Saluting The Unsung Hero Of Product Development
Test engineering hardly gets the respect it deserves sometimes. Maybe I'm a little sensitive about the lack of recognition due to the fact that I started my engineering career as one, but it always seems that in the numerous celebratory emails that CEOs send out to congratulate those on a successful project that test engineers are relegated to the consolation prize of "Gee, thanks for the help."
If anything, I've always felt that test engineers deserved as much praise as the designers. Why, we were the ones putting ourselves at risk every time we plugged in an electrical source into whatever device we were asked to test. I'm sure any of the test engineers can relate to the dangers of an improperly placed connection resulting in an IC being launched 1,000 feet in the air.
I remember my first day on the job as a test engineer. There I was, a fresh-faced college grad, with hopes and dreams of being the best hardware engineer I could be. (Employment at the time was slim pickings because I graduated shortly after the Great Tech Bust of 2001).
As I entered the building, received my credentials and passes, I was quickly escorted to the test engineering lab. The lab was located in the basement, with no windows, and the bright sunshine of the other floors was noticeably absent. Someone had placed the famous quote from Dante's Inferno over the inside of the door: "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." I took this to be tongue-in-cheek. I was quickly proven wrong.
Product development has come a long way since I began working. These days, test engineers are involved in the early stages of the design phase. Back then, though, we were only called in when the project's first design was nearing completion so as to just "test" the product's functionality. This often involved long hours, as most of the early stage of work would be deciphering what the engineer did in the first place.
The next step was developing the test conditions, and the final step was reporting on what was discovered. This sounds simple enough, but you wouldn't believe some of the vitriol we experienced telling a senior engineer that something was wrong with his design. It was akin to telling him his baby wasn't very good looking.
According to them, we obviously didn't set our testing parameters properly. And so we'd test again, more often than not returning with the same results (often to more accusations of chicanery and incompetence). This cycle would go on until the project manager stepped in with a way that would get the senior designers to investigate their initial design. I found out early why everyone in my department seemed so glum. It was tough being the bad guy in the product development cycle.
It wasn't all doom and gloom though. We were a tight-knit group that really enjoyed the challenges that came with using old scopes and outdated measuring equipment. Coming up with ingenious methods of testing using what we had on hand was fun. It tested our abilities and I'm thankful for the time I spent being a part of this vital group in our organization.
I'm sure I left a mark on them as well. I doubt they'll ever forget the time on Bring Your Kids To Work Day that I decided, while showing a keen group of children how we test a prototype circuit board, to complete an open circuit with my fingers and fill myself with enough electricity that I could light a bulb with my mouth like Uncle Fester. The irony was that I lecturing the children on the importance of safety and I forgot rule No. 1: Check to make sure the device isn't already plugged in. At least my co-worker got a much needed laugh and the children had a day they wouldn't forget
Here's to the test engineer, whose daily challenges and strong will make them a valuable addition to the product development cycle.