Featured Engineer

Interview with Michael Hord

Michael Hord

Michael Hord - Electrical Engineer, SparkFun Electronics

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

I came to electronics fairly late in the game. It was my senior year of high school before it occurred to me that I could make a career out of it. My high school physics teacher told us some stories about the fun stuff the electrical engineering students he knew in college had made, and that sealed the deal. That is not to say I didn’t have interest in it in the past—as a child I took apart a ridiculous number of electronic gadgets, some of which my parents would rather I hadn’t.

After high school I went on to study engineering at North Dakota State University. For me it was a great decision because of its engineering program, which is very well-respected especially in the Upper Midwest region.

What are your favorite hardware tools that you use?

My senses. I start out every troubleshooting session with four of my senses: does anything look wrong (size, shape, color), does anything feel wrong (hotter or colder than expected), does anything sound wrong (clicking, buzzing, whining), and what about smell (burning, unnatural odors)?

The best part is that setup and calibration time for these tools is zero. I always know where they are, and they’re pretty easy to use.

What are your favorite software tools that you use?

LTSpice from Linear Tech is a staple of my design work. Also, Python is great for throwing together quick tools to automate boring tasks.

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

I’ve had several involving defective component populations failing in the field. These are the worst, because that’s always the last thing you consider because it tends to be fairly unlikely, and the average engineer doesn’t have the tools to differentiate between parts failing because of a design defect and parts failing because of a component defect. Sometimes even the experts can’t find direct evidence of it and you end up having to rule out all the competing theories—that’s a very unsatisfying way to end a problem-solving arc.

What is on your bookshelf?

I keep around most of my old textbooks, Horowitz and Hill, and some back issues of Elektor and Circuit cellar. One big one that may be surprising is that I still have a selection of the Mims engineering notebooks. Paging through those can be a nice reminder that sometimes solutions really are that simple.

Do you have any tricks up your sleeve?

A recent Circuit Cellar issue featured a story about holding scope probes in place by affixing a dowel to each one, then putting up a hoop that the dowels can lean against. The weight of the dowel and the probe holds the point against the test point and frees up my hands for other tasks.

Do you have any note-worthy engineering experiences?

Once, in the depths of an Iowa winter, I touched a circuit without properly grounding. One of the components (a fairly rugged regulator) literally burst and smoked out. That’s a favorite counter to the “I’ve never had an ESD failure” line that I hear from some engineers.

Now that you’re working for SparkFun, can you tell me some of the things you are working on there?

I’m in the engineering department, so it’s not terribly surprising stuff. I work on new breakout boards, basically stuff to provide technically-minded people with the ability to create things. I think it is a good fit for me because at CyberOptics our focus was on enabling the electronics assembly industry, which ultimately meant enabling consumer production. Here at SparkFun, its much more oriented toward enabling people to create things of their own.

Can you tell me about some of your projects, or some of the work you’ve done before you began working for SparkFun?

At CyberOptics, I was the electrical engineer on a project which involved a camera being used in a solar printing machine. That was a really cool project because the constraints of the project were to make the camera body as thin as possible, while getting the data transfer rate as high as possible to minimize lag time and maximize the cycle rate of the machine.

Did you use an off-the-shelf camera module, or did you use an image sensor?

We started out with bare electronics and an image sensor, and designed everything from the ground up. It turned out really well, and was very rewarding to see as the cameras were being shipped. We realized that every camera shipped was going into a production line, and every production line represents an increase in the production capability for new solar power installation.

Were you able to achieve your objective of getting the camera as thin as possible?

Yes. The electronics portion had a shape similar to a diving board arrangement. The platform part of the diving board was basically optics and illumination, and that was about 10mm thick. The actual electronics, however, was housed in a substantially thicker portion, which included the sensor. We had some very talented optical engineers that were able to bend the light through a very small pass to get it back to the sensor.

What has been your favorite project?

In so many ways, my favorite project was helping to establish and define the local hackerspace (TCmaker.org). It’s become a virtual wunderkammer of unusual individuals, improbable projects, and exciting events. Last night we had a fire dancer, impromptu knife throwing, and discussions about alien life. And that’s just the tiny corner of the 4,000-plus square feet that I was paying attention to.

Can you tell me about your involvement with Twin Cities Maker?

I was actually one of the earlier members of the group, and managed to get myself elected president. We put together our own mini Maker Faire two years in a row, and have had a presence at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Make Day. We also try to be fairly active in the local community, doing things like teaching classes. Of course, me being in Boulder now, I won’t be as involved anymore. But I think that, in the end, the move will be very much worth it.

How do you keep in touch with other members of the engineering community?

Surprisingly, Twitter is a great method for keeping tabs on the community. Lots of prominent engineers have and actively use Twitter accounts, and many companies announce new products, example projects and events over Twitter. Google Reader lets me keep tabs on any RSS feeds of import, and the portability of both means I can use them from a smartphone while I’m away from a PC.

What challenges do you foresee in our industry?

I think arresting the cost of education is probably the most significant. There are a lot of programs (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) comes to mind) providing young people with a passion for engineering, but if they feel like they can’t afford the education to pursue that, all of the time and energy spent on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education in primary and secondary schools is being wasted.

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