“Abandon hope all ye who enter here”
– Sign above the door on any EMC lab.
I’ve been asked a couple of times for career advice in relation to EMC. How do I get into EMC in the first place? How do I progress, perhaps moving from testing to design? Where should I take my career?
I’m generally sceptical about people who offer career advice. Much advice tends to be parochial “do this and you will succeed”. It is based entirely on what the person giving the advice thinks you should do (even if they never did it themselves.
Everyone’s upbringing and experience is so different there is no “one size fits all” approach to any career.
I can only share what I have done.
Maybe it will help.
Pre-Flight Check # 1: Make sure you are in the right career
Too many people are guided into careers like doctor, lawyer, engineer that might not be the best fit for them.
Make sure that engineering is right for you.
If you aren’t sure (and that’s OK) then writers like Tim Urban (career advice featuring the Yearning Octopus and your mum in disguise – long read but worthwhile) or James Altucher have lots of thought provoking advice for you.
I think being an engineer is more of a vocation than a job. If you cut most engineers through the middle it will say ENGINEER like a stick of Blackpool rock (a very British analogy). The chances are, if you are reading this, you are already in this category.
Pre-Flight Check # 2: Be honest about your reasons for wanting to get into EMC
Why are you wanting to get into the world of EMC?
Wanting something impressive on your CV? Think it might be a good way to get to that promotion you’ve been after? Probably will, but if these are your only reasons then you might be frustrated by the learning curve associated with the field.
One good answer is “it sounds really interesting.” If these are your thoughts then you are not wrong. I think it is one of the most fascinating fields of electronics.
In my case I was cheesed off with working in project management where I was spending less time with my soldering iron and more time in bullshit meetings. An opportunity for an EMC engineer came up in the organisation I worked for and without even thinking about it too deeply I said “I’ll do it”.
Best snap decision ever!
Pre-Flight Check # 3: You don’t have to be mad ^H^H^H enthusiastic to work here but it helps.
Whenever I solve an EMC problem I will generally do a little dance. It really floats my boat.
I’m lucky because I get to do what I love and people pay me. Most days I feel like I’ve won the lottery just for doing my day job.
If you don’t love the work (and it can be difficult) then its an excercise in frustration.
Try and follow what makes you want to dance in the middle of the lab. This is a fantastic lens for discovering what it is you are meant to be doing with your career.
General Skills: EMC is a Holistic Discipline
I spent the first 7 years of my electronics career working on…
- power supply design
- microcontroller coding
- thermal CFD simulation and design
- basic mechanical design
- high speed digital design and test
- system level architecture
- cost sensitive design
- project management
…before I became an EMC engineer. Before even realising I wanted to be an EMC engineer.
I still regularly use ALL these skills in my job as an EMC engineer.
Product design decisions made impact EMC performance.
EMC decisions impact product performance (and cost).
The two co-exist and cannot be separated.
Understanding the compromises of product design, the interaction between competing aspects (particularly cost!) is incredibly useful.
Go to the place least crowded / Leverage your existing skills
It might be that your team/employer/company has no EMC engineer. Take on that responsibility. This is what I ended up doing and now, 13 years later, I still love what I do.
Perhaps you have an EMC engineer colleague. Arrange to sit on their shoulder and talk to them. Ask lots of questions. Find out what area they don’t have time to work on or what problems they have. Work on that.
You are a member of an EMC team. Again, what areas do the team struggle with? What area consistently causes problems? No one is an expert on the finer points of widget calibration and the effects of temperature. Become that expert.
Find a niche (rhymes with quiche dammit) and fill it. You get to progress and inevitably find something else interesting to work on.
Follow your curiosity!
Get good at fixing EMC problems / make mistakes
Another fundamental truth of EMC is that There Will Be Problems.
Problems present a (usually) unique learning opportunity. Every problem I’ve solved has either taught me something or reinforced some piece of existing learning.
Spend a time in the test lab experimenting and getting an understanding of what works and what does not work.
All experiments are useful. Failed experiments or inconclusive data can help you refine your thinking.
This also leads on to mistakes. I make mistakes on a daily basis. They are usually small and easily correctable but sometimes they are bigger. Like the time I fried a piece of customers equipment by supplying 28V instead of 7.4V. Mistakes are hard teachers but you don’t forget the lesson in a hurry.
Importantly, people remember the mistake less than what you did to fix it. Own your mistakes.
Understand how HF current flows
In my opinion, this is the key to understanding EMC.
I recorded a presentation which might help your understanding but others have written about it before me and better (Henry Ott for instance).
Once you can visualise this you can understand the WHY behind so much of EMC.
Cultivate a Tolerance for Frustration
I would describe being an EMC engineer as alternately frustrating and elating.
You get better at dealing with the frustration of a problem and at solving it quicker.
Sometimes the scope of a problem is outside of your remit of available tools or skills to fix. Learn what you can and try and figure out a way forward.
Learn to automate
One of my favourite articles is Don’t Learn To Code, Learn To Automate.
EMC is no different to any other job, there will be repetitive tasks to perform.
Automating tests frees you up to work on other things and makes your work more consistent. Plus it gives you an opportunity to make a cup of tea whilst running a test. Maybe even a biscuit.
Automation doesn’t always go to plan or work out to be time efficient so pick your targets carefully.
Attend courses, webinars, lectures, presentations. Eventually some of it will sink in.
Sometimes you aren’t ready to grasp a piece of knowledge because you don’t have the existing framework for it to the idea to fit into.
Be wary of accepting everything at face value. Specific examples are sometimes presented without context or as globally applicable.
The learning never stops
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the intricacies of Power Distribution Network design, LabView coding for test automation and how antennas really work.
Give a presentation to your colleagues about an EMC topic.
Explaining something complex to others in a simple fashion is the best marker as to how well you understand it.
I always spend lots of time on any talk I’m giving to try and make it as simple to understand as possible whilst still being useful.
You may have the option of working towards accredited engineer status like the Chartered Engineer path through the IET here in the UK for example.
There are also the independent iNarte certifications which are particularly relevant for our field of work.
Some industry sectors or larger corporation might prefer you to have these qualifications. It certainly shows that you have achieved a certain level of competence and have been vetted to a certain extent by a 3rd party.
Find out what is expected or in your industry sector
I have no strong feelings either way on these professional qualifications. I investigated both whilst I was establishing Unit 3 Compliance and decided that I didn’t have the time to commit to them whilst I was setting up the business.
For me, there’s always something more impactful that I can be doing for my business than getting a piece of paper that might only make a small difference to one or two customers. I want to make a big difference for all my customers.
Connections and Groups
People to follow on LinkedIn
Groups on LinkedIn. Both of these are fairly active with some knowledgable members.
Other groups to join:
- The IEEE EMC-PSTC email reflector is excellent with lots of good questions and answers on the subjects of EMC, safety and general compliance
- IEEE EMC Society of UK and Ireland have bi yearly meetings
- If you are in the UK, ICMA-TEL have a good email reflector with a diverse range of content including EMC, global market, safety, ROHS. Monthly meetings, mostly in the south of the UK.
Bonus: Copper tape is the scoundrel’s last resort
Useful as a diagnostic tool or emergency patch but not as a long term solution 😉
Thanks for reading this far. If you have any ideas for what else could be included then drop me a mail.
That’s it from me. All the best on your journey.