Roughly Speaking

Geoffrey Hazelett

Pivoting to PCB Design

New entrants into the PCB industry are bringing their own skills to the table.

Transferable skills are bringing in new designers to the PCB industry because there aren’t clear paths into it from the outside. Looking around and speaking with attendees at PCB West 2023, a significant number either identified themselves as an electrical engineer or an engineer of some type.

As a quick aside, as someone who studied electrical engineering, a certain amount of pride comes in identifying oneself as an electrical engineer, because it is known as one of the more challenging disciplines. A growing number of engineering programs are also dedicated to focusing electrical engineers toward signal integrity and power integrity, like Dr. Eric Bogatin’s program at the University of Colorado Boulder.

So, it wasn’t entirely a surprise that at PCB West, roughly 18% of attendees identified themselves as an electrical engineer, up from previous years. Several of the designers that I spoke with indicated they were seeing increased time allocations from their management to focus on designing printed circuit boards, which is something I always chuckle about because my first inquiries into printed circuit board design was met with a quick rebuff.

I still have my electromagnetic fields book from university sitting near my desk, but the extent of its content dedicated to printed circuit board traces is about two pages at the very beginning, and I can still recall Smith charts and Laplace transforms, etc. But when it came time for my senior design project, I thought it would be appropriate to investigate connecting the multitude of microcontrollers, memory chips, sensors and motor drivers together on a printed circuit board rather than a mess of wires on multiple breadboards.

I found that my professors were highly unsupportive, with responses along the lines of: “You are an EE, you’re destined to be designing silicon, not printed circuit boards. You will have a technician do that for you, so you don’t need to learn about that.” To their credit, Intel has a significant presence near my university, and I did have a strong motivation to agree. I find it humorous, however, that seven years after graduating, I would be teaching colleagues with doctorates in electrical engineering how to design printed circuit board traces to achieve impedance matching and reduce insertion loss.

As I trained customers, I encountered more and more electrical engineers entering the field of printed circuit board design, but sometimes I would encounter math teachers and those from other backgrounds. (Yes, a former high school math teacher!) In many cases, it seemed that it was due to a workforce shortage and a combination that those who studied electrical engineering were the closest to fill in the workforce gap. After all, we (electrical engineers) already have a firm understanding of circuits and components. Often the electrical engineer is the one doing a lot of the work leading up to the PCB design step, so why not add the next steps in the design process to their workload? One designer even shared with me that he felt if he did the preliminary steps well, it was easier for him to do the PCB layout as he had solved many of the layout challenges in earlier stages rather than creating problems for someone else to solve later.

Transferable skills pulling electrical engineers deeper into the PCB design stage go beyond just understanding circuits, but also include a soft skill that is often overlooked or when mentioned, considered a bad word, especially by designers. And that bad word is actually two: Project management.

I know from experience that most engineers, not just electrical engineers, have also picked up a significant amount of project management skills, and they don’t even know it!  Buried in a number of excellent sessions at PCB West was a strong undercurrent of project management. Many examples focused on communicating the design’s needs with suppliers, management and other stakeholders. One presenter was even addressing design techniques specifically to assist in communicating with assigned formal project managers. But none of the engineers was using the official project management terminology!

Formal project management has defined terms to communicate certain ideas that I often hear others who haven’t studied it use synonyms and talk around a concept without realizing there are formalized terms. Many times, engineers hear such language and dismiss it as buzzwords, but understanding the language of management and formalized project management can help any designer in both self-management as well as in communicating with formal management.

If you would like to add to your repertoire of transferable skills, I highly recommend Fundamentals of Project Management by Joseph Heagney. It was a book recommended to me by John Watson of Altium and Palomar College, where he teaches courses on PCB design.

If you are likely already doing project management daily and are only somewhat aware of it, I behoove you to consider spending some time to learn the formal language of project management to be able to articulate and effectively communicate with others the state of your projects and what they need to succeed. I started applying them to even my home projects and my fellow stakeholders (read: family) approve.

Please share your ideas of other transferable skills that you think are important and we should be looking for in PCB designers. I can be reached at ending bug

Geoffrey Hazelett is a contributing editor to PCD&F/CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY. He is a technical sales specialist with more than 10 years’ experience in software quality engineering and sales of signal integrity software. He has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering;