Can't Get No Respect -

Can’t Get No Respect

Not again! At a party full of interesting strangers, yet again I was once more what I do for a living. Men, of course, often use this question to competitively profile one, to figure out what class someone belongs to, and even more to establish the person's income.

I dread this question. “I'm in computers” always initiates a barrage of help-desk queries. “How do I create an Excel macro to do such and such,” or “my son needs a new machine; what do you recommend?”

I prefer to say, “I'm in the electronics biz,” but that's so generic as to be almost devoid of meaning. “Embedded systems engineer” or “hardware/firmware designer,” both accurate, convey no information to most people.

I'm an embedded person. I have no interest in mastering the intricacies of Excel or keeping track of the latest megahertz/megabytes/gigaweenie offerings at CompUSA. Few non-geeks have any more than a vague notion that their lives are surrounded and controlled by microprocessors buried into almost every electronic gizmo. To most folks “computer” means the 100 million or so PCs shipped each year; the 6 billion processors that go into embedded systems aren't on their radar screens (if they had radar, which of course would have several embedded micros per set).

My usual response is “well, I design embedded systems, which is any electronic product that has a microprocessor but doesn't really look like a computer”. But that's too much. Halfway through this spiel I can see their eyes glaze over. They're looking for a word or two: lawyer. Marine biologist. Enron accountant. Andersen paper-shredder.

Isn't it astonishing that our field, which has so profoundly touched so many people's lives, is so invisible? Why do we have to teach a short electronics lesson just to define our profession? It's not technology per se that's so obtuse. My dad, for years a space engineer, wears a T-shirt that proclaims, “Actually, I AM a rocket scientist.” That's plenty descriptive for the great mass of educated (?) people. But embedded is a meaningless term to most folks.

The spouse of a new acquaintance recently described her husband's firmware work vaguely as “you know, he builds computers and things.” Huh? What does that really mean? My extensive research for this article consisted of asking my 11 year old daughter what I do for a living. “You type on a computer, right?” she answered. Well, yeah, that's correct. But it's far from complete.

I've been thinking about using a marketing approach. “You know about computer pornography, right?” That's the sizzle. Get them interested. Imagine the group now leaning slightly forward, their drinks momentarily forgotten, surprised and titillated by the National Inquirer -like response. “Well, embedded has nothing to do with that, but I do design computer-based products.” A collective sigh will reveal their conviction that smut is indeed part of the deal in some obscure fashion. Surely this answer will deflect all of those annoying Excel questions.

On second thought, maybe I'll skip the party and go back to the lab to get some work done.

How do you describe your profession to people outside of the field?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. He founded two companies specializing in embedded systems. Contact him at . His website is .

Reader Feedback:

Steven Jensen said “Before I retire, I expect to be able to say: 'You know your garbage can? Well, there's a small computer in there …'” (See Below)

Well, Steve doesn't have to wait until he retires. I recently designed a microprocessor-driven metal detector that goes in a chute that fits on a trash barrel to prevent the accidental loss of silverware! Yes, really!

Brad Peeters
Theta Engineering

This is a great article. I still have troubles explaining to my fiancee what I do let alone others.

I currently specialize in embedded USB capable micros. When asked what I do, my fiancee replies “He is a Bus Driver”, instead of trying to explain Universal Serial Bus ๐Ÿ™‚

Matt Leptich
Applications Engineer


As always, enjoyed your column. It reminded me of an entire instruction set that was printed in Datamation magazine in ' 72 or ' 73. I've lost my copy, but it was great! The ones I remember were: HCF–Halt and catch fire, BSD–backspace and score disk (you may not remember mechanical head lifters, but there was nothing worse than the sound of a head crash), and of course, XOI–execute operator immediate.

It may have been the same issue that had the (purported) reactions of a group of small children who had been treated to an industry awareness day with a visit from a programmer. One little girl was quoted as saying, “I get giggle fits all over when I think about how much money a programmer makes.”

Keep'em coming.

Howard Speegle

The answer “I design computers that don't look like computers” worked fine for me until Bill Gates learned to spell “embedded”. Or, to be more accurate, until Bill Gates learned that he could redefine “embedded” to mean what he wanted it to mean.

Gary Olmstead
Senior Engineer
Toucan Technology

I loved this article, it really hit home with me. Being female makes this problem even more frustrating, since away from work the majority of the people I come in contact with are PTO moms and parents of my childrens friends. As is typical, when I used to reply “I write software” I would get a barrage of questions. Now, I say “I write software for Naval Mine Warfare and Mine Countermeasure Systems.” Since this sounds incredibly boring to most people I rarely get any additional questions and usually the subject changes to something else. Very few people REALLY want to know what I do. The only person in my family who has a clue about my profession is my Dad who is a retired physicist and also worked for the Navy on Mine Defense systems. At family gatherings he and I sometimes get into interesting and lengthy discussions about our work. The rest of the family rolls their eyes, says “oh no, not again” and goes to another room to play monopoly.

Joy St. Amant
Electrical Engineer
US Navy

I get that all the time. Sometimes I can make a few bucks by making house calls, but usually I just end up giving free advice.

I think the best way to describe embedded systems is in terms of something people know. When they ask, try asking them: “Do you use an ATM card?” or “Do you pump your own gas?” or “Does your kid have a Furbie?”

Eddie Correia
Senior News Editor
Software Development Times


I loved your article. I face that same problem as I design embedded systems. My kids say that “Dad invents things”. I like that description but it also has a mad scientist connotation. I tell people I design electronics, rather than confuse them by saying computers.

Keep up the great columns.

Tim BelskiSr Electronic Dev EngInvensys Metering Systems

JACK REPLIES: “Mad scientist?” I like that one. That'll make the tongues wag.


I enjoyed your column on the lack of basic knowledge of the general public regarding computers. You might enjoy a couple more personal experiences.

My company has “automation” in the title, so from time to time we receive urgent calls for hard-to-find auto parts. “Ya got uh starter fer uh 1911 Hupmobile?”

When I tell people I work with computers, they always know someone else who does and assume that you are equally knowledgeable. “Oh, my son is 16 and he knows all about them”, or “my nephew works at Radio Shack”. These people have a working knowledge of the difference between orderlies, nurses and doctors, why is it not possible for them to comprehend the difference between someone who manages to use a computer and those who design them from the ground up?

Matter of fact, when I tell people I design computer systems, many of them think I'm talking about the case, ala grape-colored MACs.

The crowning point of my disgust was the retirement speech of the outgoing college president at my class reunion. She was bragging about her lack of knowledge of computers, as if it were a badge of honor among her liberal friends. Why do these people need to regard the use of a pencil to record their thoughts as somehow more pure and holy than to use a word processor? Do they not grasp the technology required to make a pencil?

Howard Speegle, President
DIVA Automation, Inc.

JACK REPLIES: You're right -even the lowly pencil is a technological marvel. Check out The Pencil by Henry Petrowski. Fascinating look into how this simple tool evolved.

Hello Jack,

l enjoyed your column on can't get no respect.(Unfortunately I also appreciated your recent economy related column that essentially said I can't get no job, either)

Part of our company elevator pitch/introduction involves a simple explanation of embedded systems. We use it also with introductions and announcements for our local embedded systems development group the South Florida Embedded Development Group

“Embedded Systems represent the computers hidden in or behind everyday devices – devices that ideally simplify and improve our lives – computers in cell phones, Anti-Lock Brake System(ABS) controllers, Global Positioning Satellite(GPS) receivers, Personal Digital Assistants(PDAs), telephone switches, and cable set-top boxes. Developing these devices has unique challenges because they often have very strict timing requirements, or are small with limited CPU and memory resources, and they generally don't have keyboards, color displays, or the option to press control alt delete to restart them”

Oh, I still get asked to fix and recommend PCs.


Wil Blake
“Embedded Systems Anywhere and Everywhere”
Embedded & Mobile Systems Inc.

Your article on describing our profession has been a problem for me too. When I give a short answer like “I work with embedded systems”, I routinely have the follow-up question “What's an embedded system?” I end up giving a short lesson. To their credit, they have enough interest to want to know what an embedded system is.

A former co-worker was telling me about one of his experiences with this line of questioning. He gave the standard answer, and then went into the short lesson when the woman asking him didn't know what an embedded system was. He enjoys his work, so he was getting into some detail and getting excited about explaining this when the woman asks “And you like this?” That took the air out of his sails. Now he just gives short answers and leaves itat that.

Bob Weber
Thales Avionics In-Flight Systems

My answer to the “What do you do question” is normally to bypass the “computer” aspect altogether and respond by mentioning the device the CPU is embedded into. Hence, “I design/build medical instruments” is close enough for most people and gets the point across. Back when I worked on data acquisition cards, it required a bit more explanation, but still easier than repeatedly saying, “No, I can't fix your Outlook problem.”

Lyndon Walker
Software Engineer
Beckman Coulter IDC

There is a much easier way to answer the “Whaddaya do for a livin'?” question. Relate it to the actual thing you are working on.

When I worked on embedded s/w for cardiac pacemakers (embedded s/w squared, I called it!), I would say: “You know those pacemakers that they implant in your body? There are several small computers [don't say 'microprocessors', the eyes will glaze over] inside the pacemaker, and I write the software that runs on them.”

When I worked on defense projects, I'd say: “You know about the Air Force's B1 bomber? Well, it has several dozen computers on board, and I wrote software for one of them.”

And the easiest, my current job: “You know your cell phone? Well, there's a small computer in there, and I write software that runs on it.”

This last one is difficult though, because then they ask: “Well why does it [drop calls, have poor reception, etc.]? Is that -your- software screwing it up?!”. No, but we're working on it!

Before I retire, I expect to be able to say: “You know your garbage can? Well, there's a small computer in there …”

Steven Jensen
Principle DSP S/W Engr

P.S. I've been in the biz for 20 years, and you are the only commentator that tells it like it is. Great stuff!

When asked, I normally answer “I write computer programs.” Anyone who has had at least one programming class pretty much understands and bows with the proper respect ๐Ÿ™‚ On the other hand, I always keep up with the latest trends, so when I'm asked about the best PC or how do I view the downloaded AOL graphic file, I can answer intelligently and maybe even pick up a free meal along the way ๐Ÿ˜‰

Vernon Davis
Software Engineer
Advanced Energy Industries, Inc.

I'm thinking of getting a bumper sticker like you see on Pickups, “Yes this is my pickup. No, I won't help you move.” Except mine would read, “Yes I am a Software Engineer. No, I won't fix your computer.”

Don Warbritton
Software Engineer

Jack Replies: Awesome! Get me one, too.

In attempting to describe what I do in language that the non-specialist can grasp I find that the concept of a “controller” means at least something to most people. Central heating systems, washing machines, cars (automobiles) etc. are pretty generally known to have some sort of electronic box of tricks at their core nowadays. I find it comes as no surprise to most that this is now true of many more machines with which they have a knodding acquaintance.

When I say that I design “controllers” or “electronic controllers” for lifts (elevators), (and previously “controllers” for heating and ventilating systems) I seldom get (got) blank incomprehension and occasionally even get (got) interested, if naive, encouragement to expand on the subject.

I know that not all “embedded systems” are strictly “controllers” of machines or processes that the uninitiated would recognise. MMIs and Modems/Network Nodes spring to mind immediately, but these are roughly explicable as the “controller's helpers” to do the jobs that it is really has not got time to do for itself. So, if pressed about a particular project of this type, give a “for instance” of the sort of kit that your peripheral might be used with and take it from there.

Richard Whitlock
Principal Development Engineer
Thames Valley Controls Ltd

I like to point to my digital watch or the microwave oven and say, “I write the kinds of programs that go into this.” It's usually succinct but sufficiently descriptive.

David M. Tomer
Senior Software Engineer
Detection Systems, Inc.

That's a frustrating question…Even my wife doesn't know what we are living from ๐Ÿ™‚

Dejan Durdenic

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