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An Origin Story - How I Decided On A Career In PCB Design

Life is a journey of discovery. Two simple questions made that clear. Long ago, someone asked me, “When did you learn to read?” Somewhere around second or third grade? The next question made the first one a little more relevant. “Do you read better now than then?” Yes, I suppose we all do. Design skills are gained one board at a time.

All of a sudden, I’m a world-famous board designer! How did I pull that off? Let’s face it, doing PCB layout is not something little kids even know about let alone aspire to. I was a meat cutter in a deli when a friend told me about a job in a local telecom outfit. The job was called “Final Prep” and it was the last stop before shipping. I didn’t want to lose a finger to a butcher’s knife so I applied.

“I’d gone past there over and over and wanted to be in that room.”

There were a number of us and our job was to put PC boards into anti-static bags, secure the bag with a static awareness label and put it in a box. The box got a label where we hand wrote the revision and dash number found on the board. That box went into a larger box with an assortment of seven other boards. The outer box had a big label filled out with the same details for each board. That was my introduction to the printed circuit board as an everyday part of life.

The job-shop contract ran out and the company converted me to a direct employee (hurrah for benefits) and moved me into mechanical assembly where my first job was installing the motherboards into the card shelves. Add in some heat shields and a power distribution unit and you have the makings of an equipment rack in standard 7 and 11 foot heights. The rack sold for about the price of a Mercedes. Full of boards, it would be more like a notoriously expensive Bay Area house.

Building and wiring up the racks was a stand-up job using air tools and a soldering iron with a tip the size of lipstick applicator. I moved into fuse panels so I could sit down. They put me in charge of that group but I didn’t want responsibility for other people. So, I transferred into Quality Control as a line inspector looking at RF boards under magnification all day. My manager back in assembly countered the transfer request by offering to add to my headcount with the three people who were still building the card shelves. How about “No”?

Receiving inspection came after that where I ran a cool lab that evaluated incoming parts. That was ideal until there was a change in management. Next was a move from the radio team back to digital and into the stock room where I could keep track of inventory related to a new field at the time - servers.

Interest in the inner workings of the PCB itself came about when an engineer allowed me into their cubicle and demonstrated his layout software. Those extra big monitors with the circles and bold lines on the screen, that was something for me. By then I’d worked my way up from “bag boy” to back-panel installer and all that other stuff. Every year or so, I’d transfer within the company gaining know-how across the breadth of the production environment. It all comes in handy.

The company grew as well and we eventually had an entire “CAD Cave”, a darkened room full of those big monitors. There didn’t seem to be any shortages, rejects or end-of-quarter panic attacks in that room. I’d gone past there over and over and wanted to be in that room.

That’s where I was when the big reduction in force or RIF came. They brought in career counselors and I told them what I wanted to do. They enabled me to follow the dream. Off I went to a trade school that taught PCB Design along with manual and CAD drafting skills with an emphasis on Mil-Spec levels of documentation. They hooked me up with a program where I could collect unemployment insurance for six months while attending The Copper Connection. Some of you would recognize the name of the founder, Mary Sudgen.

Seven hundred and fifty class-hours later, I was ready to take on the world. Or, maybe just the housing around a removable hard drive. Predating optical drives, this was a short-lived technology that was attractive for data security and portability applications. It wasn’t boards but it was a step in the right direction. That contract did not convert to anything except another one somewhere else that eventually did become a full-time hire.

Mentorship Is a Key To Growth as a PCB Designer

Entry level meant using those drafting skills and mechanical aptitude gained through assembly to generate drawings for various parts of a disk drive. It wasn’t until my second assignment that I got anywhere near a PCB. Those were the days. A single layer board was designed to Mil-Spec without a netlist based on sketches from the EE. The RF amplifier board was all ground on the bottom and it was bonded to an aluminum pallet. The metal baseplate was machined with a controlled depth slot for the radio chip. We actually etched the boards and bonded them to the pallet in-house.

Figure 1. Image Credit: Author -  This is an advancement on the single layer + aluminum where we used thick copper (45 oz!) with three layers of Isola GETEK. This board had a patented technology around the row of dark spots along the cavity edges; the first time my name was added as a contributor on an invention.

After a while, a job came up on the commercial side doing correction boards which were to be more like the standard multi-layer boards that we all know and love. Edwin (Ed), a muscular Mechanical Engineer with a cop’s mustache and demeanor, ran that team and he gave me a chance having worked with me when he was on the other side of the corporate fence.

Lesson Learned - When Your Name Is on the Document, That’s Your Reputation on the Line

One day, a new EE joins the team and, as usual, their first PCB layout goes through me. For one thing, Dave was destined to become VP of the whole Engineering department. He was technically savvy and good at getting people to do what needed to be done. One thing he needed done was to place two resistors very close to each other. That broke the placement rule but Dave said that was the best way to make the PLL circuit work.

What is it to me? It’s Dave’s board. Well it’s his until someone in the Assembly group pointed out the non-compliant placement issue. Now I own it. Ed calls me onto the carpet.

Ed: Shut the door. Sit down

Me: What’s up?

Ed. Do you know that you’re not supposed to place these two resistors like this? (shared solder mask opening)

Me: Yes but Dave said that the…
Ed: (hand up waving off my excuse) If I wanted Dave to design the board, I wouldn’t need you. Is that clear?

Me: Yes (suddenly feeling kind of small in that chair and learning who owns the board when something goes wrong.)

Ed: Get back to work and don’t do that again.

Someone asked Ed what he would do if I couldn’t design the multi-layer boards with the new software package. Ed said, “I’ll fire him.” The way the person who told me that quoted Ed made me pretty certain that he meant it as a matter of fact. Many years later and well after Ed, it was my turn to move on.

Figure 2. The brains behind the RF brawn that powered the early cellular network known as 3G or as Qualcomm called it, CDMA.

The truth is that I waited too long; nearly ten years with the same company leaves you behind in terms of the market rate for your services. A lot of serial CEO’s move to a new suite every four years or so. For them, it’s about the stock options maturity but also the going rate for a top dog. For those of us in the PCB design community, it’s about getting a wider skill set. A horizontal move is equal to a promotion if it gives you new marketable skills.

A career in PCB layout came to me in a roundabout way through the factory. The vocational training opened the door and mentors brought me up to the next level. Taking the show on the road to the next company expanded my toolset and jumping onto a networking platform put a lot more job opportunities in my path. That last thing didn’t exist when I started out but came about on top of the telecom and wireless applications that have been there all along. Success comes to those who can adapt. That’s what this long road to today has taught me.

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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