Redefining Yourself

Posted by bob on September 28, 2022

This might seem like a strange topic for a problem-solving blog, so please be patient and let’s see where this goes.

There have been a number of times in my work life where I found that it was extremely helpful for me to step out of my normal role and redefine myself in a very different light.

One example of this was when I had started a small company. Although my heart’s desire was to spend my time designing computers, I suddenly found that I had many additional roles to fill: sales and marketing, sourcing components, working with outside board assemblers, test fixture design, quality control, and even janitor. It wasn’t until later that I was able to hire employees: a step which brought some additional new roles.

Each time I switched into a new role, I found myself greatly appreciating the people who had done these tasks at larger companies where I had worked.

Another example was when I went to work for a smaller company that had recently undergone a drastic reduction from a medium sized company to a much smaller business. As part of that shrinkage they had to shed some sclerotic systems that might have made a giant sized company proud, but had become complete blocks to progress for a company that desperately needed to be fast and nimble. After a short time at this company it became clear that they had thrown out the baby with the bath water. They had lost critical systems needed to track their product production and quality. They were building and testing products but had very little record-keeping to demonstrate that any of the appropriate steps had been taken. Worse, the product itself did not bear sufficient labelling to identify the basic product and which configuration had been built—and there were many, many custom configurations of each product.

So I needed to redefine myself for a little while as more of a quality, labelling, and record-keeping guy. The good news was that doing this did not sideline me from design activities. This new role gave me more insight into the steps required to improve our product control without it becoming a bottleneck for the whole organization.

Much later, I joined a large company where there were often whole departments committed to the various roles I had tried to fill in smaller organizations. My previous efforts (poor as they might have been) gave me a lot of respect for those departments and roles. I would often spend a lot of time asking questions to figure out how to work with their systems instead of blindly fighting what might appear to a younger engineer to be a rigid bureaucracy. Nope, these guys were there to keep us out of trouble.

I remember going to some core-team meetings that had attendees from lots of different groups. One fellow that I did not know seemed to keep to himself and barely seemed to listen to the ongoing discussions of design and production planning. Was he sleeping, or just listening with his eyes closed? I didn’t know. Then one day, a design lead reported a failure that had produced magic smoke from a resistor on a sample board in the lab. Suddenly this fellow was at full attention, asking sharp and knowledgeable questions. He proposed excellent steps for investigation and demonstrated that he knew the project completely. No, during all of those previous meetings he had not been sleeping; just listening closely with somewhat droopy eyelids. After the meeting, I asked the hardware lead, “who is that guy?” The answer should have been obvious to me: that guy was the Safety Engineer.

To complete the story, it turned out that the source of the magic smoke release was due to a minor mechanical problem. The good news was that the error was found during extensive lab testing, well before the product reached production or any customers.

I was really impressed by the incredible effort of that hardware lead engineer to find the bug. He had studied the circuit design, but could not imagine where in the circuit a fault could exist to create high current through the resistor which had gone up in smoke. The current through that resistor was controlled by a transistor, and even after the failure that transistor worked just fine. The transistor should have blown long before the resistor.

He sat in the lab all day on a Saturday and just looked at the circuit board. And looked some more. And then, suddenly, he could see it. The trace from the resistor ran under the heatsink and there was nothing but the thin solder mask to keep the heatsink from touching the trace. Other similar heatsinks all had a notch in their base, but this one did not. Minor vibration would eventually cause the heatsink to grind its way through the solder mask, creating the mystery short circuit. One quick Engineering Change Notice (ECN) later and the design went back on track for production.

In any case, if you have a typical career, I can assure you that you will redefine yourself many times. You might start in production test and move to product design. You might start in Sourcing and move to Project Management. Stay flexible. Listen to the experts outside of your area. Some of the most fun you will ever have is exploring new skills, new tools, new knowledge, and new friendships.

Those new skills will also make you a better problem solver and easier to hire.