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The Education of a PCB Designer

On the first day of an English Composition course, the Professor asked the class, “When did you learn to read?” The answers were typically the second year of elementary school. Some kids may have learned to read even earlier, some later. Then she asked, “Can you read any better now?” Hmm. PCB Design is like that. Painting, acting, teaching, writing and others all take time to master, but you have to start somewhere. The thing is that you can never quit learning.

Rembrandt painting

Image credit: Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn - Portrait of Baertjen Martens Doomer Ca 1640 and my own “artwork” titled Iris Solderdown DUT Board Ca. 2012 One of us was a Dutch Master painter, the other, maybe one third Dutch and one tenth master of the PCB.

Just this morning, I was watching a video about capacitors. Don’t judge me, I’m a geek for audio circuits! I already knew that a capacitor has a measure of resistance known as the ESR spelled out as “Equivalent Series Resistance”. What I learned is that the ESR will increase over time and the cap will become less efficient. The components in my 40-pound solid state amp are not what they used to be after 20+ years. It might not make the 850 Watts that it had from the factory. That’s ok because I added a 1200 Watt subwoofer and an active crossover to take the load off.

PCB Design Training is Not What it Used to Be

Where was I? Oh yeah, PCB Design along with Drafting are not a standalone curriculum. Once upon a time, there were two trade schools here in the Bay Area that focussed on the required skills. They’ve long since been plowed under to make way for industry. Those buildings that once provided a place for blue-collar workers are in the process of being raised and replaced by condominiums or office space for the mega-corps.


Image Credit: Author - Little by little, the complexity of your work can grow. If you decide to go into mobile or especially wearable electronics, expect the boards to shrink down to the bare minimum.

Those big companies can call the shots and their call is that a degree in Electrical Engineering or Mechanical Engineering is the requirement for an entry-level position. They’d also prefer their “trainees” to have at least a few years of experience in the exact technology that they plan to disrupt next. Those start-ups that would take a flier on a new hire are getting more scarce by the day.

On-The-Job Training: A Drafter, a Librarian, and a Clerk Meet in a Bar

That makes square one into a case of having a trust fund or earning a scholarship where you can study. That cuts a lot of people out of the equation. My little certificate of completion from a six-month trade school isn’t going to get the job. The first gigs didn’t involve PCB design. I took on a few contracts as a design drafter before landing at Microwave Modules and Devices that later became Spectrian.

I was doing single-layer RF boards but then applied for a job doing control boards in the nascent cellular base station group. Ed, a Mechanical Engineer, ran that new team and someone asked Ed what he would do if I couldn’t cut it. They related the story to me some time later. Ed said, “Then, I’ll fire him.” You have to like what you do if you’re going into this business. One day, Ed called me into his office. He said, “Sit down.” I sat down. It was a long time ago but I remember the details.

Ed: Do you know that you’re not supposed to have two resistors sharing the same soldermask opening?

Me: “Yes, but Dave (a persuasive new EE who would go on to become the VP of Engineering) said that the PLL circuit wouldn’t work with…”

Ed: (Cutting me off)  “If I want Dave to design the board, then I don’t need you. Go do your job.”

Me: Walking out feeling a few inches shorter than a minute ago.

Lesson learned: Quality, is more than a working “Science Project”. If it can’t be manufactured, there’s no point in doing it. It turns out that Rev 2 with space between the PLL components can be made to work after all. I hung around there for nine years which was well past Ed’s tenure.

Off-The-Job Training: Doing it Your Own Way

There are possibilities for the go-getter to boot-strap their way into this occupation. I’m proud of one of my connections who shows a lot of gumption. Brunel got his hands on a completed ECAD design and tore it all apart so he could do it from scratch, bit by bit (or is it byte by byte?) He recreated the design finding all of the “pain-points” along the way. He also finished his Bachelor's degree and maintains a profile on social media. This is the kind of candidate I would look for if I was hiring a PCB Designer.

PCB routing
Image Credit: Brunel Balukidi - Routing just for the practice

I’m guessing that he put a lot of effort into the exercise in the hopes of gaining the skills necessary for his first real job. I’d also speculate that in a few years, he’ll be able to look back on the design and wonder what was so hard about that gadget. Baby steps are still steps. You’ll have to start somewhere. Luckily for you, we live in a world where information is easy to obtain. Having the gumption to obtain that knowledge? Make you own luck.

Opening Doors With the Right Credentials and the Right Attitude

The degree programs have what are called winnowing courses to weed out the disorganized. To succeed in school means going beyond the classroom and the homework. Make friends in the study hall. I was going four days a week for Calculus and volunteering in the English lab as a tutor. The ESL students might have been a challenge when everyone’s term papers were due but they were probably better than me at math! By the time I finished the general education, the ECAD program had been permanently cancelled; just my luck.

There’s no easy road and when you succeed, you’re still in Engineering Services or Product Enablement or some other form of apprenticeship. The EE’s and ME’s are not perfect. Everything except the schedule is subject to change. If you find yourself in one of those mega-corps, you’ll find out that you serve many authorities beyond the ECAD Manager. I’ll write about that in one of my upcoming stories.


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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