“You complain too much!” You might have heard this phrase used against you, or someone else you know, at some point in your life. After all, nobody likes a whiner! But, actually, complaining in itself isn’t so bad. It’s human nature. If we didn’t complain, we would be content with doing anything. So, I must complain a lot (to myself and on this blog), because everyday I ask myself, “why am I still doing this?”
The problem isn’t the complaining. I would venture to guess that people won’t get so irritated, unless they see a person complain and not do anything to better the situation. Since I’m making a conscious effort (and plan) to get away from racing rats all day, I sort of feel like I’m entitled to complain (at least, sometimes)! 😉 So, bare with me as I unleash my latest tirade… Enjoy!
In engineering, most things never go right the first time. Or the second time. Sometimes, they might even manage to just never work at all, which is a big reason why so many products end up getting cancelled. However, when projects fail to generate revenue, people start to lose their jobs. As a result, project leaders are usually under a lot of pressure from management and customers to get the product out into the marketplace ASAP. The problem is, these leaders usually inherit a team that’s already stretched way too thin as it is.
These days, the marketplace is so competitive that every company has to fight extra hard to maintain, what are already low, margins. So, they try and squeeze their employees for every last drop they can get. The risk, though, is when you assign busy engineers to even more projects, the outcome is usually less than desirable.
Experienced engineers know that this type of strategy is a recipe for disaster. But like any employee who is dependent on their employer for income, you really aren’t in a position to object. Since you can’t say “NO!”, the best you can do is raise a concern at the start of the project. This way, you have an excuse, or out clause ready, in the likely event that the project ends up failing.
It’s a juggling act, and in many cases, it feels like taking on two full-time jobs. More work means you no longer have the luxury to double check anything, or move at a slow, deliberate pace. In engineering, when you rush things, your attention to detail slips, and bugs inherently find a way to creep into the final design.
Debugging a circuit isn’t a trivial thing, and diagnosing to root-cause failure can feel like trying to locate a needle in a haystack. So, if you want to make sure you are solving the real problem and not just putting a band aid on the design, you better budget the necessary amount of time needed to ensure you do the job right the first time.
The Real Problem
Most engineers have enough work to deal with, as is. So, you can imagine what will happen when you add corporate politics on top of a list of things to do for a person who is already swamped, and has very little precious time to spare.
I try to steer clear from office politics as much as I can, but it seems no matter where I go, I still have to deal with it in some shape or form.
If you join a large company ($1 billion+ market cap), there will be many layers of management you’ll be forced to encounter with. This can create the following set of headaches:
It will be extremely difficult to get approval for ANYTHING: time off, new lab equipment, project assignments, PCB boards, a new monitor, a working laptop, etc., since just one approval from your direct manager usually isn’t sufficient. No, the rules are set so that everyone “needs to be on the same page”, which means the approval process requires the requests go up the food chain and get signed off by multiple managers.
From my experience, this usually means at least three signatures are needed (probably two for a smaller company). Most of the higher-ups have no visibility to who you are or what you do, so it’s easier for them to just ignore you. And so, your request gets put on hold for days, weeks, months… until you finally just give up (or forget).
Your already limited time is further wasted because you’ll be forced to sit through a mind-boggling number of meetings, most of which go over topics and discussions that do not even concern you. If you join a large company, congratulations, you get to sit in even more meetings!!
Not counting the weekly project meetings (which actually do concern you), you’ll also be lucky enough to participate in: weekly staff meetings, organization update meetings, software meetings (even if you belong in a hardware group), hardware meetings (even if you belong in a software group), production, test, and manufacturing meetings, customer-issues meetings, risk assessment meetings, design review meetings, test plan meetings, etc.
Even More Useless Meetings
Oh, and let’s not forget the info-sessions HR makes you sit through on a yearly basis: Code of Conduct, Sexual Harassment, Travel and Expenses, etc.
Redundancy, Inefficiency, and Just Plain Stupidity!
Engineers are actually very reasonable people. If you put a few good engineers together, and let them brainstorm for awhile, over coffee, they will eventually come up with a workable and elegant solution. Sometimes, a few hours is really all the time they need to solve a problem.
The REAL problems, however, will arise shortly after they announce their fixes to the rest of the team. This is when the swarm of e-mails begin. Everyone is copied, whether or not they are even involved with the project: directors, managers, other engineers, even VP’s, from time to time. And of course, the higher up they go in rank, the more input and feedback you can expect them to have!
Here’s a satire, illustrating the typical progressions a team will make to “solve” a problem:
Day 1: Monday – The Fix is Announced
Time Sensitivity: Non-Critical
Bob (Design Manager): “Good news team. Jim (Design Engineer), and Ron (Field Applications Engineer) got together this afternoon and found a fix for the (insert bug) that was causing start-up issues at the customer site. We think we can tapeout (fabricate a revision) new silicon (IC chip/end product) this week and still meet our release schedule!”
Gary (Director): “That’s terrific, Bob! But, before you tapeout the new silicon, make sure you get Jim and Ron to prepare a design review packet so that the rest of the team can review. We’ll schedule a meeting for the end of the week.”
So, Jim and Ron have to waste a day putting together slides to share with the other team members. They move on to other tasks since the review isn’t scheduled until Friday.
Day 5: Friday – After the Review Meeting
Time Sensitivity: More-Critical
Bob (Design Manager): “Excellent review team! Jim, make sure you incorporate some of the ideas that were shared in the review. I know you guys want to get this fixed right away, but Joyce (Off-Site Designer) brought up a good point. I think we can optimize the design further, even if you have to spend a little more time tweaking.”
Jim (Design Engineer): “Bob, I don’t think that design tweak is necessary. We already ran simulations to show that the start-up issue is resolved with just the simple fix. We really don’t need to over-complicate things here. The new tweak would increase the die size (non-desirable), and possibly create other instability problems elsewhere.”
Bob (Design Manager): “Jim, thanks for the feedback. I’ll double check with Gary just to make sure. Let’s wait a few more days.”
The schedule slips further as more approval is needed before the new design fixes can be implemented.
Day 8: Wednesday – Gary’s Approval
Time Sensitivity: More-Critical
Bob (Design Manager): “Gary, Jim’s telling me that our new product doesn’t need to be so complicated. Jim doesn’t think we need to implement the fixes Joyce proposed.”
Gary (Director): “Bob, that’s nonsense. Listen, our design team here (Off-Site), has been doing it this way for over (insert outrageous number) years! Joyce’s design is very robust and well proven. Look, I’ve been around the block. I remember a few years back when we overlooked this matter as a trivial issue and got burned big time by our #1 customer. We were blacklisted for years! It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Bob (Design Manager): “Gary, you’re right. OK, I’ll let the team know. Since it’s already near the end of the week, let’s schedule the tapeout for early next week.”
Bob relays the message to Jim. Jim doesn’t agree, but ultimately gives in, knowing he does not have the final say. He spends the next two days running new simulations and preparing a new design packet. The design review is held, and finally, the new design is finished on Wednesday, Day 13. The part takes 30 days to assemble in fab.
Day 43: Wednesday – The New Part Arrives
Time Sensitivity: Critical
Bob (Design Manager): “Today’s the big day! Jim, have you talked to apps yet? I’m assuming the new part looks flawless.”
Jim (Design Engineer): “Bad news, Bob. Stacy (Applications Engineer) received the new parts this morning, and can’t get the part into stand-by mode. It looks like we have an instability issue, as one of the logic blocks keeps turning on and off. It’s basically oscillating, so the part can’t enter stand-by mode properly.”
Bob (Design Manager): “What?!? How did this happen? I thought you were fixing a start-up issue! How does that impact the stand-by event?”
Jim (Design Engineer): “I really don’t know. I didn’t see any issues in simulation. I basically just copied Joyce’s design.”
Bob (Design Manager): “OK, we’re on critical path here. Let’s call a meeting. Invite everyone.”
Day 44: Thursday – Critical Meeting
Time Sensitivity: Critical
Mike (Applications Manager): “Guys, what’s going on here? The customer is really ticked off this time. They were expecting a fully functional part with no bugs. They go into production within a month. They need final silicon NOW!”
Gary (Director): “I’ve never heard of an oscillation problem showing up in stand-by mode. Jim, did you modify Joyce’s design in any way? Are you sure you didn’t do something else to cause this problem?”
Jim (Design Engineer): “Gary, I copied and pasted her design exactly as is. I didn’t touch a thing. I even ran simulations to prove that everything should be working just fine.”
Gary (Director): “Mike, tell the customer we need a few more weeks. My team will take over the design and get it done right. We’ll expedite the lots so that we get back the next revision of parts back in 15 days. The schedule will be tight, but we’ll get this resolved before the customer goes into production.”
The critical meeting is always a most stressful one. It’s never good when the customer is pissed off. Everyone is tense and worried about their job security. People’s tones starts to change, and you can tell that it’s only a matter of time before the finger-pointing begins. Since Joyce is well versed on this particular design, it doesn’t take her long to finish. She comes in on the weekend to make sure the design is finalized by Monday morning, so that it can ship out to fab on time.
Day 61: Monday – New Parts (Again)
Time Sensitivity: Danger!
Gary (Director): “Joyce, have you heard from the field or applications yet? How are those new parts looking?”
Joyce (Off-Site Designer): “Gary, not good. Same issue as before. The oscillations might actually be even worse this time around.”
Gary (Director): “$&(*%#$*!!! We told the customer we would have this fixed. What are we supposed to tell them now?”
Joyce (Off-Site Designer): “…”
The week ends in futility. A week, in which “all hands were on deck”, still, none of the engineers were able to figure out how to make the new part functional. They decide to try again on the weekend, but after spending 14 hours/day, for five days, even they need some rest.
Day 66: Monday – Conference Call
Time Sensitivity: Critical Mass!
Mike (Applications Manager): “Gary, you want to explain to me what just happened? Three months ago, we were telling the customer we were just about done ironing out the bugs. At the time, all our issues were non-critical. Now we’ve got a showerstopper on our hands.”
Gary (Director): “Mike, like I told you from the beginning, the schedule marketing has us operating on is just not doable. You can’t expect us to produce a design 100% free of defects within that timeframe. No way, no how. Not possible.”
Bob (Design Manager): “Hold on one second there, Gary. As you recall, Jim and Ron came up with a fix a few months back. I think we would have met the schedule if we didn’t go with the last minute design change.”
Gary (Director): “Bob, the design change is inconsequential. It was only a matter of time before the stand-by issue revealed itself. We were simply band-aiding it up until now. I’m actually relieved we caught it, as opposed to letting the customer uncover it.”
Bob (Design Manager): “You’re right, Gary. That would have been a disaster! OK, so we’ll lose this design socket. And the customer is pissed off. Though I’m sure we’ll find a way to get back in their good graces in the future. In the meantime, I think you’ll agree with me that we have to tighten up the belt on our design checks.”
Gary (Director): “Absolutely. These designers are going to have to be more careful next time around. We can’t have this happening again! And you know what, that’s my biggest problem with today’s designers. Their lack of attention to details astounds me. We’ve got to start having some more weekly meetings, and reviews. We have to do a better job of documenting all of our work. And I’m going to make sure to be more hands on from now on.”
And that’s how the story goes. 😉
Are you fed up with workplace politics? Are they driving you crazy? What’s your workplace story?