A new Radio Architecture and Design blog series, will makes it's debut on the EngineerZone Spotlight next month. This new blog will be authored by a team of Wide Band RF Transceiver experts.

ADI Fellow, Tony Montalvo will kick off the new series by sharing his technical and applications knowledge about Radio Architectures and Design and giving customers a look "under the hood". I had the pleasure of interviewing Tony to find out more about this new blog series, RF Transceivers and how he transitioned from an Ultimate Frisbee enthusiast to a highly recognized innovator at Analog Devices.

LA: I understand you are an ADI Fellow. That’s quite impressive. What does being a fellow entail?

TM: Out of 9000 employees there are about 30 Fellows so it’s a huge honor to be named a Fellow.  It’s humbling to see my name on the same list as some of the other Fellows who have created this industry and, in some cases, literally written the book.  The core criteria are innovation and impact.  That is, innovation has to be impactful and the easiest way to measure impact is revenue.

LA: Tell us a bit about this new blog series?

TM: Our products bring some very complex technology to applications that have traditionally been served by discrete components.  I thought it may be interesting to our customers to learn a little about our philosophy of radio, how we got here and what’s under the hood.

LA: What inspired you to become an engineer? 

TM: This isn’t one of those I-took-the-TV-apart-when-I-was-six stories.  I wandered until I found something that grabbed me.  As a kid I was consumed by skateboarding and punk rock.  I studied physics in college (Loyola University, New Orleans) so I must have had some technical tendencies.  Right after college I went to Columbia University in NY to get a masters because I couldn’t figure out what else to do.  I was a somewhat uninspired student of solid state physics and quite an inspired player of Ultimate Frisbee. Finally, I took a circuits class that changed everything.  The professor, Yannis Tsividis, was describing a circuit and wiggling his fingers to show how voltages varied in time.  For example, one finger would wiggle at the input of an inverting amplifier and another finger would wiggle more and out-of-phase at the output.  Suddenly, everything fell into place and it was finger wiggling that did it.

LA: Tell us about your years after graduate school and what brought you to ADI.

TM: After I finished my MSEE, I went to the Bay Area and became a Flash memory designer at AMD.  This was the first generation of Flash memories so it was fertile ground for a budding analog circuit designer.  We had to figure out things like how to generate the programming and erasing voltages in a way that would maximize the lifetime of the memory cell.  It was great work but I realized that it would become repetitive once those fundamental problems were solved.  After four years, I left to get a PhD at North Carolina State University.  My dissertation was about an artificial neural network chip that could learn based on examples and the “synapse” weights were stored on a floating gate which is the same idea as a Flash memory cell.  It was cool. It worked but turned out to be a solution looking for a problem.  Now, some 20 years later, neural networks are back in vogue and are at the core of many of the speech recognition systems like Siri.

After I got my PhD, I joined Ericsson in RTP, NC as an RF IC designer.  I knew literally nothing about RF at the time.  They were growing fast and luckily had a very low bar! Ericsson was an amazing learning experience for me.  I was surrounded by radio experts and soaked up a ton of knowledge. My claim to fame was architecting a receiver IF chip that eliminated a bulky 2nd-IF filter.  Some of the most experienced RF people in the world told me that it was impossible, that it “would never work”.  It did work and millions shipped into Ericsson handsets.  I’ve learned that unless someone claims that a product “will never work”, I’m probably not pushing hard enough.

Although I learned a lot at Ericsson, it became clear that as an IC designer I’d be in a better position at a semiconductor company.  I left Ericsson after 5 years and joined ADI in 2000.

LA: I recently learned that your office is on the North Carolina State University’s campus. How did that come to be?

TM: I started ADI’s site in Raleigh. Since I’m an NCSU grad and since I was an adjunct Professor at NCSU, I chose to locate the site on campus. Remember that this was in 2000 when things were booming.  Very soon after we signed the lease the boom ended and it was just me.  That wasn’t so comfortable but luckily the company was patient and we VERY gradually grew.

Being an adjunct professor, I taught an RF IC design course every other semester for many years.  This was a great experience for me for a few reasons.  First, you have to go much deeper in understanding something in order to teach it.  Second, my communication skills improved tremendously which comes in handy when interacting with customers.  Finally, I hired some of the best students!

LA: What interests you about the RF sector, specifically transceivers?

TM: Impact, first.  Everyone can relate to wireless communications these days so if we can do something that makes people’s experiences better it’s easy to see.  Second, the industry is changing quickly.  For example, not too long ago voice was the killer app for cell phones and coverage was spotty at best.  Now, just a few years later you have nearly instantaneous access to all of the knowledge from all time in your pocket.  And we’re far from done.  If anything, the change is accelerating and that what makes this so much fun.

LA: As an engineer you have experienced many successes and failed attempts. Please share one example with our audience.

TM: I’ve generally been able to make products work but that doesn’t guarantee success.  There have been several products that were technical successes and commercial failures.  I’ve learned that the most important thing is identifying something valuable to make.  Once you identify a valuable problem good engineers can find clever solutions.  I’ll talk much more about that in the blog.

LA: Do you have any advice for tackling an intimidating project?

TM: You can’t finish until you start.  And, if it’s not intimidating at the start you’re not trying hard enough.

LA: What are you reading right now?

TM: I just finished Oliver Sacks’ autobiography “On the Move”.  He’s an incredibly accomplished neurologist who had a passion for bringing these complex topics to the masses.  For example, the Robin Williams movie “Awakenings” was based on his work. What really resonated with me was his early years.  He was a wanderer.  He didn’t have a plan.  He just did what interested him and things worked out well for him. That describes my path pretty well too.

Thank you, Tony for taking some time to share your experience with our audience. We will be sure to stay tuned to the EngineerZone Spotlight blog for the first installment of this mystery RF Transceiver based blog.

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