I recently had an all-day conference call with a client based in another city. Actually, it was more akin to a remote troubleshooting session over Skype. There was an issue with the most recent build of populated PCBs on which I was the lead engineer. As is normal for startups, they needed to get to a solution immediately leaving no time for travel and preventing me from sitting at the bench in the flesh. So we did what every engineer fears: we worked on resolving the technical challenges over the phone.
Some background on the problem: the boards would accept firmware programming, however the test procedure made the boards self-destruct with a symptom of browned-out supplies. The issues only occurred on the latest run of populated PCBs from the contract manufacturer which had no new engineering changes. Thankfully there were existing boards that worked fine, giving the problem some bounds.
As I explored the problem with the engineer on the other end, I found that his military experience was what made the challenging process run smoothly. I've always regarded time spent serving in the armed forces as valuable work experience, and in this case the average engineer with only private sector experience would not have been nearly as capable.
For all of the slow-moving, red-taped, bureaucratic methods that folks like to decry the military for, when they do finally get the job done it is completed in a consistent manner. The communication regarding this misbehaving circuit was no different. Although it seemed slow at times, my colleague was clear and consistent with everything. I was so impressed that I began to take notes on the communication methods he employed, which also calmed me down when I got frustrated from the techniques slowing our progress.
The first characteristic I noticed was how consistent everything's name was for the entire duration of the conversation. It didn't matter if the name was 'Test Diode 1' or 'poop-colored capacitor', each item on the bench had one and only one unique name that stuck for the entire conversation. The processes and actions also had a clear name or description. I wouldn't ever hear 'flipping the switch,' but instead was told 'Toggling the power switch from OFF to ON.' This specificity was extended to my instructions that were incomplete and needed clarification. For example, 'You asked me to turn PCB1 back on, but you did not specify if I should power the device with battery 1 or the power supply.' Never once was any part, tool, or action referred to as 'that thing' or 'it'.
The second approach that was employed, sometimes while I tried impatiently to pull my hair out, was using full descriptions of actions. A step-by-step description of what was going to be done followed by a direct report as each step was completed. For example, “I am going to remove red wire 2 from Q3's collector pin, then connect red wire 2 to the ground pin of Q2. Starting now. Removing red wire 2. Red Wire 2 removed...” and so on. I'm certain you can imagine how pedantic this gets, but there were two separate instances where we found a miscommunication that could have cost us a few hours of confusion.
The final characteristic came as no surprise to me after working for him and learning his management style. There were multiple pauses in the call, either from him swapping a part or me thinking through a theory. He always made sure that we both knew who had the ball by saying “standing by” or “please stand by.” Each time it might have only saved a couple minutes, but it kept the momentum going which is one of the most important ways to have a successful conference call.
Truly, my colleague has trained in situations where lives were at stake. All of these tools were used throughout the whole 9-hour call and while it wasn't all raspberries and whipped cream, the net effect was very positive. After everything was said and done, we found that an unmarked blocking diode was populated backwards. When a switch was pressed, a latch triggered, allowing current to flow freely through a forward-biased diode browning out the rail. Problem solved and heartburn avoided, thanks in large part to the years my fellow engineer spent serving the country. Needless to say, I will look even more favorably the next time a resume floats by my desk noting a stint in uniform.