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Improving Your Understanding

No Shortcut to Learning

My principal role at the moment involves providing technical support for Kikusui products. In order to be able to handle the range of enquiries I receive, I need a broad knowledge of not only Kikusui’s software and hardware products, but also of industry standards and jargon. Now, I graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from a very low ranking university, and am by no means brainy. You might think that I can get away with refusing to answer questions about electronics or software by saying, "I don’t know: I’m a mechanical engineer." How I would love to try that one day! In fact, my role requires me not only to answer questions on software and measuring equipment but also to handle enquiries on power harmonics and electromagnetic compatibility (EMC), and even provide support relating to bespoke power supply circuit design.

In this article, I will discuss how I learned how to handle electronic engineering enquiries despite coming from a completely unrelated background. You have probably heard people say, when confronted with a difficult question, "I don’t know: I took arts", as if that’s an excuse. In fact, the fundamental mechanism of understanding concepts has nothing to do with whether you studied arts or sciences at university. I hope that you will take the advice contained in this article on board and store it away until needed, much like an aspirin in your medicine kit. I will not be discussing neuroscience or cognitive psychology, but rather describing my own observations based on personal experience.

Just What Don’t You Understand?

Here is an example of a question we might get:
"Can your rectifier be controlled by a master PLC, in series?"

Would you know how go about answering this question off the cuff? There was a time when I would not have known what to say. These days, however, I am able to handle such questions. Some people never learn how to answer these types of questions, and simply continue to tell their clients, "we can’t do that". So, what sets people who can handle difficult questions apart from those who can’t?

Let us take another look at the question. We see that it contains several unknown terms, namely: rectifier, master and PLC. These appear to be technical terms. If you know what these terms mean, you should be able to understand the question. If you do not, however, you will likely come unstuck at this point. That is, when we said earlier that we did not understand, what we meant was that the query contained unfamiliar terms. Getting past this will open the door to the next level.

Reasons for Failure to Understand

Let us take a closer look at the reasons people don’t understand questions. I believe that there are three main reasons that questions are not understood:

  1. The question contains unknown terms

  2. The listener tries to understand the entire question in one go, rather than breaking it down

  3. The listener feels that it is not his or her job to answer the question

1. Unknown Terms

As mentioned above, unknown terms are the first and largest hurdle one faces. It is normal not to understand a question that contains unknown words or terms. You will often find that once you understand what those terms mean, the question is not so hard after all. Let us look at how to solve this problem. First, you should ask the other person what the terms mean. While this is a simple thing to do, many people may find it difficult psychologically (because of shame or pride, or because of their status in their organization). In the example above, if you ask the client to tell you what a "rectifier" is, they will likely say,
"That device you sell that is labelled PMX18-5A".
We now know that the client is using the word "rectifier" to refer to a DC power supply produced by Kikusui. Next, repeat the process for the other terms.
"Can you tell me what a PLC is?"
"It’s a sequencer manufactured by M..."

The quickest solution to not understanding something is not being too proud to ask the other person what they mean.

Once you have understood what the terms in the question mean, it is time to improve your understanding of them. If you Google the keywords that came up in your conversation, you will get lots of information, including manufacturers’ websites. Hopefully, when you look through the search results, you will see sites that describe exactly what you are trying to understand. If you do, you have won the battle. You might not understand everything at first blush, but I believe that by repeating this process you will get closer to the information you need.

While this might sound very straightforward, it’s something many people don’t do. Once you have finished dealing with the client’s question, I suggest that you take a short break and revise what you’ve just learnt while it’s still fresh in your memory. By doing this, you make the knowledge your own. Make this a habit!

2. Failure to Break Down the Question

This is all too common. Without attempting to understand the terms used, we try to digest and answer the entire question, all in one hit. However, without understanding the terms used, it is impossible to come up with an answer. Again, the quickest approach is to find out what the unknown terms mean, one at a time. Most problems can be solved if you break them down like this.

3. The Idea That "It’s Not My Job"

This may well be the most common, and least recognized, reason.

Sometimes we just never get a concept, no matter how much we study it. If on some level you feel that it is not your job to understand the problem, your brain will not even attempt to understand. In other words, it all comes down to whether you see the matter as "your problem" or not. If you do not see it as "your problem" and simply try to learn the concept by rote without properly understanding it, you will never succeed. If at high school you saw math and science as pointless subjects, you probably got low grades in those subjects.

The same applies to excuses like "I took arts" or "I didn’t study that". If you subconsciously believe that because you studied humanities it is impossible for you to understand technical concepts, or that you have no hope of understanding matters you do not specialize in, I do not think you have any prospect of ever building your knowledge. If you find that you have real trouble learning a concept, I suggest you consider this possibility.

Try Making Friends

The truth be told, I often have trouble learning concepts myself. At such times, rather than attempting to solve the problem by myself, I try to get help from someone who is proficient in the field. There is only so much that you can do on your own, and there is no shame in asking for help on matters you can’t accomplish on your own. By the same token, you should try and return the favor by helping others on matters you have expertise in.

The deeper your understanding, the better you will work. This might seem obvious, but I believe that there are a lot of people who perform their work unthinkingly without considering their degree of understanding. These people never take breaks from their work to pause and reflect. If this describes you and you never get out of your old habits, one day you will end up a "failed old-timer". There is no shortcut to accumulating knowledge: you just have to chip away at it. However, this daily effort will translate into knowledge in the long run. I encourage you to put this into practice.

TEXT BY
Yoshiaki Yajima
Senior Expert, SE Section, Solutions Development Department

[Areas of expertise]
Overall of low-frequency EMC standards
Harmonic/flicker measurement technologies
Analog circuit design (high-accuracy measurement)
Application software development (C#, VB.net, Excel VBA)

[Major achievements in product development]
Harmonic/flicker analyzer KHA series
Precision DC source KDS6-0.2TR, standard signal generator KSG4310

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