Tim's Takeaways: Gremlin Avoidance Tactics to Improve Productivity


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Sometimes I am envious of those who work with steel, on a construction site, or even tilling the earth. All these are tangible activities: you mold the steel, build a house, or harvest a crop. Instead, I work in electronics. Most of the time it is a good life, but every now and then a nasty little gremlin will pop up its ugly head and mock me. It could be a circuit that just won’t give me the performance that I need, a short I can’t find, or worst of all, an intermittent problem that just won’t go away.

Case in point: I have a pickup truck nicknamed “The Beast” due to its size and capabilities. The Beast has served us well hauling dirt, rocks, and construction supplies, along with moving furniture and treasures for family members and friends alike as it pulls our trailer all over the Pacific Northwest. However, a few months ago The Beast’s alarm system woke up the neighborhood at 2 a.m., even though there wasn’t anyone near it. After a cursory examination, I quickly realized that any attempt to find and correct the problem with the alarm was way beyond my capabilities, and I left the truck in the care of my regular auto repair shop. Armed with an array of computerized diagnostic equipment, the repair shop went to work, starting off with several days of testing and debugging. After replacing the standard door switch, which didn’t fix the problem, they worked through the host of other electronic components in the alarm chain. Finally, the decision was made to replace a thousand-dollar control module, and after some final diagnostics, the problem was resolved; or so everyone thought.

Now I know that this part of the story will sound made up, but I swear its truth; I hadn’t had the truck home but five minutes before that horrible alarm went off on its own again. I went back outside, checked it, and sure enough, the truck didn’t chirp when I used the key fob to lock the doors. This is a sure indication that the control module thinks the door is still open even though it was closed. I went back inside to call my mechanic, and I kid you not, the truck’s alarm went off again while I was on the phone with them. It felt like The Beast was deliberately mocking me.

I know that everyone has dealt with their own gremlins in life. Those annoying little bugs and problems that creep up and cause us to spend a lot of time and money fixing a problem that just won’t go away, and ultimately spoiling the weekend we had planned. What’s worse, though, is when those glitches happen while on the job, causing us to go over budget and miss scheduled design and production deadlines. How many of us have waited for an answer from technical support when a CAD tool doesn’t behave as expected, or you just can’t find the intermittent short that you’ve spent all morning searching for? I know that I’ve been in those situations, and here’s a couple ideas I’ve found that have helped me work through these annoyances.

haag_gremlin.jpgBe Mentally Prepared
Gremlins usually appear at inopportune moments in our lives, and often create a lot of stress, anxiety, and even anger inside if we don’t deal with it in a healthy way. If left unchecked, these emotions can derail our concentration and we’ll lose the ability to focus on finding a solution to the problem. This is where the adage of “just walk away from it” can be a real lifesaver. If we resist the urge to yield to frustration when confronted with one of these problems and take a short break, it’s amazing how our perspective can change. Sometimes the answer will be an obvious solution that we couldn’t see because we were simply too close to the problem.

Let’s face it, electronics will falter, CAD systems will develop glitches, and alarm systems will go off in the middle of the night. None of us know when the next gremlin will strike, so prepare yourself now for that eventuality to preserve your sanity. Allowing frustration to take the lead from our normal analytical approach to problem solving isn’t a very practical or productive response to an unexpected gremlin. And for goodness sakes, be kind to yourself. After all, if you didn’t break it in the first place, don’t blame yourself if it’s broken. Just step back a bit, take a deep breath, and then reevaluate the problem with a new perspective and a fresh pair of eyes. It’s amazing how many times a resolution will present itself after just a short break.

Be Functionally Prepared
One of the things that can be so frustrating about gremlins is how they easily pop into our lives when we least expect them. As we just talked about, we can keep these unexpected annoyances from driving us nuts with some mental preparation. But is there anything that would help us on the more practical side? I think so. Consider the following:

  • Back up your work: One of the most annoying gremlins is lost data. Sure, we’ve probably all deleted a CAD file that we didn’t mean to or worked from the wrong database. But there are plenty of instances where a file becomes corrupt or is just plain gone when it shouldn’t have been. To keep these gremlins at bay, make sure to regularly backup your work.
  • Establish a workflow: Gremlins also seem to flourish in chaos and confusion. Whether by user error or a true computer glitch, work will get deleted, items will be forgotten, and data will be corrupted. You can help mitigate these gremlins by developing an established workflow which will ensure that each milestone is accomplished and checked off as you go. This will help reduce the confusion and give you tangible recovery points that you can go back to if necessary.
  • Communicate: Make sure that you and your co-workers are on the same page. Many times, the problems in the workplace attributed to gremlins are more human in origin. Missing files and lost data may have simply been a case of the project being re-homed by another designer.
  • Ask questions: Technical support is a wonderful thing, but there are many other channels of information available to you as well. FAQs, designer forums, white papers, and blogs are all available to you and can often provide quick answers to resolve some of these annoyances.
  • When in doubt, document it: Keep track of your technical issues. Maybe you will find a common thread that will help diagnose a reoccurring gremlin, or at the very least, back you up in the event of a truly unknown gremlin. Trying to blame a missed deadline on a computer glitch without proof is sort of like saying the dog ate your homework. Document it.

Thankfully, improvements are being made all the time in the tools we are using and in design workflows. This month’s edition of Design007 Magazine is full of examples of advances, opportunities, and new tool technologies to help PCB designers ascend to higher levels of excellence in their roles. With all the enhancements that are coming down the line, who knows but maybe we’ll finally chase the gremlins out of the workplace for good.

I have one last piece of advice that might be helpful. Sometimes those pesky gremlins aren’t supernatural apparitions at all, but instead are a simple mistake. Always take the time to check and double-check these glitches before you do anything rash. It can save you a lot of trouble, like starting over a design from scratch because you didn’t realize that the database was simply in a different directory (my hand is up on this one).

Remember the gremlin that attacked my truck in the form of a faulty alarm system? As it turns out, when the shop first installed the new door switch, no one noticed they had been given the wrong part from their supplier. The door switch was the same size and shape as the original part, but it was slightly different internally, causing it to behave intermittently. But since the shop had ruled out a bad switch as the source of the problem by replacing it, they proceeded to search for other causes. It was only after I brought the truck back the second time and they started the diagnostic process all over from the beginning that they discovered they had the wrong door switch. The truck works great now, my money was refunded, and my mechanic has a new step in their workflow to double-check incoming part numbers. So don’t be hasty when confronted with a gremlin and work through the problem thoroughly. Until next time, everyone, keep on designing.

This column originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of Design007 Magazine.

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