EMPLOYEE SPOTLIGHT – BILL MCFADDEN, ELECTRICAL ENGINEER

Bill McFadden, Electrical Engineer

Position at SIGMADESIGN: Electrical Engineer

Time at SIGMADESIGN: Ten Years

{I’ve always been passionate about using technology to solve problems. Really that’s what engineering is – putting science to practical use.} – Bill McFadden, Electrical Engineer

 

ABOUT

What was your youth like?

I grew up in Portland, just a few blocks away from where I live now. I went to grade school in this neighborhood, graduated from Benson High, graduated from Oregon State University and then moved back to the same neighborhood.

What drew you to engineering?

Bill in his high school computer lab

I was a pretty nerdy kid. In fourth grade, my science teacher took a battery and light bulb and hooked them together with two wires. I guess you could say that a light bulb went on in my head because at that moment, I knew I wanted a career involving electricity.

As a kid, I received electronics kits, P-box kits and a soldering iron as Christmas gifts. With these kits and tools, I built a crystal radio, Home Broadcast Station and then a shortwave receiver. I could hardly believe that my voice could be transmitted through a standard AM radio. With my shortwave receiver, I was able to pick up Radio Moscow, Voice of America, Morse code, and some foreign language signals. This instilled in me a love for all things electronic. 

Bill (center) with high school classmates, working on a robot

What was your education experience?

By the time I got to high school, I knew I either wanted to be an electrical engineer or a computer science major. I attended Benson High School, a vocational school, where we got to choose many of our classes. In my junior year I chose an electrical class which prepared me to go to college and study engineering. I was a very passionate and internally motivated student. My friends and I built a robot from scratch and we spent many hours in the computer lab before and after school, time which proved to be very valuable in multiple ways.

I was the first person in my immediate family and the second person in my extended family to go to college, so attending Oregon State University was a big deal. As I studied Electrical Engineering there, I continued to tinker on multiple projects. My favorite was developing a pirate radio station, which I built myself. Before too long, my dorm was listening to my station and the class clown was my DJ.

What did your career path look like?

Bill with his Emmy Award

In college, I began working for a tech company which developed office applications software. We had a word processor, a spreadsheet processor and a database. Our software could run on any computer which was unheard of back then. There were existing products, but they weren’t portable to different computers. But then the IBM PC came out and most people just bought that software. In the end, we didn’t make much money, but it was still an excellent experience.

After graduating, I was able to get an engineering job at Tektronix. The person that helped me get that job had been a student intern for the TV Division at Tektronix the year before. Tektronix was the #1 major manufacturer of TV test equipment and so I first worked on an automated test system project for TV broadcasters. With this test system, a technician could do FCC tests in 30 seconds instead of half a day. We thought we would sell five a week. We actually sold $10 million worth of these things every year for almost twenty years. It won an Emmy Award and received several patents. You could walk into any TV station anywhere in the world and see one of those systems. An interesting fact is that this video tester box had a touch panel. I don’t think anybody else had a touch panel at that point, so this was possibly the world’s first capacitive touch panel.

After Tektronix, I landed at SHARP Labs and worked on researching medical sensors that electronically detect chemicals, DNA, etc. They were working on the technology of the sensor and they needed a way to measure the output of the sensor. My first attempt to improve the measurement tools improved the sensitivity by a million.

WORKING AT SIGMADESIGN

How did you come to SIGMADESIGN?

In 2008, I was looking for work and emailed a former colleague who encouraged me to apply for an audio position at Logitech where he worked. Although Logitech was unable to add me to their headcount, they brought me on the team through SIGMADESIGN. The hiring manager at Logitech put my hours on a PO and had me work for her that way, much like our On-Site Consultants today. This lasted until budget cuts at Logitech. At that point I was the only electrical engineer at SIGMADESIGN and did not have much to do. I thought my time at SIGMADESIGN was likely over, but Bill and Doug actually wanted to add an electrical engineer to their team in order to expand their product design capabilities.

In an effort to get electrical engineering work, we met with the folks from CADET. The rest is history. We have designed some great products for CADET and enjoy a great working relationship with them. You can head to Home Depot to buy the heater I designed or you can read about it here. When I first started with the SIGMADESIGN team, I was the whole department- electrical engineering, firmware designer, PCB layout designer, BOM manager, parts buyer and assembly technician. We added a couple more electrical engineers and by then the word got out and companies hired us for a lot more projects involving electrical engineering. Since then, our department has expanded to bring on more specialties within our Electrical Engineering team as well as  within our Firmware and Software Engineering teams.

What do you enjoy most about your profession?

I’ve always been passionate about using technology to solve problems, making science practical. Really, that’s what engineering is – putting science to practical use.

What do you enjoy about working at SIGMADESIGN?

This is the only place I’ve worked that felt like my first five years at Tektronix. The company cares about the employees. You’re not just a number. We’re a team, a family.

What has been your favorite project?

The CADET heater. We had to solve a lot of problems, but then every solution created a new side effect that we had to solve. I said I could automate this heater, and I kind of had an idea of how to do it. Once we got the project and CADET asked for a prototype, I had to learn a lot about control systems and how to do that. I had to design something that automatically senses how much heat a room is losing, and automatically adds that exact amount of heat continuously. It’s always on, but it’s always on low. You don’t hear all the noise of an older heater. I had to do all the electrical and firmware engineering and learn about all the UL requirements, safety requirements, etc. This was the most rewarding product design project I’ve ever done. 

TEAMWORK AND VALUES

Do the core values influence your work?

Yes, they absolutely do. In the CADET project, the heater was drawing more current than I thought it should. This created potential for a problem to occur with the product. I had to mathematically figure out why it was behaving like this and tell the folks at CADET. We could have covered this up, tried to fix it, and modified the design approach. Instead we were forthcoming, showed integrity and earned CADET’s trust. 

What are you really excited to work on?

My current project is really exciting. Although I can’t talk about it, but I’m on a product design project that involves a lot of brainstorming. I am always trying to think of ways I can engineer something better.

Long-term product design projects like my current project are exciting because they provide you with time to come up with more iterative improvements. On a lot of projects you don’t have time to do that. You might get a chance to do an improvement, to do a second circuit board design. This current project is a long-term development, so we have time. I have been working on this one product for almost a year now, so a lot of extra brainstorming has taken place, which I love.

***What advice would you give to a college graduate?***

Although it’s a red-hot job market right now, you cannot control the economy. Take networking seriously. This will be your path to finding work. Most people find work by building relationships with other people. Electrical Engineers tend to be loners and anti-social, and I’m included in that group. You have to overcome that. It is rewarding to connect with other people. There is a group I used to work with at SHARP and we have been gathering for a weekly lunch for nineteen years now. One of these guys ultimately connected me with SIGMADESIGN. So network. It will be rewarding in its own right.