Collaboration and Design Reviews in a Remote Working Environment

June 16, 2020 John Burkhert

It’s so much easier when you can walk over to someone’s desk and get their attention. There’s the question, the dialog, the quick white-board sketch and done. In a few minutes, you’re back in the CAD seat doing your thing. In the lonely isolated world of the moment, extra effort goes into the simplest things.

Ring, Ring! Pick up the Phone

Instead of cold-calling, It may be better to start with a text message. I’m fond of using Teams at Microsoft. It would have been Zoom, WebEx, Hangouts or Skype at different times. Use your tools. Once you know that someone is receptive, go ahead and initiate the voice call. Always start with a bit of pleasantries before digging right into the question and answer period. It gives you both a moment to acclimate to the sound of the call. It’s also a little more natural and gets you in the zone to collaborate.

empty offices

All Images: Author - The chilling emptiness of an abandoned office doesn’t have to negatively affect the quality of communication.

Have your supporting documents open. Whether you’re asking about the schematic, the layout, a datasheet or all of the above, be ready to share your screen with relevant information. It may be good to close all of the irrelevant windows you have open to streamline the choices of what you plan to share. Choosing the wrong tab and accidentally launching that adorable cat video will disrupt the flow.

Respect their time, especially if it is more than one person. Be a listener and make sure you have the floor before chiming in. If I’m attending a virtual status meeting, I’m inclined to have a written status report handy. The boss just might ask for a report in lieu of a canceled meeting. Even if they don’t, getting prepared ahead of time makes sure that you don’t forget any of your accomplishments or concerns. The “oh yeah” moment usually comes just as you hang up on the call.

Dear Diary, Today We Made a Marketing Breakthrough.

The information that you gather during a layout should be kept in a specific location. It doesn’t take much time to paste a link into a doc file. The various email threads, the chats, any show-and-tell stuff can be hard to find when you’re scrambling to complete the work. The stack-up or final outline can be buried among all of the back-and-forth that lead to the decisions. Keep it all handy for design verification.

PCB

Image credit:  Author - Even the simplest layout can go off track without good communication.

A journal of those points can also be very valuable down the road when you pick up the design again. It’s even more important when you’re handing something off to someone who is not initiated in the program. Splicing views and comments into something like a Powerpoint as you go is easier than the archaeology of fact finding at the end. What used to be housed in a file cabinet needs a new vehicle in the work-from-home model.

The Work of a Service Bureau is Only as Good as the Information Provided to Them

A popular way to speed up a design is to collaborate in some way with an outside source. A statement of work (SOW) should include the physical and electrical parameters as well as the schedule and deliverable expectations. There are many ways to do a board design. Ruling out the things that should not be done would be nice but it ends up being too much information. Concentrate on a definition of success. Only add guardrails as necessary for course correction.

bonfire

Image Credit: Author - A virtual powwow is better than no powwow at all

The typical scenario is for you to work all day on a project and then throw it over the wall for someone to work all night. Spend the last hour of your day to prepare them for success. That hour pays dividends as you find that progress was made while you rested. The alternative is to step into your office the next morning and start ripping stuff up. It will never be perfect but you can ensure that some progress is made each night. You get the bill either way.

Design Reviews Require Intense Preparation

Finally, all of the silent partners get to have some say. They remain silent because it’s impossible for them to analyze a blank or incomplete canvass. Nobody really wants to see how sausage is made. For you vegetarians, go ahead and use yogurt or cheese as an example. Vegans and paleo-dieters? I’ll have to think about that. In any case, it’s the final product that matters and it’s all a matter of taste.

Even if you were keeping a tight loop with the cognizant engineer, you still may wind up being blind-sided by requirements from the down-stream groups. Those doing procurement, assembly, test and even document control may not have the ear of the architect. It’s just the nature of doing solitary work. The upstream teams may also have had a change of heart. Industrial design, product definition, UX, SI/PI and other regulatory requirements may come as a surprise.

The 11th Hour -  When Everything Seems to Happen

It is a fair assumption that something will come out of the woodwork at the end. Aim high. Strive for “minus one” execution of the schedule. Get there with your document package a day early. Sharing a document package the day before the design review gives them a chance to chime in with their show-stoppers.

control board

Image Credit: Author - Staying in touch doesn’t have to be that complicated.

They may tend to wait to present their findings at the proper time. Solicit their feedback by asking if they found any glaring issues in the early stage. That may be the only way you get their attention. Being proactive with a personal touch might get them to actually look instead of waiting for the appointed time.

The schedule usually drives the whole program. Your management may not know exactly how you got it all done in time but they will know that you did it. They like that. They remember and you might be the one they call on for the next critical job.

Being in the critical path can be scary. It can be a lot of work when nobody is around to see all of your effort. If the manager has to make a decision to promote someone, you stand a better chance in the spotlight than on the sideline. It all comes down to communication.

 

About the Author

John Burkhert

John Burkhert Jr is a career PCB Designer experienced in Military, Telecom, Consumer Hardware and lately, the Automotive industry. Originally, an RF specialist -- compelled to flip the bit now and then to fill the need for high-speed digital design. John enjoys playing bass and racing bikes when he's not writing about or performing PCB layout. You can find John on LinkedIn.

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