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…
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.)
“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.