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Backstory: I'm an Electrical Engineer (EE) at a small company that makes biometric sensors, I started about a year and a half ago (third professional job post college). I have a BS in Electrical Engineering and a BS in Computer Engineering. I've been an engineer in a professional environment for over 10 years now, I'm no stranger to how companies work, from very small to very large.

Situation: When I first started there was a fair amount of EE work to do. There is one other EE and we have a lab tech who also does some schematic capture and about 50% of our PCB layout. For the last several months there has been little to no work for me to do on a daily basis, sometimes a customer issue will come in or a prototype board needs designed/laid out, but in general I'm pretty bored. I've been upfront about this with both my boss/manager and the other EE (my boss has little to no interaction with me and depends on the other EE, who has been here for far longer than I have, to delegate work). Still, not a whole lot has come my way, and most of the work I'm given is more like technical writing than EE work. I've only gotten positive feedback about my designs, interaction, and general performance at this job. I've even taught myself Python and written a script that gets used by our testing lab every single day (not rocket science, but at least it works?)

Question: What should I do? I really dislike technical writing (and I was hired as a EE, not a tech writer) and being bored, especially when I have to spend 45+ minutes in the car every day to be bored at a specific place.

Edit: In conversations with either my boss or the other EE about this issue I get one of two answers: - Oh, thanks for telling me, I'll see what we can do to better utilize you - What, how can you possibly not have any work to do?! We're so busy! walk away without giving actionable items

While these both seem like there could be work on the horizon they've never actually amounted to anything.

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Question: What should I do?

Question here is: Is there no technical / hands-on work for the company / department as a whole, or there are assignments but you're not assigned one?

Either way, given your situation that you already tried the below:

  • Informing your superiors about the problem you're facing with the nature of work assigned to you
  • Learning something new on your own and having it implemented to try to use your time efficiently while no official assigned work is there

it appears like there's not much work to be served on your plate.

The only way out is to find another job that throws enough challenges for you to become and stay motivated.

  • I believe it's a little of column A, a little of column B. There's not enough work for two full-time Electrical Engineers and a lab tech at the moment (strike one), but I definitely get less than half of the EE work. – SlashLP97 Nov 18 at 15:05
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Get proactive:

  • Look at the technology and the product road map. If there isn't one, help creating one
  • Actively look around for new technologies, new parts or new vendors that are relevant to your business and/or products
  • Get a bunch of eval board, bring them up and do some performance measurements or some cool demo of what may be possible with the stuff
  • Look at your tools and work processes. Can these be improved or streamlined. Clean up the libraries? Organize the schematics and the gerber files ?

You don't need your boss or your senior colleague to figure out something useful to do, although you should keep them in the loop.

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    I feel like I have been pretty proactive, but being proactive in the absence of work can only go on for so long before it starts to be a negative on my career path, right? How long should I do side stuff that doesn't really benefit my skillset or career? – SlashLP97 Nov 18 at 15:01
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Build two lists

List 1: things you want to do

List 2: things that you think will add value to your group

Walk to your manager and say,

“I’ve got some bandwidth and I want to check with you if you have something for me, if not, I can do any of these...”

  1. Items that appear on both list 1 and list 2
  2. Items that appear on list 1
  3. Items that appear on list 2

(You can also change the order of #3 and #2) if you’re inclined to lean that way.

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There are plenty of things you could do, some on your own initiative, and some in consultation with others such as your supervisor.

  • Rather than staying strictly at the electrical and board design level, become involved in the product firmware as well. Having a strict division of roles there can be an impediment to progress anyway, so being able to exercise basic competence in the firmware realm will be a huge asset to both your current role and your career future. This is especially important when considering tradeoffs between potential solutions in one realm or another, considering if it's possible to swap the planned usage of UART1 & UART2 for a cleaner board layout, etc.

  • Go beyond your initial efforts with test rig python, and develop improved testing apparatus and methods for the production and/or calibration line. So many boards are foolishly designed without sufficient though to manufacturing and test - gaining experience in those areas will improve your work as a PCB designer.

  • Ask to have products which have failed (or allegedly failed) in the field returned to you, see if they work, and take the broken ones apart to figure out why. Both learning about what actually goes wrong, and also what customers mistakenly think has gone wrong (or unfairly blame) is very useful to both revising the design of the products of your company, and to your career future.

  • Talk to others in your organization and figure out what the "pain points" of interacting with the used technologies are, both in terms of the manufacturing / calibration / returns flows, and also customer experience. Consider what design changes or additional test fixture hardware/software could relieve these.

  • Your company make sensors, so evaluate new and competing sensing technologies to see how they can compare. Ask to buy competitor's products to compare, both in terms of results and what of the internals you can see in a teardown.

Some not-unrelated ideas were already presented in another answer, which you rejected as being too tangential to your role and future. Its important to realize that these things are adjacent and not tangent - in fact they may well prove convergent. Your job description may be specific, but your role does not occur in a vacuum - awareness of what goes on around you is key to career future. And in smaller organizations, having a range of related competencies is essential.

  • I agree with you, but some responses: -It has been made clear to me at every level of management that I will never, ever, EVER be able to write firmware at this company. I'm not sure why they draw such a hard line, but they do. I have actually attempted to officially help out more with the SW group but that idea has been met with resistance from all parties (The SW team likes to play close to the vest) -I already do all the other things listed but I feel it's fair to want to do things associated with my role, especially at a company who has dedicated people for the adjacent activities – SlashLP97 Nov 18 at 17:35
  • It's unfortunate about the firmware situation. But I'd have to strongly disagree that any of these things are not practically "associated" with your role. If you really want to have such a narrow focus, you will probably need to move to either a larger organization which can keep you busy doing only PCB design, or a smaller one that is a service bureau providing this to a variety of clients - for example some PCB houses (or sales reps for) may have a contract board designer available to assist clients who have gotten in over their heads or do not even want to take on that task internally. – Chris Stratton Nov 18 at 17:59
  • I don't disagree that they are associated with my role, but there are only so many other tasks. One of my first assignments at this job was to design a new manufacturing test system. I did that. It does 100% coverage of every net on each design. We already do performance evaluations of competing sensors, failure analysis of our own products, R&D, etc... and all that is fine with me, but at this point that has all dried up. I'm fine with doing all these things, but they need to come from somewhere and that is the root of my problem: there is no work coming from anywhere. – SlashLP97 Nov 18 at 18:06
  • The joke is that the universal advice on workplace is to find a new job. You do seem to have convinced yourself that most of the options in your current situation are not sufficient, and if that is what you think, your thoughts on the matter may be more important than anyone uninvested evaluation. Many find it takes some time and a number of positions that did not seem to fit to settle their careers and their relationship with them. – Chris Stratton Nov 18 at 18:11
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When there's no work for you, there's a fair chance that you'll be made redundant, so use this time to prepare.

Get your finances in shape, so you can handle a few months of job hunting. Get in touch with old colleagues and have a look at the job-boards to see what the market is like, and which skills are in demand.

Make sure you're up to date, and learn any new technology that you think will be useful. You mention learning Python; for computer languages you can build up a profile on a coding practice site like CodeWars.com or HackerRank.com

As you've got a long commute, you could also ask to work from home a couple of days per week.

More work will probably be along soon enough, but be ready for the alternative.

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