Refusing Limits in Digital Design

2021-07-26  |  9 min read 

Gidget Heintz has been advancing test and measurement technologies for more than 25 years. Now, she's embarking on her most exciting adventure yet. 

She has spent her career chasing seemingly intractable digital design challenges that present opportunities to learn and collaborate with her peers. In the process, Gidget has taken on various roles at Keysight. She always seems to come back to the research and development lab, though, where she thrives as a hardware and gateware designer for test and measurement solutions. 

Gidget's insatiable curiosity for solving customer challenges has led to numerous patent contributions over the years. And she's not done yet. These days, Gidget is applying her knowledge of field-programmable gate array (FPGA) design to advancing quantum solutions – an opportunity ripe for new collaborations and future breakthroughs. 

When I sat down with Gidget for our Refusing Limits series, I was eager to learn more about her invention process and what excites her most about working on emerging technologies like quantum. 

 Gidget, how have you continued to push past technical limitations during your career? Does it ever get exhausting? 

Technology is constantly advancing and changing, which I find incredibly energizing. As challenges have become more complex, I've had the opportunity to work with experts who specialize in areas of design that may be new to me but part of the problems I'm trying to solve. Many of these relationships have outlasted the design challenges I was working on, resulting in mentorships that are a constant reminder to seek new perspectives. 

The constant change also means there's always something new to learn. I've been able to push past every technical limitation in my career by being a continuous learner and keeping an open mind about different approaches to solving problems.

The constant change also means there's always something new to learn. I've been able to push past every technical limitation in my career by being a continuous learner and keeping an open mind about different approaches to solving problems. I've also found inspiration by looking at the methods used to solve similar challenges within and outside our industry. This approach has been very successful for our work in emerging technologies. 

What excites you about advancing emerging technologies?  

I was thrilled to join the quantum engineering group at Keysight a few years ago because there's a ton of potential for breakthroughs in many domains. Although I didn't have a background in quantum before joining the group, everything I've learned since joining the team excites me for the future. As an FPGA designer specializing in hardware instrumentation, I see quantum as a fertile ground for innovation. Applying new and known technologies to quantum applications in unique ways creates opportunities for new patents or providing first-to-market solutions that advance the technology to its next boundary breakthrough.  

How do you keep customers at the heart of your work and inventions? 

There's a difference between solving a technological challenge and creating a solution that makes our customers' lives easier. I always aim for the latter. I do that by challenging assumptions in the product development process and asking questions that bring to light what is most important to our customers. This approach helps avoid overdesigning a solution or adding unnecessary constraints to a problem we're trying to solve.  

Our group has also adopted agile practices that keep customers at the heart of our solutions. We work with customer collaborators through this process to provide the best solutions. When I meet with our customers, it's always a delight because you can hear their needs first-hand and get a deeper understanding of the problems they are trying to solve. It also ensures that the solutions we're bringing to the table meet the customer's needs completely. 

Helping our customers accelerate their research is a tremendous collaborative win for Keysight. It enables technology breakthroughs with our advanced quantum systems tailored for quantum control and readout applications.   

For example, I have enjoyed working with one of our recent collaborators, Professor Michel Pioro-Ladrière, Institut quantique, Université de Sherbrooke, on their spin qubits research. Helping our customers accelerate their research is a tremendous collaborative win for Keysight. It enables technology breakthroughs with our advanced quantum systems tailored for quantum control and readout applications.   

You have contributed to multiple patents. What inventions make you the proudest? 

The Multiple Synchronization Signal Generators Using a Single Field Programmable Gate Array because it was my first. It was also a new technical area for me. I created a model for a new instrument using independent digital sequencers that could either operate independently on their own programmable clock domains or be grouped across banks operating as a single clock domain. 

We needed to synchronize and phase lock the clocking structures but had to overcome an FPGA internal phase-locked loop (PLL) architecture limitation that prevented this. This was an unsolved technical problem, and because I hadn't worked on this kind of challenge before, I presented it to a deeply respected colleague. My colleague, John Guilford, used his design experience and creativity to come up with a novel, integrated way of synchronizing and aligning the phases of multiple clocks in a purely digital fashion within the FPGA. We took advantage of an advanced capability within the FPGA technology to program and adjust PLLs in real time to calibrate the phases of the clocks in a new way that led to the patent. We also extended this breakthrough to a multiple synchronization instrument model for clock synchronization expansion that also met a product requirement. It was John’s breakthrough idea, and I contributed to the design as a co-designer inventor. 

These are the kinds of experiences that excite me the most. Collaborating with other designers and inventors has helped me grow creatively and provided opportunities that challenge me to solve problems in unexpected ways. 

Collaborating with other designers and inventors has helped me grow creatively and provided opportunities that challenge me to solve problems in unexpected ways. 

Interesting that you bring that up. Did you know that the number of names per patent is on the rise

I didn't, but I'm not surprised. Other than one instance, every submitted invention that I have worked on has been a collaborative process. So, I have either led or contributed as a team member. In our current world of rapid technological advancements, it's only logical that increased complexity leads to more patents with multiple authors. I find this trend very exciting because it's been my experience that working with other engineers brings more creativity to the table and results in better solutions for our customers that may or may not have patented ideas involved. 

It sounds like you have a lot of experience co-innovating. What's something you've learned from another inventor? 

By working with other inventors, I've learned that each person brings experiences and creative ideas that are different from yours. And that's a good thing. I've used those different perspectives as springboards to develop unique approaches to solving technical problems. I have also experienced that creativity is at its best during the early days of researching or investigating a new product. This is when you have time and freedom to think more creatively about a problem. That's when real breakthroughs happen.