As the world turns: recession and engineering

May 31, 2009

Jack Ganssle-May 31, 2009

I enjoy writing. But the best part about crafting articles is the e-mail from readers. Some signal agreement, others berate, all make me think. Readers send lots of e-mail--lots--and the most common query has been about becoming an embedded systems developer.

Those inquiries have completely ceased.

The favorite subject now is layoffs. Several to dozens of e-mails from newly displaced engineers arrive every day, looking for ideas, for contacts, or just to air despair.

At the April Boston Deep Agile conference, which was focused on using agile in the embedded arena, fully one third of the attendees reported they had lost their jobs.

Waves of layoffs are sweeping across the country and the world like an economic swine flu. Till the end of 2008, it seemed engineering, or at least embedded engineering, was pretty immune. After the dot-com implosion, businesses learned the peril of dumping developers: once that recession ended, companies who had shredded engineering had no new products for market.

As of 2009, engineers are no longer part of companies' survival strategy; they're cost centers that are getting trimmed along with everything else.

Every decade or so we have a recession. Apollo's demise in the early 1970s was a disaster for engineering since those people were tossed on the street in the middle of a downturn. The early 1980s saw a deep recession, as did the 1990s when Bill Clinton won the U.S. presidency, at least partially, with his refrain: "It's the economy, stupid." And of course the dot-com problems at the beginning of this decade spread far beyond high tech.

So maybe today's woes shouldn't be unexpected.

I know nothing about economics, but this recession feels different than the previous ones I've experienced. We always recover. But this time I wonder if the recovery will be into a financial climate that leaves too many chronically underemployed with sagging salaries for those with jobs.

Many forces are squeezing what we now realize is a precarious global economy. Some, like the rise of radical Islam, which will surely be nuclear-armed in the not-distant future, will leave the world rocking as it struggles to find solutions. Businesses will therefore have a hard time making decisions; the worst enemy of business is uncertainty. Popular unhappiness about executives, or at least executive pay, will feed that uncertainty. It's unreasonable to assume that we will have learned anything from this crisis, and even more unlikely that Ponzi schemes and other criminal activities will disappear from Wall Street, so the corruption will fuel unrest.

Then there's capitalism, the best system yet devised for creating wealth. But as Lenin said: "The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them." Capitalism may become its own worst enemy.

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