Friday, October 31, 2008

A good test engineer studies the details (prologue)

Different professions require different skillsets.  To be good in that profession, it also helps to have certain character traits.  I think that being a good test engineer requires attention to detail.  Over the next week, I'll write about three different personal examples that I think illustrate this point.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blog Action Day - Poverty

Today, October 15, 2008, is Blog Action Day, and the subject is Poverty.

Growing up, my family was at the lower end of middle class, a couple steps up from being really poor.  So I have always been strongly motivated to study hard, get a good job & have a good amount of cash.  Partly because of that, I have historically believed that if you are focused then you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps.  Not having lots of money doesn't prevent you from going to the library.  You can take advantage of what the public schools teach you, provided you study hard.  Loans and scholarships are available for college if you work for them.  Don't get distracted by parties, games, TV, etc. while in school & you should be just fine.

That was how I felt until my senior year in college.  That fall I participated in a mentoring program at a local elementary school.  I was paired up with a 4th grade boy, David, who needed help with math.  So once a week I would go to the school and we'd go through his math work for an hour or so after classes were over.  Once or twice we just hung out and threw a baseball outside as well.

What did this have to do with why did my opinions change?  I guess I just started realizing how being poor can handicap a kid.  When I was working with David I realized that things my mom had helped me learn when I was his age, he hadn't had that option - his mom had to work a lot since his parents had been divorced.  When I was a kid my parents had bought a set of children's encyclopedias (published by the Worldbook people), and I always had ready access to reading those at any time of the day.  The library is only open at limited times, and when you're a kid you can't just hop in a car & drive there.  Also, he was often hungry.  I remember bringing snacks once to a study session - I had skipped lunch to study for a test - and he wolfed down the food in a heartbeat.  It's kind of hard to focus on learning things when you're hungry.

Years later, I would think even more about David.  He lived in a rural area, where the schools just weren't very good.  The library was in the middle of town, so he couldn't get to it easily.  He didn't have a lot of time to do school work after hours because he had a lot of chores.  Then I related that to my dad.  I'm pretty sure that if he had been born into a different part of the country, & his family had more money then he would've been an engineer of some sort.  But he grew up in the woods of Kentucky, quit school when he was in 8th grade because he had to get a job, & bounced around from one factory job to another.  Sure, he managed to become an electrician, but that came at great effort and not until he was well in his 30s.

There are other ways that being poor can make it tough.  There is a strong link between nutrition and brain development.  If a child doesn't get good food, his brain as well as the rest of his body suffer.  If a child has to work a lot to help make ends meet, that means she can't spend time learning things she'll need to make her own life better as an adult.  If you live in a geographical area that is dirt poor, then the public amenities like schools, libraries, etc. are  probably either scant or nonexistent.

I think the point I'm trying to make is if your family is poor then sometimes there aren't any bootstraps worth pulling.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Testing very small stuff

I was cleaning out my inbox (again) and started reading a recent issue of Evaluation Engineering. I realized that I had referenced articles from them before, did a search, and found three separate times (one, two, three). So the next box car in my train of thought ran, "I wonder what they say about nanotech testing?"

For the last 9 months or so I've been involved in testing devices that involve either MEM structures or nanoscale devices. This has required a certain evolution in my thinking. For example, a few years ago I had never thought I'd have to automate & analyze the data from an interferometer that imaged micro-scale shutters. I did just that this past spring.

I think the first time I was really aware of nanotechnology as a going concern was back around 1991 when I read Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition. Of course, that book is somewhat out of date 18 years later, but at the time it was a great read - I still have my copy.

SO I've been reading more about testing at this level lately. Here's a few articles:
Battery development & testing
Testing a nanotech system

Keithley has been particularly active in this area. Two years ago they introduced a nanotech testing blog. A couple of weeks ago I received a Nanotechnology Test & Measurement Resource Guide. Good for them.

After reading more details about nanotech testing over the past couple months, I've come up with two conclusions. One, I've barely scratched the surface. Two, nanotechnology is rapidly expanding, and I thnik the need for testing it will be key in the 21st century.