72) Forbidden Topics

Welcome new reader!

In the last post you read about me securing a contract and my family’s reaction to my news. In this post I will share some inside information about how much mask designers  are paid and how reputations are destroyed.

Compensation and Reputation

My friend Dave had once told me the best time for a contract Mask Designer is just after she has excepted a contract and just before she reported for work. I certainly found this to be true and just after winning most of my contracts, was already making plans to spend the money. Rates for contracts during the nineteen-nineties were, compared to other engineering compensation levels, relatively high and ranged from $55 to $100 dollars per hour. So it’s not too hard to see that if you possessed the right experience and/or industry connections and were hired for a contract you would be getting a $100,000/year plus gig.

Today, in the year 2013, a compensation package of $100, 000 is still significant but no longer an exception on the engineering salary ladder. What is most impressive is that a mask design contractor is normally NOT an individual that possesses a 4 year college degree in electrical engineering; or ANY degree, in most cases.

It Gets Better

Overtime was nearly always expected in the push to complete a chip on schedule, and this was paid at time and a half. Say you worked 40 hours per week for six months and 50 hours per week for the last six months. You are then pushing $200,000 per year. And so on. Certainly I have known mask design contractors that have consistently made $150,000 – $200, 000 for several years running. These are normally individuals that are “grinders”, have too many toys that are not paid for or have high costs associated with a failed marriage.

Not Talked About

Mask designers (people who draw computer chips) are not rock stars, pro athletes or CEO’s, but you can see that they make decent money – by most measures. During the 1990’s how well mask designers were paid, except within the semiconductor design staffing industry, was not widely known. Inside of a design laboratory where highly trained electrical engineering graduates typically supervise high-school educated but highly compensated mask designers, compensation is not a topic that is eagerly entered into by the folks who are still paying off school loans.

But Why?

For a contract mask designer to leak information about pay rates is very much discouraged by the employing staffing agency.  Matters of  salary – in the workplace – have always been a topic that is guarded. This is especially true in design labs of semiconductor companies because mask design contractors have not always enjoyed a favorable perception among sponsoring company employees.

Reputations at Stake

There may be some justification for this perception. Just as in any industry – defense contracting comes to mind – contractors have many methods at their disposal to cheat clients. I have witnessed this with mask design contractors in various situations. Cheating a client often has a devastating effect on a mask design contractors’ reputation. In spite of this, many individuals continue this behavior. And as you might expect, due in part to the high skill level, high demand for their services, and the fact that some cheaters are quite slippery, these individuals continue to get hired.

Do you know someone who is well paid but did not  graduate from college?

Next: The Day I Realized I Was Unemployable

71) How my Big, Lucrative Contract Turned Out to be the Worst News I Ever Delivered


In my last post you read about the psychological and spiritual effects of Stevie’s chronic pancreatitis on Nadine, Jenner and myself during the 15 years between the ages of 7 and 22. At least, what I was able to describe in 250 words.

In this post you will read about me dropping a big bomb on the family. After moving them from California to Minnesota in 1986, then Minnesota to Massachusetts in 1989, I was going to uproot them once more, to a far off and cold climate.

IC Drawings Inc. Begins and Ends with the Maxim Integrated Contract

My little firm’s 12-month contract with Maxim Integrated in North Chelmsford, Massachusetts had expired and was renewed for a second project of 3 months duration. At the end of the 3 months, expectations had been put in place, I would be hired as a Mask Designer employee with the company. The project proved extremely difficult, due to the process technology used in my layout (only two layers of metal with which to connect hundreds of transistors) but inexpensive to fabricate. Therefore, going forward, we were to use more of this type of design even though it made the task of layout needlessly, in my view, challenging. Not wanting this type of long-term brain damage, I decided to move on.

Spark of Excitement

“Randy, I don’t know if you will even like Fort Collins, Colorado, but Hewlett-Packard (HP) is looking for contract mask designers and I could give them your name if you want,” my friend David said.

Being from Minnesota I was used to folks stereotyping a geographic area based upon the perception of its cold climate but on hearing David’s invitation, all I could think of was John Denver and his song “Rocky Mountain High”. In fact, I could hear it in my mind.

I hadn’t yet told the family we would have to sell our home in Londonderry, New Hampshire.

I had enough of the traffic, high prices and provincial attitudes in New England, and I was sure Nadine felt the same way. When I broached the subject later that night, I found out I couldn’t have been more wrong. Although Steve’s pancreatitis was in full bloom, he and Jenner had made friends and were looking forward to their middle and high school experiences.

Preparing to Deliver News of My “Great” New Achievement

Steve had taken up Kung-Fu at Yang’s Martial Arts Academy and was tearing it up. Jenny surprised us with a beautiful voice and was getting voice lessons. Each was doing well in school. By this time, Nadine was employed in the Londonderry School District and improving the lives of quite a few kids with whom she worked. So in my wisdom, I pushed out my chest and proclaimed to the group one night at the dinner table, “I have just signed a long-term contract with HP in Fort Collins, Colorado and your Mom and I have decided to sell our house.”

At age 46, I still didn’t have the awareness as a Dad or a husband to understand why they reacted with silence. Worse, since I was to begin my contract in two-weeks, I wouldn’t even be around to help Nadine sell our house in New Hampshire (or look after Steve).

I was such a bone head because of my insensitivity. But when I  set out to do something, I was a Ninja. Straight up.

Did you ever make a family decision so unpopular, you began to doubt yourself?

Next: Working as a Mask Designer: Compensation, Benefits, Politics, etc.

70) The Acid – Etching Deeply and Permanently

Welcome busy reader!

In my last post you read about my self-proclaimed success with IC Drawings Incorporated, the company I formed to support computer chip design activities in New Hampshire. In this post I will take things down a notch and try to share a father’s feelings about a very sick (and pain-ridden) son during the summer of 1996.

The Etch of the Early Years

The progress I had made with my personal development – what I like to call my little foundation – had not prepared me for Steve’s chronic pancreatitis. No amount of self-confidence, study or optimism seemed to help. Any one who has had a child suffer will tell you the same thing.

Sick with Worry

I reached back to my study of eastern philosophy and the principle of letting go of problems which were out of my control but this did not help. Just as an acid slowly deteriorates that which it comes in contact with, Steve’s illness was making me sick with worry.

A few years before, I had worried about my girlfriend Priscilla’s safety and then about her stalking me. I finally had to cut her out of my life, like a cancer. I had no way to do this with Steve, my flesh and blood. My precious young son who didn’t deserve to be stricken with random, gut-wrenching chest pains, and to which there is no known cure.

Pretend World

We lived our lives in the frames of time between his episodes of pain. Clocks and calendars were meaningless. When Steve was pain-free, we were blissful, when not, in hell. During Steve’s pain-free intervals, I began to find myself pretending none of this existed. We became very good at living “in the moment”.

How would Nadine and I endure a lifetime of this? Was I a coward for even asking?

Too Soft

More than anyone I knew, I was a person who felt the pain of other living creatures. I know this may be considered “soft”. Animals seem to sense this and are often drawn to me. Folks who laugh at slasher scenes in movies are not. People who are rude, uncaring, selfish or cruel will never earn my respect. Yes, I am soft in that way.

And Selfish

I found myself becoming selfish and pushed most of the responsibility for Steve’s pain management off on Nadine. I justified my behavior on the idea that she possessed a composition that was better able to resist the etching and deterioration of the acid. She didn’t obsess with things the way I did. She was the Mom. Her job as a teacher didn’t require as much focus as chip design. She was more willing. More was expected of the Mom. On and on.

Made of Different Stuff

In truth, Nadine was stronger. Where Steve was concerned, Nadine’s strength dwarfed mine. As time went on this became more evident.
Never was Nadine’s strength more evident than Steve’s hospital visits. During the time period when Steve was 17-22 years old, Steve’s pain would rage and we would bring him to the local emergency room for pain management. At first this was once a month and during the last two years, once every week. One week, I brought Steve to the ER three times!

My Pathetic Excuses

I could not stay near Steve’s bedside and witness the suffering. Often, I would walk the hallways of the hospital, guilty for my pathetic weakness. Straight-up, I did not have the courage.

Effective Partnership Forged

But Nadine never wavered. I was grateful for Nadine’s strength, in this way. As misguided as it sounds, Nadine and I became a very effective advocates for Steve’s pancreatitis. Nadine with courage and a near photographic memory for medical details and me full of energy, compassion and empathy for the medical caregivers we came to rely upon.

69) Dripping Acid

Welcome new reader!

Did you ever know someone with more guts than talent?

In my last post you read about my gorgeous but creepy  house in  Londonderry, New Hampshire. In this post you will read about me launching my first little company called IC Drawings.

IC Drawings Inc. – The Little Engine that Could!

Later that year, I gave up my full-time job and benefits and accepted a contract with Maxim Integrated, to help start their Boston (North Chelmsford, Massachusetts) Design Center. My little company would be called IC Layouts, Inc. We negotiated a one-year contract for IC Layouts to support two projects with incentives to continue based upon performance.  My commute from Londonderry, New Hampshire to North Chelmsford, Massachusetts was 23 miles, which I could drive in roughly 45 minutes, depending on traffic. I arranged work hours of 11-8 and began my project. The project was extremely successful by all accounts, and Maxim tried hard to hire me. Of course, I was far too wise to accept their offers.

Earn It. Spend It.

Flush with cash (I had never earned low, six-figures before) from my company’s new contract with Maximum Integrated, we hired “Archideck” to build a custom deck surrounding an above-ground pool. With the lush, mature trees surrounding our back yard, the completed project was like a spa in the woods.

Slow Deterioration of the Spirit by Swirling Acid

Taking a week away from Maxim Integrated, Nadine, Jenner, Steve and I made a car trip to Minnesota. The vacation was a nightmare. Stevie was in pain the entire trip. The week served as a reminder that jobs, houses, new cars and even relationships come and go, but a sick son or daughter can eat away at your soul like acid – a diluted, slow-working solution of acid that you cannot control, sometimes cannot feel but know is always there, deteriorating your spirit, your resolve, your happiness and eventually your hope.

Despite the trappings of financial success, did you ever wish to trade it all for the health of a family member?

67) Dead Man’s House

In my last post you read about our son’s diagnosis of chronic pancreatitis. In this post I’ll share with you our experience buying a house in Londonderry, New Hampshire, whose last owner died inside the house.

Feeling Disconnected

Between seeing myself as overworked, burdened with too many projects that bore my name and an electric, restless energy, I began to make inquires about taking a mask design contract somewhere else in the country – actually, anywhere but New England.

New Englander’s were nice enough – unless you include Boston – I just began to realize many of them reject outsiders. Although Nadine and the children did not seem to share my hurt feelings, or apparently my feeling of exclusion.

Smells Like Change – Again

I never saw myself as someone who would be a technologist for the rest of my life. Although the design team at Analog Devices was great, after we had completed the ADXL50, the team dissolved. In the larger population at ADI and in New England, I was an outsider. At least this is what I felt. My midwest upbringing and west coast education did not serve me well.  In short, I felt disconnected, without friends and under tremendous pressure at work with no end in sight. In January of 1996, I knew I would have some very harsh news for Nadine and the kids. We would need to sell the house in New Hampshire and move again. But not right away.

Our House in Londonderry,  NH.

HouseLondonderryOur house in Londonderry, New Hampshire stood 2-stories tall, was white with green shutters, sat on nearly an acre and had a circular driveway that was bisected by a dry-stacked, granite stone wall running the length of the house. Later, when I began contracting to make more money, we built a custom deck wrapped around an above ground swimming pool.

Note to Neighbor: Please Call Before Visiting

The prior owner of the house, a man in his 70’s had died in the house, which was a little creepy because we were always trying to figure out in which room, his death had occurred.

His grown son was an attorney and lived on the next plot of land to the north, with his wife and two children. The man was nice enough but had a pattern of dropping in at our house. This made me uncomfortable. Yet in conversations with my wife, he attempted to make it sound like I was out of line for not warmly accepting his visits. His visits did not seem to illicit the same uneasiness in Nadine.

“Is he always this way?” I once heard the man ask my wife at the door of our house. A private man like me doesn’t want to encourage that kind of conversation in his own house.

Do you sometimes get the weird idea that folks are more interested in talking to your spouse than in talking to you?

66) An Exhausting and Terrifying Intruder Enters our Life

Welcome to my autobiography!

During the last 65 posts (about 16,500 words) you have read mostly about my crazy experiences while drinking life from a fire hose.

In the previous post you were reminded how someone can excel on their job even though they may not possess the natural gifts (aptitudes) that would allow them to really enjoy their work and prevent struggling while trying to keep pace with their peers. 

I discovered this while working with Analog Devices in Wilmington, Massachusetts on the design team that developed the world’s first accelerometer on  a chip – the ADXL50. I wasn’t one of the fastest at drawing the design but because our tasks were so new, the atmosphere in the laboratory each of us were expected to be continuously learning.  At this, due to overcoming my struggles in college, I was excellent. 

In this post I will tell you about Stevie’s diagnosis and early experiences with chronic pancreatitis, a rare and painful disease that affected our entire family for the next 15 years.

Our son Steve, 8 years old by this time, had been having stomach pains for what seemed like most of his life. He would cry as an infant every evening at a certain time. Nadine would not be able to console him. Usually, we would take turns carrying him around the room, which lessened, but did not stop his outbursts. Then, at 8 years old, in 1995, while we were living in Andover, Steve was diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis. We hadn’t heard of the disease but since it wasn’t common, we weren’t very worried, until we investigated it further. Instantly, we became numb with disbelief, then when fear set-in, dread.

What is Pancreatitis?

The pancreas is a large gland located behind the stomach and next to the duodenum (the first section of the small intestine). The pancreas has two primary functions:

  1. To secrete powerful digestive enzymes into the small intestine to aid the digestion of carbohydrates, proteins, and fat
  2. To release the hormones insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream; these hormones are involved in blood glucosemetabolism, regulating how the body stores and uses food for energy.

Pancreatitis is a disease in which the pancreas becomes inflamed. Pancreatic damage occurs when the digestive enzymes are activated before they are secreted into the duodenum and begin attacking the pancreas.

Source – http://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/digestive-diseases-pancreatitis

In Stevie’s case the pain would occur sometime after eating and last between 30 minutes and several hours. During the times Steve was in pain, nothing seemed to provide relief.


The onset of Steve’s most severe pain – if memory serves – occurred only twice in 1995. In 1996, however, while Nadine, Jenner, Steve and myself were living in Londonderry, New Hampshire, Steve’s pancreatitis flare-ups began occurring randomly and became increasingly central in our families existence. Each of us was affected in different ways. But for what seemed like months on end, the family was exhausted with worry. Months turned into years. We wondered how long we could cope. A few times, I had the terrifying thought, after months and months of random and unrelenting episodes of pain, night and day, had I lost ALL hope?

Dad’s Hypersensitivity

Being the Dad and I guess the most sensitive to his suffering, Steve’s episodes of severe pain nearly paralyzed me with grief and sorrow. Frequently, I couldn’t sleep or work. All of us began to experience the days, weeks and months not in units on a clock or calendar but instead in frames between Steve’s bouts of unrelenting pain.

Stevie Became Someone We Didn’t Know

Sometime around the age of 9 or 10, through trial and error, Steve’s physicians were able to find a course of treatment that diminished pain somewhat, and in turn, the family’s sorrow and preoccupation with the pain in Steve’s chest. Slowly at first and innocently enough – none of us perceived it at the time – Steve began his 15 year addiction to demerol, Oxycontin and whatever else he could find.

65) Triple-Deckers, Dunkin’ Donuts and Reining-In My Ego

In my last post, I talked about how life sometimes prepares us – often without our realization – for a major challenge. In this post you will read about stuff we all deal with in life – progress or setbacks in our career, finding the right housing situation and that feeling we sometimes get before a big change arrives.

Work and Life in New England, 1989 – 1995

Since the ADXL50 project was so visible within ADI and the semiconductor industry, the key people who were involved with it were well-known within the company. For better or worse, I became – at least in my analog design group – somewhat of a celebrity. “Hey, aren’t you the guy that did the layout for the accelerometer,” folks would ask. “Yep, but I played a very small part,” I reminded them. At age 40, I had evolved from the “invincible arrogance of youth”. I knew that Analog Devices had entrusted an important project to me, supported me through the highs and lows and let me complete the layout with no interference. Entering the sixth year of my career in semiconductor mask design, I had gone from goat to hero – at least in my mind – and I was ready to grab my career by the lapels and shake the hell out of it.

New Assignment at ADI

After the hoopla of the ADXL50 release in 1993 and during the time ADI was preparing a release of the chip to the airbag component vendor for the Ford Motor Company, I was assigned to work with the two very prominent analog circuit designers, whose work developing op-amp circuits was well-known – if only based upon the number of patents they held.

Op-amp layout is itself a highly specialized craft and one in which, despite my local celebrity from the accelerometer layout, I was not well versed. For the next two years I did my best to support their projects. I’m afraid they would tell you I fell far short of the mark and maybe kind enough to say I improved over time.

An Ill-Advised Visit to the Library in Andover, Massachusetts

Sometimes when things were slow, I would sneak over to the library to read self-improvement books and magazines. But occasionally my visits lasted longer than my good judgement. I recall returning from one visit to the Andover Public Library to find the parking lot of Analog Devices filled with employees. It seems there had been a fire drill, and upon taking a head count of the members of my group, it was discovered I was missing. Quite embarrassing. Celebrity – even small – has its drawbacks.

Big Fish in a Tiny Pond

As my layout skills improved at ADI in Massachusetts, I became the go to guy for all revisions to the accelerometer. This was empowering, except that each revision of the layout contained design rule violations that seemed to always trigger contentious arguments between two factions: the design and layout team that wanted the violations waived and fabrication and quality control that would prefer to enforce the rules. Two more factors were: some of the rules were moving targets and open to interpretation and deadlines for completing the design revisions were sometimes not able to be changed. This entire recipe, for a celebrity mask designer like myself – had a lot of stress baked-in.

After a nearly 5 years on the ADXL50 and 3 years of revisions, I was ready for a big change.

New Cadre of Smart, Cheap, Supremely Confident Technologists

During the last 12 months, as other MEMS accelerometer designs were undergoing various stages of development – some more sensitive or containing more than one axis of g-force measurement – the group began to staff the group with young PH D’s, whose charter it was to invent killer architectures to slay the accelerometer markets for Analog Devices. They were young, smart, cheap and often rode their bicycles to work or spoke with slight Mandarin accents in perfect English. They asked a lot of questions and were fearless to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t know how that works, could you please explain it to me?” Or sometimes, just: “Prease exprain.”

Still on the Move in New England

During the five-year span I had worked at Analog Devices, we had lived in the triple-decker in Cambridge, an apartment building in Somerville, a rented house in Andover and finally a purchased house in Londonderry, New Hampshire. The flat in Cambridge became too expensive to heat (it used heating oil stored in a tank outside), the apartment in Somerville became less kid friendly due to a bomb scare at their school and the rented house in Andover was used to position us to qualify for the mortgage on the house in Londonderry, New Hampshire. At least these are the ways I was rationalizing our relocations.

If we can agree to this logic, then our house in Londonderry should have been our last stop for a while. Should have.

Do you know someone who drives change because of boredom or a needed challenge?