really noticed in my digital/analog view on chip design teams as a student. Our job is clear but diverse, use Axign’s chips to design optimal products. Bridging the gap between very high system requirements and the limited available resources often proves quite the challenge, but it’s a puzzle that I enjoy wrestling with. Living in a period of unprecedented component shortages makes the demand for creative problem-solving skills even bigger. Coming up with a new work-around or alternative to a suddenly unavailable solution means everything in a business where time-to-market is key.
Since October 2021, Axign has moved to a bigger building, straight across the UT letters, to facilitate the rapid growth of our teams. In 7 years, the small startup has evolved into a more established player in audio chip-design. Despite the on-and-off corona measures, I work most days in the office to use the equipment in the lab. In general, the diversity of the work is what makes it great in my opinion. I roll from high-level schematic design and customer contact into firmware development and analog circuit design on a daily basis. It’s great to be involved in all aspects of your product, it truly makes it feel yours.
An important aspect of my job in the application team that I did not foresee in my studies is the required soft skills to effectively communicate complex designs and solutions in a few lines of text over email. It especially does not help when the person on the receiving end speaks primarily Mandarin. As one might expect, China is the epicentre of consumer electronics design and therefore is the home of many of my colleagues and customers. During my time at Axign, I’ve learned to enjoy the collaboration with Chinese colleagues. However, the occasional comically poor communication we receive back has led to a healthy dose of frustration as well. I feel like I enjoy working with my Chinese counterparts more than the average person, but I had no idea what this would bring on my path. After a year in the application team, Axign asked me if I would consider moving to China to help build-up Axign’s Shenzhen office and lab. Needless to say, the following months were incredibly stressful. The prospect of flying to the other side of the world, together with my girlfriend, for an indefinite period of time is not something to decide over one night of sleep. After due consideration, I decided I was up for it, and started preparations.
Unfortunately, after living in anticipation for a few months, the exciting but scary prospect of living in Shenzhen got postponed indefinitely due to the pandemic. The outlook of strict quarantines, unpredictrable travel rules and near-impossible visum applications simply results in too many downsides to weigh against the benefits. Nonetheless, I’m sure I will visit the region on many occasions in the future and encourage fellow young engineers to do the same. Getting more acquainted with the soon-to-be largest economy of the world is not a bad thing when working in a company that wants to stay relevant.
After deciding not to leave the Netherlands for the time being, mixed feelings arose. It was comforting to know that I did not have to leave my known life behind, but I was saddened to miss out on this opportunity to see more of the world and to further develop my professional skills. Luckily, a new opportunity quickly came across at Axign. From January 2022 onwards, I will take up the role of project leader. It’s an exciting responsibility that combines deeper technical understanding of the design with the soft skills to keep everything on the tracks. As a student, I did not fully expect that the skills picked up during activism and a board year were on equal footing to the technical skills during the studies, but now I know better.
It’s a time where you can develop yourself in a way that you feel suits you. [...] I enjoyed working on soft skills and working with other people.—Olaf during his board year
The project leadership is a function that I combine with my work as Application Engineer. In other words, I work with the current chips and the future generation of chips simultaneously. Personally, I think it’s great to be involved in multiple projects at once. Perhaps this is a trait of smaller companies, where a limited number of people means that you can’t afford to put a full-time employee on every little task. Due to this, I could also volunteer to pick up the task of working out a collaboration with Scintilla. Hopefully, at the time you’re reading this, Scintilla is proud owner of two new JBL partyboxes that were designed right here in Enschede! Being able to share my work like this with friends and family is what initially drove me to consumer electronics and I’m proud to see it become reality. I’m excited for the coming years of my career, and hope you are too. Life doesn’t end after student life, it simply changes. I hope to see you all soon, perhaps even as colleague, in the afterlife…