Jim Williams died a few days ago. Jim was an applications engineer for Linear Technology, a chip manufacturer that makes analog components. He was one of my favorite authors and engineers and someone I really looked up to. I loved reading his books and application notes, and I believe his leaving this world is a great loss for everyone. However, in examining what I know of his life, I feel I can learn a few things.
First off, to call Jim anything less than an analog electronics expert would do his memory injustice. His clarity in writing and his ability to piece together clever circuits to show the capabilities of a new LT chip was unbelievable. And the reason he was able to so adeptly create circuits is his years of dedication to his craft. Not only was his job working with circuits, his pastime was repairing old analog Tektronix oscilloscopes. This guy lived and breathed electronics.
So what about today? Is it possible to be such an expert today? Will we see another Jim Williams in the future, with singular focus and resulting skill?
I’m not so sure about it. Not because it’s impossible to do the analog work that he did (though it would take a lot of smarts, for sure). No, I think it’s because of the time and dedication required. I don’t think my generation (Generation Y) has experts. And not just because we haven’t been around as long. I think because of the opportunity afforded us, we have too many options.
As an analog electronics person myself, perhaps I think I could ascend to the Jim Williams throne some day? Hardly. I feel the pull to try out different things every single day. I want to try out all aspects of electronics design: digital, system level, software, firmware, you name it. And beyond that, I feel like I could try out sales, marketing, PR, management, anything! I have the ability to try out whatever I want (in theory) of any aspect of electronics that I would like. And in terms of opportunity, in theory I could make a complete 180 and become a lawyer. Or a priest. Or a dentist. Or a circus clown.
OK, that might be taking it a bit far. But because there’s so much opportunity to bounce around, there is very little time to specialize. And you need a lot of time to specialize. About 10,000 hours, according to Malcolm Gladwell in his book, “Outliers”. At that point, it’s a choice. Do you forgo the opportunity to learn breadth instead of depth? How long should you stick it out? Should you keep working at it until you become a Jim Williams? Or are you OK being a (present day) Chris Gammell? (in analog terms, of course)
Aside from the fact that I will always be a present day Chris Gammell, I’ve usually chosen the path of breadth over depth. I enjoy learning about many different things that I haven’t settled on one that I want to dive in and stick with until I know every last detail. I can guarantee it is this very reason I’ll never have a PhD like Cherish or Miss Outlier will and GEARS already does. And while I admire them for what they do, I think it takes a special type of person to stick out the trials of a PhD program and dive that deep into a topic.
Regardless of what I might do with myself during my career, I should point out that I understand the value of hard work, no matter how much depth of insight I hope to gain. I saw a great TED talk recently that articulated this point. Jacqueline Novogratz, in talking about how she accomplished so much in her humanitarian efforts, said something that struck a chord beyond the humanitarian arena. She said, “Nothing important happens in life without a cost … Our leaders (and ourselves) want everything, but we don’t talk about the costs. We don’t talk about the sacrifice.”
Remember, to be an expert like Jim Williams, you have to be dedicated and you have to make sacrifices. You can do it, but you’ve got to stick it out and keep working hard. Jim will be missed by everyone in the electronics community for all he contributed, but his hard work will live on forever. Here’s one of my favorite app notes written by Jim, showing his prowess as an analog designer.