Being an electronics engineer is an exciting but tough job. You need to know everything about the application which you are designing, the constraints that you have, but somehow you also need to about how manufacturing works and what you can and can’t do during that process. To tell us more about this, we’ve invited John Burkhert for our second episode of the “Tracing the Routes” interview series. John is a seasoned Senior PCB Designer who only recently transitioned from working on cool projects such as Chromecast at Google to building the future of mobility at Velodyne LiDAR. He also publishes “Notes from the Board Room”, a series of articles about PCB Design, which I strongly recommend you to read.
You can find the first “Tracing the Routes” episode here.
Radu: Hi John! Please tell us more about yourself
John: I came out of mechanical assembly and quality assurance then learned PCB design and AutoCAD at a trade school. Since then, I have found jobs and jobs have found me in equal measure. Previous managers and a couple headhunters have paved the way to almost 30 years of virtually continuous employment
R: Do you remember the first product that you worked from idea all the way to execution? Tell us more about it.
J: My first major project was an RF power amplifier for Lockheed’s Portable Search And Target Acquisition Radar “P-STAR” system. We were a subcontractor. I had the mechanical design of the housing, the semi-rigid cabling, the shielding and the PCB layouts.
As a DOD program, it was over-built with 100% derating and very well documented with all of the piece-parts in isometric and projected views along with exploded view assembly drawings. It was beautiful but only to the trained eye.
After a few other Military contracts, I followed the company into the cellular base station business. A lot of lessons learned on that job including three CAD PCB layout platforms, two of which are still around.
R: What trends have you seen in PCB design throughout your experience? Which one would you say is the most prominent today?
J: Three obvious trends are faster, smaller and higher efficiency. Balancing these competing trends is the tricky part. The one with the biggest impact is battery life in this highly mobile world. Chips do more stuff with less space which leads to higher current density and that drives thermal concerns.
It’s like signal integrity is taken for granted and power integrity is where the drama spikes. Ground has always been important. It’s probably more important now than ever.
R: What are the three basic qualities that you think a PCB designer must have in order to grow and excel in this field?
J: Curiosity will take you far in most any field. This field of work rewards the “MacGyver” tenacity and cleverness except it’s not fiction. Combine those attributes with people skills and a work ethic and you’ll go places.
R: What do the world class organizations expect from a PCB designer? How is it different than doing the same job in a startup? Are there any specific skills that one needs to have so that he/she excels in either type of organization?
J: Two jobs that were very different from each other gave me a broad spectrum of successful examples. Qualcomm strove to keep us in the place-and-route mode by providing strong support from front to back. Tape-outs are highly automated. Google on the other hand, started with next to nothing and developed a process along the way.
Chrome came out of nowhere and grew into a standard in the blink of an eye. In either case, good communication skills and patience are necessary.
The punchline: It can get bogged down. Things will improve but will take time.
Start-ups are interesting in that you may wear additional hats. Out of necessity, you’ll become an expert in things you knew nothing about. Your contributions are magnified and everybody seems to know you.
Networking to get buy-in and taking the longer view, one small victory at a time will help you steer a course.
The punchline: It can get crazy. Things will improve but only if you get out and sell your ideas.
R: How do you keep yourself up-to-date with the latest technologies?
J: Data sheets are a gold mine or a land mine depending. Filtering what they tell you with what the PCB fabricators can actually do will put you in the right space.
Most fabs will share their technology roadmaps so you can go to, but not over, the leading edge. These two things, what chip-vendors want and what fab shops can do will keep you on your toes as you seek the sweet spot.
R: What are your favorite tools that you use in your job?
J: I’ve made a good living using Cadence products. Like any big company, they can be a little slow on the feature introduction but when they do get around to adding functions, it’s usually a mature solution. Mentor and Altium would be my next choices.
R: What advice would you give a young graduate who wants to be a professional PCB designer?
J:On attitude: Make sure you really like doing layout but don’t fall in love with your work. Do your best but be ready to rip it up and do it again. Emotional attachment won’t work.
On broader horizons: Get comfortable with all kinds of boards; analog, digital, power supplies, high speed, HDI, flex, substrates, everything. A service bureau is great for the wide exposure.
On quality: Think of DFM (Design For Manufacturing) as Design For Money. The assembly machine sends products in the customer’s direction and money in your direction. If money and product flow in the same direction, take responsibility. Don’t do anything that will slow down or stop the money machine.
Finally: Your work is central to success or failure. Keep the big picture in the foreground and let that view frame the little decisions.
R: Thank you very much John. I hope our readers find your insights as interesting as I did. For more episodes, don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIN. If you have any questions or suggestions, please send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org