Monday, September 24, 2012

Spoke too soon

Back in August I said that it looked like Test and Measurement World no longer does salary surveys.  Oops.

It looks like this salary survey has been rebranded as a more generic survey of job satisfaction and what engineers in testing are like.  The survey's most interesting point, in my opinion, was this nugget: "test engineers enjoyed a 14% jump in average salary over the past year."

Nice, but I still hold by my earlier assertion that the best info can be had from

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Startups in the news

I've never hidden the fact that I'm partial to high-tech startup companies and what testing is like in that environment (see here, there, way back in 2007, and a couple weeks ago).  We're not really talking software startups - I've mostly been involved in companies that were commercializing some new work that came out of Harvard, MIT, Columbia, government labs, or something similar.

In the past week two articles were published addressing two separate issues about startup companies: acquisition of them and doing business with them.

Wall Street Journal article points out that bigger companies are increasingly getting new talent and ideas through buying startup companies.  The author correctly points out that for the people who worked at the startup, getting bought out can be a mixed bag.  While the article focuses exclusively on software startups, I'd say the points raised apply to hardware startups as well.  I've been through that myself and the experience really depends on the culture of the company buying you and your own personality.

CIO wrote about some of the risks and rewards for working with a startup.  Since software startups are in vogue, this article discusses them primarily.  One thing they did point out rang a bell with me - startup companies don't have a strong customer support base.  In my own experience as well as that of some friends, when they start to build that out one of the first things they do is look to pull a guy out of testing to help with customer support.

Think about it.  The test engineer in a startup has by now (hopefully) developed the test platforms that you use.  He knows the product very well since he's been testing it for a while, but he has more time on his hand once you're going into production.  So you put him to work helping customers use the product he's already been using in end-case scenarios.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Random post posers

So a couple months ago I wrote about my new car.  I was trying to make a point about some of the massive testing that must go into the development of ever-more-advanced vehicles.  I've now had 11 comments on that one post, most of them using key words about the make and model of the car, and practically none of them writing about testing.

Who are these people?  As it turns out, they're all just hot-linking back to various auto dealerships and car parts stores.  Who has time to do that?  I wonder if there's some small company out in the middle of nowhere that hires a bunch of people to write comments all day long and post them to different sites in an attempt to game the system by increasing links to their sites.  Or they could contract the work out on a "per post" basis to hard-up college students looking to make a few bucks.  The student downloads some software that trolls the internet for them, looking for blog posts, forums, etc. that relate to a certain customer, and then the student is paid a couple bucks for every post/comment/etc. that they write.  What a world.

Anyway, I'm just going to delete them all.

Here's a Google article about this.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Startup intentions

I'm on my fifth or seventh startup company, depending on how you count it.  Of those companies, I'd say only two seriously considered taking themselves public.  One of those companies went belly-up, and the other is still scraping along.  Of the other several startup companies, one folded and was picked up for pennies on the dollar, one was bought out for good money, and the others are still TBD.

So, in my experience most startups have in the back of their minds that they likely will be bought out.  That brings me to a podcast from the Harvard Business Review called "What's Wrong with Today's Entrepreneurs."  I stumbled across this a couple weeks ago and it caught my attention as describing one of those articles written by someone who has no real world experience.  First of all, the author was comparing apples and oranges.  I don't think you can really compare software startups to hardware startups - there are just too many differences.  Second, he didn't even bring up any recent hardware startup companies.  I could certainly have suggested a few.

Anyway, startup companies have become a bit of a hobby horse for me, so I felt like I had to mention this.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Another salary survey

The last time I wrote about salary surveys for test engineers was way back in 2009.  I saw this interesting salary survey a couple weeks ago and thought I'd dig into the topic again.

It looks like T&MW no longer does salary surveys.  I found this article referencing a 2010 survey, but when I tried to access that survey, this is what I got:

I tried searching on their website but found no other references to the 2010 survey, or a 2011 survey for that matter.  SO, have they switched to an every-other-year format, was it too expensive to continue publishing the survey, or did they get too many complaints from engineers using the survey data to ask for raises?  (I admit that I've used those surveys for exactly that purpose...)

I DID find this interesting "lifestyle" survey instead of the salary survey.  Supposedly they'll publish the results this month.

A salary survey for all engineers was done by Design News.  That's worth checking out.  But if you want a lot more detail, go to

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Intro to DAQ

United Elecronic Industries has recently (again) put out a document called "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Data Acquisition."  This is apparently a three-part endeavor, and part 1 is available here.  I took a quick look at it, and it appears to be what it says it is - and introduction to DAQ.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Horrible LabVIEW

At my current company, I inherited some LabVIEW code that was written five or so years ago by a previous employee (who left at least three years ago).  The code works, so it has that going for it.

I would argue that there are some basic rules that any decent LabVIEW person should know.  I wrote a post many years ago about LV style, but what I'm talking about is more of a ground level set of standards.  This list includes things like:

  1. Don't route wires underneath objects
  2. Don't send wires right to left
  3. Avoid complicated bends
  4. Avoid stacked sequences
  5. Avoid local variables
  6. Comment the code
  7. Utilize error trapping
The code I inherited breaks six out of seven of these.

I know that when I first learned LV (well over a decade ago), I wrote some sketchy code before I learned better. Maybe that's what this is - I really hope this guy's coding improved.  What he wrote back then is just painful for me now.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

My new car

A few months ago I was in a car wreck (partly explaining my absence on this blog from April until July).  My poor Prius, with well over 200k miles on it, was totaled.  So I had to jump back into the car market.

For various reasons, I ended up buying another Ford hybrid vehicle, a 2012 Fusion.  While not reaching the 52mpg I got with the Prius, I've been getting a respectable 42mpg as well as more oomph when I accelerate.

As I mentioned last year when talking about my Ford Escape hybrid, this car has Sync in it.  But it has even more software and nifty tricks, including a ridiculously cool rain sensor windshield.  Can you just imagine how much testing all this stuff has to go through?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

TestStand (part 3 - Is it useful?)

As part of a project I completed for my previous company, I  learned NI TestStand and implemented it for a test station.  I started writing a few posts about that experience and my impressions of TestStand a year ago.  I'm finally getting around to finishing it, and this is the 3rd and last post.

Is it useful?

That's a big question.  I've talked with three different people who've used it at bigger companies.  All three liked how it worked.  Personally, I can only answer that question for startups.

First of all, I had a few specific complaints about it:
  • The database viewer was okay, but you couldn't look at stored procedures.  It seemed very "beta".
  • I couldn't open more than one workspace at a time.
  • The printing wasn't very friendly.  For example, I wanted to create a nice flowchart based off of the sequences/workspace.  I couldn't do it easily and needed to jump through hoops to "sort of" get what I wanted.
  • There's no support for Tortoise SVN (of course, I have that complaint about LabVIEW as well).

Now that I've gotten that off my chest, let me address the broader question.  Yes, it is useful in startup companies.  At all the startups I've been at, you start out developing small programs to do specific tasks.  But eventually you get to a certain point where:

  1. You hire technicians to run regular tests on your products.
  2. You need a way to quickly make modifications to those existing tests.
  3. You need to generate reports on those tests.
In other words, you get to the point where you need some sort of test executive.  A couple of startups I've worked at wrote their own test executive, either because they didn't know any better or didn't want to spend the money on a 3rd party solution.  To me, that's a waste of time and effort, and you spend the extra money anyway in effort.  Yes, TestStand isn't cheap, and yes there is a learning curve.  But it was definitely useful.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

TestStand (part 2 - Learning how to use it)

As part of a project I completed for my previous company, I  learned NI TestStand and implemented it for a test station.  I started writing a few posts about that experience and my impressions of TestStand a year ago.  I'm finally getting around to finishing it, and this is the second of three posts.

Learning how to use it
I came into TestStand from the LabVIEW world, although I have a long background in text-based languages.  When my development group decided we wanted to evaluate TestStand, the first thing I did was download the evaluation software (free) and purchase the source materials for the training class (a couple hundred bucks).  After spending a week walking myself through the training and reading through the manuals, we decided to buy the software and implement it in our test systems.

Here's a couple of pointers for learning it yourself:
  1. Download the manual and eval materials from NI (reference manual). 
  2. Don't pay for the actual training if you don't have the cash.  Just buy the source materials for the training class.
  3. This book is a collection of articles about using TestStand.  If you don't want to spend the $10, you can get most of it from here online.
  4. Step through all of the examples you can find.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The God particle

It looks like the Higgs boson has been found.  Very cool.

As I've mentioned several times before, I spent time working in high energy physics, before the SSC was shut down.  Back in grad school we talked alot about how close we might be to discovering the Higgs particle and what it would mean.  It's taken a heck of a long time to finally get there, but sometimes research (and taking lots of data) is like that.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Engineering apps for the iPad

After completing a big project at my previous company, our group was given iPads as a thank-you.  While that was certainly a nice gesture, I'm in no way an Apple fanboy, and at the time I was thinking about getting a Kindle Fire for Christmas.  But I didn't turn it down.

I now use it every day at work.  Of course I have a few games on it (although my kids play the games far more than I do), and I check emails on it frequently, but I was surprised at the number of useful engineering-related apps I found.  So I want to list my most useful ones:

  • Penultimate - I use this app for taking notes all the time.  But be warned, I found the interface somewhat cumbersome until I bought a soft-pin stylus.
  • eDrawings - At least every other week I get a SolidWorks drawing for review, either from in house or a vendor.  This apps is a very handy tool for viewing those models and easily showing them to someone else.  For example, a few months ago I brought it into the lab so I could look at a test chuck model and debug a machining problem.
  • VNC Viewer - I am responsible for multiple test stations, each with a separate IP address.  With this app on my iPad I can check those stations when I'm sitting in a boring meeting and don't have my laptop.
  • NI DAQ Device Pinouts - A handy little app that simply lists all the pinout diagrams for the multitude of NI DAQ appliances, this tool has come in handy several times lately.
  • Mariner Calc - I've used this tool a few times in the lab or in meetings when I didn't have access to a computer.  Not bad for a cheap spreadsheet.
  • Filebrowser - It's a nice app for navigating the internal computers on the company intranet.
  • 2X Client RDP - While my computer screen is a little cramped viewing it through my iPad, working on it when I'm in a boring meeting (see above) can come in handy.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Laundry list

Well, aside from the too-ambitious post I made last month, it's been a solid year since I posted on this blog on a regular basis.  We'll just call it a sabbatical.

I'm going to dip my toes back into the water with this blog, so don't expect much more than a post a month for now.  Saying that, here's the list of things I want to talk about this summer (in no particular order):

  • LabVIEW style
  • Startup company personalities
  • My iPad engineering apps
  • Linked lists
  • Interviewing 
  • Test Stand
The first one should be coming this weekend, since I wrote most of it last month.  I'll try to get another one out in a couple weeks.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A long absence

Well, after a long absence I have finally gotten back to posting on this blog.  It's been close to a year, and a lot has happened in that time.  Not to get into the low level details of my personal life, but here are the highlights (in roughly chronological order):

  • I wrapped up a big project at work,
  • I changed companies to work at yet another startup.
  • Immediately after starting the new job I had a LOT of new projects.
  • There were some medical issues.
  • I got remarried and had a wonderful honeymoon in the Caribbean.
Things are settling down some at work, I'm back (and recovered) from vacation, and winter is essentially over here in New England.  So sometime this week I'll publish a list of some of the things I still want to write about.  And believe me, over the last year I've found quite a few....