Over his long and wide-ranging career that has spanned two continents, Tony Armstrong has worked in a variety of different positions.
In an insightful interview with Mark Hughes of All About Circuits at APEC, Armstrong shares what mindset he feels makes engineers get better, what simple things EEs can do to make fewer mistakes, and how he found his dream job in the field.
Mark Hughes (AAC): What brought you into the field and what brought you to where you are today?
Tony Armstrong (TA): I was born in England and I went to university at the University of Manchester, in northern England, and I studied applied mathematics. And obviously that math involved a lot of different aspects and fundamentals of electricity, and magnetism was one of those. And basically, it's kind of a lot of engineering but just the math, not the applied side of it. And when I graduated in the early 80s I thought, "Well, what am I going to do for a job?" And one of my colleagues had told me that a company called Intel was interviewing people down in Swindon.
I interviewed with them and they offered me a job. So in 1981, I joined Intel in Swindon, England. And at that time there were a lot of expats in the facility, so I got a lot of exposure to Americans. One of the things back in those days was this "Can Do" attitude that was pervasive throughout everything they did. And I thought, "Wow, these guys are great! It doesn't matter what the problems are, you just come up with a solution, solve it and move on! This is great. I've got to go to America because I want to do more of this."
AAC: And how did you end up in America?
TA: I asked Intel, "Hey guys, can I move over to America?" And they said, "Well, you've only been here two or three years. You really need to get a couple of more years under your belt." I was a bit disappointed by that, so I asked a couple of friends if they knew anybody that was looking for people in America. And one of my colleagues said, "Hey, there's this company called Fairchild and they're interviewing just down the road."
So I gave them a call, they interviewed me and said, "Tony, we'd like you to come over to America for a visit." So I went over, had a visit. They liked me. I liked them. They offered me the job. And on January 31st, 1984 I was on PanAm 101 from London Heathrow to San Francisco.
AAC: What was your first position with them?
TA: Fairchild had a discrete division in San Rafael. It made diode arrays, MOSFETs, and I was in production control at that time. I got to know the product line and asked to move into product marketing and they let me move.
One of the guys I had worked for had left the division and gone to a turnaround down in southern California a company called Semtech. And after he was there while he called me up and asked me if I would come and work for him there because he had some big problems to solve and he wanted me to help him solve them.
So I went down there and stayed eleven years. I started off in production control, then I ran a product test group. And then I got into product marketing and then into sales. That was an eleven-year history.
AAC: Why did you decide to leave that company?
TA: My wife felt we should have a change, and we were looking for opportunities in the industry. I ended up going to work for Siliconix in the Bay Area in 1997. And Siliconix did a lot of MOSFETs but they had a small growing power IC group at the time, and I came in to run product marketing for the power IC groups.
While I was there, I was writing articles on 2MHz switches. Dave Bell, who was the GM at Linear Technology, called me up and said, "I have just read one of your articles. It's pretty interesting. I've got an opening for a product marketing manager here at Linear Technology. Would you be interested?" So I had lunch with him. They set up an interview for me. And in May of 2000, I joined Linear Technology in Milpitas.
AAC: How did you move from that position to your current job?
TA: They brought me in as the product marketing manager, and after a number of years I was promoted to Director. Then two years ago Analog Devices acquired Linear Technology, so now I am part of Analog Devices. They've allowed me to change my job scope. I'm currently the business development director for industrial healthcare.
AAC: What would be your dream job in this field?
TA: I kind of have that right now because I have a lot of flexibility to set my own schedule and agenda. What I try to do with technology groups and business groups is work out where I can be best utilized to close more business or resolve problems, so that our customers have an easier time dealing with us. I can solidify relationships so that the customer can go to one point of contact within the factory, knowing that he's the advocate for them inside the company.
I've just been doing this for the last three or four months, so it's a new challenge for me and I'm hoping that I can rise to that challenge.
AAC: What have you learned since you graduated and entered the workforce that you wish you knew back then?
TA: That's a good question. One of the things that I could say is a key for any engineer, and this was something that tripped me up as well, is that data sheets should be read. In my career, I've been involved in reviewing data sheets and yeah, they're long, they're technical, they're in-depth. But it's the story of the IC. Everything you need to know about that IC is contained in that data sheet.
So when you want to design in the system and you want to get the performance that that data sheet describes, it's critical that you understand what you have to do in terms of the externals around the IC to ensure that you get that performance. One of the phrases that Linear often used was, "Read the data sheet." And it was quite funny because, nine times out of ten, I would say I could answer a customer's question by simply reading the data sheet.
To save an engineer's time, which is becoming even more pressured in these environments because of the limited expertise that now exists, utilize companies' data sheets. They really put in a lot of time and effort to ensure that they're accurate. And if you read them and understand them, you will get your design right the first time.
AAC: How would you recommend that someone just coming out of college learn PCB design?
TA: I would say don't be afraid of PCB design. Embrace PCB design. Fortunately there are a lot of tools available that help you with that—software tools, the industry standard tools, and also from the Powered by Linear Group within Analog Devices we have LTspice, which allows you to, on your circuit, simulate your design real-time so you can see if it's functioning correctly before it goes to layout.
And then usually within a datasheet there are layout guidelines that are given specifically for the ICs themselves. Even though it seems like it's an overwhelming task, the suppliers of the parts you're using give you the tools in a lot of cases that you can utilize to minimize that task and to optimize your ability to get it right the first time.
So if you take a little bit more time upfront to educate yourself about how to do it with the tools that are either industry standards or provided by the supplier that you're using for that design, it can save you a lot of heartache and late nights in the lab.
AAC: Are there any common mistakes you see engineers making with power supply parts?
TA: You know a ground plane is very important. And having the ties to that ground plane for the IC that you're dissipating the power through is always a good idea. (Laughs) That's one of the most common things we see.
AAC: What is your group looking for in engineers coming out of college these days?
TA: That's a great question. What we're really looking for is not people that have learned by rote. You can teach anybody by rote. What we're looking for are engineers that want to solve problems that they don't even know exist yet. We want guys to think out of the box, to be creative, and not be tied to a tried and true. It's okay to fail if you learn from that mistake and by learning go on to bigger and better things. So, free thinkers that are willing to take risks—not risks that are high risk, but some level of risk. Because you don't really learn anything until you make a mistake, and then you correct it and move on and you don't make that mistake again. And so over time, you become better and better until you are the expert teaching other people how.
AAC: Is there any other advice you'd give to students wanting to be EEs, or who are about to graduate?
TA: That's that's a tough one, especially in today's environment. I would say I was one of those guys who was like, "Hey, the world's my oyster. I can take on whatever I want to do. My only limitations are the one I self-impose." So think big. There's nothing wrong with thinking big. Yeah, you may not get there, but at least you gave it a shot.
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