Saturday, March 28, 2015

Book of Schiit, Chapter 5: So Ya Wanna Get into the Biz?

Chapter 5:

So Ya Wanna Get Into the Biz?


Prompted by a recent hire or two at Schiit, the ongoing resumes we receive on a weekly basis, and the more open-ended inquiries we get from time to time about “I really really want to work in audio, what body parts amputations/small animal sacrifices/alien incantations do I need to get into this biz?” I figured it might be time to talk about just what it takes to make a career out of audio.


Now, a disclaimer: no, this isn’t a solicitation for resumes, nor can I predict what Schiit’s hiring needs will be with any certainty.


No, instead, think of this as a general guide to getting into audio—whether you’re looking to start your own company, or work for any company that makes great audio its mission.


Maybe this will help. And maybe it won’t. Because first, let’s start with the warnings.


Audio Ain’t For Everyone


Let’s get one thing out there up front: audio—as in great audio, not the consumer-flavored, Bluetooth-enabled, lotsa-features, convenience-with-big-bass-for-mass-box-stores stuff—probably isn’t the easiest field to turn into big bux, sexy titles, massive power, or things that tend to impress the ladies.


Why? Let’s run through the realities:


Most companies who pursue great audio aren’t large companies. This means that they’re rarely hiring…if at all. Some great audio companies don’t have, or need, any engineering or marketing resources beyond their founders. So the chance of “getting in” is relatively small.

Starting your own company has its own challenges. Similarly, if you’re looking at starting your own audio company, it’s not likely to attract enough interest to net you a ticket into the venture capital lottery—unless it’s tied into some big-buzzword, future-looking deal like distributed audio in the Internet of Things. Not saying this can’t sound great, but I bet that’s fairly far down on the list of importance for these emerging companies.

If you’re on the engineering path, you’re gonna have to endure the sneers and jibes of your fellows, who consider audio largely a trivial field with completely known (and solved) problems. Saying that there may be something beyond -112dB THD and IMD and inaudible noise makes you a bit of a shaman or High Voodoo Priest to much of the engineering establishment…well, unless you’re working on one of those fancy “3D audio” or “object based audio” standards, where yep, there are shades of gray in the algorithm and implementation.

Outside of engineering, if you’re looking to be hired by a great audio company, the opportunities increase—but may be increasingly frightening. Many audio companies need help in marketing and sales…but companies making great audio who are dependent on heavy marketing investment and an aggressive sales team may be the first to cut staff if results aren’t what they’d expect. Many audio companies absolutely need operations help….but:

They may underestimate the importance of operations, preferring to work on the latest new sexy device they are cooking up—so the hires are never made

Operations isn’t a field that comes to mind for audio companies, so many people will simply ignore it

Outside of engineering, if you’re looking to start your own company, well…please, just no. Unless your partner is an engineer. There’s a pervasive idea that anyone can come up with a cool idea for a product and have it turned into a marketable reality using the Magic Capabilities of The Dudes in China. But that’s an absolute fantasy. If you don’t know why your product is better, and you don’t know how to make it better, you will have nothing more than the audio equivalent of one of thousands of no-name rebranded Android tablets that sell for $44 on Aliexpress.


Aside on #3: oddly enough, despite the current climate regarding “no audible differences if it measures well enough” in the outside engineering world, I have yet to meet an engineer working in audio—even in very consumer-focused companies, or in the pro space—who doesn’t believe that there are differences. They just don’t feel comfortable discussing them. In the same way you were “never fired for buying IBM” in the old days, you’re not gonna get fired for delivering a device that is completely up to spec…but may not perform well sonically.


“Okay, you’re a downer,” you might be saying right now. “Why even bother? Sell real estate or get a ice cream franchise and call it done.”


Why? Because great audio is for some people.


You can see it in the eyes of some show attendees. That wonder at being carried away by music…coupled with a deep-seated questioning stare that says, why does this sound this way? How could it be better? Why can’t I make this my life?


If you’re one of those people, audio may be for you. Because, you know what? Even if you’re sneered at by other engineers working on satellite communications or smart home devices, even if it might not be the easiest field to get into, even if it’s not going to net you the funds to buy a small island in the Bahamas, you love it.


And doing what you love, I think, is really what matters.


Getting Started: The Engineering Path


Yes, I’m gonna be unfair and start with engineering. Engineering really is the cornerstone of great audio. It’s the easiest way to get in, whether you’re starting your own company, or want to work for one.


Note: easiest =/= easy.


“So now you’re gonna tell me to go out and get an engineering degree, right?”


Nope. Not at all. There are plenty of great audio engineers with no degrees. However, a degree will be helpful if you’re shooting at a medium-to-large company. Even if they have small “great audio” enclaves, you’re still probably gonna go through the churn-n-burn of a corporate HR department. That means: no degree, no job.


And, in reality, I have used little of the higher math that I learned in school. S and jw domain control stuff, sure, a little bit. But much of it isn’t much more than basic algebra, backed by measurements, and underpinned by deep knowledge of how basic devices (transistors, tubes, etc) work.


I’ll illustrate. At school, one of the classes I had to take was engineering thermodynamics. Now, thermodynamics are very important. You’re not going to be able to design a reliable power amp without understanding thermo. However, the way professors go about it is absolutely retarded. They’ll show you a “heatsink” with a weird cross-section that’s circular and triangular and just plain wrong, and ask you to calculate its heat dissipation with differential equations.


When first confronted with this, I sat back in my chair and said, “That’s dumb. Just look at the surface area and ambient temp, and you’re close enough for any practical application.”


Yeah, that professor didn’t like me.


Bottom line, school complicates a lot of the basics of engineering with complex math that you’ll probably never use. That math may be useful if you’re looking to get a paper published in an IEEE journal, or if you’re working on new DSP algorithms, or if you want to be a Ph.D in residence at a large company, but in day-to-day work, it’s overkill. I nearly dropped out of engineering before they got to the control-system shorthand stuff…and even that I’ve only used a handful of times.


Plus, schools concentrate on simple circuits that are fundamentally unlike what you’ll encounter in audio. After doing an “audio amplifier” on a breadboard in an engineering lab, seeing the schematic of an actual working audio amplifier will be overload. You’ll wonder why the heck it’s so complicated—even if it’s a relatively simple design.


What I’m saying is, if you’re expecting to come out of school and immediately be useful to a small-to-midsize great audio company, think again…you’re gonna be fundamentally unprepared for the reality.


So what do you do?


First: start hanging out on diyaudio.com. This site can be thought of as “the leading edge of audio, mixed in with a thousand other crappy designs, dickish opinions, and complete drivel.” But note “the leading edge” stuff. Some really good design work goes on there. Nelson Pass hangs out there. And the bad stuff is quickly dissected and dismissed. Joining DIYaudio costs nothing, and it’s arguably better than any education or book—if you can keep up, and if you can start sorting the laughable from the laudable.


Bonus course: tubecad.com. Don’t judge this book by its cover—it’s not just tubes, and John Broskie has probably forgotten more cool topologies than I’ve ever imagined. Just know that this isn’t a cookbook site. His stuff isn’t usually completely worked out…but it’s a great starting point to get you thinking.


Second: buy a book. Cordell’s amp book is very good. No, I will not link to it. I am fully confident you are strong with the Google. Yes, I said “buy a book.” Here’s why: Cordell’s book covers the basics of amplifier design from the ground up, including the whys and wherefores of different devices, strengths, weaknesses, why you use them, why those damn amps look so complicated, etc. It doesn’t really get into small signal design, nor does it get into digital at all, but it’s worth reading, re-reading, and taking notes, even if you already have your engineering degree. It’ll remind you what matters for audio.


Third: start burning stuff to the ground—er, I mean, building stuff. This is absolutely key. Don’t invest in simulation software, don’t create air-castles of circuits in fantasy-land. Get some breadboards and heatsinks (and, these days, surface mount breakout boards and Bluetooth modules and ready-to-go DACs) and start hacking stuff together. Tube or transistor, it doesn’t matter. Discrete is better than op-amp for learning, plus it shows better if you’re asked what you’ve done in audio. But the point is this: you need to build things. Building is the best way to understand what’s going on…and it can either become the foundation of your own company, or serve as an example of what you’ve done for a prospective employer.


Wait, one point of sanity: actually, tube or transistor does matter in one way: tube circuits frequently use voltages that can actually kill you. There’s a great thread on diyaudio.com about tube safety. Repeat: you can kill yourself. You can also burn yourself on overheating power transistors, watch capacitors fly off the board because they were installed backwards, crack chips in half with the wrong power supply, and watch an entire design self-immolate (complete with flames) because it’s oscillating uncontrollably. Be careful.


Fourth: ask lots of questions about stuff you don’t understand. Amp sits there oscillating? That’s a problem. Ask about it on diyaudio. Take your criticism and lumps without whinging or passive-aggressive buttholery. Come back with an improved design. And move forward. Same if that new DAC you have isn’t working per the datasheet. Someone—maybe many someones—will have had the same problem.


And once you’ve done some cool stuff that works, it’s time for a decision.


Decision: I want a company.


Congratulations and welcome to the insanity!


If you haven’t read this book from the start, go back and do so. Figure that you’re gonna need to have a second source of income for a couple of years, and you’re gonna be spending some out-of-pocket money.


Or you can take your case to the crowdfunding sites. If the marketing is strong in you, you may be successful there. But beware…you’ll also now have a large number of very vocal backers, all demanding your time. For a brand-new, untested company, this can be a very scary place to be. Your call.


Decision: I want to work for a company.


Congratulations, you’re welcome in this great conclave of obsessives!


I hope you have a lot of persistence. Like I said, most great audio companies are not exactly on a hiring rampage 24/7. Hell, a hiring rampage may be, “We need a new engineer!”


Remember, Sumo was a relatively large and dominant company when I got hired. We had two engineers. Theta was a juggernaut by high-end audio standards when Mike decided to go a different direction—and it had nine people…total.


So what do you do? You show work that is clearly relevant to what the company has already done…and keep reminding them that you exist, you’re interested, and that you can help them do more, better…


And keep reminding them…


And eventually, something will happen.


Aside: I used to give talks on how to get published in science fiction at writing cons. Science fiction is pretty much the equivalent of audio in engineering. And my point always came down to: run the numbers.


Of everyone who writes, maybe 10% get the courage to submit something for publication.


For everyone who submits a story (and gets it rejected), maybe 10% send another one. That’s 1%.


Maybe 10% of that 10% aren’t completely crushed by the second rejection, and send another story. Now you’re looking at 0.1%


Maybe 10% of that 10% aren’t completely crushed by the third rejection—and they might even get a note from the editor asking for a rewrite. Now we’re down to 0.01%...and your odds are now looking a lot better.


Everyone kinda blinked at me, until I took out a chart of all the stories I wrote and submitted, color-coded as red for rejected and green for accepted. I printed it out large-format so everyone could see the great interstellar cluster of red, punctuated by a few lonely green dots. Then they nodded.


A career in great audio engineering is kinda like that.


Bottom line: keep at it. Politely.


Getting In: The Not-Engineering Path


I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know as much about the myriad of other professions that could lead to a career in audio…but I can say one thing for certain: great audio companies need people that aren’t in engineering. Engineers can be great at designing a product…but suck at getting it out the door in a timely manner. Engineers can be great at pushing the limits of their designs…but have no idea how to communicate why it’s special. Engineers may be wonderful at getting the most out of a limited budget…but have no idea how to sell it.


Aside: in my marketing career, it wasn’t unusual to find the key selling points of a new product buried as bullet point #57 and #73 of 89 points the engineer thought were important.


Operations is probably the best path in, but the least sexy. And you may need to do some selling of your own capabilities to the company. They may be unaware of all their own internal inefficiencies, problems, and challenges. Talk about ability to deliver products in a timely manner. Talk about stocking challenges. Ask them how they deal with incoming and outgoing inventory. Ask them if they’ve really had a sit-down with all the shipping companies and compared rates. Find out how they’re doing things, and discuss ways to make them better. One thing’s for sure: both engineering-led companies and marketing-led companies would both be thrilled if the more “mechanical” parts of running a business “just happened.”


Marketing is another. But is the company large enough to really need a full-time marketing person? Many aren’t. Many just need some graphics, packaging, and an ad or three. Which means if you’re a freelancer, you may be able to build a respectable business by being the go-to guy for a number of smaller firms (though you may have to be careful about working in competitive situations.) This also means the pool of companies with full-time positions is smaller. And those positions may be the dreaded catch-all of “sales and marketing.” Which—make no mistake—means “sell my stuff, or else, and if you have some free time, some graphics and social and crap like that would be nice.” Be careful. Find out what you’re getting into.


Sales? Maybe. If it’s a more traditional company selling through retailers, sure, you need someone to interface with them, help introduce them to new products, introduce new perks and spiffs and stuff like that (and, given it’s a small company, maybe run them down when they don’t pay.) If it’s a direct sale company, you’re talking a sales associate position…ask what opportunities there are to move up, and don’t be surprised if there isn’t a clear answer. Many smaller audio companies may not be able to predict where they’ll be in a few years.


Everything else. Customer service or tech support can be a great gateway to a future technical or engineering position, if you’re (a) just starting out, and (b) have a high tolerance for some very buttheaded customers. Technician? Sure, again a good stepping-stone to engineering. Bookkeeping/financial? Yes, absolutely—especially if the company is selling to dealers. Even direct sale with international distribution is a barrage of accounting, wire transfers, etc. Office/admin stuff? Maybe, depends on how low you want to go to get into a company. Legal? OhLOLOL! Come on, these aren’t multinational entities—if they need a lawyer, they’ll hire one as necessary. Business management/MBA stuffs? See legal. Maybe there are a handful of firms that could use these kinds of services, but most are gonna blink at the corp-speak and buzzwords and wonder what the heck it has to do with them. Business school, like engineering, rarely teaches the kind of case studies that are relevant to small companies operating in a passionately connected niche market.


And—as above with engineering—the same notes on persistence hold. You’re fishing in a very small pond, and there ain’t a lot of hungry fish. Make your case, keep reminding them you really would love to work in audio, and try to keep a dialogue up with the people who make the hiring decisions.


And, eventually, you may get the chance to join the insanity.


Why Go For Audio?


If I have to convince you that audio is a wonderful field to be in, it’s not for you.


Yes. It’s that simple.


If audio is for you—great audio, not just the next Beats copy—you already know it. You sit there, working on your latest design, or plugging numbers into your newest spreadsheet, or coding like hell on what’s gonna be the next Fer-Shure-App-Success, and the music carries you away. It goes beyond the headphones you’re using and the amp they’re attached to…but those matter, too, because you’ve gone up the chain chasing better sound…and wondering if it could be better.


If that describes you…audio may be for you. And in that case, don’t ignore its call. Because being in audio can be a really amazing place.


Hope to see you here!


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