This past year, I set up several informational interviews with individuals across the industry. I saw this as an avenue to both enhance my own career and provide insight for my peers. To that end, I had the incredible honor of interviewing Happy Holden, the father of HDI PCBs. His insight into what it takes to be an excellent engineer and grow exponentially in this industry is unrivaled.
As students beginning an engineering program, we often have no idea what to expect. In class, we’re taught surface-level material, while the industry is much deeper than that. From Happy I learned that engineering principles are not the only aspect you will apply to the industry; you must know how to engage with business models and analytics. Before getting involved with IPC as a student liaison, I had limited knowledge of the industry business model. Now, several months later, and after speaking with Happy, I am so happy with how much my knowledge has increased.
The Happy Tale
From a young age, Happy understood the value of hard work. He was raised on a farm, where you quickly learn you don’t get days off. He carried these characteristics with him throughout his career. Happy attended Oregon State University with a goal to study chemical engineering, but soon found himself delving into the world of electronics. He learned how to program and work with computers, which was quite unusual for a chemical engineer. He also decided to take on several technical projects while in school, which eventually led to a thriving career around the world. When he finished college, he was hired at Hewlett-Packard, where his first assignment was to develop the calculator. He accomplished this task with ease and was even given the opportunity to manage a $4 million budget to advance the growth of his invention within the first year of work.
Another high point of his career was becoming chief technical officer for Foxconn. He’s now retired, but he still engages with FIRST robotics, teaches at Michigan Technical, participates on IPC committees, and is a technical editor and columnist for I-Connect007. Happy has graciously volunteered to host informational discussions at Valparaiso, which helps our students learn more about what to expect beyond the classroom before entering their future careers. One thing I learned from Happy’s stories has been to keep working hard and make a contribution through any opportunity you are presented with.
The Importance of Networking
Landing a job today can seem nerve wracking and almost impossible. Happy told me about the importance of networking even before you start looking for your dream career. Throughout his career, Happy never had to search for the next best job because, he said, “Somebody always pulled me to the next level.” This happened because he understood the value of marketing himself first. He told me that as a student the best way to network is to build deeper connections with your professors; they can provide a valuable network and even help land a future career. Happy got his first job from one of his professors who had handed his name off to HP. He feels this was because he took the initiative to build a close relationship with his professor.
Another way to network is by learning how to write effectively and creatively. Happy stated that you need to be able to describe a problem that you have dealt with and the alternatives you took to finding a solution. Then you need to put it out there. It’s likely that many others have the same problems but have no idea how to find a solution. This helps you gain visibility by getting your name out in the industry. It opens opportunities for networking, which should open other doors for your career.
Develop a Broad Skill Set
Another important skill is to build your own tool set. One reason Happy excelled in this industry was because he had learned how to work with software, a skill that many other chemical engineers did not have. He purposely took courses on engineering statistics and plant design, which were unrelated to his major. These courses helped him develop a business plan to sell his first invention. Happy believes that it is incredibly vital to also develop your technical writing and journalism skills. Write the things you know the most about. This not only helps to get your name into the industry, but also builds a skill that is incredibly important among several engineering jobs.
When getting started, many individuals may doubt your ideas or the potential of your work. As a chemical engineer heading into the world of electronics, Happy did not have much knowledge about the industry, but “just because [he] didn’t know anything, [he] couldn’t let that get in [his] way.” When the first calculator at HP started to sell, Happy was told that he wouldn’t sell more than 400 in a month because they were too pricey. He persevered and ended up selling thousands within the first month of production.
Get involved in this industry! There are so many opportunities to build your skill set, such as joining an IPC committee. Becoming involved in this sector of the industry allows you to learn aspects of the industry outside your own limited area of expertise. Committees can also create an enhanced environment through the ability to share others’ ideas and opinions on topics in the industry.
Volunteering is another excellent way to excel in your career and encourage the next generation of engineers and technicians. One idea is to become a volunteer for FIRST robotics. When I started high school, I quickly became a part of our FIRST robotics chapter. I was surrounded by several mentors who guided me through engineering design processes. These individuals even helped develop my skill set with soldering and CAD. I looked up to my mentors, and they even encouraged me to become an engineer. There are 3,914 individual teams or 97,850 students within the FIRST Robotics Competition where you could make a difference as a mentor and help build the world’s future workforce. Please consider lending your expertise and mentorship to these students.
Encourage the next generation by reaching out to the IPC Education Foundation, which provides students with scholarships, credentials, professional development growth, and networking opportunities. The Foundation also helps students learn more about the different aspects of the industry, while growing professionally as individuals. Participate in webinars called “Forum Fridays,” which help students learn about different companies in the industry or invite students in for an industry tour that lets students see how a manufacturing facility works.
I have enjoyed and learned immensely from each informational interview this year and I’m so grateful to those individuals who spent time with me, including this phenomenal interview with Happy Holden. Now, I’m even more excited for the opportunities I can create for myself in the electronics industry, the skills I can contribute, and the chance to become a mentor someday as well.
This column originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of PCB007 Magazine.