How Do You Build Solutions for Fortune 500 Companies? My Advice to Engineers
I’ve always been entrepreneurial. I think it’s that I don’t take orders well, so it’s always worked out best if I was the boss.
I’ve started and grown companies throughout my life, my last one probably being my best-known: AEi Systems, which remains one of the largest modeling and simulation companies in the United States. The company specializes in performing simulations of large systems. Some examples of the models and simulations we've done include the GPS satellite, the International Space Station, and the accelerator at CERN. We’re talking big projects.
I sold AEi Systems in 2000 to retire by the time I turned 40, which was a goal of mine. And then I got bored. I decided to go back to work for two reasons. One, I got remarried and my new wife went back to school, so my lifestyle changed. I couldn’t travel as much as I used to, and I got a bit fidgety—I needed to do something.
The second reason I went back to work was I saw that schools weren’t teaching kids how to take measurements, and as a result we were being inundated with bad data. I wrote Power Integrity to teach engineers how to make good measurements and why they should value good measurements in the first place. It’s also why, in 2010, I went back to work, founding Picotest.
Picotest works with companies like Keysight Technologies to find optimum ways to use your instruments and to connect them to different boards, to distill that into high accuracy data that engineers can easily understand.
For a company of six employees, we pride ourselves on the fact that almost every single Fortune 500 company uses our equipment. We’ve never had a single return. A lot of people sell equipment, but Picotest sells solutions. Our mission is to help our customers achieve their goals, which means we’re constantly challenged with new techniques and new measurement requirements.
What does it take to find solutions for a Fortune 500 company? Here are 4 things I've learned.
Advice #1: Break Your Silo
Perspective is everything. For example, I work with Keysight to build my unique view of what power integrity truly means. Most people think of power integrity from a simplistic view. Power electronics and power integrity seem related, and yet they’re configured for the ultimate lose-lose.
The power electronics engineer focuses on power supply and determines success by the metrics of power supply. Then you have the high-speed engineer at the other end, whose metric is looking at the performance of the chip.
As I argued in a recent article in Signal Integrity Journal, the real world of power integrity is much bigger than either engineer’s view. Power integrity is an ecosystem, and both engineers need to understand this entire ecosystem where everything communicates with everything else.
The success of either engineer depends on each understanding how their work interacts. It requires a broader perspective, an understanding of the ecosystem, not just your own little piece. To achieve that perspective, we have to break out of the silos of our disciplines and talk to one another. We need to collaborate.
Keysight has partnered with us in our workshops and boot camps, and has made those events more system-loving. This has made them incredibly successful. For example, at our most recent boot camp with Keysight, we had 135 engineers from different disciplines in a hands-on environment. We had customers from satellite, automotive, and IoT communities. The more events we have that facilitate this multi-discipline, multi-organization contact, the more we are going to see people learning from each other. It’s when we start to talk to other people that companies like Keysight and Picotest learn what we can do next.
Where Collaboration Will Take Us: The Next Big Leap
Let’s dig further into the impact of breaking down silos in the real-world evolution of test and measurement, because I expect us to see a big jump in that evolution in the next year.
Just before I started Picotest, I sensed the world was changing and that more engineers would need to understand RF and microwave. Faster edges drove the need to use RF and microwave techniques. I bought a copy of Keysight Advanced Design System (ADSand I made it my mission to learn to use ADS. The more I got into it, the more I liked it.
The critical point was when I started working with Heidi Barnes, Senior Applications Engineer at Keysight Technologies and 2017 Engineer of the Year. Heidi and the whole ADS team at Keysight were super helpful and I really began to understand the power of ADS to overcome power integrity challenges. With ADS's powerful simulation engines, I could consider the full power integrity ecosystem, voltage regulator module, power distribution network, and load for accurate simulation predictions and better correlation with the measurements. I was so impressed, I even became a Keysight Design Software Certified Expert.
Keysight is probably the only company in the world that has every measurement domain, as well as the simulator. Power interacts with the boards, the RF, the microwave, the logic, and the time-domain sides. When you consider all that, Keysight is the only company in the world that owns that domain. So Keysight is in a very unique position to create the entire ecosystem for their customers. They are connecting this all together with their new design and test software platform, PathWave.
Keysight offers a unique perspective that, honestly, no one had for quite some time. The reason for the delayed shift in thinking is it’s only very recently that the instrument test and measurement world decided to become solution- and application-based. That’s forced the entire industry to become more aware.
But I think the real catalyst here was engineers working with engineers. It was people like me working with people like Heidi Barnes at Keysight, offering my perspective on what power integrity means in her world. Heidi conveyed that knowledge to the ADS developers, which led to a great partnership.
What’s next for the test and measurement world is bringing artificial intelligence to the instruments. It’s a big jump, but I expect this to develop very quickly. That’s what happens when engineers start talking to one another across disciplines.
Advice #2: Team Young with Old
The advice I regularly give—and the advice I follow in my own company—is to team older engineers with young engineers. The older one brings the wisdom and experience, whereas the younger one brings the energy. When they become friends and exchange ideas, I think they both win. This gets back to that idea of engineers needing to open their mind and explore beyond their immediate area of expertise.
It also helps solve a generational issue I’m seeing in a shift from engineering to making. I’m not saying this to pick on makers. They play a huge role in propelling technology forward, but being a maker is not quite the same as being an engineer. Makers propel technology without the math. Engineers try to optimize the science behind that technology. We still need makers, but without engineers we can lose sight of the value of data.
I see a lot of young engineers today who can look at the equipment and figure out how to get the trace on the screen, but have no idea what the trace means or what they’re supposed to do about it. This is where an older engineer can add real value by showing the younger person how to turn that measurement into a solution. That’s engineering.
Advice #3: Slow Down
My third piece of advice is that we as engineers have to slow down. Again, I know this runs contrary to what you hear elsewhere. Today, we work under incredible time pressure, and there are several factors that feed into that. We have many more tasks to accomplish than we used to. We have a much larger knowledge base, which means there are more things we need to check in our designs, when there are still only 24 hours in a day. Engineers are stressed, understandably so.
Let’s take a step back and look at what this means for the work that results from this attitude. I have companies in Detroit offering to write me a blank check to save them a board spin. But me saving a board spin isn’t the same as finding a solution to that client’s inherent problem. We as engineers are in such a rush to get the part on the circuit rlboard that we forgot to figure out whether it was the right part in the first place. We need to slow down to understand the process that gives us that ecosystem.
Responsibility for solving this time pressure falls to the companies that employ engineers, because an individual engineer can’t unilaterally decide to slow down—not without risking losing their job. How as a company do you fix this? I advise offering more training. Help your employees find their way to that broader perspective to find those inefficiencies.
Advice #4: Look Where You Want to Go
Thinking about that broader perspective leads to my final piece of advice, which is actually advice from my dad when he was teaching me to drive. The first time my dad put me behind the wheel, he said, “I’m going to teach you something, and this is probably the most important thing you need to know about driving. You’re going to want to look at the front of your car. Don’t. Look at where you want your car to go. Look there, and that’s where your car will go.”
As engineers, we look too much at the front of our car. My closing advice is to stop thinking about what you need to do tomorrow. Start thinking about what you are going to do in five years. Start looking at where you want to go and what it’s going to take to get you there, and everything else will follow.
I’m following my dad’s advice. I’m 60 years old and I love what I do more than anything. I retired and came back from retirement, and what I now realize is it wasn’t just anger that brought me back, but the love I have for the engineering community. This community has been very good to me. When I look to where I want to be in five years, I want to have given back more than what I took from this community. I want to provide younger engineers the benefit of what I learned, so they can start where I stopped—not where I started. I hope this story has been something of that for you. And I thank Keysight for helping me achieve these goals.