Featured Engineer

Interview with Dave Young

Dave Young

Dave Young - Operating Owner, Young Circuit Designs, LLC and Co-Founder, BlueStamp, LLC

How did you get into electronics/ engineering and when did you start?

When I was in middle school I found out about X10 home automation equipment. They were running incredible deals like $20 off a $25 purchase every couple of months so I was always buying more modules. Before long I had tons of devices connected to my computer running simple code and using their custom modules to control a host of DC-powered devices. I particularly found use for the system in high school when I could use the motion sensors to tell me when someone was coming towards my room when I had certain company over.

What are your favorite hardware tools that you use?

I love the TEK TDS3000C-series scope. I used it all the time while working on kinetic energy harvesting technology. I had a TEK TCP202 current probe with it, and I was easily able to measure Vi, I, and produce a math waveform for power with point-by-point calculations, saving me from power factor correction challenges that DMMs would represent.

What are your favorite software tools that you use?

It may be simple, but since I’m a hardware guy I have no shame in saying that I love the arduino development environment. The best part is the ease in which one can enter debug mode. It often time amazes me had how complicated a serial connection to a computer terminal can be with other uC’s. I won’t debug anything without a connection to see what the uC output is, so I dig that arduino adds it’s console functionality right out of the box.

What is the hardest/trickiest bug you have ever fixed?

The hardest problem I faced was actually a series of problems. When working on a trivial component obsolescence issue for a product that had been in production for a decade or two I found several other problems with the design. It was almost as if each time I tested a feature there was a new failure staring me in the face. I couldn’t just ignore them! It took a week just to get a handle on what I was dealing with! Add the myriad of new issues to the difficulty of working on a retired engineer’s aging design and the pressure of a product that could not ship to customers until everything is solved and I had quite the doozy on my hands. Thankfully I filled my whiteboard and solved the problems one by one to get it shipping again. Divide and conquer! The worst part was watching the problem grow and grow faster with each test. Talk about not wanting to get test results!

What is on your bookshelf?

While I had a stack of engineering books from college like Op Amp Applications by Analog Devices, Analog and Digital Communications by Lathi, The Art of Electronics by Horowitz and Hill, I honestly only open those a few times per year. I find that browsing the internet is enough to remind me of that equation I forgot. It is only when I need to really dive into a topic that I go for the book.

I do have several other books that I find helpful in my work. My favorite of which is The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. Given to me by a good friend and a fellow EE, I love the story about a technical guy sticking to his designs because he knows they are the best based on an absolute measure, not what is popular.

Another random book is The Little Brown Book by Anthony J. Schneider that my alma mater, Case Western Reserve University, gives to its engineering graduates. Any time I need a quick refresher on a topic explained in plain English, this book is a pleasure to read. It also has my favorite explanation of logarithms and exponential scale.

Do you have any tricks up your sleeve?

Most important thing I’ve learned: Check the grounds. It’s always the grounds. And don’t just check them once – sometimes the grounding problem(s) don’t make themselves known until the 2nd or 3rd time you check.

I also like feeling around the board for warm parts when troubleshooting. And jiggling cables – many times have I chased a problem that only turned out to be an old cable.

And one last tip: when soldering those really small parts it helps to have a good iron, clean tip, and when possible, a beer or a glass of red wine to calm down the mind and smooth out the hand.

What has been your favorite project?

It’s funny how my current project is usually (but not always) my favorite. In addition to working for clients, the BlueStamp engineering program is gaining steam. Creating a program that I would have loved in my high school years and seeing students come to experience the same joy I get from my work makes it my favorite project right now.

My all-time favorite technical project was actually my first project out of college. I was assigned to design a 4-bay battery charger along with a mechanical engineering friend of mine. Not only was this the first design of mine that would be ready for production, but since it was a small company the two of us were given free range in the design process. I was able to come up with the system architecture, the schematic, the board layout, the code, and the production fixtures. And the best part was that the company gave me the time to take a close look at each step with the support of the senior engineers instead of rushing me through to production. It was a truly remarkable opportunity which I took full advantage of by researching, testing, and making mistakes. I’ve never been given the control, time, and support on a project since!

Do you have any note-worthy engineering experiences?

Hahaha I got absolutely nailed by 1500V once when working on a high voltage power supply. And by ‘nailed’ I mean from my left hand to my right hand for what seemed to be seconds. I know all about precautions such as working with only one hand at a time to be safe, but in the heat of the moment while designing (read: things weren’t working), I threw caution to the wind. The string of profanity that followed was encouraging to those in cubes around me. They said, “Keep cursing Dave, that’s how we know you’re still alive.’ Not a lesson I’ll have to learn twice.

Another interesting experience was in leaving stable, good employment to working for start-ups and as an independent consultant. 100% of my previous work experience was in extraordinary engineering departments. I found friendship, encouragement, challenges, and above all else, remarkable teachers in those with whom I worked. Being surrounded by kind of resource makes a person wonder if they have what it takes without such incredible support both professionally and personally. But once I switched my career path I found that they had taught me well, and the fellowship was simply found after work over beers. As for the long list of things that I didn’t understand (and many that I still don’t) – I became accustomed to tackling them with research instead of private lessons from senior engineers. Certainly a less pleasant and less efficient approach, but the feeling of accomplishment is significant!

What are you currently working on?

Since getting married and moving to Denver last month, I have focused my YCD time on making sure the clients that want me to work remotely are seeing the design progress they want. I am also beginning the process of learning about the electronics industry in the Denver/Boulder area to see if an analog electronics guy can be of any help to small companies in the area.

The time I spend with BlueStamp Engineering is focused on expanding the NYC program to reach 2x-3x the students in summer 2012 and starting a second branch in Houston, TX. I am always amazed at the way time must be allocated in bootstrapping ventures like these – right now I’m stuck with a website issue that SHOULD only take me a few hours to fix, but has had me snagged for a couple days.

Why did you decided to go into consulting?

Ha – I’d be lying if I told you it had nothing to do with my desire to move from Cleveland, OH to Ithaca, NY where my wife (then girlfriend) was working on her graduate degree from Cornell.

However the professional driver to consulting was my affinity for working in small start-up companies. I quickly found that there are lots of start-ups that need a person who can get analog electronics to work, but there are very few that need a person to work 40+ hours per week on analog problems with any sort of stability. I thought it would make the most sense for my potential clients to offer a piece of an analog engineer, which also allows me to average the significant risks that are represented by start-ups by working for more than one company.

What are the goals of Young Circuit Designs?

YCD’s only goal is to provide electronics expertise to companies that have unique requirements for both their people and for the way a project is completed. I’ve only been working with start-ups for a couple of years, but I’ve already seen tough situations that are very far from what an engineer would expect to ever see in a cubicle at a company like GE. YCD plays the hand that the client was dealt and comes through with the best outcome given less-than-desirable conditions.

What direction do you see your business heading in the next few years?

YCD will remain a consulting firm for companies that need electronics expertise in a non-traditional setting. However I could see either teaming up with other electronics consultants, or even hiring employees to take on tasks that I have less experience with. Things like coding, high-speed digital board layout, and RF design are all things I’ve done for simple projects, but I am not the best man for significant jobs in those areas. With a few more like-minded individuals to work with in those areas YCD could offer a remarkable service to companies needing to surround their core technology with electronics.

As for BSE, I see it growing to reach more students in more cities. We are working hard to develop additional programs without compromising an ounce of the quality that our 2011 NYC class experienced. Sadly, this makes for growth that is slower than we might otherwise like to see. I would like to see established BSE programs double each year until we can meet demand, and one new city added each year.

What challenges do you foresee in our industry?

We will have the same problem that every industry has when it grows as quickly as electronics has: it is not sustainable. Everyone involved in the designing of electronics is enjoying a boom period where more and more devices are needed and the rate at which consumers will shell out cash for the latest product is blazing fast. How much longer will we enjoy this rate of growth? I have no idea, I just know that it won’t last forever. The way down from crazy growth is always a bumpy ride…

I have another concern about the industry: More engineers seem to outsource a project or portion of a project to another company instead of learning how to complete the task themselves. I know it’s tough with fewer people in the department and everyone being asked to ‘do more with less,’ but it is still alarming. It’s almost as if the management mentality of ‘Find who can do it cheapest and hire them’ is leaking into the engineering department. Designs never last forever. Parts go obsolete, board manufacturers change, production employees with ‘the magic touch’ leave their job, documentation gets lost. When Joe Schmow from 1,000 miles away or more completed the design and can no longer be found, someone has to reverse-engineer the design to solve problems all while customers are waiting for shipements. Long term investments went out of style in the business environment, and now they are getting less popular in engineering. Bummer.

What frustrates you most about design work?

I find it is very difficult to get a complete understanding of what the end user wants. Especially in a large company, the design engineer is at least 3 or 4 degrees removed from the person who will use the device. Even when the engineer seeks for the information or a customer connection, it is difficult or impossible to attain. For the person who best knows what is feasible given the technical, budgetary, and schedule constraints to be left in the dark on this topic is crazy. I know engineers aren’t the best with customers, and that customers don’t always know what they want, but going without hinders the creativity process and limits the potential of the product.

What is the best way for someone looking for a job in engineering to get one?

While it is important to network, job search, and chase leads (all of which being time consuming), the most important thing is to DO what he or she would like to do at work. Enjoy firmware? Get some parts and put stuff together. Like analog systems? Make a sweet light organ.

I believe that the universe opens up paths for those who follow their instinct and do what they are drawn to, no matter if it is for a paycheck or not. Plus, when it comes time for the interview having in-depth knowledge of designs similar to what the company will have you do is a HUGE help.

What is your favorite job perk?

Access to the equipment!!! Dropped your cell phone in the water on a fishing trip? Leave it in the environmental chamber. High heating bills? Borrow the thermal camera and find out why. Working on a personal project? Go ahead and use the expensive equipment you will never be able to afford. When your job is to build things, your home projects can be that much more interesting. Of course this is assuming the company is cool with you using their stuff, but they usually are.

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