Chris Gammell's Analog Life

Analog electronics and everything else between 1 and 0

Month: October 2008 (page 2 of 4)

Engineering soft skills and stepping outside your circle of competence

My great great grandfather was a preacher. My grandfather was a great salesman. My father is a great salesman. I am an engineer. One of these things is not the same here. How did I enter a profession often associated with introverts and socially challenged people? Am I doomed to fulfill this stereotype? What kinds of skills must I develop to be a better engineer all around?

I write about these things for two reasons. One, because the skills I’m about to list are necessary in every aspect of life, not just work. And two, because most engineers do not stay engineers for their entire career. Either because of desire for higher pay grade, natural promotion or just wanting to be in charge, most engineers end up in management eventually. I will leave opinions about whether this is the correct path to the comments.

  1. Public speaking — One of the most feared activities the world over, this is a good one to force yourself to practice.  Granted, not many new grads will have much to present about; but once you are tapped for that first presentation, it is likely it is an important reason. It’s probably better to practice your public speaking in front of your design group or an organization outside of work before you’re chosen to speak in front of the company. The best tip I can give is to slow down. You’ll become more aware of what you’re saying and you’ll be less likely to say “um” when your mouth pauses from its usual mile-a-minute pace.
  2. Presentations — I believe Nate (a good friend and frequent commenter) put it best in my post about getting a job out of college, when he said that the engineering education at our school didn’t focus nearly enough time on giving presentations and communicating our ideas to our superiors. When you look at the percentage of time we present compared to how much time we spend designing a solution, it seems much more important than ever was stressed in school. For tips on presentations and powerpoint, I usually look to Seth Godin, marketing guru and writer extraordinaire.
  3. Conventioneering — Not every engineer goes to conferences on a regular basis, but when you do, you have to know how to work it. Remember, it’s not just a food free for all; nor is it time to go around seeing how many thousand pens you can gather. These are opportunities to check out your competition, find new components for designs, see some cool stuff and maybe even make a few friends (or contacts, if you will).
  4. Small talk — You know what you do a lot of at conventions? You stand around a lot. You know what else you do? You make small talk with strangers. But the skill here is learning how to open people up to talking about more than the OSU football team or the weather. Instead you want to find some meaningful information about them and then relate back to them with stories of your own that fit. Getting people to relate to you will help you build your business contacts, drum up leads for your marketing people and again, help you make friends. You never know who you meet that might be working on the next Google or Apple. You just never know.
  5. Networking — Things don’t last forever. In fact, it’s a skill to know when to quit rather than wait for a job to dead end. Unfortunately, people always extol the virtues of networking but never tell you how to do it. Some say blogging is a good idea for networking, but I haven’t hit the jackpot on that one yet. I’d say the best way I’ve found so far is to bite the bullet and call up some people you don’t know (who happen to know a lot) and ask them for some time to talk about what they do. Sure, this works better when you’re not looking for a job, but it works OK when you’re desperate too. Remember, there are a LOT of people out there and the ones getting calls are mostly the ones everyone knows about (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, etc). If you happen to catch a name of a local engineer who does something you do, call him or her up and ask to hear about their job for a while. If you don’t think you’ll be overhearing any names anytime soon, go to LinkedIn and snipe some names off of there. The main thing is to be courteous, be honest with them (if they ask if you are doing this to find a job, tell them yes or no) and most of all, be interested. Playing to someone’s ego may sound bad, but it works because people want to feel important and wanted. Don’t forget the thank you notes either. (For more info on networking, I always like “What color is your parachute” by Richard Nelson Bolles. It is updated yearly and has some great information).

Soft skills aren’t limited to the ones above, but they can get you pretty far in life past the lab bench. Remember, these skills aren’t absolutely necessary–they just help engineers round out their skillsets. If you are an engineer who wants to start a company one day, you’re going to have to sell your idea, at least once. So you might want to think about working on developing the skills listed above; at the very least, recognize what they are and partner up with someone who displays these attributes.

Is there a soft skill missing? Am I way off on any of these? Let me know in the comments!

“Hot, Flat and Crowded” By Thomas Friedman — A short review

I love public libraries because it’s like having Amazon.com minus the pesky notion of paying for a book. However, the downside is you don’t get to keep what you’re reading–especially if it is a popular book that other people want before you can renew it. As such, I’m going to review what I’ve read of this book so far, because it’s just that good.

For background, Thomas Friedman also wrote “The World is Flat”, a book detailing how the economy and the world has changed since the September 11th attacks, both good and bad. In that book (written in 2005) he details the benefits of outsourcing and globalization and actually downplays the notion of globalization as an enemy, instead framing it as an opportunity that requires a competitive nature in workers and corporations. While that book was written before there was the possibility of recession, the book explains the rapid growth that is occurring overseas which will likely collapse along with the credit markets. I highly suggest reading that book if you have not, it is a great introduction into Friedman’s writings and is a good preface for the book reviewed here.

Onto the main event. Let’s decode the title of this book:

  • Hot — Not too hard to figure this one out. Global warming is not just a potential threat anymore, it’s real, it’s dangerous and it’s here to stay (or is it?)
  • Flat — See the previous paragraph. The world is quickly trying to elevate more people into the middle class than ever before. This is putting a serious strain on all resources of the planet, including the atmosphere.
  • Crowded — Barring a major war, outbreak or famine, the world population keeps on growing. Add to the mix better drugs, a higher focus on health and longer life expectancies, the people that are here will probably stick around too. Overpopulation is yet another drain and strain on the planet’s resources, multiplicatively so if those people are in the middle class.

Of these, I would put forth that only the “hot” portion has any solution, and at that, reduced consumption and switching to renewable energy will likely only go as far as retaining the current temperature of the earth. For the “flat” and “crowded” parts, the best case scenario is that we find ways to accommodate more and more people entering the middle class and the world in general by changing our perceptions of allowable consumption in the middle class (and any class for that matter). Most notably, Americans who have become accustomed to a particularly wasteful way of life (as chronicled by Duncan)may have to re-assess how they consume products; while it would be nice to think we will do this with conservation in mind, more realistically we will be forced to do this because of the laws of supply and demand are going to make previously cheap products much more expensive.

How do we do it, you ask? With a “green revolution”. This means an economy that is based around locally produced energy that is both renewable and environmentally friendly. Even though it sounds a bit new-agey to conjecture that renewable energy can save the world, it really starts to make sense when you look at current world issues. Here are some problems that a green economy can fix:

  1. Energy supply and demand — The best ways to bring down energy costs is to either flood the market with it (energy) or tell the energy producers you don’t need it. Since the world as a whole will not likely give up our digital and analog electronic gadgets anytime soon and our energy usage will likely increase, it would behoove us to begin making cheap and renewable energy. Since oil doesn’t seem to be an option as cheap energy anymore, we should probably start looking at new exciting options, like solar cells made out of black silicon.
  2. Petropolitics — If we don’t end up going out and figuring out how to make renewable energy, we’ll continue shipping boatloads of money to countries that hate us. Like I had written about these oil barons before, why not hit them where it hurts? In the wallet.
  3. Climate Change — Al Gore knows it and told a lot of the world. There is undeniable climate change happening every day we continue to dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Reduce coal and oil usage and the amount we dump into the air will go down.
  4. Energy Poverty — Without energy, it’s hard to do a lot of things. Most of us would go check into a hotel if the power went out for more than a week. However, one third of the world lives in energy poverty, meaning they cannot even come close to pulling themselves out of monetary poverty; health standards are proven to drop dramatically when people live this way.
  5. Biodiversity Loss — Human consumption of natural resources is threatening damn near every species on the planet, up to and including humans. If we don’t want to have only cockroaches and squirrels running around a polluted planet with us, we need to set up more sanctuaries and reduce

I unfortunately didn’t get to read about all of Friedman’s ideas, but plan to read more as I get my own copy of this book. (More of the basis of his ideas can be read from his entries in the NY Times and Foreign Policy magazine)

I will leave you with one of my favorite statistics and quotes that Friedman puts in the (beginning of the) book; Moisés Naím also writes in Foreign Policy about the Chinese and Indian middle class that is emerging and how “the total population of the planet will increase by about 1 billion people in the next 12 years, [but] the ranks of the middle class will swell by as many as 1.8 billion”. Just think about that for a second. 1.8 BILLION more people leaving the lights on, eating cheeseburgers, driving SUVs and doing everything else they’ve been sold as “the American Dream” (or at least way of life). They can’t be stopped and they are constantly told through advertising that they deserve whatever they want. Something has to change, and fast (besides the economy). I want to find solutions for new renewable energy and I hope you do too; but a quick thing that will help everyone is if you switch those lights off at home when you’re not using them, so be sure to do that too.

Scared by all of this? That wasn’t the point of this post, but it scares the heck out of me too. Go out and read this book and leave some comments about what you think about the future of the world.

Is black silicon the way to make cheaper solar power?

I came across an article today talking about how black silicon will revolutionize solar power. The idea developed at Harvard (and now at a company called SiOnyx) is basically to blast the surface of a silicon wafer with a high intensity laser for a very short interval. This short time “melts” the silicon and when it comes back together it has a structure allows the structure of the silicon to absorb more light. They also utilize a new type of doping, (doping is insertion of low quantities of specific elements, such as phosphorus, into silicon in order to change the properties of the silicon. Depending on the type of dopant the silicon may want to release an electron or absorb one); the laser process likely allows better penetration of the dopants into the silicon, which usually are accelerated into the silicon with HUGE magnets. There aren’t specifics about the entire process, but as you can see in the picture below, the silicon seems to stretch upwards creating cones of silicon. I would guess that the process is similar to carbon nano-tubes where they also use a laser to blast the carbon. It also makes sense that the process would work for silicon given the similar structure between carbon and silicon.

Courtesy of SiOnyx

Again, I don’t know the specifics of how the final product works better, but my guess would be that the cones are much better and capturing light, due to the higher surface area. When the light hits these more sensitive nodules, the energy “knocks” an electron loose (just as in regular PV cells), which then contributes to the overall current coming from the cell. Also of note is how the dopants shift the sensitivity of the silicon to a lower wavelength. In this case, it is shifting it down into the red and infrared regions of the spectrum, which allows for more energy to be absorbed by silicon, as opposed to reflected. This also is the namesake characteristic of this technology, because in theory “black” silicon would absorb all light (as opposed to a theoretically worthless “white” silicon that would reflect all light). The higher amount of cells hit by light (due to more surface area) and the greater sensitivity to low wavelength light such as infrared (which our bodies interpret as “heat”) gives this new silicon a much higher overall absorption and translation into usable electrical energy.

I like this idea because it lets existing solar facilities be transformed easily into solar cell facilities. This new capacity could then be absorbed by local micro-factories, putting the solar arrays together and hopefully driving the cost to the consumer down. As more and more fabrication facilities are shut down due to a possible recession, they could quickly be modified to start outputting less complicated solar cells in higher volumes. The SiOnyx equipment would provide the final processing necessary to have the higher efficiency panels.

I only know what I have read online, but I like what I have seen thus far (plus I tend to trust researchers from Harvard more than just some schlub off the street). It seems feasible in the short term and has much broader appeal and use than ideas like “dancing to save the world“. Check out the above article and if you have any thoughts, please leave them in the comments.

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