I design products like I compose music: equal parts intention and exploration. While my goal in both cases is to create something unique, the enjoyment comes from taking a path I have not traveled.
An interest in both music and technology seems common among engineers, perhaps reflecting the way our wetware works. In my case it was revealed early on. My father, after watching me rend TVs and radios into bits, bought me a Radio Shack electronic organ kit when I was eight. I stayed up hours past bedtime completing it, and when it was finished I was surprised to find some notes out of tune. The relationship between resistor values and pitch was obvious. I inserted small resistors in series to correct the problem.
Years later, an interest in amateur radio kicked off my design career. I was fascinated with low-power communication in particular. A 9-V battery and a wad of scavenged parts with their leads twisted together produced a 200-mW, 7-MHz CW signal that reached L.A. from our San Diego suburb. After this success I read extensively about radio and electronics, built a lot of Heathkit gear, and took a stab at designing my own kits. I used an etch-resist pen to lay out my first pc board, then etched it in an aluminum ice-cube tray and got an inadvertent high school chemistry lesson. I also discovered that parts could be expensive—$5 TTL decade counters doomed a digital tachometer idea. The dream was on hold.
During a subsequent stint in the U.S. Coast Guard, I worked for a talented engineer named Gordon Shillito. Together we designed Loran-C simulators and related gear. I learned a great deal about RF and digital circuit design, but I found that packaging—making things visually appealing as well as easy to use—was equally interesting.
Along the way, I obtained a cheap single-board computer and tinkered with hand-assembled 6502 code. This led to a second realization. Firmware, like packaging, can be used to enhance product appearance and usability. By the time I left the Coast Guard at 22, these two areas of design had become my passion.
I worked my way through college as the engineering equivalent of a general-purpose infielder, reinventing myself continuously, living proof that Moore's law applied both to ICs and those who use them. But a twist of fate landed me in the Cognitive Science track at the University of California, San Diego, rather than in EE. The program was weignhted toward neural networks and cognitive engineering, which in hindsight provided just what I needed to do effective product design: tools for modeling human-machine interaction.
By the time I completed my degree, I already had a decent résumé, having worked for companies in several disparate fields. Meanwhile, on my own time, I had designed a series of miniature HF radios, setting the stage for future opportunities. But things took another unexpected turn when I accepted a position with Paul Allen's technology incubator, Interval Research. As a researcher and implementer at Interval, I built prototypes sublime and ridiculous, from inductively coupled body-area networks to a telephone that rang with the call of the Oropendula bird. It was a great experience, but something was missing. I still wanted to start my own company.
PORTABLE HF COMMUNICATIONS
My goal was to design portable HF communications gear. Because of my early encounters with electronics, I hoped to offer them as kits, picking up where Heathkit left off. I was fortunate to find a like-minded business partner, Eric Swartz, a fellow radio enthusiast and Silicon Valley veteran. After a year of night and weekend design, we quit our day jobs and launched our present company, Elecraft.
Our first product, an HF single-sideband/CW transceiver called the K2, included several innovations in hardware and firmware design that yielded high performance as well as light weight and low power consumption. My outside-the-box engineering background led to unusual solutions to keep costs down, and our focus on user interface and modularity proved very appealing to customers.
True, HF radio is a small niche compared to the cellular and networking industries. But this is its appeal. As a small company, we've been able to adapt quickly to changes in technology as well as to our customers' needs. Eric "designs the business," he likes to say, and though we've added engineering resources, I retain close creative control over R&D and spend 90% of my time designing critical new products.
For me, the best part is being able to innovate at my own pace. I wear lots of different hats, and on a given day, I might work on hardware, firmware, modular packaging, documentation, and even advertising. The reward, as always, is the exploration.