Target Condition: Happier in a Vacuum: The Design Narcissist

  1. Narcissist (Oxford Def):  a person who has an excessive interest in or admiration of themselves. "Narcissists think the world revolves around them."

Older PCB designers from the aerospace industry will surely remember the fictitious MIL-TFP-41 spec (Make It Like the Freakin’ Print for Once), which was a common expression of frustration by un-empathetic engineers regarding the status of their partially built or incorrectly-built designs. Sadly, missing a target condition on a run of printed circuit boards is a two-way street. Root causes may show a breakdown of process on the part of the supplier, but all too often perceived fab or assembly failure is due to missing or fuzzy design specification, abnormally tight tolerancing or warped expectations borne from prototyping in the lab using “unobtainium,” which is unavailable to production suppliers.

Dack_May_Fig1_cap.jpgWithout a doubt, arrogant workplace attitudes have existed in this industry over the decades. Hopefully, as a profession, PCB designers are moving forward and accepting the fresh, positive signals from the many training leaders and trade organizations emphasizing the importance of stakeholder awareness. These visionary champions are conveying the message that we are better off when we look out for all our important industry stakeholders’ functions collectively, as we perform within our personal areas of expertise.

Now more than ever, electronics industry professionals—especially our newly graduated PCB design engineers—are learning the importance of communications and the need to understand the people, processes, materials, and equipment used in PCB engineering and manufacturing. This positive traction has been gained in part because of PCB design awareness programs such as the CID and CID+ curricula offered by the IPC.

However, not all PCB designers have taken the opportunity to be exposed to the workflows and capabilities of their stakeholder counterparts through such programs as these. Design data continues to show up on the doorsteps of production fabricators and EMS providers with inaccurate or missing elements of design for manufacturing (DFM) data. An afternoon spent in the office of a CAM engineer or an EMS provider’s program management lead will convince any observer that many PCB designers are still basically going it alone. They simply do not associate their design practice with the requirements of the other stakeholders in the design and manufacturing cycle. 

Yes, their boards are routed. But their manufacturing disconnects are, in essence, “unterminated leads” which were never conceptually connected to the workflow requirements of the PCB fab, test, and assembly team counterparts in the first place.

As the battle of good vs. evil plays out in Hollywood blockbusters, we may have to concede that along with all the good PCB designers, there may be a contingent of dishonorable counterparts. This is the designer who refuses to recognize the needs of others. I believe there exists a dark place—a vacuum—within which a few PCB designers with narcissistic tendencies consciously choose to operate.

Within this vacuum, requests for improvement from others are never heard. By choosing to work in such a vacuum, a headstrong, vain, stubborn, downskilled PCB designer could feel empowered to create PCB layouts solely to claim their own glory without being bothered by supplier feedback or other project stakeholder constraints. These PCB designers avoid teamwork but still feel comfortable taking credit for the work of the team.

Behold the design narcissist. It sounds like a great title for a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, doesn’t it?

Narcissism is a human condition that affects 100% of the population to one degree or another.  One statistic I read pegs the more serious condition of “narcissistic personality disorder” to between 2% and 16% of the clinical population.

The last time I checked, PCB designers are still human, so it makes sense that during our PCB engineering careers there is a chance we could cross paths with a full-blown PCB design narcissist. But how do you recognize a design narcissist and what can you do to improve such a situation?

Spotting the Potential Design Narcissist
We should all be on the alert for design narcissist. One may join your design team or be your company’s next new hire. As members of an engineering community, we should be aware of the traits of the design narcissist so we can respond with an appropriate action, up to an all-out stakeholder intervention. Here are some design narcissist traits:

  • Avoids checking in with fellow stakeholders, preferring to work in a vacuum. Lacks understanding and empathy for fellow stakeholders working on the same project.
  • Avoids the design review cycle and even cheats the design rule check settings on their own layout tool at the expense of downstream stakeholders.
  • Too self-absorbed to learn or upskill. Severely lacks both spoken and written communication skills required to understand or express the unifying language of industry standards.
  • When a challenge arises, they are always the victim.
  • Quick to require a corrective action report (CAR) of a supplier but would blow a fuse if one was ever issued by a supplier in return.

Dealing With the Potential Design Narcissist
If you have ever helped your daughter dump an abusive mate or couldn’t figure out why the gal on your Tinder date couldn’t stop talking about herself, you may have Googled “narcissism” to find out more. Because this is a PCB design and design engineering magazine, I have listed a few handy countermeasures to keep the design narcissist at bay:

  • Educate yourself. Make sure you are up to date on all the PCB industry design and manufacturing standards so that you are in a position to help and stand your ground professionally.
  • Create boundaries. Establishing and documenting capabilities, processes and workflows create useful peripheries for design and manufacturing teams to operate within.
  • Speak up for yourself. Use the documentation in the previous point to be clear and concise. When a project begins, make sure that all project stakeholders are represented and are given an opportunity to express their requirement for success.
  • Keep your distance but make certain to highlight the respect your position merits on the project team.
  •  Stick to the rules. A PCB design narcissist will try to bend the rules and push for favors which may rob success from another team stakeholder. As a project team, do not cave to these demands or you will feed the monster within.

If you’re worried about being a narcissist or design narcissist, as the adage goes, you probably aren’t one. However, if someone you know is exhibiting disregard for commonly available manufacturing capabilities, with tendencies to design in a vacuum and avoid contact with fellow stakeholders, you may be in the presence of a design narcissist. One sure sign: The designer utters the words “I alone can fix it!”

We must recognize the folly of designing or manufacturing alone in a vacuum. We must watch out for each other, locally and globally. We must push back against any who would look out only for their own success within a PCB project, a company, an industry, a nation, or a world. There is safety in numbers. We must check in with each other often. And keep reading Design007 Magazine, and not just my column.

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

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2022

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