IT columnist Bob Lewis recently ran a letter from a reader who complained about the BS degree in data processing his daughter had recently earned. Because the degree involved a lot of group work, it was possible for her to go through four years of studies without learning how to write a computer program in any language. The writer bemoaned the fact that even with an IT degree, his daughter wouldn’t be able to hold down an IT job.

I’m not sure what IT companies do to weed out job applicants like the writer’s daughter. Engineering companies, on the other hand, tend to put applicants through technical interviews designed to expose any lack of competencies. Or at least they have done so until recently. One Purdue University professor, with whom we correspond, once told us that technical interviews have become a thing of the past for some engineering jobs where there are few applicants.

So it is interesting to check in with technology firms that still put applicants for engineering jobs through technical interviews. One company in this category is Linear Technology Corp., which makes analog integrated circuits. “This company is run by engineers, not MBAs, so we know what engineering is,” says Linear Technology Corp. cofounder and Chief Technical Officer Bob Dobkin. Applicants at Linear who get to a technical interview are asked to describe circuits they mention on their resumes. “You wouldn’t believe the number of people who come in and don’t know how a circuit they’ve been working on actually works,” says Dobkin.

New graduates applying for positions at Linear get quizzed about one and two-transistor circuits and how their outputs behave. But attitude counts as well. “We won’t give people coming out of college complicated stuff, but we also look at how they approach the problem. And we want people who will take a personal interest in putting out a product and seeing it work. At Linear you might work on an IC for three years, so you want people who are going to be somewhat entrepreneurial, who take satisfaction from seeing their efforts come to fruition and being successful,” says Dobkin.

The bar is higher for engineers who have a few years of experience. “We look for intuition in experienced engineers,” he says. “When it comes to working with circuits, after five or 10 years you shouldn’t have to write a lot of equations to analyze things. We are more interested in people who can analyze circuits in words rather than in equations. That tells you they know what they are doing.”

Overall, though, Dobkin thinks the level of training that today’s engineering students get is pretty good. “People we are seeing have better training in IC design because it is an important area. But they are not being trained in the breadth of the IC world. And there is a shortage of analog designers coming out of school, but it has always been this way,” he maintains. “It is a different mindset than in digital electronics because there is an infinite way of accomplishing what you want to do in the analog domain. Analog circuits have a lot of unlisted parameters and there are a lot of subtleties to them. It is tough to come out with a high-performance product that works over production volumes and that is testable.”

And design work involves a different mindset, we might add, from having one member of a study group doing all the heavy lifting.— Leland Teschler, Editor

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