Lessons Learned: My First Engineering Job

Know Your Tools and Keep Your Cool

By J. Bart Henthorn

As early as I can remember, I have been fascinated by electronics and technology. Having a father that was a Mechanical Engineer in the space industry and a bachelor uncle that drove around in a car with more tech books than spark plugs, I was pretty much predestined to grow up a geek. When I reached high school and was finally able to lay hands on computers, my future was sealed.

I was elated when I applied for an open Electronic Technician position at a local engineering company until I discovered that there were 36 other applicants, each with either a college degree or at least two handfuls worth of experience in the field. Perhaps it was my lack of experience that stood out, or the fact that I was cheap, but somehow, I was the one picked.

First Job When I was informed that I'd been selected, I spent the rest of the day cheerfully visiting local electronics shops selecting tools I thought I might need. Among them was a fairly inexpensive kit of soldering and de-soldering equipment containing a soldering iron, solder, solder wick braid, and a really neat spring-loaded solder sucker. I was set, or at least I thought.

For my first engineering task, I was assigned to work on the repair, refit, and recertification of first-generation medical equipment. My new boss, the lead engineer, pointed to a pile of devices in the corner and said, "Strip out the old harness, wire in a new one, and lace it up." I nodded in compliance and set about making a fool of myself.

I set the first device down on my bench, popped off the cover, and laid eyes on about 20 cubic feet of empty air and what seemed like a mile of individual wires gathered together to look like a wiring harness. I thought, "No sweat. I can make it look at least this good!"

I learned my first valuable lesson within minutes. Inexpensive soldering irons sometimes turn on the person holding them. The crosshatch burn imprint on my index finger (apparently the iron's Philips screw got hot too) served as a blatant reminder of my mistake for the next two weeks.

As I began heating up the ends of the existing wiring, I quickly discovered that just melting the solder and yanking had unwelcomed effects. I grabbed my snazzy new solder sucker and started to work on the next connection point.

I applied the iron, melted the solder perfectly, placed the sucker's tip against the joint and pulled the trigger. I scarcely saw the plunger as it left my side of the room, but when it landed directly in the face of my new boss I was pretty much sure my potential tenure was getting much smaller.

To my amazement, he slowly stood up, wandered to a series of shelves, and pulled out a deluxe Weller plunger-type solder sucker. He also picked up a small brush, a tube of lightweight oil and a rag. He gifted me the solder sucker and taught me how to properly clean and maintain it. He didn't yell or lose his cool, and in doing so he taught me something very valuable.

I did finally learn how to "lace up" a real chassis wiring harness. I learned a whole lot more too from that first "real" job, but most importantly I learned that the "kids" coming up behind us need and deserve our patience, understanding and guidance. I still have that same solder sucker nearly forty years down the road and am reminded of this most valuable lesson every time I see it.

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J. Bart Henthorn lives in central North Carolina. He has been married for 36 years and has three children. Most of his professional career was spent straddling the gap between mechanical and computing systems. Somewhere along the path from wide-eyed discovery to "it'll be ready Friday", he came across the Jameco catalog. Bart really found his true calling flying around the Americas, teaching medical professionals how to best use their new high-tech tools.