Karen McConnell: Recipient of the IPC Raymond E. Pritchard Hall of Fame Award

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The IPC Raymond E. Pritchard Hall of Fame Award is given to individuals in recognition of the highest level of achievement, extraordinary contributions, and distinguished service to IPC and in the advancement of the industry, including the creation of a spirit of mutual esteem, respect and recognition among members consistent with the goals and mission of the IPC on a long-term basis. This is the highest level of recognition that IPC can give to an individual and is based on exceptional merit over a long-term basis, the operative imperative being long term. —from IPC’s website

Patty Goldman speaks with Karen McConnell, senior staff CAD CAM engineer at Northrop Grumman Corporation about receiving this year’s Hall of Fame award.

Patty Goldman: Congratulations, Karen, on your nomination to the Raymond E. Pritchard Hall of Fame, which is IPC’s highest honor for their volunteer workers. It’s a big deal, as you know, and you are so deserving of this. What was it like when you got the call from John Mitchell?

Karen mug.JPGKaren McConnell: Thank you. I called John Mitchell a miracle worker because when he told me I’d won this year’s Hall of Fame Award, I was speechless. I couldn’t talk! At one point, John said, “Karen, are you still there? Did I lose you?” That’s how speechless I was—and I’m not somebody who goes speechless very often.

Goldman: We were talking earlier about your career, which will be in your bio, but please talk about all your IPC involvement. How long have you been doing that? It must be forever!

McConnell: I heard about IPC when I started a new job at UNISYS after graduating college. I moved from ASIC design to printed circuit boards. At the time, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, there were rumors going around that printed circuit boards were going to disappear, and ASICs were going to take over the world. But something in printed circuit boards fascinated me. I minored in robotics in college as an electrical engineer and the data used to fabricate, assemble and test the boards is actually all robotic language. I was hooked.

It sounds dumb, but I was really hooked. I was hooked on the data and not just the soldering, the hardware, and things like that. I worked for a while as a PCB designer actually trying to figure out how to use all the newer tools that were coming out, the autorouters and things like that. I didn’t attend any IPC meetings until I joined Lockheed Martin. My boss was presenting at an IPC meeting. There were a number of us at a Lockheed Martin meeting which was near where the IPC conference was being held. The entire group went for the day, toured the show floor, and that really kind of attracted me to IPC. But what really got me involved was—and I’m going to mark myself with my age—the GenCAM/ODB++ data wars of the 1990s.

You can still search the web and find some articles on that issue. There used to be a quarterly article in trade magazines as to which is better. IPC decided to host the peace talks. I ended up on the management team of the peace delegation. And somehow from that, Dieter Bergman snatched me for the 2-10 and 2-16 committees that were dealing smart data transfer and eventually became the IPC-DPMX (IPC-2581 Digital Product Model Exchange). Often it was just Dieter and me writing the initial document for data with the man from Valor. We would argue, discuss, and compromise, asking continuously “Well, why is that in there?” Valor would say this company needed this and that. That’s how I got started with IPC.

Lockheed Martin was very much embedded and linked with IPC and many of their documents. We actually held joint reviews of IPC documents. I facilitated the Lockheed Martin team that would review design documents and decide, “These are the changes we need to make.” Then the changes would go in front of the IPC committees. The committee would accept those changes many times and the documents improved. Because I went to the IPC meetings, the Lockheed Martin IPC Working Group always needed somebody to cover some meeting because everybody was double, and triple booked. With Lockheed Martin, the team prioritized the committees and the meetings.

There was always a high-priority meeting that no one could cover. I had the task to attend those meetings with instructions such as, “Don’t let them word it this way. Try and get it worded that way.” And they’d give me what I had to do because I was going to assembly meetings, fabrication meetings, and I’m in design, I kind of know the rules. I know what I’m outputting... but at the time I didn’t know any of that stuff (laughs).

I’m fortunate that my current company, Northrop Grumman, has encouraged and supported my involvement with IPC, recognizing that our active participation benefits all, especially as we pioneer new technologies and embrace enterprise-wide data.

Goldman: So, you’ve learned a lot, right?

McConnell: Well, when you sit at an IPC meeting you do, and I’m not afraid of asking the dumb question. Everybody I have met at IPC cares about the industry, cares that things are done correctly, and cares that it costs their company less. But I would ask these dumb, very basic questions, and by the time everybody explained it to me, whoever was scribing up in the front would say, “You know, guys, I think we just solved this problem that we talked about last week, or last meeting.”

Finally, I made my way to committees where I feel very comfortable, but I always belong to a committee where I feel very uncomfortable. I recently joined the printed electronics committees, in which I have no experience but I’m learning. Even though I’m getting close to retirement, I don’t want to stop learning. I find it fascinating that I can wear electronics, and I see where the industry is going.

Just the other night, my husband and I were reminiscing about our careers in electronics and the printed circuit board field. He held up his iPad, and he said, “Remember when you started working and I gave you a tour of the plant?” I said, “Yeah. And you told me to bring along some old clothes and I went in the ladies' room and changed into them before my tour.” Because that’s back in the day where women usually wore dresses or really nice slacks to work. We’re talking last century dress codes right now. Men normally wore white shirts with ties for the engineers. You could tell an engineer from a technician because the engineer had the white shirt on, and the technician had the colored shirt on. The technician might not have the tie on because he was crawling around under the fake floor in the computer room. So, I changed into an old pair of pants, and he gave me a lab coat to put over my blouse. He opened the floor, and we crawled around underneath the computer system. He showed me the wiring. My husband worked at UNISYS and he started at UNISYS working on the last vacuum tube computer that company put out. I joined UNISYS and worked on the last ECL computer that they put out. They went to CMOS after that.

We have seen the change in technology, and we both marvel and hold up our tablets and realize that there’s more power in that tablet than there was in the big room of the large mainframes that we worked on. That was the start of our careers.

Goldman: Talk about change, right?

McConnell: Yes, I’ve seen a lot of change in my life, in the world, in my career. In the ’90s, there were many people in this career that we lost because we had the downturn, they just left the industry and did something else. There are many who came back, but we’ve been through ups and downs, and I really do believe that this industry is so vibrant partly because of IPC, and partly because we get together at IPC even if it’s meetings, and even if it’s now online meetings and conferences. I discovered it’s easier when everybody is going through the change together and you have somebody to talk to about it. I really enjoy change, I enjoy the disruptions, but that makes me, I’ll say, outside the norm. Most people...

Goldman: …do not like change.

McConnell: They do not enjoy change. You know, I look at change as neither good nor bad, it’s an evolution. And if I stick with it, eventually I’ll be back to not exactly where I am but back doing something similar because it’s a rotation. It’s not a sine wave. It’s a rotation up a column. We’re getting better, but we’re kind of doing the same thing around it. If you have ever seen the change circle, it’s around the change circle, but it walks you up a column.

Goldman: I know what you mean. An upward spiral.

McConnell: Within IPC, they manage that change. Being a member of IPC and being on a committee, where we add this word, and then we change that phrase, and we add a comment here, and you massage sometimes just a sentence, and suddenly, it’s just there. It’s just brilliant. And it’s because, at IPC, we get to use our collective brain. Humans were not made to be in a single brain. We were made to be a collective brain, and to me at IPC, that’s the best time that we can use it.

Goldman: IPC encourages and fosters the cooperation and the consensus on all documents and in meetings; that’s the hallmark of IPC: the neutral ground where everybody can meet and discuss.

McConnell: At IPC, I witnessed this early on and it was what really cemented that I wanted to be part of this group early in my career. I sat in a meeting, one of those that I knew nothing about—we’re talking last century, and we still were not the kinder, gentler workforce we are now. Across the room, these two people were having this violent argument. Papers were being thrown; the table was being hit. This was before we all had computers on our table. “You’re wrong!” “No, you’re wrong!” the tempers were rising, and the volume was going up.

Goldman: Was it about solder joints? (Laughs)

McConnell: Probably. At lunch, I went over to one of the gentlemen who said, “Come sit with us, and we’ll try and explain it.” We sat there in a calm lunch, and they start joking. I was amazed. At IPC, you can very much disagree in the meetings, but when we leave the room, we’re all together, we’re IPC. And that argument or disagreement is not carried outside the rooms. The men who were arguing went back in the meeting and resolved the problem. This taught me a couple of lessons. But that’s what I find from IPC: you can have a violent discussion with somebody during a meeting—people are passionate about electronics! And then you go out for an ice cream cone or for dinner that evening, or a bar, and you’re all friends.

There were mostly men in the meetings in the last century. I’ve seen the women grow in this industry. It’s been really great. We really don’t need a women’s reception anymore because we’re integrated into IPC; IPC was one of the first places where I really felt that. IPC did a really good job of encouraging inclusion and diversity. If you were working as a woman in the less kind, general world of the ’90s, IPC was refreshing, because in the ’90s. I was used to people carrying the arguments down the hallways at work, and I’ll say the language was a lot different back then. I’ll word it that way...

Goldman: Your companies have always supported you at IPC.

McConnell: Yes, always, because they recognized that IPC helps you develop new technology. It also helps you identify where your company is. All my positions have been in support and forward-looking, “Where do I need to encourage my tool vendors to go?” That’s been my job. There has always been a forward-looking IPC committee. Back in my starting days, it was the data transfer, which I am passionate about. If you don’t have the data right, you might as well not do anything else if you can’t keep that data correct and secure. Don’t mess with it too much. Data integrity is something that I still care about today.

Many times, the data transfer committee would discuss the methods to have machines talk to each other. In the ’90s we were talking about this, but we were way ahead of what the industry was looking for. Now, along comes the connected factory (IPC-CFX), and I connected the new people with the people who worked on the previous stuff back in the ’90s, so that the new group didn’t have to start from scratch. I’m a member of that community, and again, that’s data-centric.

When IPC decided that committee chairs needed to rotate off committees to bring new ideas and direction to the leadership, I looked around, and I was chair of nine committees. I’m sitting there saying, “Why am I doing all this work?” My first mentee took one of my committee chairs. A friend who was a Lockheed Emerging Engineer took another one of my committees. In fact, after my most recent document gets released, I will not be a chair anymore. I will be stepping down from my final chairing position. I’m still chair of TAEC, but that’s only until the next APEX. I only have a year left on that.

Goldman: But you’ll still have a lifetime membership in TAEC.

McConnell: Oh yes, I’m a lifetime member of TAEC. My husband said, “What are you going to do? Can you retire? Every now and then you need a technical fix.” We’d be on vacation for a week, and I’d have IPC with me. He said, “What are you going to do when you retire?” I looked at him and said, “Lots of IPC work!”

I am setting up things now. There’s been a changeover in what I’ve been looking at in the last few years. Whenever I’d go to an IPC meeting, I would go out to my printed circuit board and assembly community, and my producibility community, and say, “I know they can’t send us all, and I know the people they’re sending already have their schedule. So, guys, what aren’t you able to cover that you need somebody to sit down and listen to and see if it’s something we need to pay attention to.” I’ll get two or three papers. That’s been something I’ve done all the time at IPC conferences. But guess what? At my next APEX EXPO, I can satisfy Karen McConnell.

Goldman: There you go. You can do whatever you want, right?

McConnell: Yes. I’m looking forward to that. I’ve always cared about everything, but I’m looking forward to doing the things that are data-centric, pushing technology and seeing where I can interject my knowledge of design and process. Somehow, for a girl who used to fail in English class, I write a lot of documents now. There are so many things now that I can’t go to. I’m saying, “Ahh, what do I choose?” But I do have a mentee. This will be our second APEX EXPO, and I want to devote some time to her.

Goldman: Karen, thank you so much for your time. And congratulations again. I look forward to seeing you at our next meeting of the Hall of Fame Council.

McConnell: You’re welcome.




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