Category Archives: About Marki Microwave

I’m Just An Engineer

This is from the column written by Ferenc Marki for Microwave Journal in December of 2009:

The microwave industry has entered an era of specialization. Gone are the days of vertical integration where engineering design, manufacturing and testing could all be performed under one roof, or within a single company. For better or worse, we work in an increasingly bifurcated industry where engineering and manufacturing are seen as separate entities. When our skill set limits our ability to build and manufacture our widgets, we outsource. As a designer for nearly four decades in this industry, I am discouraged by this evolution. As an entrepreneur and opportunist, I am thrilled. As this evolution unfolds, it is clear to me that small companies committed to technological innovation and manufacturing know-how will prosper in the coming decade. Now, before you lambast me for making such a seemingly obvious prediction, let me elaborate on where I think we’ve been, and where I think we’re going.

MTT-IMS: Farm to Fork Technology

Note: This is a duplicate of the posting on the IMS blog, found here.

By Christopher Marki

Some critics say that attending IMS is a waste of time for engineers and designers. The popular complaint is that conferences, in general, tend to be long on marketing sparkle and short on technical rigor. Among engineers, I often hear the comment that visiting booths is pointless because booth staff is more intent on tagging your conference badge to get your digits (i.e. email contact) than actually answering your technical questions. Questions about technical performance or pricing are shoved into the inquiry-list abyss, and might be addressed within the next decade.

From this point of view, it would seem that the average engineer is better off staying home and instead use the traditional channels to get technical information and pricing (i.e. blind emails to info@ addresses and reps). HOWEVER…wait for it…I contend that IMS is, by far, the most useful conference an RF engineer can ever attend. The reason is that IMS is, by analogy, a 3 day Farmer’s Market of RF goods and services where you can meet and share ideas with the highest caliber people the industry has to offer.

Why is IMS uniquely similar to your local Farmer’s Market? Simple, the RF business is populated by a dense cluster of extremely talented “specialist” companies that are small in stature but high in quality. Just as your local Market might showcase a vendor with specialty California olive oil or rare heirloom tomatoes, IMS will showcase a vendor who has a particular specialization in something like extremely low noise amplifiers or cryogenic tolerant components (so-called niche markets). Often this specialization represents the engineer’s life’s work and entire companies often emanate from this innovative energy. The fact that IMS summons the small specialist companies (and their founders and lead inventors) implies that in about 4 hours of booth visits you can talk to, literally, the world’s leading experts on everything from amplifiers to packages to oscillators to VNAs. Just as you would pick out the best produce and flowers and cheeses at your local Farmer’s Market, you pick out the best hardware and software at IMS by speaking with the people who invented the product. I have attended a variety of conferences over the years and the communal nature of IMS, with its tight knit group of specialist engineers, is unique.

Why does the RF industry foster highly successful, small specialist companies? In my opinion, the answer is best attributed to the specific business and scientific constraints in which the RF industry operates. Without question, the RF and Microwave industry owes a significant amount of its viability to its military legacy. As is commonly understood, military and defense applications center on “best in class” technologies. The cat and mouse game of electronic warfare, or the ever-increasing need for broadband, secure military communication lends itself perfectly to a business model focused on relentless iteration and dB-by-dB improvement, without the handcuffing paralysis of pricing pressure. The push by military requirements to push technology barriers tends to favor the specialist and the risk taker without bean-counter intervention; these tend to be advantages for small, aggressive technical companies. When multiplied by the “black magic” factor associated with manufacturing GHz technology, one can quickly understand why so many small companies attending IMS find lineage connecting back to the 1970s powerhouses like HP and Watkins Johnson, Marki Microwave included.

These days, of course, one cannot survive on DoD business alone. In fact, I would suspect most traditionally Mil-focused RF companies have decided to penetrate the commercial and test equipment markets to remain busy. In this realm time and cost tend to play a significant role and, fittingly, the smaller RF businesses attending IMS tend to excel in that arena too. By minimizing overhead and bureaucratic interference, small RF specialists enable the much-coveted faster time-to-market. Moreover, the free-wheeling technical support associated with small company specialists provides a needed technical boost to customers who require extra tutelage in the concept and design phases of a new product. It is also common for the specialist company to know when to recommend other specialist companies. In this way, a mixer specialist like Marki Microwave would cross-pollinate with an oscillator vendor or a phase noise measurement vendor since straying too far from our “territory” offers little economic or scientific benefit to the transaction. If you want to make the best salad, you find the farmers who produce the best lettuce, tomato, carrots and vinaigrette; it is rare that the same farmer can excel at all ingredients. Or, if you are my father, you will order a great salad, but only eat the blue cheese. He is, after all, a singular specialist of mixers and never cared much for vegetables anyway.

So, why do I go to IMS? I go because I have a year’s worth of technical questions to ask the world’s greatest RF experts and I don’t like waiting for email responses. Question about a VNA? Talk to Dr. Joel at HP Agilent Keysight. Question about crystal oscillators? Talk to John or Charlie at Wenzel. Question about phase noise measurements? Talk to Jason at Holzworth. Question about a MMIC design? Talk to Paul at Custom MMIC or Liam at Plextek. Question about a mixer? Well…I think you know who I would recommend for that. See you in Tampa!

 

 

 

View from the Top

In the December 2010 issue of Microwave Product Digest (MPD), they ran a series of articles called “View from the Top” in which a cross-section of RF/Microwave industry executives were asked to comment on the current state of the business environment. Seeing as how MPD never called me for such an interview, I am graciously submitting my (slightly modified) version of the Q&A, since these are all topics I have either touched upon in the past, or have intended to address on this blog. Enjoy…

1.    What is your assessment of the currently global economic situation? How has your business fared through the economic downturn, and how do you see your business, and the industry as a whole, going forward?

In 2008 and 2009, it was evident that debt-free companies with strong cash flow would perform well while overly leveraged companies would face severe consequences. Our belief was that companies with strong manufacturing capabilities and a commitment to technological innovation would eventually benefit from the downturn since. At that time, Marki Microwave invested heavily in developing new product lines, both as a way of diversifying our revenue streams, and as a way of increasing our technological acumen. Our R&D efforts during the global Recession proved well advised because we have enjoyed more than 100% year-over-year growth in all three of our new product lines including Couplers, Filters and Power Dividers. We actually experienced an excellent 2010 on account of these new product lines, and the continued adoption of our high performance T3 mixer line. By many accounts, we are not alone in believing that the RF and Microwave industry is very active currently, and that there are many opportunities for many exciting technologies in 2011. We believe that small  companies with experience and specialized expertise will continue to prosper in an industry thirsty for technological advances. Let’s put it this way: I just finished writing Marki’s R&D timeline for 2011, and I can’t wait to announce the kinds of new gadgets and gizmos we have on the fire.

2.    How have social networking websites impacted your business? Do you believe that online communities like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook have a meaningful place in the RF/Microwave industry?

For an industry rife with scientific experts and technological sophistication, we are incredibly old-fashioned. Compared to other industries, we are one of the most conservative, and this translates into being slow adopters of new technology. For example, our company still sells a mixer my father designed in 1975, simply because the customer refuses to adopt the newer, better version. I understand that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but sometimes change is good.

Since the day I began working at Marki, I have had the strong opinion that the internet is the single most important ally for our small business. For this reason, Marki cut back significantly on print advertising and the other “traditional” marketing tools. It is not that they don’t work, we simply believe that Marketing dollars and time are more efficiently spent on tools like Adwords and, obviously, online blogs. If I had the budget to advertise on every other page in the Journal I would, but not all us have the privilege. Therefore, Marki Microwave openly embraces all the social networking (marketing) forums, and we work hard to make this participation meaningful for our customers.

Make no mistake, though, the industry as a whole has been slow to adopt forums like Twitter and Facebook and the jury is still out on how the average RF engineer will use these avenues going forward. I would argue, however, that we are at the beginning of a very long adoption curve, so this will be a multi-year trend. To use a (poor) photonics analogy, the process will look less like stimulated emission of a photon and more like spontaneous emission of a photon—we can’t really control when, where or at what wavelength the photon will be emitted, we just know that over some measurable amount of time, the photon will eventually emit (our LED friends an CREE will appreciate that one). Look at the way the internet changed the way RF engineers design: vendors used to have pay sales reps in all the key geographic locations to, literally, walk into a customer’s building to hand them a (gasp!) printed catalog. Now, the customer goes online to find the most up to date information and has the option to request a quote within seconds. Advertising has followed a similar path, and it is no surprise that all of our trade journals are skinnier than they used to be. Don’t misunderstand, I still greatly enjoy trade journals and read them religiously, I am simply stating that we have more options today that go far beyond traditional print. We no longer have to publish papers in journals or in our printed catalogs, we simply post them online for all to freely download. And do you know how we announce these new papers and application notes to the industry? By posting about them on the Marki Microwave Twitter, Facebook, and blog websites. I encourage any and all of our customers, partners and readers to join us on the websites. This industry will look significantly different in 5 years, and Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and (possibly) RFblogger will have something to do with it.

3.    Many have argued that there is a shortage of RF/Microwave engineers. How do you see this problem unfolding in the short and long term, both as it pertains to your own business, and the industry as a whole?

The shortage of good RF engineers is a major problem. Forget about the RF industry, the shortage of American engineers is a major problem. Out of the 20 or so close friends I graduated with in undergrad in 2002, only 3 were engineers. Of those 3, I am the only practicing engineer. The other two jumped ship and went the MBA route. It seems that the engineering discipline is either too boring, too hard, or too unprofitable for most Americans.   I think it is all of the above.

In the near term, I doubt we will see significant fallout from this shortage on an industry or national level. The larger problem involves what will happen when all the engineers from my father’s generation retire in the coming 5 to 10 years. My father and  I talk to many companies, and we hear constantly that many larger RF/Microwave companies are forced to reconnect with former, retired employees in order to finish projects because the expertise is not passed on to the younger generation. Eventually, these RF wizards will not be around to bail us out and the entire industry will suffer as a result. It is essential that the companies in our industry pass on this engineering expertise to the next generation of engineers. At Marki Microwave, we have a clear chain of succession, and we pride ourselves of passing on all the hard-fought knowledge to our engineers. However, there are other, especially small, companies in the industry who are in danger of losing their technological edge if the founder’s expertise is not passed on. I hope that engineers in my generation surface in the next decade that can carry the torch of our predecessors. Currently, I am looking to hire such people, and I can testify that it is a difficult process.

4.    As a small business and an entrepreneur, what advice would you give to an RF/Microwave engineer looking to start a company?

Know what you are good at, know what you are not good at. Avoid the tendency of over-engineering your first generation of products. Give your customers what they want, not what you think they want. Don’t assume an idea is bad just because you think it is obvious. Don’t assume and idea is good just because it is devilishly complicated. Be patient, it usually takes 1 to 2 years before a new product becomes adopted by the industry….I could go on and on….

5.    What do you perceive as the hottest markets for the RF industry for the coming year?

If we are to use the stock market as a predictive tool, then the fiber optics market is set to explode in 2011. Granted, we have been waiting for this to happen for over a decade, but the smart phone/streaming Netflix era has consumed the available bandwidth, and people who make fiber optic hardware are finally going to make some money because of this. (Go look at JDSU or Finisar stock if you don’t believe me). I happen to agree with this premise, but I also believe that such speculation is always tenuous: the technical challenges tend to require state-of-the-art technology, but the customers demand commodity prices…that is a recipe for disaster if you actually want to make a profit. I have personally witnessed millions in venture capital be wasted because of these paradoxical requirements.

From a communication theory perspective, we are in the process of improving the spectral efficiency of optical fiber. Legacy systems usually use 10 Gb/s on-off keying to transmit data. This is Stone-Age technology compared to what we use in cell phones. Using the wireless industry as inspiration, photonics companies began solving the spectral efficiency problem. From what I understand, the price points and bandwidth demand are now justifying the network upgrades. Food for thought: I was told by a very reliable source that the pain is going to get worse (in terms of the network bandwidth shortage). If one looks at the exponential increase in required network bandwidth over the next decade and compares it to the average power consumption of running the servers, one finds that within the next decade or so, the fiber optic network will consume more power than the United States can produce, given current energy grid capacity projections. In other words, the US energy grid will not be able to support the optical network power consumption per bit. If I were a betting man, I’d say it is time to invest in technologies that will significantly lower the energy/bit in optical networking hardware, it is the only reasonable options since the energy grid capacity cannot be improved at a reasonable pace. If history is a guide, that means that the solution will come out of the electronics domain, not the optics domain. Take it from a former optics guy; electronics always wins.

Engineering Grad School? Fact or Fiction

So you’re thinking about getting a Masters of Ph.D. in engineering or science? Well, if you’re like I was, then you have heard a lot of rumors about what the whole process is about, and what you can expect out of it. In my experience, the advice floating through the halls of undergraduate universities and companies can be suspect at best, and misleading at worst. Having gone through the graduate school process recently, I would like to offer a little clarity on this oft-deliberated question. Today we are going to talk about grad school: Fact or Fiction.

The Ph.D. is just a longer version of a Masters—Fiction

Both are important, but for different reasons. In my view, the Masters degree acts as a form of continuing education for the undergraduate degree. Basically, a Masters builds on the foundation of the generalized undergrad education to give a deeper level of understanding for more current topics. The Ph.D. involves the coursework aspects of the Masters, but eventually sends the student onto a metaphorical “intellectual island” to fend for themselves in the grueling world of academic research. In order the get a Ph.D., the student is expected to make new scientific contributions to the field and publish papers in peer-reviewed journals/conferences. The Masters student can do this, but is not usually required.

Graduate courses are much more interesting than undergrad courses—Fact

Undergrad courses are boring, the problem sets are excruciating, and the grading is cut-throat. I believe this pain is intended so as to (high pass) filter the weaker students. The good news is that graduate courses are more interesting because you learn more the most modern topics and many courses are taught by the experts who are actually pushing the field to new heights—this latter fact implies that the professors tend to enjoy teaching the higher level courses, which always makes for better lectures.

Graduate courses are very difficult—Fiction

In my experience, exams and grading are much more difficult in undergraduate courses. Professors tend to treat the graduate students much more benevolently.

The Ph.D. is a waste of time—Fiction

Surprisingly, many people believe that a Ph.D. is not worth the time expense. Arguments often include the “opportunity cost” of the Ph.D.—this is the income “lost” by not working in a “real” job during those 4 or 5 years, the fact that you work on a single problem for so long and become too narrowly focuses, and the fact that you do not gain real world experience. For me, these are all red herring arguments.

First, most science Ph.D. programs pay their students monthly stipends for the work, or for TA-ing. It is not a lot of money, but it is a living wage, and not egregiously lower than an entry-level engineer with a BS. Most people in their twenties don’t have a high cost a living, anyway.

Second, while it is true that a Ph.D. covers a narrow list of topics, the breadth of knowledge required is immense. For every paper you write in grad school, I’d estimate you read hundreds of reference papers just to appreciate the “shoulders of the giants” you are standing on. After 5 years of grad school, I would guess I had read literally thousands of IEEE and OSA papers. To me, that is the opposite of being narrowly focused.

Finally, the argument that the Ph.D. process is an incubator that does not teach real world experience is horribly misled. Have you ever witnessed the political cattiness of rival professors? If not, I assure you it would make for some amazing reality TV. Just as any corporate job requires you to be aware of the politics of the office, and the inter-personal relationships of the people in your team, the Ph.D. requires you to understand that the academic process, and research in general, is a dog-eat-dog world. Make no mistake, when it comes to University level research, careers and millions of dollars are at stake, and any Ph.D. candidate can testify to this fact…tell me that’s not “real world”.

When you graduate with a Ph.D., people will respect you more—Fiction

I often tell people, “the only people who call me Dr. Marki are the ones who don’t know me.” Translation: your friends, family and colleagues couldn’t care less about the Ph.D.—I think that is a GOOD thing.

You can choose a school with a great program, or you can choose where you want to live, but not both—Mostly Fact

When I applied to grad school, I had one criterion: get back to California. Essentially, I spammed every California-based EE/ECE program I could find. I lucked out with UCSD, because San Diego is the greatest city in the country—I defy you to prove otherwise. Nevertheless, my optics professors at Duke kept telling me about the University of Rochester, because the school is well known for groundbreaking optics research. You know what I did? Ignored them. This west coast boy can’t take those upstate winters. Being from California, I was lucky because we have so many great engineering programs from which to choose, but in general, that is the exception to the rule. It is very difficult decide where you want to live, and then successfully matriculate to the perfect graduate program. You get to pick program, or location, but not both.

Besides your spouse, your Thesis Advisor is the most important personal relationship you will ever choose—Fact

This was great advice given to me by my own thesis advisor during orientation. Your thesis advisor is something akin to an adopted parent who can fire you. Choose wisely.

Your thesis topic does not matter, only that you finish—Fiction

Many people believe that your thesis topic does not matter because you will never actually work in that field after you graduate. I would be an example of one of those people, my thesis has little to do with RF/microwave engineering. However, I have come to find that the people who actually work in a field similar to their thesis often have an advantage, especially when they start companies. Jason Breitbarth at Holzworth is a prime example. Jason did his thesis work in phase noise at UC Boulder and now owns a company building low phase noise equipment. This is not surprising, building an engineering company requires unique expertise and insight that can be productized, the Ph.D. process helps you acquire such knowledge and this can help tremendously when creating new companies.

The Ivory Tower is much different from the real world—Fact

Yes, grad school teaches you real world experiences, but it is not the real world. In the real world, people don’t care nearly as much about science. This fact was very hard for me to accept when I first stepped out of UCSD and into the halls of Marki Microwave. When you are doing your Masters or Ph.D., everyone clearly cares about doing good work, exploring new areas of science or engineering, and competing for the admiration of their colleagues. In the real world, engineering or scientific achievements are often tempered by budgets, due dates, supply chain issues, economic uncertainty and office malaise. This is the inevitable trade-off when weighing whether to go to grad school: you can choose “scientific utopia” for a few years at the expense of lower pay and fierce competition, or you can choose higher pay and higher quality of life but having to accept that your contributions will often be muted by factors well beyond your control, but not both. For me, experiencing the Ivory Tower for a few years was well worth this trade.

Your thesis committee will not read your thesis—Fact

Shocking, but true! When you defend your thesis, at least one committee member will be late (they are on “professor time”, after all), at least one committee member will be checking his email, and at least one committee member will be cracking open your dissertation for the very first time. I am not kidding. The fact is that by the time you publish 3 or 4 papers in your field, you know more about the area that any of your committee members, so their job isn’t to check your work line by line, but to ensure that the work was done with a high degree scientific integrity. Good professors gain a profound intuition into the scientific process; its almost like they can smell good or bad work, without actually knowing the details.

The only people that will ever read your thesis are in your lab group—Fact

Your mom or spouse might give it a go, but they won’t get past the first few pages (unless they have a degree in your field). My thesis is posted on the Marki Microwave website, and I strongly doubt anyone has read it in firm detail.

You will sink, or you will swim—Fact

Yep.

2010 Year in Review

Now that the year is winding down and we are feverishly completing our final shipments for 2010, it is time to look back and see what we accomplished over the last 300+ days. By most accounts, 2010 seems to have been a very good year for the RF/microwave industry. While it is true that Marki Microwave is a small player in a very big and diverse industry, I feel that my particular vantage point gives me some insight into what we are seeing both economically and technologically. I want to talk about some of the trends I have been seeing, and how Marki has been able to take advantage of a few of them. Since Marki is a private company, this is just about as close to an investor conference call as it gets for us, but I would imagine that much of what I say will be true for the big boys in the industry like Hittite and Triquint and Avago.

Trends

Broadband, broadband, broadband

I am obsessed with bandwidth, and I’m glad to see that the industry is too. Since Marki specializes in broadband components such as mixers, couplers and power dividers, I am always excited when a customer comes along and needs a power divider from 1 to 65 GHz, or a mixer from 10 MHz to 12 GHz (T3-12) . Interestingly, we have witnessed a very strong push this year from customers with very large bandwidth requirements. I believe this is coming from several trends. First, RF designers are finding that it is cheaper (and more elegant) to design a system with a few expensive, very broadband components than a lot of cheap, narrowband components. Many of our customers have gravitated towards our T3 mixers for this reason; they find that they can avoid investing in extra mixers, switches and amplifiers by using a single mixer that can cover the whole band and can be used with a flexible LO drive. Yes, the T3 might be 5x the cost, but they have purchased 10x less parts, and this translates to quicker design turn around and a lower risk of failure during board integration. This insatiable need for bandwidth is strongest in the test equipment and surveillance area and if anything, the demand is increasing. Another trend pushing the need for bandwidth is flexibility. In my opinion, the wireless area is over-populated with commodity components. While this is good for making your iPhone inexpensive, it is generally bad for military-type folks who need to communicate far away from the overpopulated low-GHz bands. I went to MilCom in San Jose a few months ago, and the JTRS radio was the big hit. One of the key benefits of this radio is its ability to work over a multitude of bands with untold numbers of modulation formats. Simple commercial components designed for the wireless industry do not satisfy such requirements, in part because they are designed with cost in mind, not flexibility in performance and application. Many customers call me nowadays with these flexible bandwidth requirements in mind, I expect it to continue into 2011.

High power and high linearity

If you are like me, you are sick of hearing about high power amplifiers, or PA’s for those who have been living under a rock. I estimate is that there are about 3,649 companies marketing themselves as PA experts, and apparently there is enough business to go around. OK, I am exaggerating, but PA’s seem to be the soup-du-jour (that’s the soup of the day for you ‘Dumb and Dumber’ fans). As a general trend, however, we do see that people are very concerned with the science of high power RF signals, and the components that can perform well at these powers. For Marki, we have enjoyed this push in the form of our high linearity mixers, yep, the T3’s again. I have written an app note about the T3’s, these mixers are amazing and offer the high IP3 and 1 dB compression in the industry. I am also seeing many inquiries for higher power couplers and combiner/splitters. I have put this on the To Do list for 2011.Why the need for more power and more linearity? There is no single answer to this question. In truth, the push for power and linearity stems from both commercial and military applications, alike. The “sexiness” of PA’s is explained by the fact that people want to transmit more power more efficiently for less cost. Hence, you see all those articles in the journals about GaN, GaAs, Triquint, Cree, PAE, etc. The quest for linearity stems from the trend of employing complex modulation formats to push more data down the pipe and the need for higher dynamic range systems. Components that can achieve better linearity performance through metrics like 1 dB compression, spurious response, and two-tone intercept all cater to these modern systems.

Surface mount to higher frequencies

There is a saying in the field, “the money’s in the packaging”. The modern incarnation of this trend is that components makers are being pressed more and more to offer higher frequency surface mount packages for their products. At Marki, we are unique in the fact that we are the only hybrid mixer maker that offers surface mount packaging beyond a few GHz. As opposed to GaAs mixers and LTCC mixers, hybrid mixers are challenging to make surface mount because they require suspended substrates that must float physically far away from ground. This poses a challenge for the packaging because the signal must therefore travel a long distance vertically before entering the circuitry. Marki solved this problem by building a 50 Ohm transmission line directly into the side of the metal carrier. We call this our ‘EZ’ package and is offered for mixers up to about 30 GHz. Amazingly, I have been getting calls over the past year where people want to go to even higher surface mount frequencies beyond 10 or 20 GHz. This trend is justified because surface mount assemblies are lighter and smaller (and cheaper if done correctly), but the designers still have many challenges to overcome. For one thing, surface mount assemblies to 40 GHz, for example, require an expert-level understanding of microwave packaging science and mechanical layout/design. In other words, even if the manufacturer can provide the components to 40 GHz, the system level assembly is still going to be a big headache. The mistake I have witnessed is when people underestimate the difficulty in building surface mount assemblies above 20 GHz or so; it is full of pitfalls and requires an experienced hand. Nevertheless, the trend continues, and I don’t imagine it is going to fade.

Who’s better: Tom Brady or Steve Jobs?

Who’s better: Tom Brady or Steve Jobs?

During the World Cup, I wrote a blog entryabout technology in football (i.e. soccer). Owing to the popularity of that light-hearted techno-babble and the excitement surrounding the start of the NFL regular season, I have decided to write another (silly) article about another (fruitless) pastime of mine: fantasy football. I have done a lot of thinking about fantasy football (for those of you unfamiliar, fantasy football is detailed here), and my conclusion is that it is asuperior waste of time.

Is it reasonable for grown men and women (usually men) to justify spending several hours a week shuffling starting lineups and agonizing over opponents and matchups in hopes of winning what usually amount to about $500 (a.k.a. compensation equivalent to about $2.34/hour invested) for the champion? Of course not! But, as a self-admitted (committed?) fantasy addict, I have to admit it is fun, it makes Sundays more enjoyable, and it has me thinking…what about Fantasy Engineering? Is it possible to come up with the Engineering equivalent of fantasy football where we can pick a few categories for engineering skills, such as intellect, or creativity, or work ethic and score them on a points system? I don’t think Fantasy Engineering would be very fun, but it has me thinking about how to evaluate the mostly subjective skills of engineers, and relate them to quantifiable metrics.

My main focus is to evaluate the various engineering positions. What are the specific traits of these engineering positions, and how would you quantify the relative value of the person filling that position? In football, Tom Brady is clearly more valuable than Alex Smith. Therefore, it is reasonable to argue that in the real life engineering trenches, some people are more valuable than others. I’ve looked at past and present scientists and engineers, and tried to come up with my list of the top ranked “players” in each position. To stay in the football theme, I am going to create an engineering team which is analogous to a typical fantasy football team setup: Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver, Tight End and Kicker.

Quarterback

Engineer Equivalent: Project Manager/Team Leader.

Key Attributes: Charismatic, Superior Communication Skills, Motivating, Organized, Level-headed Temperament, Broad Technical Understanding, Forward Thinking/Visionary

Description: Just as in football, no engineering team can be successful without a charismatic leader. The project leader must be able to organize his team with a calm, clear, and collected approach (think Joe Montana during the 49er glory years). The team leader can have inferior technical skills to the other engineers, but this is compensated for with visionary thinking and the ability to absorb and evaluate a broad range of technical details. I have worked with PMs with this ability and it is impressive: you know they cannot do the work themselves, but they tend to have an uncanny ability to immediately understand the implications of the technical data. Moreover, the best PMs can take the data, and see how the results impact the future direction of the company/technology. Most engineers don’t think with this futurist/opportunist mentality, this is why a good PM is essential; they don’t handcuff their minds with excuses for why something won’t work.

Power Rankings:

  1. Steve Jobs—Does this really need an explanation?
  2. Richard Feynman—The gregarious genius knew more about more topics than just about anyone to ever live. He foresaw the nanotech revolution, and dabbled in field far beyond Physics. Read his autobiography or his Caltech Lectures and you’ll immediately understand why he is, in my estimation, the most well-rounded scientist to ever live.
  3. J. Robert Oppenheimer—Oppenheimer oversaw the most ambitious scientific project in the history of modern science: the Manhattan Project. Say what you will about the negative impact of the research, you can’t help but admit that the challenges Oppenheimer faced were immense, and the historical impact of the success of this project changed human history. Imagine if we could assemble a similar team of scientists, headed by Oppenheimer, to solve our energy issues! That’s why he’s #3 on my list.

Running Back

Engineer Equivalent: Lead Engineer.

Key Attributes: Brilliant, Hard Working, Focused, Instinctual, Intuitive, Fearless

Description: In football, a great running back is a quarterback’s best friend because he takes the pressure off by keeping the defense honest. In engineering, the project manager’s best friend is his lead scientist. The lead engineer and the project manager tend to have complementary skills. What the PM lacks in technical ability is more than made up by the lead engineer. The lead engineer doesn’t necessarily need good communication skills because the only thing that matters is results.

Power Rankings:

  1. Leonardo Da Vinci—If I had to pick one mind upon which to make a company, it would be Leonardo Da Vinci. Some might argue that Tesla is a better pick (listed #2), but Da Vinci lived hundreds of years before the Industrial Revolution. His mind was so creative and prolific, I can’t imagine what he could have conceived of with modern conveniences like computers and CNC machines.
  2. Nikola Tesla—Look at his resume, its remarkable!
  3. Thomas Edison—Despite his achievement of giving us the light bulb, I cannot in good faith let anyone who would promote DC power distribution be any higher than #3. Nevertheless, the man was a genius and responsible for countless advances in technology.

Wide Receiver

Engineer Equivalent: Specialist/Theorists.

Key Attributes: Smartest guy in the room…and knows it!

Description: Terrell Owens. Chad Ochocinco.  Michael Crabtree. This list goes on…Wide receivers are gifted athletes, and they’ll tell you that any chance they get. In engineering, I find that the theorists are the “know-it-alls” because they can figure anything out with a pen and paper and they don’t even need to perform the experiment. A great theorist can tell you the answer long before you make the measurement, and they love to brag about this fact long after the result confirm the prediction. Ok, I’m embellishing somewhat, but you get the idea. In fairness, the best theorists need to be a little arrogant because they have to make authoritative statements without the aid of experiments. To me, that is a scary existence, I prefer to let experimentation determine if I’m wrong or right. If you are going to survive as a theorist, you have to brave, cocky, and smart!

Power Rankings:

  1. James Clerk Maxwell—The following statement is 90% true: every upper level undergraduate and graduate course I took while at Duke and UCSD began with a review of Maxwell’s Equations. I could have skipped the first 2 lectures of any grad-level class and missed absolutely nothing. Learning microwave? Start with Maxwell’s Equations. Learning optics? Start with Maxwell’s Equations. Learning Shakespeare? Start with Maxwell’s Equations…
  2. Albert Einstein—I could be wrong, but I think Maxwell has been more valuable for our particular field of Microwave Engineering than Einstein. But, Einstein’s contributions and abilities speak for themselves. Plus, I give extra credit to anyone who could do Physics while improvising solos on a violin.
  3. Isaac Newton—Here is my problem with high school science: most “facts” you learn in high school Physics and Chemistry turn out to be wrong, at least in part. This is why Newton is #3–his so-called Laws are in fact special cases of the actual way Nature is. Hence, Einstein > Newton.

Honorable Mention: Victor Veselago

Tight End

Engineer Equivalent: The guy who builds stuff.

Key Attributes: Skilled in all aspects of design and manufacturing

Description: In football, the tight end tends to be a player gifted in all aspects of offense. They have to block, they have to catch, and they have to understand defensive strategy to pick up blitzes. The engineering tight end is the guy who likes to get his hands dirty. While the lead engineer and theorist are likely to have Masters or PhD degrees, the best tight ends have a blue-collar background. In the world of company-building and widget making, the engineering tight end is absolutely critical helping you make products that are as robust as they are elegant. The engineering bourgeois like to focus on electrical performance, but sometimes packaging and manufacturing tricks are what matters more. Teams can get away with sub-par tight ends, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Power Rankings:

  1. Jamie Hyneman—If you watch enough Mythbusters, you’ll learn to appreciate Mr. Hyneman’s skills. Jamie is a “man’s man” kind of engineer. If you were stranded on a desert island, you would make Jamie your leader because he’d be your best chance of survival. Only a true blue-collar type engineer would sport such an ambitious mustache.
  2. Adam SavageIn keeping with the Mythbusters theme, I make Adam Savage my #2 rank for tight end. While I agree that Adam has superior skills to most, I think he is a “poor man’s” Jamie. Sorry Adam. If it makes you feel better, you wear cool shirts.
  3. Ferenc Marki—Yes, I’m biased because he is my father, but I’d put his manufacturing know-how up against anyone. Little known fact: my father was a professional jeweler in his teens and early 20’s. The knowledge my dad gained in metallurgy and 3D construction are clearly evident in the products that Marki Microwave offers today. I’m sure anyone who looks under the hood of a Marki T3 mixer would agree.

Kicker

Engineer Equivalent: Old curmudgeon engineer

Key Attributes: Experience, Experience, Experience

Description: My first blog was about the engineering “grey beards.” These are the engineers that have been around forever and know just about everything. While they don’t use all of the modern software and design techniques to do their job (that is left to the youngsters), these old curmudgeons always have a way of bailing out the team on 4th down. The old curmudgeon might not be used on every play, but they are absolutely vital because they possess valuable information that cannot be learned in books or simulations—they have true wisdom. The last second contributions of the designated Grey Beard can make a marked difference in the outcome of the project.

(Fictional Character) Power Rankings:

I respectfully decline to name real people; we have all met a few of them. My advice: do what you can to learn from them.

  1. Yoda
  2. Prof. Dumbledore
  3. Gandalf

A Case Against Patents

People often ask me how many patents Marki Microwave owns. The answer: zero. “What? But you’re a technology company, how can this be? Aren’t you worried that someone is going to steal your idea?” Well, not really, and I will try to explain the logic behind this position. Some will read this and disagree, I have no doubt. I actually think patents do have important benefits given the right set of circumstances, but I think for small tech companies like Marki Microwave, patents do not provide as many benefits as is often assumed. I believe it is false to assume that a good idea should always be patented, here’s why…

1. Patents create a false sense of security. In general, I’m opposed to people trying to lay claim to scientific discoveries and innovation. I know many engineers who spend most of there time writing patents, re-writing patents, and conceiving of ways to get around other’s patents. To me, this is a sub-optimal strategy for success. There is a difference between “patent competition” and “technological competition”. Patent competition is the act of performing a metaphorical patent land-grab, this is not necessarily useful for the greater good of society. Technological competition, however, is supremely good for society and the economy. Most people are motivated by adversity. Therefore, when you have a technological competitor, regardless of whether they own a patent or not, you are forced to innovate beyond your current means. The patent owner, however, might be tempted to believe he is safe from copy-cat technologies. I believe this complacency is a very dangerous mindset to have in a competitive marketplace. You can’t control whether your competitor will leap-frog your technology and render your patent useless. No technology company can survive forever without constantly improving their “wheel”, a patent does not provide us reprieve from this fundamental Truth.

2. Trade secrets are more important than patents. I love when my competition writes patents because they give me insights into the thought process of the inventor. I have read several patents that were so novel in their approach that they actually triggered new ideas for me, which I subsequently used for my own applications. Did I violate the patent? No. In fact, my idea was for something totally different. However, the patent described the technical details in such a way that served as a sort of creative inspiration. Had the inventor never written the patent, I doubt I would have come up with the same idea in such a short amount of time. I believe that trade secrets are more powerful than patents because they foster many more questions than answers for the competition. If you are a small tech firm, it is perhaps more valuable to develop your “secret sauce” in private and let your competitors try to reverse engineer your product later. In my area of hardware, the money is in the packaging details. In other words, I can give a Marki mixer to a competitor, but they still might not be able to copy it due to the fabrication complexity and assembly subtleties. However, if I write the patent and describe the function and detailed embodiment of the design, then they are more likely to understand the meaning behind my design choices. This is dangerous, and the single biggest reason Marki does not write patents for mixers.

3. Would you really sue over patent infringement? The best argument I have ever heard for why a small company should own a patent is that it gives you a legal precedence to continue to sell your product. In other words, you don’t patent something so you can sue someone when they violate it, you patent something so they can’t sue you when they try to steal your idea by patenting it themselves. It is backwards logic, but it makes sense. Moreover, how many small companies have the financial power to litigate potential patent infringement? Not many. Even the most air-tight patent can be circumvented with a few clever strokes of the pen, or an equally intimidating legal department.

4. A patent is NOT a product. I know many brilliant engineers who believe that if they patent all their ideas, that they will eventually become rich. In some sense, they treat their patents like lottery tickets; if they hold enough tickets, eventually their number will be called. Ultimately, the end game is to sell their ideas and corresponding IP for a huge lump sum and retire happy. I have found that many smart scientists use this strategy when they form start-up companies. Many of the tech start-ups I’ve dealt with in my career have a business plan that looks something like this: have a great idea, acquire funding either through venture capital or DOD, develop an IP portfolio, sell company to highest bidder and cash out. In other words, the product of the company is…the company! I don’t believe this is a good or bad thing, I simply believe that it is strategy with a low probability of success. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but a company makes money by providing goods and services to their customers, not by acquiring IP that may or may not be useful some day. There is a reason that tech start-up companies are so risky, and I think worshipping patents as false products adds to this risk. Of course, there are many famous companies who have successfully made the transition from start-up to juggernaut, but this tends to be the exception, not the rule. We can’t all be Google or Intuitive Surgical, so should we all try to be?

Google is an interesting example actually. The most valuable asset in all of Google is their search algorithm, and specifically the relevance calculator. While it is true that the “PageRank” concept is a licensed patent from Stanford, the actual weighting of the various search factors are secret. Marketing people make entire careers out of trying to optimize websites to fit Google’s algorithm, but no one knows with absolute certainty how it determines rank…this is a fantastic trade secret indeed! If someone could figure out how to decrypt the Google search algorithm with quantitative accuracy, I suspect they would be rich beyond words, maybe I should write a patent…

Breaking My Own Rules With Shameless Plugs

 When people ask my advice about pursuing a career in Engineering, I tell them the following:

If you can go 30 days of the month without good news or good results, only to find on the 31st day that your project works perfectly, and this good news puts you in such a euphoric mood that you can forget about all the previous frustrations, then you are going to be a great engineer. If that sense of personal accomplishment isn’t good enough to make you happy, then you should consider doing something else.

Today is the 31st day of my month, and I am happy to share with you some good news, both about some of our newest products, and about the fact that Marki Microwave is looking to hire some ambitious and talented new employees. (I promised myself I wouldn’t use this blog as a platform to advertise Marki Microwave explicitly, but sometimes I just want to talk about some of our newest designs, especially when they’ve been in the development pipeline for so long.)

For quite some time, I have been trying design Wilkinson power dividers with (nearly) unlimited bandwidth. I didn’t really have a customer requirement forcing me to do so, but I was looking for a complementary power divider line to our popular broadband directional couplers and 3 dB quadrature hybrids. The challenge has always been twofold: I wanted to avoid using multi-layer stripline geometries to make the power dividers, and I wanted a way to make them work well beyond 26 GHz. Avoiding stripline would make the part cheaper to build by reducing complexity and assembly time, and making power dividers above 26 GHz would enable me to meet higher frequency requirements to 65 GHz.

I am happy to announce that after our metaphorical 30 days of hardship in lab and 3D computer simulation, we now have a design technique that enables us to build power dividers from below 400 MHz to 65 GHz. These new power dividers are based on a novel approach to making Wilkinson power dividers that eliminates the costly stripline assembly while also minimizing the deleterious effects of line discontinuities in conventional multi-section Wilkinson designs. The first released power dividers using this new construction offer bandwidth ratios of approximately 40:1 including the PD-0R413 (400 MHz to 13 GHz), the PD-0R618 (600 MHz to 18 GHz) and the PD-0140 (1 GHz to 40 GHz). Typical isolations exceed 20 dB with outstanding amplitude and phase balance. It is important to point out that these designs are totally symmetric between the output ports meaning that the overall balance of the circuits is superior to other vendors’ solutions that employ asymmetries which severely limit the performance at higher frequencies. In the coming weeks, we will be announcing additional power dividers which can cover 65:1 bandwidth. If you would like to be kept up to speed on these and related product releases, please sign up for Marki Microwave’s monthly newsletter by clicking here.

“Datasheet” is a bad word

After the long and sometimes strenuous journey one takes in the product development cycle, the inevitable final stage can be the most challenging: the making of the datasheet.

As an engineer, I dislike making datasheets. I loathe the idea that I am required to summarize the macroscopic workings of my “babies” (i.e. new products) with bold, unforgiving numbers that can never fully represent the “inner beauty” of the product. For me, the datasheet is a wholly inadequate creature that almost always fails to capture the many nuances of the product. Seriously, am I expected to describe all the workings of my new products in a few tables and graphs in .pdf format? Unfortunately, yes. So it looks like I’ll just have to accept the truth and adapt accordingly.

Complaints aside, datasheets cannot be underestimated in their importance. When I put on my Marketing Hat (I wear many hats at Marki Microwave, it goes with the territory), I am forced to acknowledge that datasheets are the all-important first impression; they are the lens through which my company and product lines are initially judged. Therefore, we place much emphasis on making our datasheets as clean and precise as possible. Through my experiences with using other vendor’s datasheets and in creating my own, I have formed some opinions about the “correct” way of making, displaying, and using datasheets. I concede this is a subjective area, so I’ll try to be as objective as possible.

1. Minimum and Maximum specs are guarantees, Typical specs are not. For vendors, the delta between Min/Max and Typical is our breathing room. At Marki Microwave, we use typical specs to describe the average performance of the part across the band. Therefore, if the Conversion Loss of the mixer is 7 dB (typ.), then that is about what the measured value will be on most units, over most of the band. That doesn’t guarantee the number won’t be 7.5 dB near the band edge, just that the statistical average is close to 7 dB. Choosing Min/Max/Typ is not a perfect science, but honest vendors work extremely hard to identify these values as accurately as humanly possible, trust me. Moreover, most vendors will even do a few extra measurements for you, you just have to ask nicely. Remember, measurements = reality, datasheets = quasi-reality. (The caveat, of course, is that I am assuming the measurement is performed correctly, but that is a different topic for a different time).

2. Product tables are not datasheets. Some vendors do not make datasheets available on their websites, only product tables. These tables display key information (insertion loss, return loss, etc), but not in any detailed format that is quickly confirmed with included measurement data. As a designer looking for a product, I dislike product tables for two reasons: the numbers are too ambiguous, and they make me think the vendor is hiding something. When it comes to product performance, I like to see curves and graphs. For example, if an amp has 15 dB gain, I want to see how that gain changes with frequency. This information can be critical to my application. More importantly, when it comes to choosing parts for my designs, I tend to feel very skeptical of vendors that only provide me with tables of numbers and no actual measured plots—it makes me worry that the vendor is hiding some kind of flaw or glaring weakness. I have actually heard rumors that there exist companies, past and present, that “create” new products simply by adding new rows to their product tables without ever having built the widget. Such horror stories always leave me with a sense of caution when choosing my suppliers. From a marketing point of view, the solution is obvious: be as transparent as possible and provide as much information as possible. This will yield brand loyalty and help to make your customers successful, my main priority.

3. Never require a customer to “sign in” or provide personal information in order to download a datasheet. If you are going to announce to the world that your company offers a certain product, don’t pull a bait-and-switch by subsequently forcing me to give you my email address. It can be optional, but please don’t require it! There are certain companies and product areas where this is common practice, and it always leaves me frustrated (as an engineer and potential customer) and dumbfounded (as a Sales/Marketing person). This is the era of Google, YouTube, HD On Demand, and Wikipedia. Modern culture demands that information be freely disseminated without someone having to remember their password. Therefore, why hide your datasheet? I understand the argument (security, competitive advantage, marketing information, etc), but frankly, I think it is difficult to justify because it leaves customers with memories of a negative website experience…problem. Plus, your competitor might be willing to give out datasheets without the hassle…bigger problem.

These are just a few rules of thumb I try to follow when it comes to datasheets and website maintenance. If you have any suggestions or want to share your own opinions and experiences about the world of spec’ing and datasheets, I’d love to hear them.

A Technologists Guide to the World Cup

I love soccer (i.e. football for my international readers). I grew up playing the sport and consider it one the most character-defining experiences of my life. For me, the World Cup is the greatest sporting competition around. Now that I am in the technology area, I am dumbfounded at FIFA’s insistence on ignoring modern technology to improve the officiating. Just like the rest of the world population, I find FIFA’s stoicism ridiculous and alarming when the fate of entire nations (and millions of dollars) rests in the hands of one or two terrible refereeing mistakes (hello England vs. Germany, U.S. vs. Slovenia, Mexico vs. Argentina, etc).

With Sepp Blatter’s recent announcement that FIFA will “re-evaluate” the use of goal line technology, I have started to imagine how technology could transform the officiating of the world’s game. I am no futurist, but this thought experiment provokes some interesting questions as to what is currently feasible with modern technology, and what still requires some R&D. The following analysis follows similar guidelines to the way I evaluate new product development and directions at Marki Microwave.

As one might expect, the low-difficulty, low cost solutions are the areas that FIFA should adopt first. The blue-sky areas (high difficulty, high cost) might never be considered for any sport, but are interesting talking points that would make any Venture Capitalist salivate.

Sideline/Goal-line Technology

Difficulty: High School Science Fair

Cost: Minimal

Technological Requirements: This is a no-brainer. All you need is an array of cameras, some image recognition software that already exists (such as the Hawk-Eye system in Tennis), maybe a few RFID tags embedded in the ball, and a big red light that flashes when the ball cross the line (like in my other favorite sport, Hockey). The fact that these technologies already exist in other sports but have been stubbornly ignored by FIFA has nothing to do with science, I’ll let the bureaucrats fight this one out.

Automatic Offsides

Difficulty: Undergraduate Research Project

Cost: Minimal

Technological Requirements: I would love to see this employed. It seems that as long as there are a few cameras at high enough angles in the stadium, real time software can easily determine the position of the forward most attacking player at the instant the ball is played. Amazingly, TV broadcasters are already using a variant of this technology (albeit after-the-fact) to determine whether the call was correct or not. If we really wanted to get elaborate, we could use an antenna array and RFID chips to triangulate the exact position of the ball and players. We could then place an accelerometer in the ball to determine the exact moment the ball is played. All of these technologies would be synced to some kind of central processor that could easily determine if the player was offside or not at the exact moment of impact. This can be done with off-the-shelf products (I’m guessing for less than the cost of a plane flight to South Aftica). If I were a college professor, I would make this a senior design project for my students.

Diving Detection

Difficulty: PHD Dissertation

Cost: Moderate

Technological Requirements: For me, the most unappealing aspects of soccer are diving and injury faking. Compared to other sports like Hockey, where diving is rare and playing through injury is commonplace, soccer is full of primadonna stars that don’t like to get their shirts dirty (did someone say Cristiano Ronaldo?). Nothing makes me happier than when a player is carded for diving in the penalty box. It appeals to my sense of justice.

How can technology be used to clean up the game? This is a difficult question because computers are not good at subjective decision making. In many cases, diving does involve some amount of contact with a defender. Therefore, a first requirement is that we would need a good array of cameras to follow the play from multiple angles to determine how much contact is made. We could then use some kind of physics modeling engine (like those used in video games) to predict reasonable outcomes from the contact. In the cases where totally unreasonable outcomes occur (like when a player clearly dives without being touched), the computer could notify the referee that an unpredicted or unreasonable result occurred based on the forces involved in the tackle.

The hardest part, however, is that diving is often contextual. Players tend to dive in certain parts of the field, and some do it more than others. We then require that the software learn to incorporate some kind of learning algorithm such that it can develop a “soccer sense”. For example, we know that Cristiano Ronaldo is likely to dive when he dribbles straight into 3 defenders. Programming soccer sense would be one of the most difficult problems for computer scientists. Conveniently, governments, corporations and universities are interested in this kind of computer learning and decision making because we increasingly rely on software to predict our moods and behavior given a set of initial conditions. The ability to “train” computers to understand and interpret human behavior is incredibly important for many fields including Marketing, Security and Investing, so I’d imagine one can extend it to Sport.

Human-less Officiating

Difficulty: Manhattan Project

Cost: Millions in Venture Capital

Technological Requirements: Given enough resources and the right collection of experts in computer science, robotics and networking, this might be possible in a few years. It all comes down to the software’s soccer sense algorithm. A human referee must account for many conflicting variables during a game: score, time left, emotional state of the players. It is the nuances of the game that make it so entertaining. Sometimes the correct decision is to allow the game to be more physical, sometimes not. Sometimes a card is warranted, sometimes not. The decision making is contextual, I suspect this would be difficult to teach to a computer without significant R&D. But, it is not impossible. It would just take lots of patience and even more calibrating and tweaking. For all we know, someone at Google or IBM is already doing this…

It looks like the goal line technology is quickly on its way to adoption based on public outcry. However, I don’t see FIFA making any other changes any time soon. As a fan and technologist, I just want to see an equitably called game free from referee tampering. The U.S. was admittedly lucky to not be haunted by the mystery Slovenia call thanks to Landon Donovan’s injury time heroics against Algeria. Unfortunately, the English and the Mexicans can’t say the same.