Tim's Takeaways: Some Timely Advice

Have you ever heard of Bert Christman[1-2]? Bert was a storyteller, a graphic illustrator to be exact, and in 1936 took over as the lead writer and illustrator of the nationally syndicated comic “Scorchy Smith.” As a daring pilot/adventurer, Scorchy’s stories fed into the public’s interest in aviation that had been fueled by the exploits of Charles Lindbergh and other notable pilots of the day. Under Bert’s guidance, Scorchy soared to new heights in aerial adventures, and the comic’s popularity continued to grow. But that wasn’t enough for Bert Christman, who wanted to find new ways to connect to his readership with realistic stories and illustrations of Scorchy’s flying adventures. To accomplish this, he took his research to the next level with flying lessons and quickly earned his wings.

In the late 1930s, Scorchy Smith’s adventures expanded beyond the domestic problems that readers were used to, and he faced new levels of international threats coinciding with real-world turbulences. At the same time, Bert decided to put his writing on hold as he joined the U.S. Navy as a dive-bomber pilot. Not only did he want to defend his country, but he wanted to broaden his understanding of aerial combat for future stories with the real-life experiences of being a combat pilot. Three years later he left the Navy to join the American Volunteer Group, otherwise known as the Flying Tigers, in the defense of China. It was here that Bert’s life literally blended with his writing as he lived the same type of adventures that he had penned for Scorchy Smith and other heroes in the comics. Bert commented on this dangerous life in a letter home, “Things are getting hot here. Even Scorchy Smith would be satisfied.” Sadly, this is also how he met his fate when shortly thereafter he was shot down during a dogfight in January 1942.

Haag_July_Scorchy.jpg
I realize that this story doesn’t have anything to do with the printed circuit design and manufacturing industry, but it is a real professional motivator for me, so let me tie it all together. In this edition of Design007 Magazine, we are exploring advice from the experts. As I was pondering some of the things that I’ve learned or wished that I had learned along the way, the story of Bert Christman came to mind. What I find so captivating about him is that he was willing to put everything on the line in order to improve his abilities in producing a better product. I am not at all suggesting volunteering for hazardous duty pay to improve our DDR routing skills, but his story does serve as an inspiration as to how committed a person can be in improving their skills and abilities. I just wish that I had learned this lesson a lot earlier in my career so I would have had more time to put it into practice. Maybe I might have learned a few other skills in my professional journey as well. In fact, if I had a time machine, here are a few other pieces of advice that as a designer I would have liked to have known earlier too.

It's ‘Circuit Board Design,’ Not ‘Place and Route Design’
When I was first starting out in PCB layout, I was fascinated by placing parts and routing nets on the screen as any new designer is. Soon I came to understand many of the nuances of PCB layout, and how the different spacing rules applied in the art of place and route. But I also made a lot of mistakes that could have been avoided if I had only grasped the concept that I was actually designing a “circuit board” as opposed to simply performing place and route. I remember not understanding—and therefore ignoring—some of the early signal integrity problems that were being discussed around me. These included topics such as broadside coupling and signal return paths, all of which were important to what I was doing. Thankfully, my work was monitored by senior designers, and I don’t believe that I caused any serious damage. But if I could, I would sit the younger version of me down and explain that layout is an all-encompassing process that begins with the schematic, and not when you start throwing parts on the screen.

Board Integrity Starts With Library Integrity
Like a lot of designers eager to get rolling on their first layouts, I was happy to grab any old part out of a library and throw it into the design. What I didn’t fully realize at the time, though, was how essential a properly built PCB footprint is to the manufacturing process, and that real-life components would eventually have to be soldered to these land patterns. I shudder to think of how many times I may have swapped an anode for a cathode in some of my first layouts. Thankfully, this lack of attention to detail didn’t seem to result in too many actual problems, although I do remember having to go back and make a few corrections here and there. But again, with the Wayback Machine dialed into my earliest days of PCB layout, I would explain to my younger self the entire concept of circuit board manufacturing from start to finish. I would then explain how manufacturing relates to design and the importance of choosing the right footprints for the parts in the BOM. I would make sure my younger self understood the critical importance of dimensionally accurate footprints and land patterns, emphasizing that even one incorrect pad size could put the whole design in jeopardy of failing.

PCB Design is Not Just About Me
I’m really embarrassed to even admit to this one, but sadly it’s true. As a junior designer, I tended to look upon the input of other members of the design team as being more of an annoyance than the collaborative partnership it should have been. Now, it is true that the working relationships between team members need to be managed appropriately, and not everyone can get everything in a design to be the way they want it to be, but I was completely out of line in my earlier days when it came to design change requests. “Move this part closer to that one? No way, that will mess up my beautiful routing.” “What do you mean that will cause a manufacturing problem? Who cares? The design looks great.” Once again, if we could just run the DeLorean up to 88 mph, I would give my younger self a good slap and convince him that the sun doesn’t rise and set with how the design looks. The priority is that the circuit board must actually work and be manufacturable above all. Great Scott!

Getting Your Ducks in a Row Avoids Getting All ‘Fowled’ Up
It is amazing when I think back to how many times I rushed through important parts of a project, just so I could get into the “fun stuff.” Here’s one example that caused me grief on more than one occasion as a junior layout designer: “Oh I don’t need to worry about all of these separate design rules, let’s just set the default and start hooking up traces.” Are you wincing right now just as much as I am with that memory? If I could just convince the Guardian of Forever to send me back to the first occurrence of haste in my career, hopefully, I could change the course of history. I would tell myself that taking an extra 30 minutes up front is much preferable than the hours of re-work that I was headed for later.

 

Relax, Have Fun, and Don’t Take Yourself So Seriously
And lastly, I would borrow the phone booth from Bill and Ted long enough to advise my younger self to lighten up just a little. When I first started laying out boards, I could be kind of intense, which didn’t always work out very well. I would get down on myself for mistakes that I had made, while at the same time trying to manipulate people into doing what I thought was best. There is so much joy to be found in what we do and who we work with that such a high level of intensity just isn’t necessary. Plus, it isn’t very healthy either. Please don’t misunderstand me. We still need to be diligent in our work, and always aim to improve ourselves just as Bert Christman did. But we don’t need to kill ourselves and those around us doing it.

And speaking of killing ourselves while working, my wife is in the other room watching basketball all by herself, and I think that I am going to join her for a while. Keep on designing everyone, and I’ll see you next time.

References

  1. Life Imitates Art, Colorado State University Magazine.
  2. Cartoonist Bert Christmas Did Not Survive War, The Daily Cartoonist, May 31, 2021.

This column originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of Design007 Magazine.

Back

2021

Tim's Takeaways: Some Timely Advice

07-14-2021

Who inspires you to be a better designer? For Tim Haag, he finds motivation in the story of Bert Christman. Read on for how this daring Navy pilot's life relates to advice in the world of circuit board design.

View Story

Tim's Takeaways: DDR Routing, and Other Big Fish in the Lake of Technology

05-21-2021

Tim's fishing story relates well to designing circuit boards. Intrigued? Read on, he explains how "there's always a bigger fish."

View Story

Tim’s Takeaways: Conquering Layers of Challenges in PCB Stackups

01-25-2021

When he first started laying out printed circuit boards many years ago, Tim was working for a computer systems manufacturer whose PCB designs were all multilayer boards. While there were a great many things that I learned during my time working there, it also fostered one bad habit; He became accustomed to relying on being able to use multiple layers for routing instead of planning a more efficient layout. Here, he breaks it all down.

View Story
Back

2020

Tim’s Takeaways: PCB Vias, ‘You Have a Go’

11-13-2020

Do you remember the old TV show “Stargate SG-1?” With the exhortation of “SG-1, you have a go” from their commanding officer, the stargate would instantaneously transport an intrepid band of heroes to new and exciting locations each week. Tim Haag details his realization that the stargate is nothing more than a giant via in space!

View Story

Tim’s Takeaways: Thermal Management for PCB Designers—Staying Out of the Fire

09-09-2020

If there’s one thing in life that really feels the pressure of being in the hot seat, it’s the PCBs that we design. But PCB designers often feel a lot of pressure while doing their work, which puts them squarely in the hot seat. Tim Haag shares four techniques in thermal management for PCB designers.

View Story

Tim's Takeaways: Navigating Industry Expectations

05-29-2020

While some expectations are normal—and, well, expected—in the workplace, there are also those that do more harm than good. Tim Haag unpacks negative expectations and shares suggestions for improving communication in the workplace, as well as positive expectations that you can set for yourself.

View Story

Tim’s Takeaways: Working From Home—5 Tips for Newbies

03-24-2020

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, many people who have worked in an office environment for their entire career have suddenly found themselves shifted to working remotely. At first, this may seem like it isn’t that big of a change, but it may be a bigger deal than you realize. Tim Haag, who has worked from home for over 17 years, shares five tips for making the most of this situation and working successfully from home.

View Story

Tim’s Takeaways: Clearing Up the Buzz

02-14-2020

My first “real” job in the world of electronics was working at a Radio Shack store back in the late ‘70s. It was a step up from flipping burgers, but it didn’t last long. However, there was one notable aspect of that job; I was there during the time that Radio Shack introduced its first personal computer—the TRS-80. Although it is practically unimaginable now, in those days, there wasn’t much in the way of personal computing available for the general consumer.

View Story
Back

2019

Tim's Takeaways: Realizing a Higher Standard for PCB Design

10-09-2019

To the untrained eye, one circuit board may look pretty much like any other, but as we know, there are major differences between them. Not only are they different in purpose and design but also in how they are manufactured for specific industries. If you are designing medical equipment, for instance, you will have to meet many different regulatory requirements from organizations, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), World Health Organization (WHO), and International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), among others.

View Story

Tim's Takeaways: Clear Communication Takes the Cake

07-10-2019

Whether baking a cake or building a circuit board, it’s all about clear communication. If the person writing the recipe had not made the choice to clearly communicate what their intentions were for baking that cake, I would have been lost. A missing ingredient here or an incorrect oven temperature there and my birthday surprise would have ended up in the garbage in the same way a successfully built circuit board starts with clear communication from the designer. Circuit board manufacturers want to create a perfect PCB for you, but they can only do so to the extent of the instructions that you give them.

View Story

Tim's Takeaways: Rules Keep You from Crossing the Line

06-20-2019

Driving rules are designed to keep drivers between the lines of traffic instead of crossing over those lines into dangerous situations. Similarly, design rules are also intended to keep PCB trace routing between the lines instead of crossing over them as well. But you might be surprised how many people refuse to use the full potential of their DRCs to protect themselves, and in some cases, refuse to use them at all.

View Story

Tim's Takeaways: I Think I’ll Go for a Walk

04-08-2019

Many years ago, my boss at a PCB design service bureau had his own unique way of encouraging us to take a break. He would come through the design bay and call out in his deep baritone voice, “DARTS!” and we would all follow him into the break area for a quick game. In addition to the benefits of taking a break, forcing our eyes to focus in and out as we threw a dart was a great way to relieve us all from the eye strain of older CRT monitors.

View Story

Tim's Takeaways: A Job Worth Doing

02-28-2019

I get it. We PCB designers are made of the kind of tough stuff where we will work ourselves to death if given the chance. But in our all of our efforts, are we really doing it right, or could we somehow be doing it better? Let’s take a moment to consider some other ways that we might help ourselves to improve.

View Story
Back

2018

Tim's Takeaways: Contract Positions—Go the Extra Mile

10-10-2018

For newbies just entering the industry or experienced designers who have always worked for a corporation, the transition to contractor can be a real culture shock. The allure of working from home and setting your own hours can quickly be replaced by the realities of chasing jobs and wondering where your next payday will come from. However, there are some wonderful aspects of working as a contractor that can make it very worthwhile.

View Story

Tim's Takeaways: Where Have All the Designers Gone (and Who Will be Taking Their Place)?

08-17-2018

We have a lot to pass on to the new designers. We must stress the importance of understanding of the roots of our industry and why this design knowledge is important. I have worked with many designers who don’t understand anything about the output of their design files. They go through a procedure, hit a series of commands, and presto: The design files are all wrapped up in a neat little zip file ready to go out to the manufacturer. That’s all well and good, until something breaks or a manufacturer has a specific question. It would be a great thing to make sure that the designers of tomorrow understand what a Gerber file and an aperture list really is.

View Story

Tim's Takeaways: Hiring the Right PCB Designer

06-04-2018

Like the rest of you, I’ve had times of unemployment, when your daily job is looking for work. You find yourself writing and then rewriting your resume, searching online forums and job search sites, and applying to every job that you can find. I’ve also hired people, and I know what hiring managers face. But hiring managers may be hurting their companies by drawing up a list of expectations so tight that highly qualified people may be slipping between the cracks.

View Story

Will Cool Technology Attract the Next Generation of PCB Designers?

04-17-2018

If I had the opportunity to design some boards that went into medical detection equipment like my new blood pressure cuff, I would be extremely motivated to do that. Maybe what we should be focusing on is not just playing with the new toys, but showing the younger generation different ways to think about how they can improve upon these new toys.

View Story

Customer Support: What do PCB Designers Really Want?

03-19-2018

First, let’s throw a leash around the elephant in the room. That’s my way of saying, “Here are some things that designers want, but we in the support business just can’t give it to them.” The first one that comes to mind: Customers have asked, manipulated, and even tricked me in their attempts to get free software.

View Story

Tim's Takeaways: Good Support Isn’t Just for Customers

03-06-2018

I have been working in PCB CAD tools customer support for years and years, and it isn’t that often that the tables are turned and I have someone who is supporting me. I’ve got to say, it was a pleasure being the recipient of some quality support.

View Story
Back

2017

True Design Efficiency: Think Before You Click

10-09-2017

At the captive shops that I’ve worked with, where the designers were more involved in the entire design cycle and had better access to the corporate libraries, staff engineers, etc., the story was often the same. Some designers would jump into the deep end of the pool of design without any thought to drowning while others would be so busy lacing up their life preservers of preparation that they would take too long getting out of the shallows and into the depth of their design. So, what’s the best approach here?

View Story

Tim's Takeaways: It Really Wasn’t My Fault

09-07-2017

I once received verbal instructions from an engineer who directed me to make a certain change. I didn’t think anything of it. Many months later, this same engineer told me that there were troubles with the board and all its successive versions because of the change that I had made. He ended up making it right in the end. But in hindsight, what could I have done to save myself a couple of months of suspense and worry?

View Story

Tim's Takeaways: Stepping into the Great Unknown

08-16-2017

Many years ago, I was given the opportunity to switch my career path from senior circuit board designer to CAD systems administrator. I wasn’t certain that I wanted to give up the comfort of being a designer; after all, I had been one for a long time. But I knew that this transition would help my overall knowledge base of everything CAD-related, as well as better position me in my quest for a management position. So, I pulled the trigger and accepted the new job even though the idea of stepping into the great unknown like that was very intimidating.

View Story

Tim's Takeaways: Design Tools of Tomorrow--A Real 'Marvel'

04-05-2017

Imagine if you could interact with your design as a hologram floating in front of you the way Tony Stark did in the movie "Iron Man." Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could pick a section on your holographic design with your hands and expand it to the point where you could peer into it, spin it around, and manipulate it as you desired? Want to push a trace down to a different layer? Just give it a nudge in the right direction and the holographic display changes it to the next layer. Don’t like the way a certain area fill looks? Then just grab it with your fingers and pull it out and throw it into the virtual garbage can.

View Story

Tim's Takeaways: 'Sparks' to the Rescue in RF Design

01-03-2017

Just like the early days of radio where Sparks the radio specialist was in demand to get the job done, we now need RF specialists to work together with electrical engineers to create the intricate designs required for RF circuits. You are now Sparks, the go-to specialist who will take care of RF design business.

View Story
Back

2016

The Basics of Hybrid Design, Part 3

06-16-2016

The world of hybrid design is growing, and we have lots of hybrid-specific functionality built into our software that helps designers meet and conquer the unique hybrid design requirements that they are faced with. And yet many designers out there (and I used to be one of them) have no idea what is meant when people start talking about hybrid design.

View Story

The Basics of Hybrid Design, Part 2

05-16-2016

In the first part of this series, we discussed the basics of hybrid design from the PCB designer’s perspective, and here we will continue that discussion.

View Story

The Principles of Hybrid Design, Part 1

04-25-2016

What exactly is a hybrid design? We are seeing more and more of our customers exploring the world of hybrid design, and we are getting new customers for whom hybrid design is their sole focus. The world of hybrid design is growing and we have lots of hybrid-specific functionality built into our software that helps designers conquer the unique hybrid design requirements.

View Story
Back

2015

Tim's Takeaways: The Utility Belt

05-12-2015

The utility belt is a great thing to have. Batman would be long dead without his, and Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor would be useless without his. But for a circuit board designer, a utility belt is equally important. All of us at one time or another will have questions about the CAD system we use, and one essential tool to have in your utility belt is a list of people you can go to for help. At the top of this list should be your CAD system’s friendly customer support staff (like me).

View Story

DFM: The PCB Designer as Arbitrator

04-08-2015

Design engineering is usually a combination of electrical and mechanical engineers. Although these two groups can have their own dramatic conflicts between each other, they will usually end up working together because they ultimately serve each other’s needs. But the manufacturing engineering requirements usually come from a completely different department or from an outside manufacturing vendor.

View Story
Back

2014

Like it or Not, You're a Role Model

12-24-2014

"During the years that I built my skills as a circuit board designer, many people helped shape my character. Some were impulsively brilliant at laying out a board, while others were steady and consistent in their approach to work, dotting every 'i' and crossing every 't.' But they were all patient with me, answering my questions, showing me the ropes, and setting good examples for me to follow," says Columnist Tim Haag.

View Story

Blink and You Will Miss It

11-05-2014

Tim Haag writes, "Friedrich Nietzsche said, 'That which does not kill us makes us stronger.' Well, that adage certainly proved to be true in my situation. If I hadn't been ripped from my secure position and forced to contract for a short season, who knows how my future would have eventually unfolded. And if it hadn't been for that brief season of hardship, would I have had the strength and flexibility to succeed later on?"

View Story

Tim's Takeaways: Blink and You Will Miss It

11-05-2014

Tim Haag writes, "Friedrich Nietzsche said, 'That which does not kill us makes us stronger.' Well, that adage certainly proved to be true in my situation. If I hadn't been ripped from my secure position and forced to contract for a short season, who knows how my future would have eventually unfolded. And if it hadn't been for that brief season of hardship, would I have had the strength and flexibility to succeed later on?"

View Story

There Are No Stupid Questions

09-10-2014

Many of us who have been designing boards for years have had to deal with annoying questions from "the kids." You know who I mean: The rookies, newbies, greenhorns, or puppies just starting out in their design careers. We've all had to answer questions like, "Why is library development so important?" or "Why is solder mask green?"

View Story

Tim's Takeaways: There Are No Stupid Questions

09-10-2014

Many of us who have been designing boards for years have had to deal with annoying questions from "the kids." You know who I mean: The rookies, newbies, greenhorns, or puppies just starting out in their design careers. We've all had to answer questions like, "Why is library development so important?" or "Why is solder mask green?"

View Story

Design Rule Checks - For Your Protection

07-09-2014

Columnist Tim Haag writes, "I have designed multitudes of PCBs over the years, but I have a confession to make: It can be hard for me to run that final design rule check. I know that it is important, but at the end of a long design cycle, I just want to be done. I don't want to redo anything, and I sure don't want to look at my own errors. Do any of you feel that way?"

View Story

Tim's Takeaways: Design Rule Checks - For Your Protection

07-09-2014

Columnist Tim Haag writes, "I have designed multitudes of PCBs over the years, but I have a confession to make: It can be hard for me to run that final design rule check. I know that it is important, but at the end of a long design cycle, I just want to be done. I don't want to redo anything, and I sure don't want to look at my own errors. Do any of you feel that way?"

View Story

Customer Support: Not Just for Customers Anymore

06-04-2014

Columnist Tim Haag writes, "In my role as the customer support manager, I have seen plenty of examples of customer support. But my point here is not to focus on customer support as a function of a support technician. Instead, I want to explore the concept of how we should all strive to provide the best level of customer support in our jobs, no matter what we do."

View Story
Copyright © 2021 I-Connect007. All rights reserved.