Altium Focusing on Educating Designers of Today and Tomorrow
Many designers attend Altium Live each year, either in San Diego or Europe. But the company’s educational efforts reach far beyond those two weeks per year with programs such as Altium Education and Upverter Education, as well as donating design software to colleges and universities.
We recently spoke with Rea Callender, Altium’s vice president of education, and Zach Peterson, founder of Northwest Engineering Solutions and a technical consultant for Altium’s educational programs. They discussed Altium’s curriculum—what drives the content development, the goals of their programs, and why there’s never been a better time to continue your PCB design education.
Andy Shaughnessy: We’re looking at what designers need to be learning now and into the future. What are some of the upcoming disciplines that you plan to be teaching at Altium? And do you think PCB designers will have to be electrical engineers going forward?
Rea Callender: Zach can answer some of those specific questions. But I think, overall, Altium’s really interested in and dedicated to educating the next generation of electronics designers.
And in there we have a corporate training program that trains folks who are new to Altium Designer. It also trains engineers using competitive products on Altium Designer just to enhance their career. Getting certified as an Altium Designer makes their resume stronger.
In September 2020, we launched a high school program called Upverter Education. We’ve had over 8,000 students sign up for that curriculum globally. We work with FIRST Robotics, and several different organizations in that space.
And we just launched Altium Education. Altium Education teaches students who know nothing about printed circuit board design to create a board and take it all the way to manufacturing. This is exciting because for years we’ve been supporting college students by just giving them Altium Designer license, but now there’s curriculum to go along with that, and Zach wrote all that curriculum.
I recently met with 35 department heads from various universities and all of them were incredibly excited about it. We all know how important printed circuit boards are, right? We’re surrounded by PCBs, but in a lot of cases, universities don’t even teach printed circuit board design, partly because there’s not much great curriculum out there. We’ve created this curriculum, and we give it away for free to universities.
When we launched this March 1, we put it on our website and didn’t tell anybody about it initially so we could work out the bugs. By March 15, we had 3,500 students signed up who just found it on our site. Since then, we’ve sent out press releases, used social media, etc., and as of today we have over 9,000 students signed up for the program.
Matties: Are there any surprises for you in that demographic? Have you seen an increase in design in Asia or in a region that you wouldn’t have expected?
Callender: We have a lot of traffic from India. India is probably number two in terms of traffic.
Matties: And North America is number one?
Callender: Yes, the top five are the United States, India, Turkey, China, and Germany.
Matties: That’s interesting, thank you.
Callender: Sure. So, we’ve just launched it, and we have 9,000 students signed up for the program. I think we’ll be well over 12,000 by the end of our fiscal year, June 30. We really believe, all the way from our CEO on down, that it’s our social responsibility to support students. And it’s not just okay for us to pay taxes, we must support the next generation.
Teaching them how to create a printed circuit board really increases their value when they go out into the working world, right? Because we’re equipping them with the necessary skills when they head out into the workforce. And it’s also our hope that it helps expand the next generation of technology.
Matties: These are not career designers yet, correct? These are young students, young professionals who are perhaps moving into a career in design?
Callender: These are young professionals moving into this field, and we really do want to attract talent from all walks of life, all genders into the field of electronics design.
Matties: But there are two points to focus on in the design community. There are a lot of retirement age designers, retiring in the next five to 10 years, we’ll say. There’s still an education that they need, perhaps, or maybe they’re less motivated to become educated, whereas somebody who’s a young professional who’s just entered in and started their design career, there’s perhaps a different path that they need to take on education. How would you describe those two and what recommendations would you make?
Peterson: For the experienced professional and maybe someone who is just getting into their first job as a designer, there are all sorts of resources out there. We at Altium have really done everything we can to put as many resources out there on our blog, on our YouTube, whatever channels we have, and we haven’t made it all just, “Here’s how to do this in Altium.” We really made it program-agnostic. I mean, obviously we would hope that people use Altium, but at the end of the day, if they learn to be a better designer then we’ve succeeded, and that’s always been my view on it. But to really help prepare people to get into that position where they can take an industry course, or go to a conference and get the most from technical presentations, we think starting at the college or even high school level is really appropriate.
Matties: Are there any specific skills that the experienced designers are asking to learn? Are you seeing any trends in education? What are people asking for?
Zach Peterson: I did an interview with one of the Altium Live presenters, and he had put out a survey for all of his customers to see what their main design challenges were. Top of the list was EMI, then SI then PI and then Thermal. Really, it’s the challenge of taking what could be a toy design or a prototype design and turning it into an actual product that is compliant and that you can put out there into market, that is the top pain point. But alongside that, you have things like manufacturing. I think designers should always learn more about manufacturing, and being disconnected from the manufacturing floor has led to many a re-spin and many a wasted prototype run because of DFM issues and things like this. So, that’s a big one that designers might not know enough about. The areas they do know about are EMI, SI, PI, etc.
Matties: Now, Zach, as long as I’ve been in this industry, over 35 years, people have been saying they need to know more about the PCB manufacturing process. I hope we’re not still saying that years from now, but what’s different? Are we’re going to see more AI in the tools than ever before to supplant that need?
Peterson: That will be part of it, yes. And, in fact, I’ve talked with some companies that are working toward that, trying to use AI to help identify these mistakes, keep people more efficient, and hopefully eliminate the wasted prototype runs. But in terms of just the logistics of dealing with manufacturing—and I hope we’re not repeating the same mantra 30 years from now—I think in this environment, it’s never been easier to start learning about the manufacturing process and engaging with manufacturers directly. That’s really the first step, not the last step. And so part of it is rethinking about how you go about a design, which is what we actually try to stress in the education program, as well as all of the resources that we put out there. I think it’s also important for designers to understand what the manufacturer expects from you, so you don’t get to this issue where you’re all the way through designs, or you’re trying to get a prototype to scale, and you then have to do a bunch of work to fix the design in order to get to that next stage.
Matties: Well, I think you’re on track teaching the fabrication process in your curriculum as well.
Peterson: Yes, there is an entire section on the fabrication process. We even include a section on DFM and some of the most common DFM mistakes so people can avoid them, as well as what your manufacturer expects from you so that you can take a board and, at minimum, start prototyping. Now, this is a 101-level course, so we’re not going all the way up to high volume just yet, because obviously this is for students who are just getting started. But our hope is that we can prepare students with the information they need so that when they do enter their careers and they do get to that point where eventually they are going to have to take a product to market, they’re going to have the information and all the background that they need to be able to take those more advanced classes and to be able to learn that information and understand it.
Matties: Happy, what trends have you seen, or concerns do you have around education?
Happy Holden: We haven’t got enough universities or junior colleges interested in us because every other profession is also wanting them to teach welding or some other skill and we’ve got to fight for their attention, and also show that we have employment and career opportunities. I hope we’re making progress. We have a lot of meetings, we put together a lot of things, but you have to find somebody within that educational institution that really wants to champion it, because if there’s not a champion on the inside, like Dr. Middlebrook at Michigan Tech, then it’s easy for some other insider to shoot you down and sway it. Fortunately for Middlebrook, the heavy automotive here in Michigan is emphasizing electric vehicles. The demand for electrical and material engineers is going to be so high that the Dean of Engineering agrees that since we’re a Michigan university, automotive ought to be at the top of our list. But you go down to Ohio and you’ll see they’ve moved semiconductors up to the top of their list because Intel’s going to invest $100 billion.
But I’m kind of worried that between electric vehicles, semiconductors, and a few other things, we’re going to be enormously shorthanded, and unfortunately becoming shorthanded, people start looking at outsourcing and—ta-da!—those guys in India and China would love to do our design work. But if you lose design, you lose the high ground.
Peterson: Yeah, I totally agree. This has been a persistent problem ever since I was a student. In college, nobody even mentioned printed, circuit and board in the same sentence; it was always semiconductors, Moore’s law, transistors, scaling, getting to the next technology node. When I was teaching at Portland State--we have an Intel campus here in Portland very close to us—it was the same thing, most of my students were electrical engineers or electrical and computer engineers, most of them wanted to go and put on the bunny suit and work in the clean room.
Matties: So how does somebody already in design, 10 years-plus, go about mapping their education? What steps should they take? What should they be looking at?
Peterson: That’s a very interesting question, and I think it’s tough to do that when you don’t know what you don’t know, so the first challenge is to find out what you don’t know. For me, that involved a lot of subscriptions to industry publications. I can see what’s new, I can see what’s coming out that I need to learn more about and use that to figure out what my next steps are and just really understand what interests me.
Matties: Are you looking at this by segment? “How do I design PCBs in the automotive sector?” You’re being very specific as to your career path at this point, though, right?
Peterson: You could be, yes.
Matties: So if you’re plotting your education, I think one of the first things you have to do is pick your path because it’s so wide these days. There’s one conversation we’ve been having recently: How the hell do you even know what to learn if you don’t know what you’re going to specialize in?
Peterson: Well, generally find what interests you first, because there’s what’s relevant to your career but there’s also what interests you. There’s overlap there, and it’s okay to be broad. As you go through that, you start to see current and future trends that you need to dive into and learn more about. And there are so many companies out there beyond just the EDA companies that put out these resources that help you learn more in areas that both interest you and are career specific.
Another important point that I really believe in is find the conferences that have information that you love or that you need, whether they’re online/virtual or in person. Make it a point to go to one of them yearly or even every six months. That’s something where, if you’re employed, you are definitely going to need employer support. But if you’re working somewhere and they care about your education and increasing your skills, they’re going to want to support you.
Matties: Well, you’re putting a thought out there that who you work for is important, too. If you’re working with a company that fosters and encourages education, then you’re going to advance a lot further, quicker, I would think, versus somewhere that doesn’t.
Peterson: I would agree with that. I think they’re going to be more willing to allow you to pursue some of those resources that may be a bit at the higher end of the quality spectrum, that may require more time away from your desk, but there’s no substitute for getting out in front of people.
Who you work for is going to expose you to different challenges. You’re going to have to deal with many different spinning plates as a designer working on progressively more advanced electronics.
Matties: This is where I think AI plays a role. The demand for knowledge is only increasing because there are so many variables to design, so many things that can go wrong. How do you become an expert in all of those areas?
Peterson: I agree! It’s impossible. You need to be pretty good at a few things and you are usually going to have to collaborate with someone else who’s pretty good at a few other things. And the tools do help, if you know how to use them efficiently and you know how to set them up to work for you and not against you. This is also really important because they will help you catch a lot of that stuff that you may not have thought you needed to think about while you’re in the middle of it, laying out everything, finishing the design.
Matties: When you look at design, are there any skills that are more valuable than others that you would recommend?
Peterson: Yes, and some of the most advanced stuff is going to be done by the fewest number of people. I’m not saying that everybody needs to learn how to lay out 100 Gbps boards, but if you’re working in a company that has to do that, then you should strive to be the best at it. But I think the other side of that is the understanding that designers are not working in silos anymore, and you’re going to have to work with the firmware people, the manufacturing people, a mechanical person. I think that’s where soft skills come in; you have to be able to communicate with all those people and you have to at least have some exposure to what they all do. I’ll just give you an example, I’m not a software developer--I can do some cool stuff in Python, so I can speak that language to an extent, but I’m not a developer--but I have to know how to work with the developer in order to get the job done.
Matties: You need to know what’s possible; you don’t need to know how to do it.
Peterson: Exactly. And I at least need to know how to set someone else up for success.
Matties: Right. You’re keying in on soft skills as part of the educational challenge for people. As the demand for communication grows, are you teaching anything in your curriculum to help people be better at communicating in technical terms?
Peterson: I think the way that we’ve set up the curriculum lends itself to that. However, I will say this, being a better communicator means you have to actually go out there and communicate. You need to write; you need to read a lot; practice makes perfect. That is still an outstanding challenge as far as how to properly communicate what you need done, and I think some of that is best learned through experience. Now in terms of what you have to do in order to get a design into production and get it fabricated correctly, it’s important for students to use the correct vocabulary and understand what it is that manufacturer is thinking when they’re looking at that. That’s one side of the communication, the manufacturing side. The design side is a bit broader in terms of what you have to talk about because a lot of it suddenly becomes application specific. So, it’s really hard to generalize that into a course, in my opinion.
Matties: Right. Now additive is starting to gain some traction in North America, and we’ve seen it in other places. But one of the things we hear is it’s a designer’s challenge because you have to approach methodology differently in the design of that board. Are you in the additive space in education as well?
Peterson: No, we’re not in the additive space yet. Currently, our college-level offering is kind of a 101-level program—basically, an undergraduate program. But we’re looking at what other opportunities there are to continue providing these skills to designers, and we want to stay current, we want to make sure that we’re preparing students to enter this brave new world of design and manufacturing with everything that they need, and additive is a part of that. But, we’re not just stopping with a 101 course.
Matties: That should be really interesting. We know that it’s growing and that there’s a demand and we know that there’s a challenge for designers in terms of learning the best method for design.
Peterson: Yes, I totally agree with you, and this is something where because it is so new and it’s been moving very quickly over the last few years, it’s something where, frankly, the CAD companies have to catch up a little bit. Outside of the CAD companies you can talk about it and what can they do with their tool sets in conjunction with the additive process developers and the equipment manufacturers to ensure that if you want to design something in this piece of software, to be 3D printed, let’s say, that you’re going to be able to do that.
Shaughnessy: I’m just wondering: who is generally driving the curriculum choices when you come out with a new course for Altium Live or whatever. Is it the OEMs asking you?
Callender: I would say for our new courses—especially in the corporate training courses—it’s our customers who are asking for training and we have a series of trainings in and around Altium Designer and our Workspace 365.
Matties: What about the non-tool-specific training? Is that being driven by the OEM or is that coming from the designers or elsewhere?
Peterson: It comes a lot from the designers. Actually, I would say it’s a bit of a hybrid approach because, obviously, designers have a lot of questions. We try to take questions and comments directly from the design community, whether they’re users or could later become users. We definitely pay attention to what they have to say and what they need. But there are also trends that follow what we want to include in an Altium Live presentation, for example. There’s also what some of the corporate partners are doing. We also want to make sure that information gets out to designers. And we have a pretty diverse audience; Altium Live is one vehicle for that. All of our regular content channels are methods for doing that. And the education program is so new for us that this is just another vehicle for us to get all of that great information out there to the people who need it.
Shaughnessy: When you look at not just your classes, but at design classes around the world, are there any design techniques, disciplines, or topics that you think are underserved? About a month ago, a designer at a design bureau said, “I wish there was a class on bidding.” They said they keep getting bids wrong. Are there any business-oriented PCB design classes out there like that, not focusing on the actual design process?
Peterson: Gosh, that’s a great example of something that’s lacking. Absolutely. Unfortunately, bidding, estimation, logistics, and project management are disciplines where you get the best education through direct experience. I think with educational offerings by the EDA or ECAD companies, they at least can give you, the broad background of knowledge that you need to know to help students start thinking about these things, so as they go into their careers, they can make that more of a priority in terms of what they need to learn based on what their future career plans are. But I agree with you; I’d love to see a class on bidding, estimation, the little stuff like that, even if it’s a short course.
Matties: With your focus on DFM, are you all seeing a DWM (design with manufacturing) attitude now?
Peterson: Oh, absolutely. Yes. That was a big theme in Altium Live.
Matties: What does that mean for people? If you were to define DWM, how is that different than DFM?
Peterson: Well, I would say DFM involves trying to hit targets as specified by your manufacturer or dictated to your manufacturer, “You must do this.” And then we’re surprised when something gets no bid. DWM could be a bit more talking with them, more collaboration, understanding what they can and can’t do, taking a more proactive approach to how you put together the board, what limits you set in the design, and allowing them to essentially work within your specs on the front end.
Matties: Do you see a trend where more and more designers know who the manufacturers are going to be when they start the design?
Matties: Because that’s the barrier to DWM, isn’t it?
Peterson: It is. And what I’ll tell you, at my service bureau, we have a small stack of business cards for manufacturers that we prefer to work with because we’ve gone through them many times, back and forth with them on many different projects, and we know what they expect and they know us. It’s not just putting in the quote form and then turning around three weeks later when my boards arrive. I actually call up a person I know at the manufacturer if I have a question. It’s a simple change, but it’s that change in mindset to, “I need to actually communicate with them.” Do that on the front end, instead of waiting until the design is complete and suddenly getting a no-bid.
Matties: Now, Zach, tell us about your role with Altium.
Peterson: Sure. I run my own design bureau, Northwest Engineering Solutions (NWES), but I also handle a lot of this technical content and strategy with Altium.
Shaughnessy: I’ll ask both you: what do you see as the biggest challenges ahead for your customers, for designers? Looking out in the next couple of years, what are their biggest challenges and opportunities?
Callender: I think it’s just staying current.
Peterson: One of the things about a lot of these trends is they come up and if you’re not prepared to at least get the 30,000-foot view early, they’ve already become obsolete by the time you have the time to really dive in and learn everything you can. So, the PCB industry moves just as fast as the semiconductor industry in some cases.
Shaughnessy: Yeah. I was going to say, I thought it was very timely that you had three classes at Altium Live that were on supply chain management issues.
Peterson: Yes. Talk about a contemporary talk!
Matties: Well, this has been great you guys, I’ve really enjoyed our conversation.
Callender: Thank you for having us.