The New Generation of Engineers: Kevin Darrah, USA Firmware

Kevin Darrah is a Senior Embedded Systems Consultant for USA Firmware, a software, firmware, and hardware engineering services company based in the Cleveland, Ohio area. Since graduating from Cleveland State University in 2010 with a BSEE, he has created hundreds of projects for his YouTube channel designed to encourage the curious, the serious, and the just plain interested to try one of his many fun and creative projects. With more than 27,000 subscribers, his voice is being heard all over the world, spreading a simple message that Kevin lives by: "Learn to build cool stuff, teach others to build cool stuff, and actually build cool stuff."


What got you interested in electronics and the embedded engineering space?

As far back as I can remember I've always been into electronics. Like most engineers, it all started with a natural curiosity of the world and how things work. My love for embedded electronics actually didn't develop until later on when I was in college. I was taking a course in digital systems learning about sequential and combinational logic. I actually went online and purchased all of the discrete CMOS logic gates we talked about in class and filled breadboards up with crazy circuits that I Karnaugh mapped out. Then we started talking about programmable microcontrollers, which led to me to buying a PICKit 2 and a PIC16F84A microcontroller, and I was officially bit by the "bug." I was now able to control and interact with my world through electronics, and I was hooked. It was at this point that I knew I wanted to work in the embedded engineering space.

How have you turned that experience or motivation into a successful career-to-date, and what are the key factors that have enabled success so early on in your career?

For me, embedded electronics is a way of life. I always have at least 4-5 side projects going and countless others in my queue. Sometimes these projects have a real purpose, like my Ultra Sonic Range Finder Parking Helper, or sometimes they are works of art, like with my 8x8x8 RGB LED cube. Most of the time the projects I take on are because I want to gain an understanding of a certain technology, like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Ethernet, Voice Recognition, etc. This passion has really worked out great for me because the company I currently work for is a design services consultant firm, and I am constantly challenged to think outside the box and exercise my creativity to meet the clients' requirements.

Given your area of expertise, what have been the greatest challenges and/or breakthroughs during your time in the industry?

The field of engineering is very broad and fast paced; what may be the norm today could easily be obsolete tomorrow. With my Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering and long list of successful side projects, I was quickly humbled after starting my new job as a new product design engineer. The simulation tools, the schematic capture/PCB layout packages, and IDE/compilers were all different from what I used in school and far more advanced. Then I started working on things like EMC/EMI design, Functional Safety, and CE/UL certifications. These are subject matters we never touched on in school, but I was lucky enough to always work alongside great mentors. I can't stress how important mentorship has been in my career.

What has been the single most influential trend to come out of your generation of embedded industry professionals? What do you see as the most disruptive trend or technology over the next 5-10 years?

Even during my short time in the industry there have been many trends or "buzzwords" that have come and gone. I think the biggest trend to come out of my generation might be the explosion of the maker/DIYer/hobbyist industry. It's just amazing how many development boards are out there with free tools to get you up and running in a matter of minutes. The rock star of them all is the Arduino, but then there's the PICAXE, the Propeller, Electric Imp, Netduino, TI's Launchpad with Energia, Netduino, and many many more. There are also the single board computers like the Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone Black that are taking the world by storm. It's also interesting to see industry trends fall into the hobbyist market with development boards that are using ARM cores, integrating the Internet of Things (IoT), or Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). I can't wait to start seeing through-hole FPGAs! I would love to have one of those on my breadboard right now!

Since almost everyone walking around these days has a smartphone in his or her pocket, I sometimes call this the "age of distraction." It seems like there is a growing trend in wearables, like smart watches, Google Glass, and whatever might be coming. These devices make it that much easier to "browse" away from whatever it is you're doing in life. Yes, this makes us all more connected, but in a way this makes us less connected as human beings.

What advice would you offer the next generation of engineers?

I'm often asked this question through my YouTube channel and I always answer it the same way: If you have an interest in embedded electronics, just get started! There has never been a better time to get involved with electronics; you can literally have an LED blinking in minutes with little electronics or coding skills. If you want to take on more advanced projects, fine, but don't expect to learn everything in school. I think the best engineers out there are the ones who can self-teach. If you want to learn about Wi-Fi, then come up with a cool project involving the technology and go for it! Okay, so what if you get stumped? This is the best part; the online community for embedded electronics is stronger than ever. You're always guaranteed to find a project similar to yours, or someone who's willing to help. Sometimes the hardest part is simply coming up with the project ideas!