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It was halfway into 2009, I had recently graduated from the University of Guelph with a bachelor of engineering in systems and computing, and the options for employment were slim. Unfortunately, I had entered the workforce during the very tail end of the 2008 financial crisis and was having difficulty finding employment in any field. It would be the better part of a year before I was able to start in the first position in my field as a junior electronics engineer. My goal had been to simply get in the door. I knew that experience and simply getting in would allow me to start my career with direction and purpose.
University had taught me the basics of electrical circuits, and more importantly it had provided me with skills to work within a team and clearly identify issues requiring attention. With all the prior electronics engineers and designers having left the company, it fell to me to decipher the state of various projects and forge ahead with completing the design and verifying the hardware result.
With limited knowledge of how to create a PCB, I had to seek out opportunities to develop important skills such as layer stackups, trace widths and spacing, and design assembly, while at the same time trying to navigate a design tool I had only just learned existed. My co-workers were in similar situations, learning software, understanding complex data conversions, and trying to decipher their own tangled webs. However, working as a team allowed us to assist one another in finding innovative solutions. It was here I learned one of the most important lessons of my career: you need to support and be supported by a great team.
As the small successes mounted, a major project loomed on the horizon. The existing system architecture was not designed for the anticipated data throughput that was going to be required. With a young and relatively inexperienced team, we considered consulting contractors and external design bureaus. It was at this point that I expressed interest in running the project internally. This would be a big task with significant risks; however the benefit would be full control of the project, an increased understanding of our architecture, and a growth in design experience for a young team.
The decision was made to keep the project internal, and I was given the opportunity to increase my knowledge of PCB design, as well as the ECAD tool that would make it possible. Slowly, the team grew with new members bringing varied experiences and innovative ideas to the table. This provided fresh perspectives on the use of our software tool, as well as general and advanced design concepts. This was vital to my professional development, as each designer has a unique method of routing and solving design problems. Spending a morning or afternoon watching how someone else uses the same design tool you do can show you new shortcuts or design methods for resolving obstacles.
Sadly, all great things come to an end, and decisions made from on high meant that our Canadian research and development team was restructured, which meant that my position was no longer required. Thankfully, I now had nearly three years of experience to assist me with finding my next position. At this point, I reached out to the network of industry contacts I had developed through the various projects from my career thus far. This included looking into the companies we had considered for the system architecture project. I reached out to one of those companies and was invited for an interview.
When they offered me a position, I decided to accept. I took this opportunity to reflect on my experience, professional learning, and the industry to discern a path forward in my career. As a hardware designer/engineer, I would have options for moving into management positions or I could stay in a technical role and start to specialize. While I knew it was too early in my career to be making these decisions, I knew that I wanted to have a clear goal to be working toward.
Having a clear goal of becoming a technical specialist in PCB design allowed me to focus my energy on professional learning and development. Having co-workers with skills in other design areas allowed for a sharing of knowledge and a sounding board for complex situations. Learning all I could from co-workers, as well as watching any teaching information I could find online, helped to increase my design knowledge. This thirst for knowledge brought me to collaborate with, and learn from, colleagues from other departments. This gave me the chance to understand integration from both the mechanical and software perspective, bringing new insights to my hardware designs.
Today, I am now a full-time self-employed entrepreneur running my own business. While my current responsibilities are greater and more varied than in previous positions, the one that has always been my highest priority is my commitment to professional growth and learning. When working for a company, you need to seek out challenges and push for training in whatever capacity you can find. You should never stop learning and trying to improve yourself. Just because you don’t need it now, does not mean you won’t need it in the future. Every step forward in that direction will enable you to become a great designer.
Tomas Chester is founder and hardware designer with Chester Electronic Design in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.
This article originally appeared in the August 2021 issue of Design007 Magazine.