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"So, what do you do?": describing what we do every day as PCB designers and engineers is not an easy task. Here are 12 surefire answers to use to beat the glazed eyeball stares this holiday season.

THE HOLIDAY SEASON is upon us, bringing obligatory family gatherings and community parties. Enter the dreaded moment you will undoubtedly face: While standing by the eggnog bowl, you turn your back for just an instant and your spouse has disappeared, leaving you defenseless. Along comes your spouse's second cousin from Duluth, and strikes up a conversation. After you exhaust the topics of weather, golf and your house, the awkward silence is filled with the inevitable question ... "So, what do you do?"

If you're talking to another engineer, it's easy, "I'm a signal integrity engineer," "I design memory busses," or "I design circuit boards." But if you're talking to your second cousin by marriage, or to the parents of your kid's friends how do you explain what you doe

When asked the big question I used to say, "I teach signal integrity classes to hardware engineers." After too many eyeballs glazing over before I even finished the answer, I gave up and now just say, "I'm an engineer." This seems to be immediately satisfying, or they are afraid of the follow-up because before I can add any details, they're onto their kids' success stories. I envision they walk away thinking I drive trains (we have a lot of trains in Kansas, where I live) or inspecting the structural integrity of buildings.

Apparently I'm not alone in this complicated moment of communication. Here's how some other engineers in our industry handle the question:

Jeff Loyer, a signal integrity engineer at Intel, says, "I design computers." However, he's thinking of trying out, "I'm a microwave plumber."

Bill Hargin, a product manager at Mentor Graphics, says, "I help make (wheat) combines run fast and correctly by enabling computer chips to communicate with each other correctly. This speeds up the wheat harvest, putting bread, pasta and cereal on the tables and in the stomachs of children and workers worldwide--enabling them to live free, and ask questions like 'What do you do for a living?'"

HP engineer Richard Schumacher answers, "If computers were plumbing, I'd be the one who keeps the pipes from hammering."

Scott McMorrow, director of Engineering at Teraspeed Consulting, replies, "Electronics performance tuner and cat herder."

Leonard Dieguez, a signal integrity engineer at Altera Corp. does Scott one better: "I just avoid the question and tell them I raise cats. Then ask, 'Do you want one?'"

Cisco EMC/SI engineer Chris Padilla uses a trip down memory lane to reply, with, "You remember way back when your mother used to vacuum while you tried to watch TV and the TV got all fuzzy and snowy? Well, I design products that don't allow that to happen. I make sure the vacuum cleaner doesn't affect the TV and I make sure the TV can handle any noise the vacuum cleaner makes."

Larry Smith, a power integrity expert with Altera Corp. impresses people with, "I try to get signals from here to there at light speed without losing data. I bus around the same amount of DC current that it takes to start a car but this current has to work at a GHz."

Bidyut Sen, director of Packaging Technology at Sun Microsystems, says, "I used to say that I work in semiconductors. But in a party, in a response to my answer, somebody said, 'Oh, you drive trucks?' Since then I say that I work in hardware. Most of the time I just get a nod, they understand it is not software, and then don't ask anymore."

Gus Panella, manager of advanced product development at Molex, uses, " 'Electrical engineering ... I do what it takes to get data from one place to another quickly.' Then there's a pause as I wait for people to turn and run in order to get away. But I have a quick follow up; 'I also coach and play hockey during all my free moments.' This usually gives everyone at least one general area to converse about."

Teraspeed Consulting signal integrity expert Steve Weir believes simplicity is key: "Make stuff that goes fast and still works reliably."

Meena Nagappan, signal integrity engineer with IDI says, "For high-speed signals, a signal integrity engineer is like St. Christopher--the patron saint of travelers. The patron saint protects the signals from any external influence and assures safe travel!"

I believe my wife, however, came up with the best response. She told me I need to say, "I teach chip designers how to turn a chorus of angry voices into a beautiful symphony of harmonious melodies." Only she can carry it off with a straight face though.

So, in spirit of the conversations you are bound to have at Aunt Martha's fruitcake exchange this year, I have to ask--what is it that you do?

DR. ERIC BOGATIN is president of Bogatin Enterprises. He can be reached at
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Title Annotation:NO MYTHS ALLOWED
Author:Bogatin, Eric
Publication:Printed Circuit Design & Manufacture
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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