November 10th, 2011


my professor's tip for lab work

From the heading "things that have stuck with me"...

In college there was this skinny old professor in the electronics department who was known for being approachable, knowledgeable, calm, and reserved. He had a friendly smile. But we also had the feeling he wished it was still 1963. He made us learn about weird ancient things that nobody ever used anymore, like smith charts. He didn't seem to have a lot of faith in the kids these days, he said we didn't tinker enough, we just have all these gadgets handed to us. He didn't convey this in a cantankerous sort way, it was just a fact. We weren't independent enough, weren't appreciative enough. We'd get upset if in a class of 30 people, he only gave out two As, because "a C means average" as he'd say.

I had a 3.8 GPA for my undergrad. He was not a contributor.

But despite being a bit set in his ways we liked his classes because he had great labs where we built cool stuff, like the famous listening device that amplifies pin drops at the end of the hallway. And he believed passionately in the art of troubleshooting, which was most of the reason why he wanted his classes to be so lab-based. And we wanted to learn troubleshooting. He would sometimes say it was a knack you had to be born with, which concerned me. I now disagree with him, I think troubleshooting is about understanding systems, it can be taught. An artist once said that to sculpt an elephant, you just need a big block of marble, then chip away everything that doesn't look like an elephant. Troubleshooting an electrical system is the same way: to find the part that doesn't work, you just have to find all the parts that do work. Then chip away.

And maybe my teacher would agree, on some level, just didn't want me to know that? He was a "figure it out yourself" kind of guy, definitely.

Which brings me to my favorite example. I was working on a project in the lab, maybe my senior design. I was soldering. I was having some trouble, holding some tiny component in place and my hand steady and hoping the solder was going to end up in the right hot spot.

He comes up behind me and just watches as I'm changing my hand position yet again to hold this tiny resistor or whatever, and finally I look up and say, "WHAT? Do you have something helpful to say?" He kinda pauses and replies:

"Okay. You're gonna burn your finger."

And that was it, my partners laughed and I rolled my eyes and said something along the line of thanks-as-always, because he had no intention of saying anything else.

But oddly even though it's been almost ten years I stop sometimes, when I'm consumed by a million little details in life, and realize I should stop and go back and acknowledge a big thing. Sometimes all the planning and analyzing and correcting makes us forget to observe, you know? So, okay. Do whatever you're doing. Don't burn your finger.