A lifetime designing PCBs: Changing roles

Article By : Charles Pfeil

Stay or go, finding the best avenue to project and company contributions involves tough choices.

This is the eighth article in a series about my career experiences in the PCB design industry. The previous articles discuss the lessons I learned throughout my career as a designer and my commitment to improving software.

In 1995 while at Intergraph, I became restless because I wanted a role in upper management but was unable to attain such a responsibility. An opportunity opened at PADS, and although it was a difficult, I decided to leave Intergraph’s VeriBest product.


My family would remain in Alabama and I would live in an apartment near the PADS office in the Boston area, returning home every other weekend. My family understandably did not want to relocate again, and this way I could find out if the job really was the best future for us before making another move.

My position was Product Manager for the new PADS PowerPCB. Being a smaller company, I felt the chance for advancement was good. But I quickly discovered that the PowerPCB project was not going well. The schedule was slipping, nearly everyone was working mandatory overtime, and morale was low across all departments. Within a month of my arrival, the engineering vice president was gone. I was involved in the search for a new VP, and at one point was asked by Richard Finigan, the president, if I was interested in the job.

I left Intergraph because I wanted a role in upper management, and here was the opportunity! Still, it was a surprise to be offered such a role so soon after arriving. I told him that I needed a couple days to think about it.

It seemed perfect; however, the existing chaos was a red flag. Would I be spending all of my time building a new organization, or would it be focused on creating great software? This was the time to consider what motivates me – what gives me a sense of accomplishment and joy. After some deep introspection, I declined the offer. I felt that finding creative solutions to design problems and working with the engineering team to get them implemented would be my best contribution to PADS.

This turned out to be the best decision for PADS as well. We hired Ken Tepper from Viewlogic as the new VP of engineering, and he was the perfect fit for the deteriorating situation. To this day, I have the utmost admiration for what he did to put the employees and the product back on track.

Ken was tasked to create a plan to solve the problems. We expected him to come up with something in a few days. However, he said that a month was needed for him to fully analyze the situation and formulate a solution. We didn’t know he decided to interview every employee in development, marketing, and support, to learn each person’s background and experience, what problems they were facing, and their ideas on what could be done to improve the situation.

Sure enough, in a month, Ken had finished his analysis, and presented his assessment along with a plan to move forward. It was gladly accepted by management and employees. We all felt energized and hopeful. His insights into what motivated each person and how to get the teams working together efficiently was a great example of leadership. We still had to complete the release, but with a better organization and new sense of hope, we operated efficiently, made fewer mistakes, and accomplished our goals.

My initial work was to analyze and complete the specifications, working with Rick Almeda and Mark Gallant in marketing. Then I collaborated with Mikhail Sheyner and his development team during the implementation. I came late in the process of this release and couldn’t contribute as I did with VeriBest PCB, but to this day, I don’t regret my decision to be involved in the implementation details with the team instead of taking on VP responsibilities.

Figure 1
 Mikhail Sheyner (R) and me at my daughter’s wedding

One of the tasks I enjoyed working on was writing the autorouting spec. I researched and wrote a competitive analysis of the best PCB routers, then offered my recommendations for PowerPCB. Even though PADS had an interface to the SPECCTRA router, there was still interest in creating a new router. When SPECCTRA’s owner, Cooper & Chyan Technology (CCT), was acquired by Cadence later that year, we were concerned that Cadence would end the OEM agreement with PADS, and therefore the router spec became even more relevant.

PADS already had the ability to route at any angle, providing the most efficient paths. This worked well for package designs. However, it was not optimal for PCB routing. The router spec that I wrote provided a guide for enhancing the packaging router to what became the Blazerouter.

Though the work environment improved greatly, my commuting situation became difficult. Instead of bi-weekly trips back home, sometimes it was three weeks or four weeks, because I also visited customers and participated in trade shows. Additionally, the winter of 1995 brought 107 inches of snow to Boston, a new record. As someone who grew up in Southern California, that amount of snow, and the extreme cold, were distressing. Worse, as the snow started melting, my apartment flooded, which forced me to move. It wasn’t much better in the new apartment: the woman living above me would return from work at 2:00 a.m., walking on the wooden floor with hard shoes, clop…clop…, echoing through the quiet night. Living away from home was getting lonely and tiresome.

Coming up on my one-year anniversary, I began to doubt if staying with PADS was the right thing for me and my family. Just then, we discovered that one of our children had a significant health issue, so I decided that returning home was the best thing to do. But how could I move back without a job?

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Charles Pfeil is a Senior Product Manager at Altium, working on definition of their products with a primary focus on routing tools.

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