6 Things they don’t teach you in school about being a hardware engineer

6 Things they don't teach you in school about being a hardware engineer

1. School gets you half way there. The rest is self-driven.

There’s really no school for hardware design. I’ve gotten way more out of self-directed learning than sitting in a classroom. Make sure to learn from mentors, regularly read articles written by industry experts, attend seminars, read white papers from big semi companies, and participate in forums. It’s good to look beyond what you think you know. Don’t just assume the way you’ve been doing it is the best way. The degree of collaboration and knowledge-sharing in hardware pales in comparison to the software world.

2. Mistakes are valuable.

Even if it takes you 7 days to figure out, causes hair loss, and many sleepless nights, you’ll come out of it way more equipped with hardware knowledge than before.

3. Every problem has a solution. Every single one.

That doesn’t mean you’ll like the solution. But it exists. And if you keep plugging away methodically, trying things, experimenting, trusting your intuition, seeking help when you can, a clue will appear that will ultimately be the turning point in figuring out a problem. Remembering this has helped me get through some despondent times when I was stuck on deep FPGA timing problems, power supply start up issues, and signal integrity mysteries.

4. Power supply problems can be like the chicken-or-the-egg conundrum.

Fixing a power supply problem can be extremely tricky. While debugging, you can be damaging your board and changing the very thing that you’re debugging. And just because a section of the board powered up and started to work, doesn’t mean it will continue to work.

Try to choose power supply devices that are debug-friendly (i.e. a digital controller that you can read status from). Be methodical and power up each supply one by one. Build in debugging test-points for all important circuit nodes and pins on controller chips. Power-up LEDs are super helpful. This way, fixing the problem won’t be like untangling one long piece of string.

5. Never underestimate the value of good hand-soldering skills.

Just like it doesn’t make sense to go to fashion school and not learn how to hand-sew, not knowing how to hand-solder will come with many limitations. You’re going to come across a number of instances where you’ll have to rework your board: parts have to be removed and replaced, passives have to be changed, jumpers have to be added, etc. Knowing how to solder by hand will open up a number of new debugging channels for you, allowing you to pinpoint problems more effectively.

6. There’s great knowledge value in imparting what you know to others.

Nurture a co-op student or intern. Teach them everything you know. You’ll be surprised at how hard it is to support and explain what you’ve always understood to be true. Not only will this be valuable for the listener, but verbally walking through things will deepen your own comprehension on the topic.

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