Weekend Journal: Engineer Tabs

Weekend Journal: Engineer Tabs

I will never be as good of a guitar player as I am the day of an engineering test. Why? Because I’m a procrastinator. Hell, I’m procrastinating doing some things around the house this afternoon, just to write this post!. And when I procrastinated in school, my distraction of choice was playing the guitar.

So to this day, I still associate the two. Learning guitar as a hobbyist and learning electronics as a hobbyist. And my learning process for the former was strikingly similar to how people learn the latter (at least in the practical, hands-on sense). Even more similarities exist when you include institutional learning in the mix.

While this article will not be a treatise on the benefits of institutional over hobbyist learning, it will point out where weaknesses may develop and how to possibly better merge the two for an overall more well-rounded  student of electronics or guitar. I also limit the focus to electronic engineering because I work on electronics personally (as opposed to the other types of engineering covered on Engineer Blogs).

Hobbyist learning

I learned guitar as a hobbyist. I learned electronics in school. However, I have seen and developed upon my own electronics skills as a hobbyist. How are they similar?

  • The very beginning — This stage is characterized (in my experience) by watching experts and wondering how you’ll ever do what they do. You look on in wonder as someone plays a guitar riff. You look at people like Jeri Ellsworth making a full Software Defined Radio in a few weeks and wonder how you’ll ever be able to piece it all together. Or you look at a guitarist like Trey Anastasio playing guitar riffs and are clueless as to how he’s making his instrument sound like that.
  • The early stages — This is all about replicating what others have done. For electronics, this means following the directions on a kit that you might buy from Adafruit or Sparkfun. For guitar, this means guitar tabs (and yes, all of the sites that have tabs are crappy). They are text representations of the notes that people are playing, so you can quickly learn how to play something, without any clue as to why you’re playing it that way. “Day Tripper“, by The Beatles, looks something like this:

  • The intermediate — This stage is characterized by repetition. You grab onto a concept and practice it over and over again in order to not have to think about it anymore. For electronics people, it might be applying Ohms Law (V = IR). For guitar people, it would be learning the different scales and chords so you can quickly recall them with muscle memory. You won’t necessarily be able to be elegant with the knowledge you contain, but you should be able to recall it quickly.
  • The expert stage — This is when adaptation and experimentation really begins to take hold. Though you won’t be a master when you first begin this stage, you will be able to execute all of the necessary skillsets in order to find your own style. For an electronics person, this might being able to quickly recognize the need for an op amp in a circuit, and to know how to apply it in a non-standard way. For a guitar person, this would be playing non-standard chords and scales that add richness to the music. It is in this phase that you’ll be able to truly create something new, because the basics should come so naturally. In music, this would be a song (hopefully that is different from other songs). In electronics, this would be a novel circuit that no one has thought of or no chip vendor has a silicon solution for at the time you require it. While there are many examples of people in both fields that do not go back to school, often these experts needed to re-train themselves or break of bad habits in some way

Institutional Learning

Institutional learning is different in that it provides a lesson plan upfront. With both electronics and guitar, the lessons often focus on the building blocks first, without much regard for the context of those building blocks. You learn about something because you’re “supposed” to know it, and you’ll get to find out why it’s important once you get there.

  • The very beginning — You read the beginning chapters of your books. You try to piece together why you might need what you’re looking at and are frustrated at first, wanting to be better. Like above, you may watch experts and long to be like them, but your teachers will likely discourage this at first because of your need to learn the basics.
  • The early stages — This will be formulaic and simple. In electronics, you’ll jump right to the math and make sure you understand the basics of KVL and KCL without necessarily knowing why you need them. Ohm’s Law will also be an early teaching topic. In music, you’ll begin by reading music and playing single notes in a linear fashion. Learning which notes correspond to which and how you might play them on your instrument. In both, homework is the method of reinforcement and there is a definite right or wrong answer for each assigned task.
  • The intermediate stages — You begin taking on more difficult tasks. In music, this means you begin learning more difficult pieces (by memorizing them) and begin learning how to sight read (playing music as soon as it’s placed in front of you). In electronics, you take on more difficult math and branch to alternative subjects that will be useful for learning overall systems; this might mean you learn the mathematics behind signals so you can understand how they travel through a circuit or how they are represented in the frequency domain.
  • The expert stage — Perhaps the best example of an expert in the institutional environment is the PhD student, in both electronics and music. Throughout their education, they have begun learning the more practical side and applying the techniques as necessary (both to give context and to practice). However, the true expert in the institutional setting is one that can take abstract concepts (such as formulas or scales in music or something like electromigration in electronics, specifically chip design) and apply them to derive completely new conclusions. This is the theoretical student at their best.
While these are just examples, it’s striking how much of a gap there is between the intermediate and expert stages. And as alluded to earlier, the beginning of the expert stage is only the first step of a journey. A true expert continues learning  while applying already learned techniques. Obviously the best case is when someone has been exposed to the subject before learning it in an institutional environment. Having context for why you might be learning Fourier transforms or the C dominant scale allows for students to remain focused in their studies. Alternately, a guitarist or electronics enthusiast will only be as good as their assimilated  techniques will take them. Oftentimes they require learning or re-learning in order to become an eventual expert.
How about you? Did you learn your chosen field at home as a hobbyist first? Or did you jump right into the institutional setting like me? Let us know in the comments!
Thanks to frozenchipmunk for the picture


“A true expert continues learning while applying already learned techniques.”

Excellent point! I would agree that the hardest transition is from intermediate to expert. That is when a lot of the “why” comes into question. It’s not enough to know how to do something, you need to understand why it is done that way. And “because that’s how everyone else does it” is not the right answer!

Good analogy and comparison.

One can make it through the beginner stage by practical experience or learning theory in a class. Intermediate progress is hampered if you are exclusively using just one or the other. It is extremely rare to reach the expert level without a balance of both theory and practical experience.

I took every electronics lab class I could in college, and worked on projects of my own. Still, I think it took a full 10,000 hours to become an “expert”. Without pursuing both learning methods, I am sure it would have taken me at least twice as long.

I started learning guitar a year ago. It has brought back to me that process where you think you are finally “getting it”, then discover something else you need to learn and realize you haven’t even begun to master the subject. Both in music theory and technique. But at least I can play the theme to Firefly.

Well-done. I actually started in electronics (as a hobbyist), got into music, went to school for music education (guitar as my primary instrument), and taught/performed for a decade. Now I’m going to start school this fall in electronics. No surprise that I’ve often compared the creative sides of music and electronics.
So your start in electronics was not as a hobbyist, but by simply deciding to do electronics and then going to school? This is something else I’ve been thinking about: Is electronics an arbitrary career choice for some people? I’m sure it is, but it’s something I can’t wrap my mind around.
Would love to hear your (and everyone’s) personal story!

Well Daniel, I guess this article was written for you! Crazy how that lines up sometimes.

My own story went like this: I was in high school, stressing out about what to do with my life (I was a very uptight teenager). I knew I liked physics and that I wanted to do something that would have challenging work over a long period. I had also started pulling apart cell phones around this time and was clueless as to how it might work. So I decided there and then that I wanted to design cell phones. I started my search for EE programs and ended up finding one that I really liked. Then I began my journey towards nerd-dom (well, continued, I’ve always been a nerd). I’ve talked with my fiancee about it before and basically I was very luck it worked out. Not many people guess correctly what they might enjoy doing with their life when they’re 17. Since that time I’ve realized how much I’ve missed by not practicing electronics outside the classroom, so I’ve been honing my skills at home.

Also, interesting coincidence: I ended up working on cell phones, albeit indirectly. First at a chip fab that made memory utilized in cell phones, among other devices. And secondly at a test and measurement company that sold equipment directly to cell phone manufacturers. They were both by chance but the happenstance is not lost on me.

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