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I recently spoke with Robert Feranec about the upcoming keynote he’ll be giving at AltiumLive in San Diego, California. Robert is a YouTube star and founder of the FEDEVEL Academy. In our interview, he discusses his keynote presentation as well as how he’s helping designers and engineers around the world understand and optimize their PCB design processes.
Andy Shaughnessy: Before we start talking about the keynote, can you give a little bit of your background and how you became involved with hardware, electronics, and PCB design?
Robert Feranec: I started when I was around 10. My grandpa was not only into electronics; he was also a mechanical guy who was into motors and those sorts of things, but he needed electronics occasionally. That’s how I started with electronics. But when I went to university, I wanted to be in software. However, at university, there were strict conditions to go with the software major, and there were so many people trying to go into software that I decided I should try something else. Because if you didn’t get into software, then they put you somewhere else. I thought I should go with electronics because I already had some background in it and it’s much more difficult than software.
Shaughnessy: Where are you from, and what college did you attend?
Feranec: I’m from Slovakia and attended Slovak Technical University in the radio electronics department, but it wasn’t just about radios; it was more like general electronics, and we also had micro-controllers, DSPs, etc. Usually, the university gives you some background but not much practical experience. However, I was lucky because I had the opportunity to work on a project that involved a product for a real company. They were working on a calibration meter that could calibrate the electricity meter at each house. We designed the device that calibrated those meters.
Since I was working on this project, I also had the opportunity to stay at university, so I have a master’s in electronic engineering degree. I was also studying for my Ph.D., but I never finished because I received an interesting offer from VOIPAC—a company that was doing voiceover IP—and they needed someone to design hardware, so I went there and designed a couple of devices. I had a lot of experience working with ARMS, and based on this, I found a job in the U.K. designing industrial PCs at EuroTech.
Shaughnessy: When did you first start designing circuit boards?
Feranec: When I was about 10 years old.
Shaughnessy: Wow. Did you use EDA tools?
Feranec: My first boards were hand drawings because it was around 1990, so not everyone had computers. I think my first EDA tool was Protel. It was around 1998 when I used my first software.
Shaughnessy: So, you went into college already knowing how to design a board. You are quite a rarity.
Feranec: Yes, but I had no idea how it worked, which leads to my keynote. Even with my company, I was not sure how to build up this whole system that could grow with the company. I was thinking, “How we are going to do libraries, backups, or versioning?” I was thinking maybe it could be useful to know how other companies solve these problems. Do they use project or database libraries or a vault? And what do they do if a new component has to be created? Many engineers don’t have the opportunity to interview 10–20 engineers from different companies to see how they do these things.
Shaughnessy: I can see how that would be appealing because a lot of times, the designer is the only designer in that company.
Feranec: Right. How do you know how you are going to do it, if you are doing it right, or if someone else is doing it differently? For example, how are big companies doing it?
Shaughnessy: At how many companies did you interview to get this information?
Feranec: I conducted phone interviews with designers at 14 companies. I would like to talk to more people, but once I started talking to more than like eight or nine people, I started to hear similar things.
Shaughnessy: What are some of the bottlenecks or hurdles that you discovered?
Feranec: The biggest problem is that many companies don’t know how to set up a process, or they don’t have any resources. They just do things but not in the most optimal way. For example, you don’t have to employ senior engineers for everything; even junior engineers can create good boards.
Shaughnessy: From your interviews, did you discover any surprises after talking to designers all around the world?
Feranec: My biggest surprise was that there is no one right solution. I was expecting some magical solution where I’d be able to distinguish “the right way” to do it because 10 out of the 14 companies were doing it that way, for instance. But that’s not the reality. Every company does it a little bit differently. There is no universal way that designs should be done.
Shaughnessy: What gave you the idea to do that? It basically sounds like a global design roundtable.
Feranec: Because I’m doing this speech for Altium, I saw this as an opportunity for them to help me with this topic, which could be interesting for me personally and the conference as well. They helped me find contacts and were willing to spend time talking about this.
Shaughnessy: What do you want attendees to take away from your keynote?
Feranec: I think there are some interesting points that people may start thinking about. One of the challenges that I found is you need to have the right people to build this system in your company because not everyone is keen to build something like this. Most people don’t care. You need someone who would like to build something great since they need to spend a lot of time reading and trying, which I discovered when I was doing the interviews. Almost every company, they had someone who wanted to build this system.
Shaughnessy: So, it’s a matter of finding the right one or two people in the company?
Feranec: Exactly. My main goal is to show them the options, like how other companies are doing this, and then point out some challenges and what they should think about before they try to implement this kind of system. When I finish, I hope that audience members think, “Maybe we should improve our system, and we could do it this way.”
Shaughnessy: Can you tell us a little bit about the FEDEVEL Academy?
Feranec: Yes, it’s from my name—Feranec Development. When I left the company in the U.K., I decided to take one year off and try new things. I wanted to build a website, but I ended up doing some hardware design as a freelancer. When I was doing the freelancing, I started making videos on YouTube and writing a blog. Originally, I wanted to get customers where I could use my skills and do some freelancing for them. I was also doing the videos for myself to help remind me how to do some things in Altium.
Then, I started receiving lots of questions. I told everyone that if enough people signed up, then I would create a course. Approximately 200 people signed up and said they would pay $100 for this course, so I created my first course in 2013. The first day, I watched my PayPal account and saw the numbers in the account going up. First, it was $100, and then it increased to $200, $500, and $5,000. That’s when I knew I might be onto something and decided to do more videos. It wasn’t like I decided to do online teaching; it just came to me somehow.
Shaughnessy: That’s not bad when 200 people each pay $100. The money shows you that there’s a genuine thirst for this knowledge.
Feranec: Universities don’t always provide the practical knowledge you need, and in the U.S. especially, they are expensive. So, you don’t risk much if you sign up for an online course for a couple hundred dollars that might help you get a good job. Also, this kind of knowledge is not often shared between engineers because they would like to be the greatest people in their company. They often don’t want to create competitors within their company.
Shaughnessy: I hadn’t considered that angle before. Now, I noticed on your YouTube channel that you don’t just talk about Altium tools; you talk about other EDA tools as well. You also discuss other things, like how to create an open-source smartwatch. You cover a lot of topics on your YouTube channel.
Feranec: When I was first doing YouTube, I mostly used Altium. But then I recognized that if you just do Altium videos, and then Altium make some changes, then the videos will be obsolete. Originally, I didn’t have the opportunity to work with other tools because you needed a license. For example, for Cadence, I didn’t want to buy a $20,000 license just to make a couple of videos. But once I crossed over 10,000 subscribers, it was a little bit easier. EDA companies started contacting me, so I said, “If you give me the license, I can make some videos.”
Shaughnessy: What advice would you give someone just starting as a PCB designer?
Feranec: Usually, I tell people, “You need to work on as many projects as possible. Get experience.” When someone with no experience asks me, “How can I design motherboards?” it doesn’t work like that. You need to go through a number of hours doing this or a number of projects, so you don’t make typical beginner’s mistakes. You learn what you need to be careful about.
There are also technologists who would like to get a better job, and I tell them to find an open-source project. Then, if you apply for a job, you can say, “I’ve been contributing to this open-source project, and I designed this device.” Then, the hiring person might think, “They’re doing this in their free time. They must be interested in electronics, and they have the drive we’re looking for.”
Shaughnessy: There are dozens of open positions in our industry in North America. Do you see a tight labor market in Europe too?
Feranec: I think the bigger question is how many good engineers are there? Because if a company is looking to employ someone, they can always find someone who is looking for a job, but it’s extremely hard to find a good engineer now. So, I think it doesn’t matter much about the market itself; I think it depends on how good you are.
Shaughnessy: You see a lot of these EEs doing design, but they come out of college and have never heard of copper pour or etchback.
Feranec: Universities will not teach you how to do PCB design, but they do provide you with background knowledge. You will understand how silicon works as well as electrodes, diodes, and transistors. Then, when you create bigger systems, you are not looking only at the pins.
Shaughnessy: It sounds like you have a fun job. You get to do what you enjoy doing while helping people with their problems.
Feranec: It’s not always fun like that (laughs)! It may look like it’s easy, but because I have a company, the biggest issue I have is the emails. I receive many emails from people who watch my videos, so they take a lot of time. I have an assistant, but it’s still a lot of work. That is one of the reasons why I cannot focus on everything I would like to do.
Shaughnessy: Do you want to add anything else?
Feranec: Your readers might enjoy this story about one of my first more complex projects. As I mentioned, my grandpa was doing electronics, and they had chickens. Every morning and evening, they had to open and close the chicken coop. So, we created a sensor that sensed when it darker in the chicken coop. The doors automatically closed in the dark, and when the sun came up in the morning, they automatically opened. This was my first more complex electronic design.
Shaughnessy: With a photovoltaic eye?
Feranec: Exactly. It had a motor, and the biggest task was to teach the chickens to move when the motor started.
Shaughnessy: Well, you’ve come a long way, from chicken coop motors to YouTube stardom. Thanks for your time, Robert. I look forward to meeting you.
Feranec: Thank you, Andy.