Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The Worst Thing You Could do for Someone is to Set Low Expectations

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What does a PCB designer do at Google? That was the first question that came to mind, when I connected with John Burkhert Jr. Plus, designing PCBs—the basic component on which all other components get assembled upon—is something that does not get as much limelight as it should. Hence, I pinged John, and he thankfully agreed for this discussion…

John Burkhert, Sr. PCB Designer at Google
John Burkhert, Sr. PCB Designer at Google

Q. Can you describe your current role? What are the primary results that you are expected to achieve for your organisation in this role?

A. As a senior PCB designer for the “Product Enablement” team at Google, I’m assigned primarily to the phone team and also help the VR team as they use the same Qualcomm chip-sets. We “own” our designs and schedules and are expected to do world-class work using resources inside and outside of the company to achieve the tight timelines. In short, we manage the layout process as much as do it.

Q. What are the things that excite you–about this role?

A. Enriching peoples’ lives with cool hardware. One of my most exciting projects was one of the smallest. Chromecast did not define a product sector but revolutionized the streaming dongles by allowing control from the smart phone. Well over 30 million devices have been sold. The original ones keep getting better through over-the-air updates without any effort from the owners. None of those customers know me but I get satisfaction from the fact that they are enjoying my efforts.

Q. PCB design is said to be both science and an art—what are your thoughts on this? While the science can be trained, how does one master the art?

A. It most certainly is a Left brain/Right brain thing. Maybe, that’s why it’s such a hard position to fill. I don’t know where I heard this story but an Art Teacher told her students something that rings true. (Similar quotes have been attributed to cartoonist Chuck Jones and animator Walt Stanchfield among others – according to Google.)

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“You have 10,000 bad paintings inside of you. Get started.” Your first painting isn’t going to be the Mona Lisa but draw what you like, learn perspective, learn shading, learn composition and so on. Refine those skills through successive iteration.

Layout is like that. Take a list of parts and arrange it into something that flows naturally. Prioritize the routing and pull order from chaos. An un-routed circuit looks daunting until you learn to break it down into digestible steps. Starting with the small boards and increasing complexity until you’ve mastered it all.

Q. What’re the top 2 or 3 challenges for you in this role?

A. The world of electronics gets smaller with each generation. The challenge is adding more and better features while increasing battery life. Another thing is to hire people who are the best at what they do; better than me so that we improve as a team.

Q. Is this the kind of role that you had dreamt of when you were in college? If not, how did the shift happen? Are you happy with it?

A. No. I moved from manufacturing to design so I get away from solving the tactical problems and into solving the technical problems. I saw the darkened room with computers showing the “guts” of the products and wanted to be in that room rather than on the shop floor running the assembly groups.

Q. Wow! From manufacturing to design. That must have been an interesting challenge. How did you surmount that?

A. After four years in E/M (electronics manufacturing) assembly, I had saved up a nest-egg in my 401k plan that I invested in a trade school, The Copper Connection where I learned analog and digital design as well as manual and CAD drafting over a six month period.

Coming out of that, I did Mil-Spec (military specification) E/M drafting for a couple years before I got a breakthrough transfer to the commercial side of the company where I was taught an obscure CAD PCB program called EE Designer.

This program was originally written in Swedish so the interface was… well, you know, Mama used to say that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. We moved on to PADS then Cadence Allegro and eventually Advanced Package Designer and back to Allegro.

Q. What are the skill sets needed to reach this role?

A. I’d like to say “Tetris and Connect-the-Dots” but it’s more about knowing what can and cannot be produced, collaborating with the more abstract thinkers on the schematic side and then the CAD games.

You do your best work and then be prepared to dump it down the drain to make improvements that you didn’t see coming.

Be tenacious with the connections and gracious with the people. The final connections may seem impossible. Make it look easy from the outside, especially if it’s not. People remember that and come back for more.

Q. Is keeping up-to-date with latest technologies and their applications—a challenge for you? If yes, how do you handle the same?

A. It would be if I didn’t love reading. All of the world’s knowledge is right in your hand or your lap. Having a good number of peers, mentors, managers and others who have taken an interest in lifting me up certainly helps. It starts with curiosity though.

Q. What are the growth options (career) from here onwards?

A. I don’t want to directly manage anyone but that is one path forward. I tried my hand at being a consultant but got lured back to the captive role for the perks. Starting a family will do that.

My perception of this is that the smaller you go in geometry, the higher you go in terms of prestige. I’m certainly not knocking my mechanical/industrial design cousins. They’ve got a cool gig too but for me, focusing down to substrates and then chips would make more sense.

Q. For youngsters dreaming to fill in your shoes—what would be your advice to them? What aspects should they work on to reach here?

A. Expect to start out with AutoCAD drafting or PCB library work. It seems mundane but no PCB can be any better than the underlying footprints.

Attention to detail at that level will propel you on to the next step. It might be flex circuits and daughter-cards and progress to more and more integration as you show your skills.

Don’t be afraid of contracts or other temporary work. Breadth is greater than depth at some point.

Q. What’s your take on Open Source software for PCB design? It is a good route to focus on the fundamentals of design rather than get hooked to one type of tool?

A. Learn to do layout any way you can but realize that your second CAD package will be the hardest one because it’s not the way you learned it. Once upon a time, I was being head hunted and I sought the advice of a Career Counselor who told me that if I could learn Allegro on someone else’s dime. that would be the right move.

I stayed put and learned Allegro. Good decision in hindsight. You could also make a career out of Mentor or Altium. The others are shrink-wrapped stepping stones.

Q. What are the key mistakes that you made that you think you should have avoided in hind-sight? Any learnings?

A. I learned to accept changes. That wasn’t natural and only became so when I purged the “C-word” (changes) and starting using the term “improvements”. That one paradigm shift made things better for everyone.

Q. Any good leaders that you worked for? What did you learn from them?

A. Yes. An “RF Guru” took me under his wing and taught me the craft in detail. Then, he opened some doors at other companies for me to grow. It worked out to be mutually beneficial.

Q. Any bad leaders (need not name them)? Any learnings from them?

A. I might have thought so at the time but no, not really. They were just trying to get the best out of me and again, mutually beneficial but it seemed like tough love.

The worst thing you could do for someone is to set low expectation. I guess that happened once for about six months. Move on, that’s all I can say about that.

Q. What’s been your leadership style in terms of managing your people? Any mantras that you have developed/follow to lead your team?

A. When I was an assembly supervisor, I set clear goals and tracked everyone’s progress against those metrics so that the reviews basically wrote themselves. I try to be impartial with my current vendors. I guess I’d have to say, “Keep your people engaged or they’ll move on.”

Q. How do you balance time between work and personal life?

A. Riding a bike to work is “my time”. Head’s down work is their time. Chatting with my co-workers is “our time”. Get a little of each every day.

Self and family first. Band buddies and bike buddies second/third. If you’re good enough at your job, it won’t eat all of your time unless you let it. My obituary isn’t going to mention my occupation – at least, not if I get to write it.

Put the gizmos down. Own a phone but don’t let it own you. If that thing ever sees the inside of your bedroom, you’re doing it wrong.

Q. If you were in college right now—what would you wanna be in the next 5 years?

A. An investment banker.

Q. Why—an investment banker? What appeals you about that role?

A. Give me your money and let me turn it into more money. I’ll make money whether you do or not. Somebody has to live in that penthouse. Someone has to drive that Italian super car. Why not me?

To tell the truth, it’s not the job, it’s the pay-check. If money was of no concern, then I’d be happy writing fiction so I could take people places and make them laugh, cry, sigh and most of all, think while they anticipate what’s coming on the next page.

Q. What are the three things you’d like people to say at your retirement party?

A. Can you come back and consult for us once in a while? Don’t forget to write. Is this really your boat?


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