For some strange reason that I still don’t really understand, I abruptly decided to take a typing class in the eighth grade. This baffled my parents and teachers alike as everyone knew that I had absolutely no aptitude for any sort of literary or language skills. Not only was it a challenge for me to string a simple sentence together coherently, but I was (and still am) possibly the worst “spellar” in the history of writing. Honestly, and I don’t think that I’m exaggerating much, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a white flag pop out of the back of my computer as the spell checker admits defeat and surrenders in humiliation. It’s not just my computer either. When I ask for help trying to sound out a word, Alexa will turn a deaf ear and my wife will politely ask if I have taken up a new foreign dialect as a hobby.
As you can see, it simply didn’t make any sense for me to take a typing class, but I did it anyway. This was the era of the big typewriters that devoured paper by the ream and had zero editing capabilities, which seems barbaric by today’s standards. But to tell the truth, I got pretty good at it and scored fairly high in the typing speed tests—as long as you ignored my “speling” mistakes. However, once I finished the class, any thoughts of typing disappeared from my head as I pursued music, sports, and girls—not necessarily in that order. Remember, this was still the eighth grade.
Who knew that eventually the computer generation would be upon us, and that I would start laying out circuit boards on various computer design systems? The CAD tools didn’t necessarily require the ability to type, but the old Unix networking tasks and the shell scripts I started writing certainly benefitted from my eighth grade typing class. Eventually I moved into management positions, which required writing reports and procedures, followed by a time of providing customer support for a PCB CAD company through emails and white papers. Now I am employed as a writer covering various technical subjects and clients. As I said, who knew? I can tell you, though, I am certainly thankful that I took that class.
My point is to prepare yourself for the career ahead of you. I was very fortunate that one random decision I made a very long time ago ended up being so helpful to my career, and by extension, to my life. However, if we were to entrust our entire future solely on the hopeful benefits of random choices, we would more than likely end up with a disaster on our hands. Therefore, it is important to make some informed choices when it comes to preparing for the future, so that we are ready for what the world of circuit board design will require of us. In that spirit, here are some ideas that can help.
PCB designers are expected now to have a thorough background of engineering or technical training and education, and that should be your first focus. Beyond that, additional classes, seminars, and workshops will help to broaden your overall knowledge, while training in specific areas such as high-speed design are essential for most applications. It is also very helpful to obtain certification in different industrial standards.
There is no denying that industry “experience” is like the old expression: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Potential employers are looking for experience, and you must be employed to get the experience they are looking for. However, there are always unique employment solutions waiting where you don’t expect, such as surprise job openings, related positions that allow you to work into a design position, etc. Keep looking and knocking on doors. One of my first jobs in PCB layout came because I persisted in my contact with a design shop. When they finally needed additional entry level help, I was the first one they turned to.
The more experience you have with different design tools, the better. Yes, you should focus on just a few to refine your skills as a designer, but it still is a good idea to keep up with others. You never know when your company may decide to swap out a tool set, you need to look for another job, or an incredible new opportunity suddenly presents itself. Aside from those, there is another reason why it is beneficial to understand different tools. Each CAD vendor takes a slightly different approach to the structure of PCB design data. By familiarizing yourself with these different approaches, you will have a better understanding overall of how CAD processes work. This can be very beneficial when someone is looking for a designer with a more global perspective on CAD tools to help migrate to a new system, or looking to improve their own process and workflow.
The more you know about the process of printed circuit board design, fabrication, and assembly, the better. As a young designer I had no idea why I had to follow some of the requests that engineers made of me, but as I came to understand manufacturing processes and DFM requirements, it all started to come into focus. This greater understanding gave me the ability to design for the process instead of correcting my work to bring it up to meet the requirements. But don’t stop just there; keep on exploring new technologies and processes. Explore flex manufacturing if you don’t already understand it, and learn about different board materials for RF, high-temperature, or other harsh environments. Our industry is constantly growing, and it is essential to grow with it.
Oh, boy, here’s the tough one. I’m just going to put these ideas out there, and if you think that I’m nuts on some of this, so be it. But I have found their relevance in my own career path, so hopefully they can be of help to you.
Be on-time and available: Not only do you need to be at your workstation to do the job you’ve signed up to do, but you need to be available for meetings and consultations during your regular work hours. Many people don’t realize how much this matters to managers who need a simple question answered or a task accomplished. To put it simply, if you aren’t where you should be on a regular basis, your manager will soon turn to someone else to get the job done.
Be a team player: More than likely you will be working with others throughout your career, and you will have to function in a team environment. Teamwork can be tough, especially in our industry where we often work on our own, and you may not always agree with each other. But it is essential to work collaboratively toward a common goal even if it isn’t always in the direction you expected. Be prepared to stand up and make a compelling argument for what you believe, while at the same time prepared to make a reasonable compromise. Negotiation, communication, and mutual respect are all essential components of a successful team, and that general rule remains the same no matter what industry you are in.
Learn to take a blow: Sometimes events just don’t turn out the way we expected them to. We didn’t get the job we wanted, somebody threw us under the bus at work, or we really messed up a layout that cost time, money, and embarrassment. Maybe we’ve even been laid off from a position that we really loved. I’ve been through all of these, and I know how tempting it is to want to hide from the world, hoping that it will all just magically go away. But don’t do it. Pick up the pieces, make the corrections, and most importantly, believe in yourself again. Take control of the events surrounding you instead of yielding that control to the circumstances.
Produce beyond what is expected of you: I realize that this is a very sensitive topic, but if you want to succeed, you must commit to what you are doing. Make sure your job gets done, volunteer for the tougher assignments, and don’t overcharge your employers for what you are doing. The goal is to market yourself as the go-to person in your employer’s eyes so they will see you as an asset to their team.
Protect yourself: It can be very easy to over-commit while building your career. There are also unscrupulous employers out there who will abuse your honest efforts without anything given in return. To ensure that you can always do the highest quality of work, keep an eye out for signs of burnout and protect yourself, even if it means pursuing other opportunities.
As I look around at the work being done in our industry today, I am filled with anticipation of what is around the corner. Tomorrow really is going to be an amazing day. It is exciting to be a part of all of this, and I hope these ideas have helped in some small way to prepare the designers of tomorrow with the tools they will need to get there. See you all next time, and until then, keep on designing.
This column orginally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Design007 Magazine.