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A PCB Designer’s Origin Story

We all came from somewhere. My “somewhere” was a little village set against the forest in South Western Germany. Row upon row of four-story apartments housed the families of service personnel in Ben Franklin Village in Manheim. The village closed down and has been fenced off for years.

All of a sudden, that changed. By the power of Google maps, I did a virtual fly-over and the old red roofs are giving way to modern apartment buildings. Chances are, the development is way ahead of the images but the aim is clear. The crumbling past gives way to the gleaming future.

google map

Image credit: Google Maps

There it is, the carcass of my youth. The lower left corner has the spacious and modern replacements for the Cold Warrior dependent storage units we called home. Riding bikes in the woods, saving up phennings to go by the “German store” to get gummy bears or other candies, playing games at the community center and attending those tough Military schools made up the fabric of our time.

Given that the soldiers were on a three-year rotation, every single kid that was there when you arrived would be going back to the U.S.A. before you did. All of your friends would be replaced along the way with the new kids on the block. That’s just how it was. Putting down roots was for civilians.

google streetview

Image credit: Google Streetview - old (background) meets new

I take you back to that point in time because that was when I got my first electronics lesson. You may already know that European countries use 220VAC rather than the 110 of the United States. The Euro-power also alternates at 50 cycles per second as opposed to the 60 we use at home.

What that meant to the 10-year-olds was that they couldn’t plug the little 45 RPM record player into the socket in the bedroom. All of the home appliances were plugged into a large green metal box that in turn plugged into the wall receptacle. The 110V bladed leads didn’t even fit into the sockets in order to prevent us from burning down the apartments from misuse of the equipment.

With that quandary, I approached the smartest person I knew at the time. Dad. You see, Staff Sergeant John Burkhert Sr. was a member of the signal corps, a radio man. He knew just about everything a 10-year-old could ask.


voltage converter

Image credit: Voltage Superstore

 “Dad, why do we plug everything into that box?”

“Well, son, our appliances run on blah, blah blah…”

“But why do they do it differently here?”

“It’s more efficient to push higher voltage down the line, son”

“So, why don’t we use 220 at home?

“110 isn’t as likely to kill you when you stick a bobby pin in the socket”

“Dad, what’s a bobby pin?

“It’s those things your sisters put in their hair”

“Why do they do that?

“Go ask your mom!”

And so it went. One of my sisters’ boyfriends had about 10 brothers. One of the older ones was replacing the speakers in his car. I was just hanging around watching and learning, occasionally grabbing the electrical tape or the strippers to hand to him. My reward was the one non-blown original speaker, a five-inch round one. I got a couple little segments of stripped wire from him as well. Got that stuff home and took my clock-radio apart so I could wire the new/old speaker to the existing speaker in series. I learned about impedance much later but at the time, I had the “stereo” AM radio in my room.

By the time I got to high school, I was installing aftermarket stereos in my friends' cars. I moved from string bass (the giant violin) to electric bass. I retubed my Bassman 135 amp then tried to use it to amplify my boombox for a party. It worked well until someone (ok, it was me) turned up the boombox volume rather than the amplifier. Too much gain for that stage; the special smoke came out of the amp and the party went quiet. “My dad can fix it!”

One day, a friend told me about a job opening in a telecom company called Granger Associates. I quit my menial food industry job to put printed circuit boards into anti-static bags. The bags went into boxes with labels and the boxes went into bigger boxes with bigger labels. Copying the dash option and rev from the PCB to the outer labels was our main value add.

printed circuit board

Image credit: Alcatel. - a GMAPP board (Granger Maintenance Alarm Program Processor)

 A transfer to mechanical assembly started me down a path I’ve followed ever since. Building the unit shelves and then the entire rack of shelves lead to inspecting stuffed PCBs which led to running a Receiving Inspection department where I learned more about bare boards. I transferred again to run a stock room where I picked up kitting, cycle counting and general inventory management. Four years, four positions, gradual indoctrination to PCBs including the day that an Engineer took me aside and showed me how a CAD system worked.

I’d pass by the darkened CAD room with all of the cool graphics on big monitors. I was smitten. There were no shortages there. There was no quarterly numbers to meet. There were no inspectors to reject your work. Instead, they got to rub shoulders with a bunch of highly educated electrical and mechanical engineers. Smart people, just like Dad.

When the post-merger day came that the department I was in got shut down, my manager, all of the planners and other folks were part of a reduction in force. Because it was a mass layoff, they brought in counselors to help us with the transition. The counselors figured out what I wanted and found a way to facilitate my quest to become a world famous board designer. Here I am. Thanks to all of you for reading and supporting my articles these past two years.

About the Author

John Burkhert Jr is a career PCB Designer experienced in Military, Telecom, Consumer Hardware and lately, the Automotive industry. Originally, an RF specialist -- compelled to flip the bit now and then to fill the need for high-speed digital design. John enjoys playing bass and racing bikes when he's not writing about or performing PCB layout. You can find John on LinkedIn.

Profile Photo of John Burkhert