Firmware finds its footing

April 24, 2013

USA Firmware-April 24, 2013

The journey has begun. It's amazing to watch the transformation occur naturally as demand and supply have not, yet, leveled out.

It's firmware evolution that is driving these changes, not some deliberate attempt to mature the discipline. Survival of the fittest.

What am I talking about? Firmware is coming of age. Yes, we lack a degreed program in firmware (at least in the U.S.), and the demand for embedded firmware is and continues to grow while the availability of firmware engineers does not.

We should be concerned about how we are employing EEs and CSs to the task of creating firmware without formal training. But the fascinating reality is that this lack of trained or experienced talent is forcing the industry to mature in many ways. Here are some.

1. Certification/accreditation programs
2. Complete solutions for purchase
3. Training and formal education

These trends are the natural result of an industry that has limited resources to meet the demand. In this article, let's look in more depth at the certification and accreditation movement in the industry as it seems to have taken off.

I received this notice in my email the other day. I don't recall such an emphasis on certification ever before at the embedded conferences.

Last year, I saw "Professional Exam for Software Engineering to be Offered in April 2013" from IEEE, which says:

“The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, will begin offering a Principles and Practice of Engineering exam -- PE exam -- in software engineering in April 2013. Registration is scheduled to open mid-December 2012”

This has come out of concerns expressed with faulty firmware and software which can lead to dangerous outcomes for both people and the environment. A voluntary PE program is a good step and one that again has resulted from the problem of employing EEs and CSs into roles without appropriate training.

Finally let's look at the semiconductor industry. Let's take a look at the present architecture and platform leader ARM. These folks have created the ‘ARM Accredited Engineer' program. This certification program is intended to provide a testing mechanism that will allow customers and companies alike to have a bar to judge an engineer against with respect to their knowledge of the various Cortex platforms.

So last week I took the Cortex-A test, and I am pleased to report that I failed. I was bummed at first. But in retrospect, it's a good thing! Kind of an odd statement you say? Well not really. Here's why.

I'm a ‘Cortex-M' kind of guy and have no prior experience with the Cortex-A family. So I studied. I read hundreds of pages from their Cortex-A user guide. I created index cards. I created a terms dictionary. I learned about the instruction set, NEON, SIMO, Elmo you name it, I read it and learned about it.

The test was not done at home at my computer. The test was timed, done at a testing facility. I had to lock up my belongings (phone, notebook, my ipad and so on). It was just me, the computer station, a note sheet to write on and some water.

So here I found myself, taking a test on a part family I had previously not personally used. As I was taking the test, frequently I would say to myself ‘Right, I remember reading that!” But alas that would be where it ended. I couldn't recall all of it sufficiently enough to pass.

This is great news really. I've taken ‘certifications' that are trivial and artificial. I'm sure you all can relate. This one is not trivial. Yes I can see passing it. If I was (perhaps I will) to take it again I believe I would. This is my field obviously. But thankful I am that ARM, recognizing their leadership in the industry has responsibly and ethically created a certification test which is NOT easy peasy.

I won first place for 6th graders in a chess tournament in Binghamton, NY many years back. Got a trophy, and the 11 year old in me was very excited. Oh I forget to mention. I was the only 6th grader in the tournament.

I'm not in 6th grade anymore. Don't reward me for showing up.

To me, sitting in the trenches, this is a good sign. A sign that we are evolving as the industry reacts to the demand for quality firmware.

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