24 Essential Skills for Engineers: The Story Behind the Book


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In this interview with I-Connect007’s own Happy Holden about his newest book, 24 Essential Skills for Engineers, which he wrote over the span of his career, he highlights some particular moments from his time working at HP and as CTO of Foxconn which inspired many of the book’s chapters. Happy explains why he covered engineering skills as well as “soft skills” such as problem-solving and communication—skills which are keys to succeeding as an engineer.

Nolan Johnson: Happy, what inspired you to write this book?

Happy Holden: There were six major events that set up the book. Although the book initially was written in 2011 and 2012, it was an accumulation of over 30 years of working and writing. The first event was in 1966 at Oregon State University. Even as sophomores in chemical engineering, they had us writing simulations on the unit operation equipment, which, when I was interviewing with HP, they were surprised and said, “What? Only graduate students do that.” I said, “Well, they forgot to tell us that you had to be a graduate student in order to write simulations.” Nonetheless, in my sophomore year they had us writing complete digital twin simulations to add to the library of the system we called DISCOSA. The HP people were flabbergasted. One of the reasons they were interviewing me was because I had so much computer experience, which they said only graduate students and PhD students had.

Johnson: What other events precipitated this book?

Holden: The next big event was in 1974 with the success of the HP35 calculator. We had geared up to produce 300 or 400 a month. Instead, the orders were coming in at 3,000 an hour. We were totally unprepared for the fact that everybody in the world wanted one, as marketing had told us that at $400 each, we would only sell 300 to 400 each month.

I had to go on the road to visit everybody that made printed circuit boards because we just didn’t have that kind of capacity. Nobody wanted to make our gold keyboard because that was a really special board. Instead, they were all making the eight-layer multilayer that was the control board, and we focused our resources on making the keyboard because it had to be "dimpled" and the gold keystrip welded to the board.

After we got the supply in, I made up a business plan to automate and expand our production, based on the experience I had in college in writing the business plan as a plant design class. Those plant design reports provided my first blueprint of how to put together a business proposal, but the automation made use of my computer background.

Johnson: I can already look at the list of 24 skills here in the table of contents and start to see how this all emerged. I’m picking up the pattern here. What’s the next event?

Holden: The next one came in 1983, after designing and building the Sunnyvale facility. Taiwan wanted to bring semiconductors and computers to Taiwan and sent some government officials to visit. Then, they brought me to Taiwan to work with four of their biggest companies to find out which one was best suited for the advanced multilayer production that we were using for our computers.

Johnson: I’m going to push the pause button here for just a second. In 1983, you’re dealing with semiconductor companies. How much semiconductor was in Taiwan at that time?

Holden: They weren’t semiconductor; they were electrical firms. There was SAMPO that made electrical appliances; TATOON that made all the keyboards and monitors for the IBM PC; Sony making entertainment products; and then the outlier, Formosa Plastics. They threw in Formosa Plastics because Formosa owned the eight largest companies in all of Taiwan. They had the money, but they were in the plastics/chemical business, not in the electronics business. This was all organized by a government-owned think tank called Electronic Research Service Organization (ERSO). Later, ERSO brought in all the licenses for CMOS production. When we started the Formosa PC board fab project, which was assigned to the NanYa Division, they also started making semiconductors for the first time in Hsinchu at ERSO. Today, the biggest IC manufacturer in the world is in Taiwan, and the biggest printed circuit capacity in the world is owned by the Taiwanese. They may not all be in Taiwan, but the ones in China are all Taiwanese-owned, not mainland Chinese-owned.

Johnson: It was during the period you’re talking about that the Taiwanese semiconductor industry was just beginning to form?

Holden: Yes. That’s when I met the principals of the new TSMC.

Johnson: Thanks for that. Let’s get back to the business plan.

Holden: To do this business plan, I created a simulation for the entire project, and had one of HP’s biggest computers sitting on my desk. It was 10 times more powerful than a PC, and was Unix based, but it allowed spreadsheets. Because everybody kept changing the idea of what the mix should be and what the size should be, I wrote it out as a simulation. Each time they changed some of the fundamental characteristics of the plant, it would automatically remake all my graphs.

Completing this business plan became simply a matter of putting in the final numbers and compiling it together as a report. I think we only charged them for six weeks of consulting, although it took me more like two and a half months rather than six weeks. It was a 140-page PC board business plan that included equipment, facility, investment, road map, technology, personnel, waste treatment and training processes, etc.

Johnson: I can see how that helped to create Chapter 20, “The 10-step Business Plan.”

Holden: Yeah. It took a little while for HP in Taiwan to translate the whole report into Chinese for the NanYa Board of Directors. Formosa had the best infrastructure for printed circuits, because they already did electroplating, and they already did roll-to-roll material processing. They built their own automatic equipment and they had CNC machine tools. The other three companies were electrical, but for making printed circuit boards, they didn’t have any advantages, they were there to manufacture but not design electronic products. Formosa had, by far, the best infrastructure for that.

It took only about three hours for the board of directors of Formosa to approve the project, and we were off and running. In the business plan I said we would need at least four or five experienced printed circuit process engineers to be part of the project, so they had me write out job descriptions. They selected 16 engineers, all from within Formosa, although none of them knew anything about printed circuits. I ended up being the only person with printed circuit experience.

We brought those 16 mechanical and chemical engineers to Sunnyvale, California, and spent six months having them work in our facility to learn how printed circuit boards are made. One of the chief engineers, James Ho, became one of my best understudies, and he’s now the EVP and CTO of NanYa PCB.

Johnson: So, here you are in 1983, in Taiwan, and there are key players in your initial team who have helped form the industry. Obviously, some of these skills come out of that. What’s the next one?

Holden: The next one is 1984 to 1985 when we moved to Taiwan to build the factory. That’s when I realized that English is the second language for these guys. They’re really good at reading it, but when you speak English, they only get about 25 to 30% of what you’re talking about, because when they read it, they can look up words in an English to Chinese dictionary. Very quickly, I realized this project wasn’t going to work with me sitting down and having meetings with them. I had to write the minutes out ahead and, as my kids came home from school and were doing their homework, I would write out drafts, books, and information about a meeting we would be having in two weeks. This gave the engineers time to read, translate, and digest the information so that when we got to the meeting, they didn’t have to rely on just picking it up through the English conversations. For two solid years, everything was written out. I wrote them an entire book about the management systems that ran printed circuit sales, marketing, and quality systems. That discipline of having to write everything down just stuck with me.

By 1987, with everything successfully running, I moved to Hong Kong to be a market development manager for automation. To make this automated factory work, we had to write all the software to plug together HP computers and their software. We did it with software engineers and we were so successful that HP and Formosa formed a new company, HPFPG, which was a 51% owned by Hewlett Packard, as a system integrator.

As a separate entity, HPFPG not only could sell HP hardware and software, but we could sell custom software as a system integrator to plug it all together. We took all these Formosa engineers that were programmers, and they became part of this new company. I had the role of both VP of R&D, as well as VP of marketing, training up my replacement for both R&D and marketing. That’s when I developed this, the automation strategy of the vectors of the levels, one through six levels of mechanization, and one through six levels of systemization.

Johnson: And those six levels of mechanization show up here in the 24 essential skills, don’t they?

Holden: Right. They’re also in my book, Automation and Advanced Procedures in PCB Fabrication, because we needed the methodology. A customer would tell us they want to automate. Well, where do we start, what’s the biggest payoff, and how do we do it incrementally? You don’t just go out and buy a bunch of computers. You really need a plan and a roadmap and something that could pay its way, that turned into profits to pay for the next phase. I turned that into a course at the Nanyang Technical Institute in Singapore. I ran a graduate course in computer integrated manufacturing and would go down there for two weeks every year to run this graduate course. That shows up in the automation book, but also in some of the other chapters on project planning and project development.

Johnson: Tell me about the last event.

The last phase was overseeing Foxconn, the biggest printed circuit manufacturer in the world; it was five times larger than who everybody else thought was number one.

Johnson: What did you gain from your time at Foxconn that is included in the 24 Essential Skills for Engineers?

Holden: We were captive, but we were only producing 46% of what Foxconn needed; Foxconn wanted us to be at least 60 to 70%. That meant I had to put together a 20-year plan of growth, which we would add three million square feet of factory every single year for the next 20 years to get to 60 or 65% of what Foxconn needed. They’ll still have to buy an enormous amount of circuit boards.

Johnson: And that’s a huge challenge in that situation when Foxconn is growing that much every year; now you’re not growing to keep up, you’re growing to expand their sales.

Holden: Yes. My role as CTO there was to improve yields and profitability so that they could do an IPO, which they eventually did in 2011. But we only took half of Foxconn’s internal capacity into the IPO. Half of their bare board capacity still resides within Foxconn. And yet, the IPO produced the biggest printed circuit company in the world. Number one in the world is Zen Ding Technology, which is Foxconn owned as well as public owned. But people don’t realize that’s only half of Foxconn’s capacity. There’s an invisible number two out there (laughs). They’re really good at being under the radar.

Johnson: If one of our readers is considering your book and wondering how credible the 24 skills are that you’ve selected and talked about, then that pedigree, that career history, means that these skills should be taken very seriously. You’ve obviously honed this down to a very concise set of 24 things to know how to do.

Holden: Yes. I think, problem-solving and statistics are at the very front of the book. Those are the most important chapters.

Johnson: Most important because they’re foundational?

Holden: When I was hiring engineers, if they didn’t have the statistics background, then either I set up a school for them or we had other specialist trainers in HP that would do it. If they didn’t have a good background in engineering statistics and design of experiments, they were only running on 10% of their potential. If everybody wants to change everything, the engineer runs in and says, “Wait a minute, hold everything constant and let’s change one thing at a time to find out.” Well, that’s nice if you’re a novice and you don’t realize the real world doesn’t have only one thing at a time to change. Everything changes all the time. And you’ve got to manage that chaos and complexity, which is what Chapter Three is all about in terms of fractional factorial, finding the interactions and the main effects, and the fact that a lot of your variables have to be qualitative and not quantitative.

Johnson: Well, this is 24 Essential Skills for Engineers. Leadership is among them. There is plenty of content out there about how to be a good leader, whether you’re technical or not. Not much information specifically, however, about how to be a process engineer or a printed circuit board engineer. This is critical information.

Holden: It is based on practicing what I preach. I used all of these or participated in all of them. And, really, it’s only an introduction. The QFD chapter, which you can read in 20 minutes, was a three-day course; TQM was a five-day course. You’re not going to learn it all in 20 or 30 minutes, but hopefully it’s interesting enough and provides enough information that you’ll go on to distance learning and actually get the five-day course or a three-day course or do it yourself and download the statistics package. Teach yourself and do your own roadmap for your career and your goals.

Johnson: Speaking of the skills in chapters one through three, like statistics, problem solving, design of experiments, if an engineer didn’t have those well-established, you were training them. This is interesting because further down in the line, you’ve got internet research as a chapter, as well as a chapter on learning curve and learning theory. You’ve got other training and educational oriented skills that you need to have in the mix as a good engineer also.

Holden: Which is why, at the front of the book, there’s a chart that lists the 24 skills and where they apply in your career. Some of them are essential when you’re a process engineer starting out, while others apply when you want to become a supervisor, the manager, or the R&D manager. Some of them apply if you go into marketing, and some of them apply if you have a great business idea and want to pitch the business idea. They’re designed to be used throughout your career. I recommend accomplishing two or three of the skills each year. How do you do that? Well, there’s a chapter on distance learning. Create your own roadmap. What are your goals for the next 20 years? Put down your roadmap. What skills do you need to accomplish the promotions and everything else? Go gain those skills.

Johnson: Who should be reading this book?  

Holden: I think it’s most relevant to young engineers graduating and, regardless of the job you’re taking, you’re probably going to take a couple of years to solidify your path. Are you going to go into marketing, management, R&D, process engineering, entrepreneurship? Well, there are going to be different skills that will help you do that. I don’t lay out a particular roadmap, rather how to create a roadmap because it will be your own.

I found that the NIST Engineering Statistics Handbook and the 3,800-page self-teaching manual on engineering statistics is MOST useful. This is engineering statistics, written for process engineers. You can download this for free and spend the next couple of years learning it.

Johnson: I’m hearing that target readers might include people who are going to be in charge of those actual processes, technical managers who would be overseeing that, so they’d understand what’s going on in the technologies for which they’re responsible. It seems like even business managers should understand some of this to comprehend the business that they’re running.

Holden: Yes, especially if they’re business managers over a technical business, because of areas of the roadmap and an evolution of products and predictive engineering in terms of creating a model of what you’re trying to put together. But there’s also product lifecycle in there, which is very, very detailed of starting out with just a program manager and an idea. How is an electronic product created, prototyped, phased, supported, evolved, and then become obsolete and turned off?

Johnson: Right. Happy, this book just seems like an amazing gift of knowledge and expertise to this industry and beyond. It embodies both you and your career that you’re giving back to this industry. On behalf of everybody here at I-Connect007 and the industry, I want to say thank you. In my reading through this book, I find it helpful and insightful, and should be required reading for everybody in this industry. This is also one of the reasons why we are so appreciative to have you on our staff as a technical editor, helping all of us here at I-Connect007 keep track of the history, the emerging technologies and why it all matters. Thank you.

Holden: Thank you, Nolan. I would like to acknowledge the contribution of Martin Tarr, a fine PCB technologist from the UK. Martin authored an online master’s degree program in electronics manufacturing and contributed his lectures to my book. I would also like to thank our sponsor, Calumet Electronics Corp. Their support enables us to bring this book to the industry at no cost for a limited time.

Download a copy of 24 Essential Skills for Engineers now.

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