Paul Brokaw has held a variety of positions at Analog Devices, and is presently
an analog fellow. He has designed a variety of products, including A/D
and D/A converters, sensors, voltage references and amplifiers. He holds
over one hundred patents. In this 2006 interview, he describes the attributes
of a successful engineer.
RW : Well, Paul, tell me about your family and growing up.
PB : Oh, well, my brother and I were only children. He was born when I was about fifteen, so I was the kid for a long time. And probably had, you know, whatever that does to you, being the only child. But I had a lot of, you know, had a lot of good times. In fact I when I was very little we were poor. But I didnt know that because we lived - you know, everybody else was poor. Well, there wasn't any difference. And we lived around factories, and there was a railroad track down there which was dangerous, as I found out later. But there was all sorts of stuff like that to explore. And when my brother came along, we were doing pretty well. And I remember my mom once saying, well, she felt bad because my brother, John, had had all the advantages. You know, he lived in the suburbs, and, you know, by the time he came along they were doing okay, and that I hadn't had all those advantages. I said, mom, you don't understand. You just don't. John never saw anything but green grass and ballparks, and so forth, and he missed out on all the factories, and climbing the - there were some big towers at the mills, and we climbed up those towers. And I had some adventures up there, but too long to go into. But - almost didn't survive. It's a wonder anybody survives to be sixteen, I think, if you think back on all the stuff you did. But growing up was pretty good. I always knew I was going to be some sort of technical person. Could have gone down the biological route, but that seemed - it was very interesting, but it didn't seem there was much going on. You couldn't do anything. It was all sort of taxonomy and making catalogues and just classification but with electricity you could do some things. When I was really little I saw flashlights and they knew that was the way to take care of me. Just give me a flashlight and I'd be happy for a while. So - a time that I can just barely remember, dad told me that I must have been about two when this happened. And we moved away from Minneapolis where I was born, but my dad had to meet somebody there, and we had a hotel room. It was a little sort of a suite. And I can remember that. Actually, I dont remember this event. But I remember being in that place. And I know about the event from hearing it told over and over, about when this interview was about to take place in the room, they just gave me a flashlight and shut me in the bedroom, which was a separate little room there. And Dad said that along about the middle of this interview, suddenly there was a shriek, and they ran into the bedroom, and I was lying at the foot of the bed. And they pieced it together what I'd done. I'd taken the flashlight, and I'd taken it apart, and taken the batteries out. And there was a little reading light at the head of the bed, and I took the bulb out, and I put the battery in there, and turned it on. And that turned out not to be a good thing to do. And so that was probably one of my early engineering experiences. And by the time - I can remember lots of things. I had all sorts of adventures, but some of them were electronic. There was a warehouse that burned down, and it had been - well, I don't know what it was filled with; it had a lot of things in it. But among other things, it had these big dry-cell batteries. They're about this tall. They're like the size of a quart of milk. And people used to use them for doorbells and things like that. Well, they had a bunch of those. And sure enough, if you dug into the pile a little ways, the ones in the middle had been protected by the ones outside. And I took my little wagon, I dragged it over there and brought home a wagon load of these batteries, and that was just wonderful. Had all kinds of stuff to do with those. And my dad brought me a bell, and I install that up and got that bell to ring. They finally took the bell away from me because it was driving my mother nuts. But there was some electrochemistry stuff. And so I always kind of knew I was going to do things like that. And when the war came, I - "The War." That's the Second World War. To people of my age, they know what you mean when you say "The War." My dad went off, and so we lived in North Dakota with my mother's parents for a couple of years, or a little more, while my dad was off being entertained in the South Pacific. And that was a real important time for me. I had learned a lot of stuff then. My uncle, they lived on a farm. And it wasn't electrified, and he had these big ninety volt batteries that they ran the radio with. I mean it took several batteries to run the radio. But when those batteries would get old, he'd give them to me. And I made an electric light up in our tree house. And you could turn it on, and it would glow dimly for a little bit, and then it would sort of fade away, because these batteries were pretty tired by the time I got them anyway. But we had electric lights in the tree house. And then Herb Goddard, who was a friend of my grandfather's, and I don't quite know how everybody knew all of this stuff, but Herb sort of made an appointment to come over and visit one time on a Saturday morning. And he said get your wagon and come on. And I had a little wagon then, too. You know, wagons seemed to have been important to me. This was a different one. But anyhow - well, he took up to the high school - or it was "the school." It was K through twelve. And I can't quite explain how some of this stuff came to be. I don't quite understand how it would have been this way, but my recollection is that there was there was a sort of a stairway that went down. It was an outside stairway that went down below the grade, and there were some big doors there that opened underneath the school. And he had a key, and he opened up those doors. And a lot of years later, when I saw my first Indiana Jones movie, it made me think of looking down that corridor, because there was a blanket of dust a couple of inches thick. I mean it was just one huge dust bunny down the length of that corridor. And why there hadn't been - you know, why that wasn't used, I dont know. There was one set of footsteps that went down through the dust into a room that was right near this entrance, and that was it. And they came back, of course. But we went down this hallway clear to the far end, and this fellow opened the door, and inside were a bunch of these old wood telephones that, you know, they were about this wide and about this big. They had a bell on the top, and a crank. And it was a bunch of them. And there was a piece of a switchboard in there. And I guess that had been the switchboard that somehow was active in the school. I don't know quite what it was all about. But he said just load it up. And I got, oh, six or eight of those telephones, and this piece of this switchboard, and took them home. My grandfather had a barn - it was a city barn. It was for your horse and buggy. It wasn't a farm barn. But there was no horse and buggy, and so that was our domain, the kids. And I was the lucky one that had the barn. And we'd wired that barn up. We had telephones that went all over my grandfather's lot. We wired to the trees. And we made little telephones. Out of the big ones we made some little ones. And you could run around and you could hook up to the tree, and you could call the barn, and the barn could connect you to a different tree. And learned a little bit about telephones, and a little bit about transformers, and things there. Had a lots of other sorts of adventures. There was a guy - there was a doctor in town named Doc Lynde. And recently I've had some cause to kind of research Doc a little bit. He was a very, very interesting guy. And Ive got a lot of stories about Doc, but some of them involve electronics. Doc and his brother ran the Chrysler Agency in Ellendale, North Dakota. And it was just a big brick building with, you know, glass windows, and they'd have a couple of cars in there. It wasn't like a car lot today. It was just - they'd have a couple of new cars. You could go in and look, and you could order one. And Doc's office was upstairs in that building. And in the back there was a mechanic's garage. And in the back of that was a radio shop. And Doc fixed radios, too. He fixed people, he'd fix your - he'd fix your horse or your pig, if he happen to - you know, if you had a - that kind of problem when he was there, he was a vet, he was an M.D., and he fixed radios. And Doc would give me a radio every once in a while. He just had these old - the great big ol', you know, radios with four or five tubes in them. And he'd give those radios to me, and, wow. I got a bunch. Probably three or four of them over the course of a few years. And he'd have some tips on, well, why don't you look at this, and you know, check this, and maybe how to get them running, because they generally didnt work. But he taught me a few things, and I got them to work. Or I got a couple of them to work at least. And I was really pleased with that. Doc taught me lots of other stuff, too.
RW : So you most of your life you've just been excited about electronics.
PB : You bet.
RW : And - and today, you're still working in electronics.
PB : Yep.
RW : And you are what? Seventy? Seventy-one?
PB : I'm seventy-one. Yeah.
RW : And how come you haven't retired?
PB : Well, even though I dont need a job, I need to work. I like what I'm doing. I mean, yeah, there's a lot of days I go home and I think was today the last day? Shouldn't today have been the last day? But I had days like that forty years ago. And the good ones still outnumber the bad ones. And I just - I like this stuff, and I've been lucky enough. Analog's a pretty good place. When I started at Analog, I went there to get into the IC business, because I'd done a lot of other things. I was pretty long in the tooth by the time - you know, for a starter-outer by the time I started in the IC business. But I went there, and more or less by accident, I wound up with a bunch of people reporting to me. And pretty soon I had so many reports I didn't have any chance to do any, what I considered the real work, the work I'd gone to do - design IC's. And I would just spend a lot of time taking care of other people and dealing with people kinds of problems. And I thought I was going to have to leave and to find the right sort of a job. But it turned out that I was working for a guy named Mitch Maidique. Mitch was a good guy. And one way or another, we hired somebody to sort of off-load this stuff. And as I kind of handed off some of these responsibilities, I took back some of my projects that I'd given away, and I thought I'll finish this up before I leave. And I did one thing, and another, and - and now it's some thirty-something years later and I'm still there. And I never quite made it out the door. I think, - Mitch is gone. I think he must have taken my resignation with him because it never showed up because I you know, I didn't quit in a huff, but I gave him my resignation, told him, Mitch, I'm going to leave and find myself a real job. But somehow I managed to get back into the, what I considered the real work, and I've been able to do that ever since. And, yeah, there have been some occasions when I'd, you know, get involved in other sorts of problems, but I remember Jerry said to me once, there was a time when there was a little department that needed somebody to run it. We'd lost somebody and this department needed running, and so I ran it temporarily while we were waiting for somebody else to finish up something so he could run it. And when the time came he took over and I was happy to have more time to do my proper work. And I remember Jerry saying, well - he said, I like to have you working for me. He said, you're the only guy I can replace when it's time, and doesn't feel like you've been demoted. And that was fine with me. So I've just been really fortunate to be at Analog where I've had the opportunities to do all sorts of design jobs, and that's the stuff I love. I like transistors. I like people, too, but somehow I can get transistors to do what I want them to do. I can't do that with people. And I just have to take people as they are, and do the best I can.
RW : It seems like engineers in the analog area have been in it for some time. And you're not immediately obsolesced.
PB : Yeah.
RW : So you -
PB : New problems keep coming along, you know, technology changes, things change. There's always some new stuff to do, some new problems that that arise. There's a sort of an experience penalty that I talked about. There are things that I know can't be done that are being done. And that's when you first come upon a problem, you may not have the technology. Maybe you just don't have the smarts. But even if you've got the smarts, you may not have the technology to solve the problem, or to solve it in a particular way. That is, a lot of times you come across a problem, and the first idea that comes to you seems like a great one, and then you discover why it won't work. Twenty years goes by, and again, somebody comes along, same problem, or similar problem, gets the same idea, only technology's changed, and it does work. And you get this feeling, well, I tried that a long time ago, why didn't I make it work? And that's the experience penalty. But - and so you dont always get to do some of the old things, but there's always some new stuff where you're pretty much on the same footing as everybody. And so there's lots of new stuff, and fun in doing it.
RW : That's exciting. Now in terms of new stuff, do you guys use computer-aided design?
PB : You bet. Oh yeah.
RW : Now what - what types?
PB : Well, we've got some proprietary software that's very, very nice. In fact, if you talk to people who've left Analog, there's some people that, you know, have left and they're very happy with what they're doing, where there's other people that left and they're not very happy with what they're doing. But through all of them, you talk to any of them that are designers, and the one thing they'll tell you is, I really miss ADICE. And that's our simulator, and it's a proprietary simulator. It's a Spice-like thing. And it just has a lot of the right features, and so forth. It was designed - actually, part of it was designed by an analog circuit designer. And he sort of set the framework for it. And so we've got this. We use a commercial layout system - Cadence, and we use - we have our own home-grown schematic capture. And the old guys like me still like to use that, because that - I learned to use that a long time ago, and I find it very convenient, even though a lot of other people use the commercially available stuff. But we've got a lot of - of very useful tools. And as I say, these - these home-grown ones have been sort of optimized around analog design. We're - we're Analog Devices -
RW : Yeah.
PB : - even though we do digital things.
RW : Now is this in both MOS and in Bipolar?
PB : Oh, sure. Oh, yeah. Yeah.
RW : And -
PB : And it's like Spice, and it'll handle anything that you can model. And we've got a lot of these boutique processes. We've got mixed CMOS and bipolar processes, all kinds of stuff. And some of the things we do we can't afford to use those processes. But others, it's very economical. You can get a lot of bang for a buck out of those - out of some of those processes. But all of that stuff is well modeled. And we complain a lot, but actually, well, you know, our modeling guys do a bang-up job. And we've got good models, and - well, you can always get snookered, but silicon looks a lot like simulation.
RW : Now when it comes time to test these things. Do you use a general purpose tester? Or do you -
PB : Well -
RW : Kludge something together?
PB : There may be a special interface design, but the interface goes into a general purpose tester. Just, you know, for - for high volume stuff, that you've just got to do that. You've pretty much got to use a, you know, high-speed handler. And we have from time to time, made some special purpose testers where the general purpose stuff just wouldn't hack it, just wouldn't measure what we needed to measure. And we've done that from time to time. But we to keep our foot in the door at the tester guys and let them know what's coming up. And there's a little bit of a conflict there in that you don't want to - you don't want to telegraph what you're - what you're going to be doing because it's going to leak. But you do need to tell them about it so that when you need to test things, they're ready to do it. I've got a kind of a funny story about Teradyne and Analog. A lot of years ago, we'd ordered a Teradyne machine that they had promised to release. And we'd ordered it to test a new op-amp that we were making. And this was in the days when an op-amp was a big deal, you know. And this was a new high performance op-amp, and we reckoned we needed this tester to do it on. And we couldn't get the tester, and it was the usual story, you know. Well, next month, and next, next month. And it just dragged on and on, and we couldn't get the tester. And I guess Ray was talking to Alex, the head of Teradyne, and asked him about this problem. Like, why can't we get this tester? And Alex said, well, we've got a problem, too. He said there's a component that we need from you guys. And it turned out that the reason we couldn't get the tester is because they had designed in this amplifier that we wanted to test with it, and until they got a quantity - they had a few samples, until they got a quantity of them, they couldn't manufacture the testers, and of course, they weren't going to get the quantity until we could test them. So we hurried up and we manually tested a bunch of these things, got them down there, got the tester, and we both got back in business.
RW : Well, another thing that is interesting about the analog field is that United States is still a major leader in that area, as opposed to digital, which is largely offshore now. So I guess what I'm saying is if you want high performance MOS now, unless you're IBM, or unless you're Intel, you go offshore. Yet in the analog world, we Americans are still competitive in that area. So why is that?
PB : Just luck I guess. I think life is mostly luck. And I suppose that it has something to do - maybe the U.S. has the right culture for guys like me to profit. That is I've had real good luck being able to go to Analog, work at Analog. Maybe there are a lot of those opportunities, more of those kinds of opportunities than there are in other places. Although we there's some pretty smart analog people in other parts of this world. Just yesterday I was talking to a Dutchman, and those guys, they turn out lots of good EEs and in the analog, in the engineering domains. And so there - you know, there are a lot of other people. But I wonder about things like that, too. And maybe it's just cultural.
RW : Are you saying that in the field of analog, it's more individuals can make a difference rather than having a massive number of people?
PB : Yeah. I think that's true. It's hard for me to know what's true. Because I don't think that it's when a lot of people think of analog, they think of these, you know, systems on a chip with tons and tons of stuff, and maybe half of it's digital, or more than half. I mean sometimes there's just a little corner of analog stuff. The analog stuff that I think about is, you know, there's a handful of transistors doing something slick. And just the that ideas behind that are - maybe we're freer to exploit those ideas. I - I dont know. I - I do think a lot of it may have to do with just the orientation, the way we look at design. There's a story that I've told before about a fellow that I interviewed a lot of years ago, and he came from a different cultural background. And he was well-educated. And he was, you know, you ask him a question from the book, he knew what the answers were. He knew what the answer in the book was. But on his resume it said that he designed the 741 while he was at Motorola. And this was some years after the advent of the 741. And I asked him about that, and I said what, you designed the 741? And he said yes. I said, oh, I thought there was another fellow designed it quite some time ago. And he said, well, yes. He said but I designed it at Motorola. Oh, I see. Well, what does design consist of? He said, well, he said you take the diagram, you take the schematic, and you choose the values, and then you do a layout and you make the circuit. Oh, oh. I said, well, where do you get the schematic? Where do you get the diagram? He said, oh, he said it's in the book. Um hm. I say, well, well, I mean this all took a little longer. But then I said, well, where do you suppose the guy who writes the book gets the diagram? And you could tell he hadn't thought about this issue very much, but he thought about it for a second and then he said, mmm, I suppose he must read another book. Well, I think that orientation toward design is probably not going to make you a world beater! And as I say, this guy was well-educated, but he came from a different sort of background where the trick was to learn what was in the book. But a lot of this stuff - I mean, there's nothing wrong with what's in the books, and it's good to read the books. But by the time it gets into the books, it's pretty old stuff. You know, the real stuff isn't in the books yet. And where's the real stuff comes from? You do it. You dont read about it, you do it yourself. And if you like to do it yourself, you're all set. And in this country, and in some others. As I say, we dont have the - I don't think we do have the edge over everybody, but we're big, and we do have lots of opportunities.
RW : Well, you're also allowed to fail. Right?
PB : Yeah.
RW : And we do it regularly.
PB : Oh, yeah.
RW : I'd add. It's not a stigma to try something that doesn't work.
PB : Well, I have a sort of a theory that just says most ideas are bad, and the trick is to have enough of them, and sort through them fast enough, and find the few good ones out of all the many you're going to have. Well, you need to be able to pursue an idea long enough to find out that it's a bad one. And, I mean, some ideas, you know, they seem great in the morning; you can shoot them down by the afternoon. But some of them, they seem great in the morning, and they still seem pretty good in the afternoon. And it might take you a while to find out why they're bad. But since most ideas are bad, that's going to happen to you, and you need the freedom and the flexibility to, you know, to fail. To follow the wrong lead for a while, you need to be able to figure out when it's time to give up. That's important. Some people get married to an idea - what is it - there's nothing more dangerous than an idea if it's the only one you've got.
RW : Well, we've seen it in company after company, where they become invested in a product or a concept, and they continue with it even though it doesn't work.
PB : Yeah
RW : And because now it's that they feel that they have an ownership of it.
PB : Well, but that's not an effect that's confined to the electronic business. I mean just because - I mean with us, it's the technology. But when you've made a big investment in doing some thing some way, it's very difficult for you then to do either a different thing, or to do the same thing in a different way, whereas a start-up can come out of nowhere and do it because they aren't going to put any employees out of work by changing their methods. They're not going to - I mean, they've got to raise some money, but they dont have to pay off those great big machines that pound out the thing that they've discovered you can make with a little machine in your kitchen. And so, you know, I don't think that's confined to electronics. That happens to every business, or every sort of business. But maybe it happens to us a little faster just because the technology does change. And when you're spending billions of dollars to make a fab, you want to make a lot of circuits in that fab before you close the door. And if it's making the wrong stuff, yeah, you're in trouble. And if you're lucky enough to make the right choices, it doesn't happen. If you're lucky enough to figure out when it's time to change horses.
RW : Well, if we're talking about the semiconductor industry, most people have not made money over time. They dont have positive retained earnings. And there's a few companies like Intel that have. But if you look at the Europeans, just about everybody has gotten out of semiconductors in Europe having spent tons of government money. And I think the Japanese have overall probably lost money on the memory business.
PB : Well, I can't argue with you. I think there are - there are some businesses are just more difficult than others, and make money. I said I had occasion to notice this. I can't remember now why I was looking at this, but I discovered that hammer handles sell for more today than they did about fifteen years ago. Okay? The price of hammer handles has gone up. I think we're in the wrong business, I keep telling people because we're making stuff that's, you know, many times better than what we made fifteen years ago, and selling it for a lot less. And I think if you want to pin the blame on somebody, pin it on people like me. I'm doing it because it's fun. And it's so much fun to do this stuff that everybody wants to do it. Well, not everybody, but this lunatic fringe that we belong to wants to do this stuff, and they want to do it so badly that they get their neck stuck way out. And a lot of them don't make money. And, you know, it might be my fault. It might be our fault, because it's just too much fun. And so you dont give up, you keep on going, and there's too many people trying to do it, and so you wind up, you know, beating each other up, directly or indirectly.
RW : You know, it's amazing. Well, Paul, it's been really good talking with you. It's so great to see somebody that loves their work.
PB : I'm a lucky guy.