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The Case Has Been Made for Remote ECAD Work

Nobody wanted it this way. Isolation is a form of psychological torture. That said, the tasks involved with designing a printed circuit are portable. All we needed was the impetus to work from home and it happened. Other than the camaraderie of the people, I cannot come up with a solid justification for me to enter the GoPro office, let alone this Cadence gig where I didn’t have an on-site desk even before the pandemic.

The Technology That Enabled Work From Home

First of all, I’d like to thank the older generation for the internet and to a lesser extent, cell service even though that’s where I “made my bones”. The wired and wireless infrastructure has enabled the kind of productivity we would normally associate with an office setting. Bandwidth is abundant and cheaper than ever.

Meanwhile, an arms race in the laptop sector brought us 4K resolution, massive bandwidth, storage, RAM and battery life. The circuit boards under the hood are not quite as dense as those of a watch or phone but the lines tend to blur with the tablet density. The trend is irreversible. For our use-case, we’re not quite as battery dependent when the laptop is tied to a monitor worthy of our seat-time. So-called Gamer Laptops bring richer graphics on larger form factors with more ports that make a worthy ECAD option.

Hardware has improved through competition to the point where CAD work on a laptop is imaginable. The confluence of cable companies struggling to remain relevant and hardware companies cutting into each other with spec-race gives us home office solutions that we’ve never seen. Even if I could have afforded the high-spec desktop computer back then, getting a DSL line wired to your house was going to be costly.

Let me reminisce on that Sun Sparc 10 server that sat under my desk. It was awesome! The monitor was a CRT but the face of it was flat; so elegant even though the case went about three feet back from the face of the monitor. Back then, CAD was done in cubicles that had extra deep desks for the monitor and those huge D-size printouts we made for design reviews. Good times, but it’s not like that anymore. I’m finding it cathartic to tell a story so let’s get on with it.

The Exodus: Deserted Offices and Acres of Empty Parking Lots

We will all have a story to tell about when we were sent home for the lockdown. I feel really fortunate that my story doesn’t involve young children going through this. Preschool kids would be home anyway, but going from dropping them off to becoming their teacher has to be a grind for both the parent/teacher - student/child. You wonder who is schooling who when the teacher is catching up with the lesson plan. Huge Kudos to the parents who are managing this unique time. We all look forward to regular school so you have the “office” to yourselves for a while.

Figure 1. Image Credit: Author - Once bustling parking lots now stand empty amidst a shutdown that is slowly returning to normal but is unlikely to have a complete restoration any time soon.

According to the surveys, the board design community is an older one and my perspective is that work-from-home favors the empty nesters who have a spare room or two that can be converted to a home office. Using the kitchen table amidst the chaos of family life might work if you’re already good at tuning out distractions. I went from the private offices at Qualcomm to the desk-to-desk density of Google. You learn pretty quickly to ignore the highly animated meeting going on four feet behind you.

The Allure of the Office

Variety being the spice of life, it has to be better not to just stay put all the time. Homework has never been on my agenda. Basically, I wanted to work at work. We had a pool table, some free-play pinball machines and really good tea among other things. There was a massage chair! The office was located right along the Bay Trail and only about seven miles from home. Beach volleyball every day! You could walk right over to procurement to see if she forwarded your message or whatever. Why give any of that up?

Figure 2. Image Credit: Author - Office space can bring out the best collaboration. No getting around that but people are often dispersed among different buildings anyway. As long as Management and IT can support remote work, the physical proximity of the team members isn’t as important. Keeping the whole crew moving in the same direction requires effort on everyone’s part.

Microsoft treats its Bay Area workforce a little differently than up at HQ. On day-one, I was told that I could take the laptop, the dock and the twin monitors and go home. Most of my coworkers obliged so a room for 40 people usually had about five or six of us on site. Weekly meetings were held on Teams with perhaps three of us present in the actual meeting room and the rest working remotely.

Losing a Job in the Middle of a Lockdown

The virus got more and more serious and finally, the edict came down and nobody could enter the building without a business critical reason. Time for homework. I took over the little desk in my son’s abandoned bedroom. Not long after that, the contract with Microsoft ended prematurely so there I was in the middle of the lockdown with no job. Think positive. It took one email and a two-week pause before I was working on satellites. Ooh! I got that gig from a previous manager who brought me in as a consultant. Always leave your old company on a good note because you never know who will be able to help you down the road.

This is Silicon Valley; maybe down but not out. Soon enough, an interesting full-time offer materialized and I took the job. The GoPro office is around 25 miles away and in the same direction as the commuter traffic, the longest yet. The thought at the time was that we would return to the office at some point though it was closed for the time being. Along the way, that plan became irrelevant. My laptop was mailed to me and I wound up furnishing everything else. I needed a keyboard, a mouse, a monitor, an all-day chair and it sure would be nice to have something bigger than a child-size desk.

After that shopping spree, I replaced the old bed with an old bookcase and an office was born. All of this coincided with a message from GoPro indicating that anyone who can succeed at home is welcome to remain there indefinitely. Designing printed circuit boards fits this profile with ease. Moving out of this expensive area is also an option worth considering.

Figure 3. Image Credit: Author - A home is where the heart is. My wife has been a stay-at-home mom for the last 2.5 decades so she’s good at it. The subtle point here is that this is her place and always has been.

Hopefully, more companies see this job in the same light. The social media and cloud services overlap in their effort to make remote work more effective. I recall the overhaul that Microsoft did with Team paying off well for them. There is no reason to hit the Pause button. Hardware and infrastructure companies are making lemonade out of this bitter situation.

Meanwhile, the mega-companies that drive those sectors of the economy have been a good investment. A sign of the times is so many of those empty parking lots now have fences around them. The smaller buildings are being demolished in favor of multi-story office buildings for the tech giants. The building spree is at the hands of the deepest pockets who can afford to plan for the decades ahead. As of this writing, practically all of those same companies are clamoring for PCB Designers.

The question at hand is whether your place of residence can be a place of business too. You may find that you need more bandwidth from your ISP or just more office supplies, maybe a whiteboard if that’s how you like to work. Having an office of your own was sort of a holy grail of perks, especially one with a door and a window. I’m hoping that my garden-view office with an attached home will serve me well until I ride off into the sunset.

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.

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