Tim's Takeaways: Navigating Industry Expectations

In case you didn’t know, columns like this are usually written well in advance of when the magazine is published. Of course, there are times where something important gets rushed at the last minute in order to make it into the next issue. (“Hold the presses! We’re remaking page one.”) Normally, though, writing and publishing are carefully planned around precise schedules that must be followed. Even though you are reading this sometime in the middle of May or later, I am writing this during the first days of April while we are still observing the shelter-in-place restrictions due to the coronavirus.

I hope that by the time this column is published, the restrictions on gathering in public have been lifted, and life is returning back to normal. But, for now, everyone is doing their best to limit their contact with each other. This means that a lot of people across the world—especially in the PCB design industry—are working from home for the first time in their careers.

If this is the position that you find yourself in, and you are looking for some ideas on how to work successfully from home, I shared some recommendations in a recent column that you may find helpful. Thankfully, our technology today is better prepared for remote offices than ever before, and many EDA tool vendors and suppliers are offering work-from-home options to help their customers as well. Who would have guessed, though, that when we planned a theme for this month’s edition of exploring industry expectations that the biggest expectation would end up being, “Stay home!” But that’s the hand that we’ve been dealt.

Thankfully, everyone is doing what they can to help keep each other safe. Soon, I hope the expectation of “stay at home” will turn around to become “get back to work,” and that will be a welcome relief for everyone. There are a lot of other expectations, however, that designers deal with regularly, too. While some expectations are normal—and, well, expected—in the workplace, there are also those that do more harm than good. Do any of these three sound familiar to you? 

  1. Schedules: Not having enough time to get the job done, sliding delivery dates, or changes without corresponding schedule adjustments top the list. These are just some of the frustrations that we experience with schedule expectations, but  
there are plenty of others.
  2. Deliverables: If your job is to lay out a PCB, it’s pretty obvious what the overall expectation is. However, there are many details of the layout that can get lost in the shuffle, such as manufacturing drawings, output file requirements, and internal documentation. How these details are to be completed and who is responsible for their content and acceptability often gets changed without advanced notice, and yet it is the designer that is often held accountable.
  3. Processes: A team member or a vendor may change, but you aren’t notified, and you end up waiting for information that never comes. You’re expecting answers while your boss is expecting results, and everyone ends up being disappointed.

This probably won’t come as a big surprise, but the frustration over unmet expectations like this is common not only in our industry but everywhere. A recent informal survey conducted by our editors at DesignCon revealed that users and vendors alike often voiced the same concern: “I never know what is expected from me.”
 
I have found that a lot of these problems can be resolved by working at improving communication with our co-workers, managers, and customers. I was careful to use the word “working” in that last sentence because good and effective communication rarely happens organically; it usually takes a lot of planning and effort to set up mechanisms that will promote good communication, but the results are well worth it. 
 
Schedules, deliverables, and processes can be better managed, and everyone can take a big step backward from that cliff edge of uncertainty and anxiety over wondering just exactly what is expected of them. The next logical question is, “How do we do improve our communication in the workplace?” Here are three ideas that might help:

  1. Document the workflow: By outlining the basic process steps and who the key reporting and decision-makers are, you can quickly help team members to know exactly what is expected of them. Obviously, you can’t document every single tiny detail, but by giving everyone a clear path to follow, they will be less likely to get lost along the way.
  2. Multiple reviews in the workflow: A lot of confusion around expectations occurs because of design changes. Changes will happen, of course, but the key is to catch them as early as possible. With regularly scheduled reviews and check-ins during the design process, you can hopefully avoid full redesigns because of a component change that should have been caught during placement.
  3. Include team members in the process: Unmet expectations often happen because someone didn’t feel empowered to ask a simple question. This can happen when team members don’t feel like they are part of the process, so get them involved. By encouraging participation and feedback, your team members will feel more ownership of the process and will be more likely to get fully involved.

Many years ago, as a PCB designer for a large electronics manufacturer, I was stunned when on my first day of work, I was pulled into an impromptu meeting about a problem with the mechanical housing of one of our products. Since I was brand new to the company and didn’t even have computer access yet, I couldn’t figure out why I was being asked about a product that I had never seen before. I guess that they just wanted a fresh pair of eyes on it, but for me, the effect went much further beyond simply giving my opinion. I realized that I was in a work culture that wanted and encouraged my participation. This sent a very clear message to me that I had value, and the company’s expectations of me were to be an active part of the corporate process and workflow. That moment still lingers in my memory as being a pivotal point in my growth as a designer and becoming part of a productive team.
 
The lesson here is that these kinds of expectations—to grow, ask questions, and be part of the team—result in freeing up people to operate at their best and take the initiative in their careers. On the other hand, expectations set around unrealistic goals do just the opposite; they tear down a person’s confidence and self-esteem, making it much more difficult for them to be willing to take the steps and risks needed to expand and grow in their professional careers. It is safe to say that negative expectations—whether they are unobtainable, unrealistic, or ambiguous—should be avoided at all costs. We shouldn’t put them on anyone else, nor should we accept them from others. It’s just better for business that way. The next question, though, is, “Are we putting negative expectations like that on ourselves without realizing it?”
 
Just as being blamed by a co-worker for not meeting their ambiguous or unrealistic expectations can create stress, you may be doing the same thing to yourself without knowing it. There are so many different ways that we can set ourselves up for this negative expectation trap that it would be impossible to list them all here. Instead, let’s turn this around and look at it from the other direction. Here are five ideas on what kind of positive expectations that we could set for ourselves:

  1. Trust your qualifications: It can be easy to slip into doubt, especially when the going gets tough. Remember, though, that you were hired for your job because of what you can do, and you should expect yourself to live up to those qualities.
  2. Own your job: Don’t be content to merely do your job; own it. Make sure that you know your responsibilities in and out and expect yourself to succeed.
  3. Stay on target: Be careful about becoming lackadaisical in what you do. Set expectations for yourself to maintain a consistent level of performance and excellence.
  4.  Forgive yourself: No matter what, you will probably make some mistakes along the way. It can be easy to dwell on those problems and derail your motivation and momentum. Set an expectation that you will forgive yourself in order to learn from those mistakes and move on.
  5. Believe in yourself: I hate to sound like a greeting card here, but believing and expecting that you will succeed and perservering is an important foundation for any successful career.

Conclusion
We all have expectations in our jobs that have to be met for success, and more than likely, we are going to encounter ambiguous and unrealistic expectations as well. But we can choose how to respond to these by communicating with those we work with and setting clearly defined objectives and goals. Don’t let negative expectations drive you. Instead, grab the wheel firmly and take control over those expectations so that you can drive them. Stay safe, everyone, and keep on designing.
 
This column originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Design007 Magazine.


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2020

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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?"

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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?"

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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?"

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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?"

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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?"

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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?"

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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."

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