Failure May not be an Option, but Sometimes it's a Reality

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On the surface it seemed like such a great idea: Grill up a bunch of chicken for a huge feast that would leave lots of leftovers while my wife was out of town. But I didn’t realize when I pulled them from the freezer earlier that morning that there were four pieces of chicken in every package instead of just two.

“What the heck. Now I’ll have even more leftovers and I won’t have to cook for a week,” was my bachelor-mode thinking. But I had completely forgotten that with all of that chicken comes all of that grease, and soon my barbecue was engulfed in flames.

Fortunately, I got the fire out before any major damage was done (except for my singed hair), but the charred chicken that I was left with wasn’t very appetizing—not even to the dog. And this wasn’t some silly mistake from my youth; it was just a couple of months ago. In a word, failure!

A famous line was spoken by actor Ed Harris, who portrayed NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz in the movie Apollo 13: “Failure is not an option!” It was a motivating and inspirational thing to hear. Sadly, though, sometimes failure is a reality that we have to deal with. Let’s face it: If life has its ups, then it follows that there will be some downs as well. And in the world of PCB design, those of us sitting at a computer are no stranger to the occasional failure.

One of the most prevalent failures that PCB designers have to deal with is the general misunderstanding about what we do. When I was designing full-time, I can’t begin to tell you how many times I would try to explain what I did only to get a blank look in reply. My wife got so exasperated trying to explain my vocation to people that she eventually resorted to simply saying that I played video games all day long. That answer would usually still get the same blank looks, but at least the gamer crowd suddenly started treating me as an equal (which I’m not really sure was a step in the right direction).

I was explaining my job to some construction contractors one day, and after my lengthy explanation one of the guys simply asked, “Yeah, but can you roof it?” In my opinion, having your vocational zeal and enthusiasm abruptly dismissed like that is a classic form of failure.

But it’s not just the “great unwashed” who have no idea what circuit board design is all about. Sometimes, those who should know better can be a problem too. How many of you designers have ever been in a situation where an engineer puts demands on you that prove that he doesn’t understand what you actually do? I’ve certainly run into that.

I’ve had mechanical engineers question why we are bothering with circuit boards instead of designing the circuitry into the plastic housing of the device. I’ve had manufacturing engineers demand that I shelve the electrical considerations in order to meet manufacturing requirements, and electrical engineers who could care less if the product could actually be built. I’ve had engineers hover over my shoulder watching each and every stroke of the mouse that I make, and others who are never available for important questions which ultimately brought the whole project to a grinding halt. And then like some of you, I’ve had my share of moments where, after the job was completed and the engineering team got their recognition, my efforts were completely ignored.

It can really be tough to not look at this sort of treatment as a complete failure. Of course it isn’t a failure on our part, but it can sure feel that way.

To read this entire article, which appeared in the August 2015 issue of The PCB Design Magazine, click here.


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