Craig Ulmer

Qualifying Exam

1999-01-05 fpga pub

After passing the prelimary exams to enter the Ph.D. program at Georgia Tech, the next major step is passing the qualifying exam. The purpose of the qualifying exam is to show that a student can walk into a new topic, learn everything they can about it, write a reasonable summary of the current state of the art in that topic, and present the material to a committee, all within one month's time. I picked a committee of people that I knew were tough but fair and hoped the best in topics. I was relieved when they asked me to focus my attention on using FPGAs to enable a field of computing called configurable computing.

I spent a coniderable amount of time that month downloading papers and looking up conference proceedings in the library. While I'd worked with FPGAs some during my masters degree, I didn't know the ideas went all the way back to the 1960's (I actually found Gerald Estrin's fixed+variable paper in print at the library). I learned a good bit about the commercial chip families and marveled at some of the ideas people were talking about with custom computing machines. There's nothing better than having an excuse to set aside to learn all you can about an interesting subject. It took a bit of work to get a handle on how to summarize the material I'd covered and put it into a presentable form that had a hard page limit.

My review committee included three computer architecture professors and two network professors that had a background in hardware. Of the five, Vijay was the only professor that worried me. I'd taken a rapid prototyping class with him earlier and had seen him rip into a few students when we had to take turns presenting other peoples' research papers. Fortunately, I realized before it was my turn to do a class presentation that he was only vicious because he wanted to get to the truth of an idea. When he raised issues during my class presentation, I defended the topic and didn't back down, which I think he respected. However, I wasn't sure how well this confidence would carry me in my own exam.

In the end things went pretty well. Dave probed me on some parallelism questions, which ironically Vijay answered for me thinking Dave simply didn't understand the material. They sifted through the cookies I'd brought, asked me to leave for the closed discussion, invited me back in, and then told me I'd passed like that. It was a huge relief and a boost to my confidence.


  • Qualifying Exam Craig Ulmer, "Configurable Computing: Practical Use of Field Programmable Gate Arrays".