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New Girls Replace Old Guys

Next-gen test engineers are an investment for all of us.

Two years ago I wondered in this space where we would unearth the test engineers of the future (“Who Replaces the Old Guys,” CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY, September 2014). I promised to report back what we found, once we found it. I was, I thought, realistic about our prospects. We were competing, as humble manufacturers, for future engineering talent against the magnetic allure of app designing. We were shunned by the prestigious universities. We contacted the “commuter schools,” hoping for a warmer reception. Reception was decidedly lukewarm. It is perhaps stating the obvious to note our company is not for everyone. In the Miss Universe of corporate beauty pageants, the most we can hope for is to secure Miss Congeniality.

Nevertheless, and in spite of the process taking far longer than we anticipated, we have seen the future, and it comes for us, this year, in the form of several risk-taking individuals at a boundary-breaking university (The University of California, Davis), who offered us its best: a 21-year-old, smart-as-a-whip, Hispanic female.

Who were you expecting?

Maybe she’ll join us.

If we don’t scare her away first. She’d be partnered with old guys, after all. Who just get older. And crankier. You see evidence of that in their magazine columns.

All the more reason to strike a firm blow on behalf of diversity.

Basic qualifications:

  • Bachelors of science (or equivalent work experience) in electrical engineering, computer engineering, computer science, mechanical engineering, or materials science.
  • Attention to detail; daring; self-confident; self-motivated. How self-confident? Willingness to call the Boss out when he says something stupid. Fearlessness a definite differentiator.
  • Exceptional written and verbal communication skills. And when we say exceptional, we ain’t blowin’ smoke!
  • Possessed of an innate aversion to Groupthink.
  • Intellectual curiosity and a willingness to learn, especially concerning why systems work, and even more especially, why they don’t.
  • Not shy or afraid to ask questions, the most important being, “why?”
  • Not being afraid to fail and make mistakes, learning from those mistakes, applying what was learned, and (hopefully) not making the same mistake twice.
  • Knows how, or at least is willing to learn how, to read, interpret, and potentially create a test design from a customer’s statement of work, while being cognizant of the probability the customer has at best a partial grasp of the cost and performance of what they are specifying. All while smiling. Ability to turn lab manuals into bodice-ripping fiction a definite plus.
  • Willingness to read (gasp!) and comprehend (whaaaat!?!) complex technical specifications.
  • High skills in electrical schematic interpretation.
  • Ability to diagram, on a white board, in two languages, the Infield Fly Rule.
  • Basic programming skills in some of the more common languages used in our trade, such as LabView, C, and C++.
  • Strong debugging and/or troubleshooting skills.
  • Digital and analog electrical design experience.
  • Exceptional nonsense (BS) recognition skills.

Just like every other red-blooded American boy and girl.

Intimidating requirements, to be sure. Doubtful we can find someone who meets all of them. About as likely as Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize.

But first comes the interview.

Questions to ask in an interview to a potential engineering employee:

  • What motivates you?
  • Do you understand what a test engineer does?
  • What is it about your major that excites you the most? Why study to be an EE, CE or CS?
  • How are you at explaining things in non-technical terms to others who do not understand engineering-speak?
  • How are you at working on a team?
  • Are you comfortable delivering bad news?
  • Do you have good time-management and multitasking skills?
  • Do you believe the old line that “the customer is always right?” Give an example where that might not be true.
  • Do you have a commitment to product quality?
  • Are you more comfortable being bound by rules, or would you rather make them up as you go; in other words, are you at ease maneuvering in uncharted waters?
  • Are you a good listener? If not, are you willing to suspend your prejudices and preconceptions and become one?
  • Do you understand the difference between quality and reliability? Can you explain that difference, using examples, in layman’s terms? Can you do so in another language other than the one you were raised with?
  • Are you bilingual; i.e., can you switch with ease between technical and non-technical terminology, depending upon the listener?
  • Describe a recent technical problem you were confronted with and how you resolved it.
  • How do you handle jerks?
  • Do you think being clever and being smart are the same or different things?
  • Do you have leadership skills? What are they? Give a recent example of how you used them.
  • Why would you possibly want to work for our little company when you could design apps, ride big white double-decker buses, make lots of money, and pay cash for your first house?
  • Do you like meetings or hate them?
  • What is your understanding, at this time of your life, of the concept of job satisfaction?
  • Do you think Silicon Valley looks past its high A—–e Quotient due to its high creativity quotient? Is that a fair tradeoff? Do you think one needs to be an a—–e in order to succeed leading a high-tech business? Is it a fair assessment to say most prominent business leaders have at least one screw loose?
  • Do you understand that technical excellence has a budgetary component? In other words, at a certain point, revenue must begin to be generated? We aren’t Bell Labs! Hell, Bell Labs isn’t Bell Labs anymore.
  • What makes you think you’re so good?
  • What question have we not asked you that you think we should have asked you, and how would you answer it?
  • Do you find the excessive use of penetrating questions annoying?

The few. The proud.

This summer we hosted an internship for the first time. Our Hispanic female was selected to endure 12 weeks with our kind. She prepared questions for us. Very thorough. Her rivals didn’t. Guys. The kind who are good at math and science, but deficient in questions. She blew us away. We chose her. She came armed from day one with those incessant questions. Intellectual curiosity. Made the old gray-haired guys squirm to find answers and remember what their acronyms stood for.

Makes you remember why you do what you do and what it all means. Re-questioning timeless assumptions to make sure they withstood scrutiny from the next generation. That’s healthy. That old nagging “why?” again. She brought more questions, an avalanche of them, when a friend graciously and proudly toured us through her manufacturing facility. At the conclusion of the tour, with the perfunctory “any questions?” request, out came the list. Typewritten and single-spaced. It’s good to see clear evidence of considered thought. She took nothing for granted.

Good. We want people like that.

Success = Preparation + Opportunity + Luck.

And positive cash flow.

But first you have to set one foot, metaphorically, on the path.

Her move.

OK, so she ran the gauntlet. Now what?

Our move.

Now comes the test for us. How can we, as a small engineering firm, embrace test engineering and sell it in a sufficiently compelling way to attract new talent?
Someone with the requisite qualifications has many choices. We compete at a disadvantage. We aren’t sexy. We are, however, sincere. And we offer the opportunity to learn how stuff works, why it breaks, how to fix it, and how to keep customers happy. We also offer unique exposure to the running of a small business.

Gotta start somewhere. So here is where we’ll start.

Deep breath, the kind one takes before launching into the Unknown. Casting out into the deep waters, as it were.

Our politicians say America needs much long-delayed investment in infrastructure. This is ours, and here is our investment. Our pipeline construction begins now.

Au.: The author is grateful for the assistance of AnaIsabel Huezo-Fernandez in compiling the qualifications and interview questions listed herein.