by Bryan Bergeron, Editor
Do you consider yourself a competent
electronics enthusiast? Competency
— a measure of someone’s skills,
knowledge, and attitudes in a domain — is
a term usually associated with work and
human resource departments. However,
the concept of competency also has merit
in the avocation of electronics. But what
constitutes competency, and why should
you aspire to greater competency?
The competency required of a professional electrical engineer, pilot, or surgeon is reflected in licensing requirements
established by professional organizations,
typically under the auspices of a government agency. Professional competency is
also suggested by awards, publications,
pay, and promotions. Similarly, some
avocations, such as amateur radio, have
licensing requirements that reward
competence. Amateur radio operators
who demonstrate knowledge of electronics, operating principles, and international
and national telecommunications rules on
written exams are rewarded with access
to additional segments of the radio frequency spectrum. Some competencies,
such as the ability to send and receive
Morse code at specific speeds, have been
dropped from the licensing requirements.
However, there are no licensing
requirements or other externally imposed
criteria for what constitutes a competent
electronics enthusiast, and no limitations
on access to devices or technologies. So
why give up the freedom of an open avocation which is limited only by your imagination? After all, unlike a parachutist or private pilot, there is little danger that someone wielding a soldering iron and a few
printed circuit boards could represent a significant threat to themselves or bystanders.
I’m not advocating that the government or other organization establish
licensing criteria for those who enjoy our
hobby. What I am suggesting is that you
make a personal commitment to establish
your personal competency criteria for
maximizing your enjoyment. Reasonable
competency criteria include knowledge
of safety, electronics theory, analog and
digital components, the proper selection
and use of test equipment, how to
integrate components and systems, and
where to obtain equipment and supplies.
The criteria suggested for this definition of competency is intentionally broad,
with an emphasis on safety and integration. For example, you should know how
to safely handle lead solder, as well as how
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to avoid or disperse the rosin fumes from
lead or leadless solder. You should also
know how to avoid ground loops and
other sources of noise when using test
equipment. Integration and practical
construction techniques can be gleaned
from reading construction projects, akin to
case studies in many professions, but can
only be mastered by hands-on experience.
Even if your interests lie primarily in,
say, microprocessors, to build anything
significant, you’ll eventually have to
develop competency in electronics
beyond microprocessor development
languages and environments. For example, if you decide to add GPS navigation
to a robot, your knowledge of
microprocessors and programming will
be essential but probably not sufficient
to achieve your goal. To install and debug
the navigation system, you’ll need a
working knowledge of sensors, antennas,
RF signal propagation, and mechanical
design principles. Furthermore, you may
require knowledge of WiFi or USB if you
intend to interface the GPS receiver to a
cell phone, laptop, or desktop computer.
Given the constant flow of new
components and chip manufacturers, it
can be daunting to stay abreast of the
latest technologies and devices. But,
with a little discipline and your personal
curriculum, it is doable. You can start
here, with this issue of Nuts & Volts.
Before turning to your favorite regular
column, take a minute to read over the
table of contents, and then at least
skim the articles on the technologies
with which you may be unfamiliar.
As you read, think of how you might
use the information in your current or
Supplement your reading with a
hands-on project that integrates your
primary interests with unfamiliar technologies. Consider keeping an informal
diary of your target competencies and
what you’ve done to develop them.
You’ll be rewarded with greater selfcon-fidence, an expanded universe of possible projects, a sense of personal growth,
and good habits that will spill over into
your professional life. What else could
you ask for from an avocation? NV