Electronic Design

Hank Wallace

My brother gave me a Heathkit shortwave receiver for Christmas when I was 11. He taught me to solder that afternoon and I worked on it for hours on end. What a rush it was when the filaments lit up and Spanish came pouring out of the speaker as we aligned the IF strip. I was hooked.

Most recently, I have been working from a home office/lab doing contract embedded systems work, with the addition of audio, DSP, motion control, and even some RF and database programming. I call on specialists when needed. Have you ever heard two engineers arguing about which is better, digital or analog? Isn't that silly? I see engineering and life as one continuum of challenges and opportunities to learn. I love it when an application draws me into physics, optics, mathematics, or business case analysis, such as investigating competing products, pricing, and the patent space. The universe makes no distinctions, and neither should we.

I have worked on many products, including package tracking systems, GPS tracking devices, large networked voice/data radio systems, electronic signage, high-security electronic locks, pharmaceutical process machinery, electronic music devices, sports scoring equipment, emergency alert transmitters, and fiber-optics devices. A favorite project area of mine is music-related gadgets, such as sound effects, because I am a guitarist. There's nothing like writing a DSP program with a guitar in your lap, strumming a chord, and hearing the result. I would not trade the variety to work with one company because variety builds design strengths that are applicable across the board, and each project brings a new challenge.

As a contractor in the U.S., I am familiar with the issues that Mark David, Editor-in-Chief of Electronic Design, discussed in his recent editorial on outsourcing ("EEs Must Find A Niche To Survive In Global Design Chain," Nov. 24, 2003, p. 21). I insulate myself against outsourcing by becoming a business partner to my customers. They call me with some outlandish questions, asking for recommendations from graphics designers to patent attorneys, mold makers to battery chemistries. I can't always help, but I am more than a tech geek to them. I help them make money and succeed. Recently, one of my customers had an Asian manufacturing firm quote a design I was slated to do. My U.S. customer's manufacturing partner was looking for work for its design team, and my customer thought the engineering would be free (in exchange for the manufacturing business). But the Asian firm's quotation was surprisingly on par with what I would have charged. That's a portent of the future.

Many Indian and Chinese outsourcing firms are quoting low prices today only to secure the work. I predict that within a couple of years their $20/hour rates will soar. Prices are ultimately determined by a stateside company's ability to pay, not the low cost of living in Shanghai. That's just their initial competitive advantage: labor dumping. In time, the flow of work will stabilize as prices rise. But you may not get your old job back. (Get a better one.) The moral? It's a very small world. Become valuable to your employer outside the engineering domain. Challenge yourself to learn new things about business, your industry, life, the universe, and everything. "Niche" is a dirty word. No one in India can bring a new customer to your U.S. employer, but you can! And to the Asian engineer: If you do quality work, you deserve every dollar you earn. Play ball.

A LITTLE ABOUT ME
After high school, I earned an electronic technician's AAS degree from the local junior college (1979) and went to work for Texas Instruments, writing test programs for digital ICs. The LEDs on the DEC PDP-11 gave me that same glowing filament rush. It had 16 kbytes (that's k) of RAM per user, no GUI, and it was a joy to use.

I worked toward a four-year degree in mathematics by taking classes at various schools, as I moved around quite a bit. Each time I moved and changed jobs for more opportunity, I lost some college credits, but I was learning on the job. A growth year for me was 1981 when I was working on a new shipboard satellite communicator product, and I was assigned some analog and power-supply design responsibilities by one key mentor. He helped me through the rough spots, taught me some new skills, and inspired me with his blue-sky approach to every problem. I learned that generalized thinking makes the difference between a good design and an excellent design, and you don't learn this in college.

Ten years and 2000 miles of moves after TI, I became chief engineer of a small communications IC company, MX-COM, the U.S. marketing arm of a U.K. firm, Consumer Microcircuits. We produced ICs for two-way radio functions in pre-DSP days, but even then analog functions were being absorbed into microcontrollers. I could see the writing on the wall. That threat to our business, plus some stress and health issues, caused me to resign abruptly in early 1989. Although that was foolish financially, I got my first full night's sleep in years. No job should cost you your health.

I had no idea what lay ahead. I had work experience in the pressure cooker, the cubicle farm, the failed startup, and the family business, and I did not want to repeat those mistakes. A few calls to local companies netted some contracting work. A friend I had worked with years previously needed a programmer for a large communications system. In a month, I had lucked into enough work to pay the bills. That was 14 years ago and I am still "between jobs," as my family likes to say.

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