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Would your techs. do this?

Discussion in 'Electronic Design' started by Chris Carlen, Nov 7, 2003.

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  1. Chris Carlen

    Chris Carlen Guest


    I am currently considering the design of an fuel injector driver, some
    aspects of which have been discussed here already. This is a
    substantial power electronics design problem, involving as well feedback
    control loop design. As with most projects that I do, I have the task
    of doing every aspect of it without any outside guidance, except for
    what I might request, which usually happens here on s.e.d because there
    are really no EEs in my facility, except for two who aren't in my dept.
    No electrical engineer is over me to give me schematics to build or to
    do the calculations for me. I do everything from conceptual design,
    theoretical calcs. if needed, simulations and modeling, PCB design,
    layout, fabrication, population, testing, and final packaging. If the
    design requires uC/uP, I program it myself.

    I'm just wondering if this is a typical task list for techs. out there
    in other industries and institutions. Most of the techs. here do not do
    any sort of design that goes beyond the level of theory contained in
    ohms law, 1/(2 pi RC), and the op-amp circuits of inverting,
    non-inverting, and follower. Some can program, and some are venturing
    into simple uC projects, which only started after I came here and
    prodded some folks. In fact, no one in my facility made PCBs until I
    started encouraging it. When I came here in 1999, we were still using
    only LSTTL and wire wrapping! But in terms of EE type theoretical
    design work at the level of even AC circuit complex algebra, good
    heavens not Laplace or Fourier, or even SPICE modeling, this just isn't
    done by techs. here.

    I also don't have a EE or even E-tech. background as I have a BS in
    Chemistry, and got hired to be a laser/optical technologist. When I
    started in 1999 I had the level of knowledge of electronics of basic
    logic gates, barely understood what to do with a flip-flop, never
    touched a microprocessor (though I had programmed the 8086 PC
    extensively in C and .asm), basic DC, AC, and time domain circuit
    analysis (I had been studying the subject of circuit analysis in an EE
    text, and have just about completed it.) I've improved drastically
    since that time, but still have lots of holes in my knowledge scattered
    throughout the palette of topics a EE should know, since that is what
    happens when you are self-taught. The best thing I did in college was
    get a math minor, which has turned out to be more useful than my major.

    What level of design is typically expected of "technologists", and how
    would you describe the dividing line between engineer behavior and tech.

    Thanks for comments.

    Christopher R. Carlen
    Principal Laser/Optical Technologist
    Sandia National Laboratories CA USA
  2. Baphomet

    Baphomet Guest

    I think you should
    demand a substantial raise.
    The government can afford it ;-)

  3. Joel Kolstad

    Joel Kolstad Guest


    For the type of design you're doing, I'd say you're very comfortably
    performing 'engineering.' There's a pretty broad overlap between 'high end
    technican' and 'low end engineer,' and I'd even venture that many of today's
    so called 'engineers' would have been more appripriately classified as
    'technicians' some decades back.

    I'd avoid getting on a soapbox and ranting about this, but my personal
    conclusion was that titles are pretty meaningless. Just call yourself an
    'electronics designer' or whatever makes you happy and you'll be fine. Of
    course, I realize you might be asking this question based on figuring you're
    worth more than what your present employers pays you -- in that case, by all
    means, pursue getting yourself re-classified. Anyone who'll refuse to pay
    you more or re-classify you given clear evidence that you contribute well
    above and beyond the others with your same pay isn't someone worth working
    for. This is especially true if they attempt to justify this by saying
    something like, 'you're already at the top of your pay range!' or 'we can't
    reclassify you unless you obtain a [degree, certification, accreditation,
    etc] first' (when you already possess the skills such a label would imply).

    Unfortunately there are people who are so clueless they'd sooner let you
    quit they pay you well, but this shouldn't be a deterrent: There are plenty
    of people who do recognize talent when they see it and will compensate you

    ---Joel Kolstad
  4. If I were you, I'd consider asking for a considerable raise in rank/pay.
    Scratch asking above, and insert demanding.
  5. Chris Carlen

    Chris Carlen Guest

    Yes. Don't worry, I'm not ranting. It's more of a contemplation.
    Actually, I'm pretty happy with my title and responsibilities.
    And salary too, actually.
    Don't really have that problem. It is somewhat peculiar though, that
    while I am convinced that the mechanical engineers and scientists who I
    work for don't have much idea of what I do, they seem to respond fairly
    well to the case I make each year about what I'm doing. So fortunately,
    even in a bad economy, they have treated me with pleasant rewards.

    But for some reason I have this question on my mind frequently. Perhaps
    because I am somewhat isolated. Sometimes I think it would be better to
    have some engineers around like the ones I know here. Then again,
    sometimes I'm awfully glad they aren't here!

    Good day!

    Christopher R. Carlen
    Principal Laser/Optical Technologist
    Sandia National Laboratories CA USA
  6. Hi Chris:

    I used to teach at a University that offered a B.S. degree in Electrical
    Engineering Technology. This degree is not universally accepted in the
    engineering community. Some of our graduates found themselves treated and
    paid as technicians, and others as engineers. There are certain companies
    that have rigid definitions for engineers and for technicians. There are
    others who reward performance ... both in pay and classification. I know of
    high school graduates who are classified and paid as engineers. I know of
    graduate engineers who do mind-numbing paper work hour after hour, day after

    If you are being treated well and being handed challenges that you can deal
    with, who cares?
  7. John Larkin

    John Larkin Guest

    One maybe-useful distinction is that engineers apply science
    quantitatively (ie, use theory to make mathematical predictions of
    system behavior) and technicians, well, don't. The ownership of an
    engineering degree is only suggestive of which side of this divide one
    will fall on. Engineering education *does* emphasize (sometimes too
    much?) the mathematical analysis of dynamic systems.

  8. It is interesting to note that most graduate engineers do not consider
    themselves successful until they become non technical upper level managers
    and most technicians do not consider success until the become engineers.
    IMHO S.E.D. contains many upper level technical people, some grads some not.
    When I was in your position I informed my bosses that I expected a 10%
    raise each year and if my output was not worthy of that, I would have to
    move on. I had to move a couple of times in 15 years but it was easy to
    double my starting salary.
    Chris, you are way smarter than I, so the sky is the limit. Just remember
    us when you write " The Complete Art of Electronics".
  9. Bill Sloman

    Bill Sloman Guest

    No way. This is engineers work, and a pretty flexible engineer with an
    unusual amount of intitiative at that.
    My experience with LaPlace transforms is that most electronic
    engineers learn just enough about them to pass the examination, then
    forget it all forever. The first time I needed a LaPlace transform, I
    solved the differential equations - then got told that there was an
    easier way. The next time, I copied the relevant section from a new
    graduate's lecture notes.
    Neither do I - though I went on to get a Ph.D. in chemistry before I
    eneded up in electronics.
    As opposed to the holes in the knowledge of those who have been
    properly taught, partly due to courses barely passed and swiftly
    forgotten, and partly due to cheap-skate teaching and lab classes.
    My maths minor was a particularly tedious second year course, where I
    did enough work to pass, but very little of the work - which was all
    about solving differential equations - has stayed with me. Theory of
    Computation part 1, which I did as an isolated lecture coures while I
    was completing my Ph.D., was a lot more interesting, and a lot more
    My expereience with technicians - even the best and most enthusiastic
    of our technicians - was that they needed a lot of hand-holding, and
    that there were large chunks of stuff that you had to do for them
    because they didn't have the math to understand what was going on.

    Engineers could usually be relied on to grasp what they needed to know
    once they were told, and could be left with a text-book or two to sort
    things out for themselves. Engineers with more intitiative were rare
    and valuable.

    Management doesn't like engineers with initiative - changing the plan
    so that you can do something right is undisciplined, and wrecks their
    nicely planned time-tables. They are much happier with plodders, and
    are totally reconciled to endless weeks of bug-hunting, as long as it
    is planned in as "systems test phase".
  10. Chris Carlen

    Chris Carlen Guest

    Yep, this is almost word-for-word how I would describe it. I don't
    think the education is too analysis heavy, but it isn't good if students
    don't get a hefty dose of lab. Heck, the only obstacle at this point to
    my being able to do more difficult designs is a lack of theoretical
    understanding. Fortunately I have skimmed enough material to at least
    know what I don't know, and where to go to learn it. But it can be next
    to impossible to find the time anymore.

    Thanks for the input!

    Christopher R. Carlen
    Principal Laser/Optical Technologist
    Sandia National Laboratories CA USA
  11. Chris Carlen

    Chris Carlen Guest

    The best of s.e.d. are truly amazing.
    10% is alot to ask for for government work. At least this year I got
    twice the average raise. Considering the funding cuts and bad economy,
    I am pretty happy about this.

    Oof! Thanks for the kind encouragement. I hope to keep learning. If I
    can ever catch up to what I consider the completion of the typical BSEE
    curriculum, and perhaps a few extra points in DSP and some other
    interesting topics, I'll be happy. But the folks I admire in this group
    including you still tower over me in many areas.

    P.S. I've been distracted by a venture into the hobby of digital SLR
    photography, but I have made a nice PCB for the ZVS flyback implemented
    to power my Nixie clock design as planned, and am slowly working through
    calculations for a smaller transformer design. Expect to see something
    before a year passes since we started it ;-)

    Good day!

    Christopher R. Carlen
    Principal Laser/Optical Technologist
    Sandia National Laboratories CA USA
  12. Chris Carlen wrote...
    I don't fully agree that "you don't know what you don't know,"
    although I think you're well on your way to that respectable
    goal. What I do think is that you should (at some point soon)
    go back to school for a proper EE, MSEE or PhD EE degree. But
    the experience and freedom you have right now in your job may
    be best to hold and treasure, rather than rocking the boat or
    jumping ship just now. Certainly you should ask for a raise,
    but feel your way along, and learn the constraints your boss
    is under, etc., in making your decisions. I'm sure that they
    appreciate the special skills and capabilities you are showing.

    - Win

  13. R.Legg

    R.Legg Guest

    I also don't have a EE or even E-tech. background as I have a BS in
    And you were damned happy about it.
    There isn't one. The dividing line is mostly in professional
    responsibility and professional resources. An engineer will catch flak
    if work you are doing doesn't end up being relevant or conceptually
    adequate to the total project's goals. These goals have been set by
    his peers and his boss.

    Your flexibility is obviously a requirement if tasks are diverse and
    manpower is scarce.

    As you gain experience, more responsibility in resource management of
    projects will undoubtedly come your way. Until you actually apply for
    and are accepted into a position assigned these duties, you will have
    to go along with the decisions being made (as to your being used as a
    flexible resource).

    Your being hired with a BS (not a BSc?), to do a technologists work,
    was a decision made with the understanding that your qualifications
    suited you to future advancement, not because they knew you'd be a
    crack technologist.

    Mind you, it could also have been because they didn't know what they
    were doing. What would you prefer others to think?

    An engineer's professional resources include his peer group - others
    with qualifications that he is ethically obliged to consult before
    making abnormally tough decisions or doing such reprehensible things
    as 'going public'.

    A technologist's resources are pretty thin on the ground. You can
    consider using s.e.d. as a technical resource, without exposing your
    organization to potential ridicule (or compromising information of a
    proprietary nature) best, by sticking to the specific small problems
    at hand.

    A technologist has to have this kind of 'tunnel vision' to get
    exacting tasks done competently and on time. Your wider vision, as a
    potential engineer, is required for your own actual 'design' work, and
    to anticipate future problems, outside of the immediate task at hand.

    It may be difficult sometimes to remember just what kind of vision is
    appropriate to the task. Choosing the right one is the first step in
    gaining the confidence of your supervisors.

  14. N. Thornton

    N. Thornton Guest

    Hi Chris.

    I only know a little about your work, but from what I had read I
    always regarded you as an engineer. IIRC you covered some demanding
    ground with... I can hardly remember, but was it PLL motor control?
    Cetrainly not tech stuff anyhow.

    Building nixie clocks, even that would stretch the techs I've worked
    with to the limit, tho its play for engineers.

    In my mind, skill is what someone can do, not what a piece of paper
    says 'we think you can probably do'. To put it another way, a paper
    qual is a good thing, sure, but it doesn't genuinely make one an
    engineer. Skill does, and that is shown by achievement. It is not
    shown by passing exams. This is why companies want people with
    experience, not fresh grads.

    I doubt I remember any of the maths I did at degree level, yet OTOH I
    have plenty of knowledge not covered by degree courses, knowledge that
    is infinitely more useful than that math.

    I have met many newly paper qualified tron engs who didnt have any
    idea how to build a simple radio, nor an audio amp, nor numerous basic
    building block things. I couldnt call those people real engineers
    myself. Although they got degrees, I dont think they understood it too
    well, because they didnt show good ability to apply their knowledge to
    real world problems. And that kind of knowledge is soon forgotten. To
    really understand and remember something one has to come at it from
    all sides, and play about with it. And our degree courses here in UK
    fail to do either of those. In fact I think there are also other
    aspects in which uni courses are quite in need of reform.

    There will always be holes in one's knowledge because there is far too
    much knowledge for one person to cover. Its the nature of this area of
    life. I see that in lots of s.e.d. threads, where it is knowledgeable
    engineers discussing, each with their own input to the situation. With
    forums like sed these holes diminish, as we can learn here and
    contribute to each other's projects.

    If you've proven your capabililty, it is pointless to then get a
    degree, except that it demonstrates your ability to those who dont
    understand the nature of qualifications. Far more practical is to
    spend the time learning more of your subject, rather than going over
    old ground yet again.

    I would finally add that an engineer does need to understand safety,
    reliability and legal responsibility, and take these factors into
    account in designs. Thats one hole of mine that was covered when I did
    my paper quals.

    Regards, NT
  15. John Todd

    John Todd Guest

    On Fri, 07 Nov 2003 09:45:10 -0800, Chris Carlen

    A pocket full of degrees don't make you an engineer. Recognition does.
    Find the local organization and write them, a local university could help.
    Write up your independent projects for review. I bet they'd be happy
    to have you.
  16. ETchncn

    ETchncn Guest

    You have just described pretty much what any technologist working at the upper
    levels of the "technician series" does at a National Lab. I would venture a
    guess that you just went through the annual performance appraisal/raise process
    and were told your salary level compared to a market analysis of salaries of
    people doing similar jobs in Universities and industry. I've been working for
    "another" National Lab for a long time and I'll share a secret with you about
    "similar jobs" in industry-if there are any, there are only about 5 of them.
    Also take into account the atmosphere in which you work. This is basically a
    research support job, quite a bit different than engineering in a company that
    expects to make a profit. Research spends money, it doesn't make any. A totally
    different concept than trying to make a gadget that will make a profit for the
    company. You, on the other hand, only have to provide a working gadget that
    does what is required so that a researcher can gather the data he/she needs to
    satisfy the requirements of their research. What this requires of you is
    gathering the required level of knowledge to build the gadget and then move on
    to the next project. There's _never_ enough time to develop expert knowledge on
    any given subject. Learn what you need and then tackle the next task. If you're
    lucky, you might end up working on projects that require further research on
    your part into more aspects of a subject you learned something about before but
    you'll likely never learn enough about a subject to become an expert. If
    something interests you enough, pursue it on your own time. Thats both the
    challenge and the curse of the job You do have to admit though, that it's
    challenging and fun and I would even guess, well paying. Besides, you get to
    play with things most technical types would never even dream of. Don't concern
    yourself with engineering behavior vs. technician behavior. Your job is a
    completely different animal. Also consider what real benefits would come from a
    BSEE or MSEE degree. Pay probably wouldn't change a great deal, you'd certainly
    feel a sense of personal accomplishment but on the other hand you would't get
    to do what you do either. For me the fun/challenge won out and I'm very content
    with my desision.

  17. Chris Carlen

    Chris Carlen Guest

    I think what I meant is that if I am doing something like, making a
    photodiode amp, I know that I haven't dealt with properly with noise
    theory, so I can't properly design for noise performance. But I know
    that, so "I know what I don't know." That means I can make an
    intelligent decision about whether my capablility will provide adequate
    performance without careful noise design, or if I need to call in a real
    engineer who knows this, or if I want to make now the time to sit down
    and really learn this topic myself.

    The point is that there are many techs. who don't even know noise theory
    exists, and so they are basically clueless if a design doesn't give good
    performance. Without realizing they don't know about even the existence
    of theoretical fundamentals that bear upon the problem, they will start
    applying scantily reasoned solutions to the problem, like sticking
    ferrite beads on cables, and following the local folklore on how to fix
    these things. It may or may not work (probably not).

    A lot of time can be killed by this sort of thing, and is partly a
    result of the fact that management may not understand the difference
    between engineers and techs., even though the managers themselves are
    engineers. But at least where I work, they are almost all engineers of
    a totally different field, and it can be rather perplexing how unable
    they are to extrapolate what they must know from their field, to others.

    For example, they wouldn't even consider assigning a tech to design a
    new balancing box to put under a single piston engine to cancel the
    vibrations caused when running a single piston reciprocator. They would
    know immediately that the tech. lacks the mechnical theory to do this.
    But they know that a mechanical engineer (hopefully) could do this, and
    that the tech. could take the resulting drawings and perform the
    machining and assembly.

    But this breaks down when dealing with another field like EE, where they
    go right ahead and ask a tech. to make a photodiode amp. for a very
    difficult high gain wide bandwidth data collection experiment. The
    potential problem here is often sidesteped by the fact that most techs.
    don't even attempt to "design" anything, but rather just do what I call
    "piecing modules together." By purchasing commercially available
    modules of functionality for the hard parts, they create fine solutions
    to problems without having to know how to engineer the modules
    themselves. This is a perfectly legitimate aproach to the kind of
    problems we face in research, where cost isn't so much an issue as is
    getting a working result quickly so the real work of science can be done.

    In that light, it is perhaps myself that is the problem, since I am so
    eager to learn how to make my own PID controller, photodiode amp, etc.,
    that I shy away from buying one and may attempt to convince the
    higher-ups that one should be made instead so I can have a good
    challenge, with the sales pitch being that I can give them some uniquely
    tailored features not possible with a module, that will make them
    happier in the long run. This is sometimes a valid point, and that is
    where I have made my place here. So it's not just a sales pitch, in
    that I won't seriously argue such a thing unless I really believe an
    in-house design will be better for our scientific goals. Of course,
    there are also plenty of cases for which one simply cannot buy any
    modules with the desired functionality.

    Regarding school, I would really like to continue not for a title
    change, but because I really like to get into the mathematics, and
    because what is limiting me right now is not benchtop practical wits but
    theory. There is no amount of experience that is going to teach me
    feedback loop stabilization. This is a theoretical subject that must be
    learned and exercised at the textbook level in order to make it really
    flow at design time. I am getting it piecemeal in this case, each time
    I have to do one I learn a little more theory. But I prefer to go at a
    subject rigorously and completely once and for all, including plenty of
    lab exercises that I am fully capable of concocting for myself in order
    to fully visualize the mathematical concepts and answering the nagging

    I took the EM course, and delved into it very thoroughly, far more than
    what was required. I am also forgeting the mathematical details of it
    just as quickly. I am afraid that there comes a time when it becomes
    increasingly difficult to make new learning "stick" in the mind, and
    that even though you might get it completely when you are learning it,
    it just seems to slip out of the memory much more quickly than when at a
    younger age. Nonetheless, that course was extremely valuable,
    especially since it was focussed on transmission lines. And if I ever
    need to deal with it mathematically again, it won't be too hard to get
    back to where I was with it.

    But I spent about 20 hours a week studying for that darned course, and
    it really burned me out. I said "no more" but my desire to learn has me
    second guessing that decision again, and I think I might try to tackle a
    real disrete semiconductor design course next fall. We'll see. But I
    think my limit in terms of available energy is just one course per
    semester (maybe only one per year), and it is very difficult to do a
    degree that way.

    I don't really need a degree, but I do need some specific courses,
    either learned on my own or from a formal institution. Those are:

    1. discrete semiconductor design (amplifiers, noise, and the roots of
    feedback loop stabilization, root-locus, etc.)
    2. control theory (including non-linear theory)
    3. digital signal processing (need to understand how discrete
    sampling influences the loop transfer, and all sorts of other DSP fun)
    4. digital logic design including HDL
    5. perhaps some more advanced filters or network synthesis theory

    Finally, yes I have a freedom in this job that is more valuable than any
    improvements in title. And I have been given consistently respectable
    raises. So I have no complaints.

    As always, thanks for the reply.

    Good day!

    Christopher R. Carlen
    Principal Laser/Optical Technologist
    Sandia National Laboratories CA USA
  18. Hi Chris,
    I second what Win says.

    I was an electronic hobbyist as a kid, but got my degree in Psychology
    (its a long story involving an aborted attempt to enter the minstry...
    :cool: When I got my bachelors, the best job I could find was working at
    GTE in a telco office as a tech. There, you found a wide range of
    abilities, from cookbook techs that could do anything, as long as they
    had done it 50 time before, to guys who were busy bulding thier own
    satellite receivers, tesla coils, etc. I was somewhere in the middle...

    After 7 years, when I was going to be laid off due to low seniority, I
    took a package and went back to school. Seems that, even though what I
    had been doing for the last few years was low end engineering, I didn't
    have the ticket that said I are one! So I spent a year at UNM Al-B-Q
    boning up on Calculus, diffeq and a physics class, then I went and got
    my MASTERS at UC Santa Barbara. Since you have a bachelors already, go
    straight to the masters. Its easier, by a long shot, especially since
    you already have a lot of the basics down. The fun part is trying to
    keep up with the math!

    Again, my standard advice: If you have a choice between an undergrad
    course and a grad course in the same subjet, TAKE THE GRAD COURSE! It
    is usually easier and a lot more practical. They skip the boring part
    of the basics, and go straight into 'how do you do that...'!

    Edmondson Engineering
    Unique Solutions to Unusual Problems
  19. I read in that Chris Carlen
    This is a very difficult subject. I have met many techs who were
    extremely competent designers and 'engineers' who were very limited in
    key skills. Of course, managers SHOULD know their people and their
    competences, but these days they hardly have time to get to know them
    before they are fired.
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