Carl Schattke: I Started Designing Boards When I Was 12

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Growing up with a father who owned a PCB design bureau, Carl Schattke, CID+, may have been predestined to design circuit boards for a living. In fact, he’s been designing boards for nearly his entire life. Carl gave a keynote speech at the recent AltiumLive event in San Diego, where I caught up with him to discuss a lifetime spent in PCB design, as well as the graying of the PCB design community and what might be done to inspire a youth movement in PCB design. 

BARRY MATTIES: Carl, you just gave a keynote here at AltiumLive 2017. What are your impressions of the event?

CARL SCHATTKE: It's been great. Lots of PCB designers, engineers, and industry professionals have come to share tips and tricks, including where Altium's at and where it's going. It's been great to have the community get together.

MATTIES: When did you begin designing boards?

SCHATTKE: I started designing boards when I was 12 years old. My dad had a design service bureau and I started helping him as soon as I could. I really loved it. He had between six and a dozen designers that would help him out. When they finished a design, he and I would check it; we'd take the design and run it through a blueprint machine and see the red and blue traces on it.  My father would call out a part and pin number, and with a yellow pencil I'd trace out from one connection to the others and then call them out back to him to confirm a match. We would just call out back and forth and trace through the whole thing. It might take an hour or two for a small design or it might take a half a day on a really large one.

I learned how the designers did what they did. I would see very quickly who was a good designer and who was meandering all over the place with what they were doing. I learned very early on how to see a circuit board, how a circuit board would flow, how it should be placed, and what worked and what didn't work.

MATTIES: How long ago was that?

SCHATTKE: I started designing boards 44 years ago.

MATTIES: Not very many designers started off as a kid in the industry.

SCHATTKE: I don't know anybody else. My brother helped a little bit too. Most people don't get introduced to it at such an early age. Back then we hand-taped all the circuit boards and I've probably hand-taped over 800 layouts, which is a lot. We'd usually do them at a 2:1 scale. You'd have a large light table, and in those days, we did a lot of boards for the telecom industry. So I laid out hundreds and hundreds of boards for the telecommunication industry; they were large panels that would be like 13”x 22” boards and I’d do them at 2x. I’d have a whole light table filled up with that and there would be rolls and rolls of tape on it and I’d have to make every cut with precision. I loved it. It was just a wonderful experience to put it together.

MATTIES: You just used the phrase "I loved it." That's the thing that came across in the opening of the presentation when you talked about the power of the designer. And the passion that came through was great. You spoke about the impact that designers have on the world, and how designers are in every aspect, whether it's under the ocean or in the heavens.

SCHATTKE: That's right. We design stuff that goes everywhere and is used from morning to night, through the night. We design stuff that protects people; we design stuff that helps people with medical conditions, and communication conditions. All modern conveniences are usually tied to a circuit board or some technology. Embedded systems are everywhere. We have electronics in our transportation and in our communication. Just on this desk here where we're talking there are more than two dozen circuit boards, and it's like that all over the world.

MATTIES: I recently met a young lady who is a recent grad, and now a mechanical engineer at a pharmaceutical company. They asked if she would consider becoming a circuit board designer, and she said yes. Now she’s thinking, "Why didn't anybody tell me about this as a career path?"


SCHATTKE: Oh, yes. You know, there are not that many people who do what we do. And there are very few people going into the industry. Design is one of the most gray-haired groups around, and that’s because it was easy to get into and it was easy to start doing it. But that barrier to entry has gotten way higher. To climb any ladder, you have step on the first rung, and that first rung has gotten farther and farther away. It’s because most companies want somebody who's really experienced to start with, and they don't have the time it takes to train somebody new. You can't get a job without the experience, so you have this conundrum if you want to get into the industry. How do you do it? Only a couple of colleges teach this. I didn't go to college.

MATTIES: But you had it hands-on.

SCHATTKE: But by the time my peers were going to college, I already had several years of experience designing circuit boards. I looked at the money I was making and the money that engineers made, and I'm good at math (laughs). I didn't go that route, but my whole life I've kept busy doing circuit board design. More than busy. Mostly overtime weeks, for years on end. You're going to work hard in this profession but it's super rewarding.

If you don't love serving others and helping people with what you do, this isn't for you. If you don't like problem solving, this isn't for you. And if you don't like having to push hard sometimes to get something done, it's not for you. You have to really want to do that to be the best in this profession. You must work harder than most people do and be okay with that.

MATTIES: In your 44 years of experience, what's the thing that has surprised you or wowed you the most in this field?

SCHATTKE: The largest transition was when we went from manual methods to computer-aided design. That was by far the biggest transformation. We designed computers manually and then those computers started designing computers, and now we have computers that design more computers. That has been a staggering development. The other development is Moore's law. We're doubling the processors every two years. That's been another thing that's completely kept on pace. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you say you’re going to spend the money and commit to that, then it happens. And that's what's happened, but the physics are starting to slow that down just because there's a limit to what you can do with that.

It's going to continue to develop and change. The ingenuity, excitement, the creativity and the imagination that people have is unlimited. And that’s never going to be limited, because somebody's always going to have an idea that's better than the ones we have today. They're going to want that idea to come to fruition and they're going to need people to help them do that, and PCB designers are the kind of people that enable stuff to happen that couldn't happen otherwise. All of us in this profession get to enjoy the satisfaction of helping somebody make a new company or a new product that's going to put hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, maybe millions of people to work in some other way. Or we're going to increase the efficiency of something. It's what we do. We do stuff that makes an impact.

MATTIES: In terms of the design itself, such as the geometries of the boards, has there been anything that surprised you in that regard?

SCHATTKE: Surface mount technology was another thing that rapidly changed, then the geometries of that and the plating technology has changed a lot. There have been advances in every area of our industry to some degree. Process control engineering has changed our industry. The fact that people can build what they build, reliably and in quantity, is nothing short of astounding. It's not magic, but it's pretty darn close.

MATTIES: One other thing that I constantly hear people, generally not designers, say is that designers need to really go in and learn the PCB manufacturing process to be a top designer. What's your take on that?

SCHATTKE: I would say you absolutely should know the manufacturing process.

MATTIES: To what level?

SCHATTKE: At a full level. Every designer should go through a board manufacturing facility and understand what they're doing at each level. They should understand assembly at each level. They should understand tests at each level. They should understand the finished product assembly. Because at some point they're designing to make sure that all works, and you do not want to design in a vacuum. You want to know the impact when you do it. If you decide to do something you want to know how it's going to impact the other people in the ecosystem. I would say that to be a good designer you should know all those things. If there's a different methodology, or a different process, or a different way to assemble things, you have to know what all those different paths are. Because you might not have an option to do it one way and this other way might be the perfect solution. If you don't know how they do it, you're flying blind. You don't have the capability. Now, the other thing that's going to be helpful as a designer is to develop your Rolodex, to use an old term.

MATTIES: That reminds me of a slide in your presentation that speaks to your point, showing a designer in the center with spokes going out to test, thermal, signal integrity, and all the expert resources that you need to call upon.

SCHATTKE: That's right. You want to have those people available. Sometimes you're the expert and sometimes you need to work with other experts, and in a collaborative environment they're readily available for you to draw upon. You want to set that up as a company or as an individual so that you can make the best decisions. No good decision is made in a vacuum—it's made with lots of counsel. You want to have wise counsel around you.

MATTIES: That's great advice. Carl, what advice would you give to a young person who's perhaps considering becoming a designer or is just starting off in his or her career?

SCHATTKE: When you have the opportunity to learn, seize it. When you're in school, do the best possible job you can; don't lay down and be lazy about it. Learn everything you possibly can and then seek out opportunities to do stuff. If you show initiative and build projects on your own that would require circuit boards, or something like that, it shows that you have a spark. As an employer, I'm looking for people who have that intensity. If they have a true desire to learn, somebody's going to be happy to nourish that. But you must be willing to put the work in to know that. There are a lot of resources online that can be utilized for learning, so seize that. Get everything you can, learn what you can and just be a sponge for knowledge. Pretty soon you'll be able to wring profits from that sponge with a career in the industry.

MATTIES: That's great advice. Is there anything else you would like to share with the industry?

SCHATTKE: Be courageous. There’s no limit to what we can do, so be courageous in what you try. Do not be afraid to fail. If you fail, you can get back up again and redo it. There are redos; nothing's permanent. If things are bad, you can make them good, so try. Just continue to try, be courageous, accept the challenges, and go for it.

MATTIES: Thank you very much for your time. We appreciate it.

SCHATTKE: Thank you.

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