On Home Projects as a Reentry into the Job Market

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I do not -- thank God -- have to reenter the job market.  But I've seen
a lot of posts recently that start something like:

   "I haven't worked in engineering since 20xx, and I'm (starting)/
   (looking for) a job.  To make my (job search)/(first week) more
   successful I'm thinking of doing a project to put on my resume
   and get the juices flowing."

Does this seem to actually help?  Is anyone here in a position to hire,
and if you saw a resume (or interviewed a person) who had done some
hobby/home project just to get back into the swing of things, would you
give that much weight?  Would you give it _more_ weight than, say, going
back to school and taking a class or two, or teaching math to villagers
in Africa for six months*, or doing something that was obviously meant
to keep your hands busy and make ends meet, like sweeping up at
MacDonalds or being an engineering manager?

I'm not dissing the notion in any way -- in fact, I have several
back-burner projects here that I pull out whenever work gets slow.  I'm
just wondering if, when looked at with a cold and cynical eye, the time
and money spent does a reasonable amount of good.

* A distant friend / good acquaintance of mine is doing this, more for
himself than for the job prospects.

--

Tim Wescott
Wescott Design Services
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Re: On Home Projects as a Reentry into the Job Market
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I also have my doubts that a one-project embedded education has any value.
Of course, it's better than nothing but it could possibly be valued at
slightly more than nothing depending on what the project is and what the job
requirements are.

When I interview people, I ask about their extracurricular engineering
activities.  I think it's where their true colors show because, if such
activity exists, they are demonstrating a passion for their chosen endeavor
and will probably be much more knowledgeable and talkative about their hobby
projects than their professional projects.

For hobbies, there are all sorts of rocket people, electronic music people,
video people, etc. out there.  I think some are doing amazing work and those
are the people who I'd hire.  Those who make a blinky PIC just to put
"embedded" on their resume are easily exposed.

JJS




Re: On Home Projects as a Reentry into the Job Market

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I don't think it adds much to the resume of an experienced engineer.  It may
add significantly to a freshly minted engineer, however.  There is a lot more
to engineering than hacking together some code.

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I'd flunk.  I don't do electronics at home.  I get enough of that at work.
Burnout is a real risk.  I have other challenges to keep me busy at home.

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I guess it's better than no blinky, but I don't think they're getting hired
right now either.

Re: On Home Projects as a Reentry into the Job Market
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He just said "engineering," not "electrical engineering" -- I suspect your
woodworking projects would qualify just fine!



Re: On Home Projects as a Reentry into the Job Market
On Tue, 24 Aug 2010 16:14:29 -0700, "Joel Koltner"

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Well, my current projects involve staying cool.  ;-)   I haven't ventured into
the garage or attic for a couple of months.  :-(

Re: On Home Projects as a Reentry into the Job Market
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I can certainly understand that.  I like to design and build model
airplanes, but if I'm doing a lot of detailed design work professionally
I have to skip the 'design' step with the airplanes -- this means that
instead of painting myself into a corner on paper and erasing to start
over, I'll paint myself into a corner with balsa and have to hack and
patch to start over.  But it lets me build...

--

Tim Wescott
Wescott Design Services
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Re: On Home Projects as a Reentry into the Job Market

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In short: yes, as long as it's a project using reasonably modern
technology (Applicants building their project in CHIP-8 running on a
CDP1802 need not apply). This is more valuable than random coursework
at a university - honestly, a couple of seminars are more useful than
six months of college (in terms of teaching recent, relevant info),
and actually getting down and dirty and getting something real to work
is more relevant still.


Re: On Home Projects as a Reentry into the Job Market
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What if they made the CDP1802 in their kitchen oven, from sand found in
the driveway?

(I ask because I've been toying with the notion of replicating the
COSMAC ELF that I had in high school on an old Spartan 3 FPGA eval board
I have lying around.  If I ever get the spare time).

--

Tim Wescott
Wescott Design Services
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Re: On Home Projects as a Reentry into the Job Market

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The only person I know who is sufficiently hardcore to do that sort of
thing is Jeri Ellsworth, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeri_Ellsworth -
who apparently has made her own ICs on her home lab bench (as well as
being famous for the C64-on-a-chip FPGA then later ASIC). Looks like
1974 was a good year for cool engineers ;)

Anyway - yes, if you turn sand into digital logic, you get a free
pass!

Re: On Home Projects as a Reentry into the Job Market

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Yes it was!  ;-)

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How about analogs?  RF?  How about gold? ;-)

Re: On Home Projects as a Reentry into the Job Market
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Those homde-made ICs are logic gates -- not quite up to the CDP1802 level. :-)
Jeri's unique for doing this completely at home, but note that until quite
recently many universities still had older generation IC manufacturing
abilities: I know a guy who finished college in the mid-'80s, and in one of
his lab courses they were also replicating standard logic chips, all the way
from "bare silicon wafer, some dopants, and a furnace" to "packaged, finished
part."  These days universities usually just have the job done by MOSIS or a
commercial research partner if said partner has a fab of their own (e.g.,
Triquint, IBM, etc.).

(This evolution with how universities build ICs has largely followed PCB
construction: There are a few die-hard schools that insist on cutting and/or
etching boards in-house, still, but the majority of them today use one of the
inexpensive commercial fabs given how much better the quality is and how
inexpensive the pricing has become.)

I actually designed the original SDRAM controller in her "Commodore One"
there -- she had it working with SRAM, but figured that SDRAM would be better
(and I concurred) given how much cheaper it was.  I had just finished a very
fancy SDRAM controller for work, so I was able to crank out the simple-minded
one she needed in a few days after work and handed her the VHDL when I was
done.

Of course, after that it was undoubtedly modified by many parties.  Jens
Schoenfeld in Germany (http://www.jschoenfeld.com/indexe.htm ) played a
significant part in helping get the design from the prototypes stages to an
actual product as well.  In fact, there was a bit of a spat between them in
that he thought he had purchased exclusive rights to use the design, but Jeri
then also used it at Mammoth Toys for the "computer in a joystick."

Jeri's done an exceptional job of succeeding despite very humble beginnings.
I think much of this can be attributed to her tenacitiy -- once she decides
she wants to do something, she'll keep at it day and night until it's done.
She spent years hounding various former Commodore engineers for schematics,
chip layouts, and other historical information they had that she wanted to
learn.  She's a very sociable person by nature, always wanting to learn.

---Joel


Re: On Home Projects as a Reentry into the Job Market
On Tue, 24 Aug 2010 16:47:40 -0700, "Joel Koltner"

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In '74 students were doing good to make NPN transistors.  ;-)

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We used a lathe to cut circuit boards.  AIUI many now use the "CNC router"
style prototyping systems.  We have one of them at work, too, but it hasn't
been used much.  It's a little crude.

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Just use the FPGA's macro tool.  ;-)

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Sounds like a fun person to be around.  

Re: On Home Projects as a Reentry into the Job Market
Hi Keith,

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Not bad, not bad at all. :-)

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CNC routers are great if you need something more or less immediately... or if
for some reason you're going to need a lot of revisions to the PCB before you
really know what you want... but these days, if you can wait a week, not only
do the commercial guys give far better results, but in most cases it costs
less money overall if you have to be paying someone's salary to do it.  (We
have a pretty nice LPKF machine, but it really doesn't get much use.)

Do you guys do any pick & place/reflow/assembly there?  We have a manually
operaeted pick & place machine and a small reflow oven, which is convenient at
times.

[SDRAM controllers]

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Ha... this was back around the turn of the century, and while I think Xilinx
was just starting to have such macros, they sure weren't considered
trustworthy!  Same with FIFOs at that time -- we had written our own, which
"just worked," whereas I remember in the service pack notes how it seemed they
were always fixing various empty/full synchronization problems with the silly
things.  (That being said, I was always impressed with Peter Alfke's
abilities -- he clearly knew the parts inside and out, and knew how to make
them work reliably.  But not everyone there shared his talents...)

These days I would at least take the macro generator for a spin, I suppose.  I
don't want to become like one guy we had at work then, who didn't want to
trust that the synthesis tools could implement addition efficiency, and spent
several weeks writing his own basic arithmetic routines... only to find that
they performed more slowly they the synthesizer's built-in functions, since
the optimizer wasn't able to do as good of a job without "understanding" the
overall function of all those 'flops and LUTs he was instantiated
one-by-one...

(On the other hand, around the turn of the century was also about the point
where you finally could trust the synthesis tools to know how to *multiply* --  
I remember people doing a lot of testing, and *finally* the implementations
were starting to be reasonably efficient things like Wallace multipliers...)

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Oh yeah, she certainly can be!

---Joel


Re: On Home Projects as a Reentry into the Job Market
On Tue, 24 Aug 2010 17:41:03 -0700, "Joel Koltner"

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Ditto.  We are rarely pressed for time on prototypes and when we are they want
it "shippable".  Yeah, right.

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Sure.  We do all our own assembly.  Our reflow oven is kinda crude (only
five-stage), but other than that the stuff works very well.  They're talking
about getting an eleven-stage oven but I think the holdup is trying to figure
out how to slip one into production without a huge risk of missing ships.

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Hint:  They still aren't.  ;-)

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Xilinx' FIFOs worked very well for me, about then.  I didn't use the core-gen,
or whatever they call it, but I did use their primitive.

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I did pretty well implementing wide logic (things like comparators) using
Xilinx' fast-carry chains.  I could certainly beat Xilinx' synthesis.  I
checked again a couple of years ago and they were using the carry chains for
wide logic.  In '98 or '99 Xilinx' synthesis was so bad I bought Synplify Pro.

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Re: On Home Projects as a Reentry into the Job Market

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    Does your current reflow oven have a profile for pizzas? ;-)

Re: On Home Projects as a Reentry into the Job Market
On Wed, 25 Aug 2010 02:52:02 -0400, "Michael A. Terrell"

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No, but it would probably work better as a pizza oven.  ;-)

Re: On Home Projects as a Reentry into the Job Market

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   that was what we called our old ovens at Microdyne. "Call the M.E.,
the pizza oven is down again".  They finally replaced the pair with a
computer controlled Heller oven.

Re: On Home Projects as a Reentry into the Job Market
On Wed, 25 Aug 2010 21:30:55 -0400, "Michael A. Terrell"

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Actually, the oven is fine for what it is.  The RoHS profile is just asking
too much from it.

Re: On Home Projects as a Reentry into the Job Market

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  The ones at Microdyne were old when I started there, over 13 years
ago.   They needed two, just to keep one running.   They were going to
overhaul the better unit after they bought the Heller, and set it up for
engineering to play with, so they didn't keep disrupting production.
Suddenly engineering didn't waste so much time, playing with
Production's toys. :)

Re: On Home Projects as a Reentry into the Job Market
On Thu, 26 Aug 2010 00:17:25 -0400, "Michael A. Terrell"

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ships.
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We don't play with their toys either.  It's much easier to have them do the
work.  ;-)

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