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Gaining Your Well Deserved Respect As A PCB Designer

Do you ever give advice in good faith only to have it ignored to the eventual detriment of the project? Had they only listened to you, things would have gone better. Now it’s the 11th hour and the vendor is making the same request. Being on record with what becomes the path forward is one way to burnish your reputation. Working your tail off to implement your idea is bittersweet vindication but it’s a lot of work.

There is an old saying that goes like this, “You’re never a prophet in your own land.” That may ring true as you’ve tried to implement a better process at work. It comes down to how we do the little things. It could be about the way data is imported or how it is finally conveyed to the fabrication and assembly team. It could be about using WYSYWIG soldermask vs. keeping it the same size as the pads and defining the expansion or contraction in the drawing notes. I could make the argument for one or the other. Getting buy-in either way is another matter.

“It’s easier to overcommit than to dig yourself out.”

The one thing that changed the value of my experience is when I started consulting. Being an outside professional and charging a steep rate created automatic credibility. One place to receive a tremendous variety of work is in a service bureau. You don’t get to develop long term relations with your external teammates as the clients keep turning over. The so-called gig economy puts the tools in place for an owner/operator type of business to go as hard or easy as they want. It’s easier to overcommit than to dig yourself out.

The customers are coming to the service bureau when their internal resources are swamped. Everything is a rush which will help you prepare for the day when only a majority of the jobs are rushed while there are predictable slow times. The good news is that they usually have all of their ducks in a row before sending the board to an outside resource.

Figure 1. Image Credit: Author - It’s the little things that matter. No job is too small to receive the best effort you can provide.

The boom and bust cycle is very common. Every industry has a cadence of new product introductions. The calendar includes annual events where the latest things are on display. It could be a conference, a plug fest or just part of the back-to-school wave. There are refreshes and there are complete redesigns. Seeing it all through to the end will always teach you something that you can use again.

There is a seasonality to a product development team where prototypes lead to pre-production and finally the mass production release. Those complete product realization schedules can run over a course of years. Try to see it through to the end of the cycle before looking for a new gig. If you see one job as a stepping stone, your exit strategy should start falling in place from day-one. This is your livelihood. Get it right by making your own luck.

Seeing a Product Through to Maturity

One thing that happens towards the end of a multi-year product design cycle is cost reduction. Lean manufacturing starts with all of the space and layers you need to get the job done in a hurry. The board is most malleable in the early stages and becomes calcified and more tedious to edit at the end. As the schematic churns, it writes different chapters of the same story.

You hope for a successful pre-production run into what will become the final product. You’re never really done because then it becomes about how many decoupling caps can you remove and still meet all of the requirements. Your skills and hard-earned knowledge of the circuit serve you well in finding the optimal price / performance / lead-time equation. It would be up to you to determine when another design cycle would have diminishing returns as far as getting to your dream job - whatever that may be.

Knowing When To Move On

Everything looks good from the outside. You eventually find out why the role was open in the first place. Then you have to decide if that is the hill you want to climb.  A toxic work culture isn’t worth tolerating in this day and age. An exit strategy should be in place as an insurance policy if things suddenly go sideways at a once-stable employer. One reason I’m growing my own network is to be on top of the job opportunities. The offers have never been sweeter than right now in terms of salary.

A solid resume shows how you’ve grown into the job. The larger the company, the steeper the learning curve. That’s because a start-up is making it up as you go along. Compare it to an established company that requires you to adapt to the previous “tribal knowledge” that resides over many different departments. Office politics seem to be a person-to-person thing in a smaller outfit while bigger companies have interdepartmental struggles as a secondary layer.

Whether it is the wild unknown of a start-up or the crystalized bureaucracy of a conglomerate, there is always a struggle to change things for the better. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to convince people that they could upgrade to the latest ECAD software and continue using it as they have the previous version. There are new features that you can absorb or ignore.

Overcoming The Status Quo

That was just an example. Bottom line, there are people who resist change or learning new things. This job is not a good fit for those folks. Still, you will find them scattered all over the enterprise. Further, their behavior has been normalized through repetition. It can be hard to change for the better. I’ll give you an example.

Time For Another PCBA War Story

Going all the way back to those Mil-Spec boards right out of the trade school, the Manufacturing Engineer from the assembly group often requested additional notes on the assembly drawing. I always pushed back during the design review - and now I’m the uncooperative one as if the problem was typing out the notes. I should add that these notes were particular to the process. We were a defense subcontractor and would be subject to periodic audits by the armed forces procurement people.

It turns out that the auditors called out a couple of concerns on my drawing package. They mostly worried about “methodized” drawings. My manager came and asked me what that was. I answered his question with a question. “Remember those notes that I didn’t want on the assembly drawing? Yeah, that’s ‘how-to’ not ‘what-is’.” Meanwhile, the rest of the group got slammed for their documentation. The upshot was that I had to start checking everyone else’s work as part of my routine; not my cup of tea.

It wasn’t long before I was looking at another job posting. One of my cohorts warned me that the manager “don’t take no shit.” As it turned out, he wasn’t wrong about that but I said, “Well, Why should he?” A near decade there laid the groundwork for a lot more analog boards to come.

Figure 2. Image Credit: Author -  The DSP side (above) was the board when we learned the limits of HASL (hot air solder leveling) as a finish for surface mount, via-in-pad designs. The “newer” board below has ENIG and was also the first PCB I authored using Cadence tools way back in 1996.

Being able to continuously improve processes that lead to better products can’t be overlooked as a way of moving up. A quicker way to get more done is to ask for more responsibility. Managers like that kind of initiative. Be there to identify and solve problems. Avoid pointing out something until you’ve come up with a solution or two for the problem.

In the case of the assembly notes, I offered to write a process document and maintain it as they evolved the assembly line. They just wanted to have a single document for the assemblers to use.

There are times like that when you have to take a stand. People may not value your opinion. Maybe they need to hear it from the vendor or from another source. Have the information that you are drawing from ready to share if that is possible. Technology roadmaps from the industry along with IPC specs make up a good part of the body of knowledge for which we are responsible. There’s a lot more to this than operating the CAD tools.

Solutions should be framed from the perspective of how they benefit the end-user or cut costs which is the same thing in the end. Adding experience, both successes and inevitable failures, enhances your stature but be prepared to prove yourself worthy all over again when you jump ships.

One of the things I’ve had all these years is the memory of a Mentor/Manager admonishing me to play by the placement rules no matter who wants it to be otherwise. I’ve used that story and examples like it when faced with similar situations. Learn from my mistakes. Never stop learning!

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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