Real Time with… AltiumLive 2020: Eli Hughes’ Full-Stack Hardware Engineer Keynote


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Though he didn’t specifically list James Burke as an influence, something tells me that Eli Hughes, co-founder of TZero and one of the AltiumLive 2020 keynote speakers, is a fan of the classic BBC-produced television series “Connections.” Hughes’ presentation, “Crossing the Chasm: The Road to Becoming a Full-Stack Hardware Engineer,” chose to highlight the gap, whereas Burke’s title concentrated on linking the knowledge, but both were after the same purpose—demonstrating that it takes cross-disciplinary thinking to truly innovate.

Hughes’ keynote launched with some autobiographical background, tying together his separate first exposure experiences to computers (the Nintendo NES and Apple IIe), music, electronic keyboards, and guitar effects boxes, leading him to digital signal processors, electronics engineering, and circuit board design in college. Like so many engineers, Hughes pointed out that he excelled at education when it had a clearly understood purpose for him and when he could apply it. And in a nod to Altium’s history, Hughes shared that he started circuit board design in college, using Protel tools and etching his own boards.

As Hughes transitioned to the thesis of his keynote, he started stitching all these various experiences together into a more cohesive whole namely his acceptance into the Penn State Graduate Program in Acoustics—a multi-disciplinary program drawing physicists, EEs, mechanical engineers, and software types to the study of acoustics. It was at this point that Hughes stated what was becoming quite obvious—he loves tying together different disciplines.

With that, Hughes shared his first maxim of the presentation and launched into the meat of his keynote: Do not trivialize or reduce another discipline to a common denominator. It can be a source of personal growth.

Hughes’ concept of the full-stack developer derives from web developers and refers to those who can navigate and engineer in the front end and the database/server-heavy backend. These developers are tagged as “full-stack.” Hughes makes the point that full-stack applies to circuit designers and does so by displaying an example hardware engineering stack. To be a hardware designer, for example, one needs to know:

  • Circuits, devices, power, and digital logic
  • Field theory, E&M, materials science, chemistry, and sensors
  • Logic/spatial processing
  • Math (calculus, differential equations, etc.)

Hughes said there are some key skills missing from the traditional hardware engineering stack, including:

  • Human factors
  • Communication skills (verbal and written)
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Accounting and economics
  • Sales and marketing

Hughes followed by sharing his next two maxims:

  1. Your effectiveness is limited by your ability to work in a team of humans of different skillsets and imperfect interfaces.
  2. The best ideas in the world are useless unless you can communicate them effectively.

For practical examples, Hughes turned to his work with TZero and the beer industry. He grounded all with a quick overview of the beer brewing process. Then, he presented the overwhelming challenge to commercial brewing:

  • To increase beer output in a production environment, one either speeds the fermentation or adds tanks
  • Fermentation times can vary due to a number of factors, ranging from ambient temperature to the robustness of the yeast and much more
  • Measuring when fermentation is complete has traditionally been more subjective than measurable
  • A Miller-Coors-Emerson study in 2018 said beer sits in the fermenter 50 hours too long; therefore, knowing empirically when the fermentation is complete can recoup those 50 wasted hours and increase production

Hughes showed that CO2 output from the fermenter could be used to measure the completion of fermentation. Hughes’ team used the acoustics of the CO2 blow-off bubbles to measure the fermentation state. To do these calculations, the rate needs to be factored against the precise temperature. The time differences are very small, requiring some very complex interactions between sensors, electronics, and software. This acoustics-based implementation required full-stack thinking on the TZero development team.

Hughes then stated, “Thinking full-stack while doing the hardware design ultimately helps the contributors higher up the stack (software, RF, embedded, networking) by making their job easier.” Being a full-stack hardware engineer means understanding all these pieces, at least enough to keep them in context to your part of the job.

Hardware engineering is, Hughes reminded his audience, iterative. It’s okay to mess up as you develop. It takes your whole team. Your hardest challenges will not be technical. Instead, they will be:

  • Self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy
  • Putting yourself in positions where that new knowledge, skill, or tool is just out of reach
  • The ability to communicate outside your realm of expertise
  • Focusing on executing well on simpler things rather than poorly executed complicated things; you don’t need to route DDR4 memory to be an effective engineer
  • Emotional intelligence

To sum up, Hughes shared three more maxims:

  1. Confront imposter syndrome. Your experiences are to overlap with the unique skills of the rest of your team.
  2. People will likely forget what you said and did, but they will remember how you made them feel.
  3. Continue peeling the onion. When you find the center, find another onion.

I got a strong sense that Hughes had much more to say on this topic. At the conclusion of his presentation, he moved the conversation to the AltiumLive Discord environment. “Crossing the chasm,” Hughes concluded, “is about making and understanding connections.” James Burke would have said the very same thing.

Visit Real Time with… AltiumLive 2020 to catch the latest video interviews and event-related content.

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