A Designing Mind: Meet NJIT Graduate Ken Chin

Working on Xbox 360 and PS3: Meet NJIT Grad Ken Chin

Ken Chin (1974) helped design a computer chip for two immensely popular video games: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. 

Chin works as a research engineer at IBM’s Watson Center.  He was part of the research team that designed the chip for Microsoft’s 360 and Sony’s PS3.  The Watson Center is the largest industrial research center in the world, and it hires only the best-trained and brightest engineers. 

Chin was trained at NJIT, from which he earned two degrees in electrical engineering: a bachelor’s in 1974 and a master’s in 1979.  Before coming to IBM, Chin worked for Monsanto, the chemical company, and for General Instruments, the former electronics manufacturer.  Once hired by IBM, though, he never left.  He’s worked there happily for the last 27 years.

Chin is not the only one in his family to have graduated from NJIT.  His son, Jason, was graduated in the winter of 2007 with a degree in computer science.  Jason also has a job that makes him happy.  He gets paid to play video games.  How did he arrange that?  He works as a quality assurance tester for Kaos, a video game company.  It’s Jason’s job to test the software of the games under development at Kaos.

Ken Chin doesn’t play video games.  He’s too busy.  Jason, on the other hand, is a self-confessed video addict who, shortly after leaving college, luckily managed to turn his addiction into a job.  Whereas Jason works on the software side of video game production, his father worked on the hardware – designing the chip. But both father and son love science, computing and technology -- fields they first learned to delight in at NJIT.  

In this interview, Ken Chin talks about what it’s like to work as a research engineer for the world’s biggest research center.  He discusses his studies at NJIT, his journey from China to America and his relationship with his son, Jason.   

Did you enjoy designing the chip used for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3?
The design work was very interesting and challenging.  It was always leading edge stuff.  I’ve worked on chip design for more than twenty years, yet I always find it an interesting challenge to design a state of art chip using IBM's latest technology.  Today's designs are very complex so I always work in teams to design chips.  The teams share knowledge and work together towards a common goal - to get the job done.  In that sense the teamwork is enjoyable.

How do you design a computer chip these days? What tools do you use, and how did your team divide up the work?
I was part of a team responsible for the chip’s Instruction Unit (IU).  Our work entailed circuit design and physical implementation of the defined logic in such a manner so as to satisfy speed, power and area requirements. In general terms, the IU is the part of the chip that interprets the programming instructions and determines where and what to do with the instructions.  For example, the IU retrieves data from the memory and sends it to other parts of the chip.  Most of the design requires extensive use of CAD tools.  One IBM team, the logic group, designs the description of the desired logic, then I came up with the circuitry to accomplish that function.

Did IBM design the chip specifically for the gaming industry or did the chip grow out of basic research?
The chips were specifically designed for the game console. The work was done under contract with our clients, Microsoft and Sony.  IBM continues to entertain all such relations with both firms.

Do you usually work on applied research projects, or do you also work on scientific or basic research?
In the olden days, research labs worked solely on scientific research, and I did that for some years.  But now, IBM, like most major companies, does more direct research, such as the work our team did designing the chip for the game console.  Our research team was recruited by other units at IBM to develop that chip for our clients.  So now research scientists do some of both: applied research for hire, and some scientific research where we freely pursue our intellectual interests.     

Jason says your wife plays video games but that you don’t. Why not?
I guess it was always a matter of time. Quite often, I have to work on weekends to meet the tight schedules.

What’s your schedule like? Where you do most of your work: at home or in the lab?  And do you work long hours?
Since I live only ten minutes from the IBM TJ Watson research lab, I usually work in my office.  The intensive design work is very complicated and the lab is set up with computers for that.  In my work, there's always crunch time; the design schedules are very demanding and lots of nights and weekends are required.  But IBM research has very flexible work hours.  I can walk into work at noon.  Many researchers come in at noon and work into the wee hours of the morning, freely pursuing their passions.  The research center is not like the business units of IBM, which are more structured around business hours.  Researchers manage ourselves and schedules, as long we get our work done.  We value that autonomy. 

Most parents don’t understand when their children tell them they want to study video games in college and later work in the games industry.  But your son, Jason, says you and your wife supported his interest in gaming.  Is that so?
I won't go that far to say that we always supported Jason's passion for games.  It was a distraction for him when he was in high school.  I recall we had many hot exchanges because of his overindulgence in video games and his neglecting homework. Teenagers usually get distracted with such things. But he was consumed by games.   I told him his priority should be his school work, but he had his own interests.  Once he was in college, there wasn't much my wife and I could do to regulate his interest. Ultimately one has to pick something that he/she is passionate about.  And Jason is very happy working in the gaming industry.  So I’m happy for him.   

Jason works on the software side but you work on the hardware side of computing.   Did you teach him about software and computing when he was growing up?
I certainly didn't teach him about software because I wasn't very good at it.  But I did stress the importance of math and science.  His mother and I think it’s essential to have a solid foundation in math and science, regardless of what field one later pursues.  So we stressed the importance of those subjects when Jason was young. We offered him as much help as he was willing to accept.

Why did Jason pick NJIT?
I have two degrees from NJIT and I talked to him about the university. By his own admission, Jason is a techie -- he has no interest in sports or liberal arts -- so NJIT was a good fit for him.  He made the right choice; he was happy at NJIT studying computer science. And NJIT gave him a good foundation to work in a field that he is passionate about.    

I understand you return to NJIT often to mentor electrical engineering students in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE)?
For the past several years, I have served as mentor for several teams of seniors. I enjoy interacting with the students and sharing my industry experience. I usually mentor student teams that have an interest in my area of expertise: circuit and chip design. I also serve twice a year as a judge for the students’ senior design projects. One of the professors I had when I was a student, Professor Roy Cornely, still teaches at NJIT.  I’m close to him and I visit his classes and talk to his students. That’s a lot of fun.  I learned a lot from my NJIT professors, so I enjoy returning and sharing whatever knowledge I’ve acquired over the years with the students.  

Is NJIT doing a good job of training its engineering students?
Generally, NJIT is doing a good job in teaching the fundamentals, and that is critical in all technical endeavors.  By fundamentals, I mean physics and circuit theory. I suspect a lot of the undergraduate courses are pretty much the same as when I was a student here.  Some new courses, though, relate to more recent technology, such as Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI).

Do you have advice for electrical engineering students?
Master the basics and don't be afraid to learn stuff on your own, such as learning a new programming language.  And try to work as many internships as you can.  Internships are valuable for they provide students with opportunities to see what real work environments are like.  It also helps students define their interests; whether, for example, they prefer circuit design, power engineering, control engineering, etc.  

Can you talk a bit about your background?  You seem like an American success story.
I was born in mainland China but I grew up in Trinidad, where I attended high school. When I was born, China was becoming a communist country and anyone who could leave did. It was a struggle escaping from a communist country. My father had an uncle who lived in Trinidad, and that’s where we wound up. It was a British colony, so I learned the Queen’s English.  I later came to the U.S. for college, to attend NJIT. I was the first in my family to attend college, and I am grateful for the opportunities that the U.S. made possible for me.  Indeed, I consider myself an American success story, and NJIT played an important role in that.

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)