Going Grey - Embedded.com

Going Grey


A recent poll of readers of my Embedded Musenewsletter turned up someinteresting results.

We're getting old. At least, in the US, embedded developers are, onaverage, much older than those in the rest of the world. I somewhatarbitrarily divided responses into three geographical areas: the US,the rest of the “Western” world (Europe, Australia, Canada, etc), andthe “East” (India, Asia, Middle East, etc).

The results are plotted below, though the data is skewed somewhat bythe fact that these readers are all necessarily English-speakers.”Percentage” is the percent of total respondents.

Changing “percentage” to percent of developers in each region givesan alternative view:

The results are striking. Few Eastern developers have gray hair. Onecould argue that the developing world is, well, developing, and hasn'tbeen employing lots of high tech workers till recently. Yet on a recenttrip to Asia engineers told me that they are expected to be out of thetrenches and into management by the time they have 10 years ofexperience.

As early as 1973 I worked in Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia withengineers building hardware and firmware. The numbers were small, then,but there weren't that many embedded folks here at home, either.Microprocessor development has a long history in all corners of theworld.

Europeans have been just as engaged with embedded systems asAmericans since the very dawn of the microprocessor age, yet theirworkforce is significantly younger than America's.

Both Europe and the East show a bulge of young folks. In the US thebulge is more one associated with middle-aged waists, peaking at 45-49years of age. Offshoring, a relatively new phenomena, simply can'taccount for this effect.

Either engineering college enrollments decreased twenty-five yearsago, or young folks are abandoning the profession. The September 2005issue of Today'sEngineer suggests the latter.

I worry that as US engineers retire few young folks will be aroundto take their place. One can hope the law of supply and demand willkick in: open slots will drive salaries up, making the career moreappealing. However, for that to work some force will have to compensatefor anecdotal reports that school kids in the US just aren't doing wellin math classes.

What's your take? What's the future of engineering in the US?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embeddeddevelopment issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helpscompanies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at . His website is

I emailed you awhile ago, and chatted briefly about the 'greying' of the embedded developer arena. To which you stated that at many of the seminars you have attended/given, you see alot of young 'uns. And now THIS article! So … which is it eh?

On a more serious vein. You are quite right. The problem is that our modern culture has made the pursuit of money, and fame are where the rewards come in. So… why do engineering? When it is far better to pay a bunch of engineers to come up with a product that will make the 'savvy' marketing/sales dude a ton of money. Unless it is something like one of Apple Computer's finely tuned market products, or some game console platform as the WII, engineering is a game best played out by foreigners or 'old grey-haird sputnik-era fuddy duddies'

– Ken Wada

Jack Replies Ken – there are lies, damn lies, and statistics! I guess seminar attendees self-select, the younger folks having more to learn, or are more anxious to learn.

I happen to work in Taiwan (Asia, for the geographically challenged) and I have a possible explanation for your observation. Most 'western' engineers (and especially the Americans I've met) choose this career because they love it. Consequently, by the time they've got 20-30 years experience, they're worth their weight in gold and eminently employable; not only that, they WANT to be at the bench, designing real products, not stuck in the boardroom. Here it's the reverse. People choose to study electronics or computer science simply because it's a “good career”. Many of them just don't have engineering in their bones, aren't particularly interested in what they do, and hope to get away from the bench and into a private office as quickly as possible, where they can 'manage' the minions; alternatively, they take an MBA and move on to sales and marketing, where there is even more money to be made. In other words, anyone over 30 is not doing real engineering if he can help it.

– Tony Weir

I have to second the previous reviewers opinion. I have seen many engineers in US who love their jobs and keep doing the engineers job even into their middle age for the pleasure of it. They are masters in their domains and it is actually an inspiration to work with them- Hats off to you guys. Here in India though there are many committed and competent engineers but most of them just happen to be engineers because it is more of a comfort driven carrer choice. Engineering in the highest paying job for the masses and so they all take the option blindly. Career for the love of work is not at all the driving force here unlike in US. The quality of technical education in the universities here with a few exceptions is very bad and consequently many of them dont have the engineering judgement and aptitude to execute the work professionally and its very unfortunate. And again I see people who are just 30+ yrs being managers, particularly in software with just 10 yrs of total experience or 7 yrs of relevant experience. I dont see the approach to problem solving and analysis that comes with years of working in the trench. This should kind of assuage the fears of US engineers because the worry that all the important design and architectural work will be offshored enmasse anytime soon to aisan countries is simply unfounded because we are still not prepared for that rigor and wont be for a long time if this attitude to career and continues.

– Kiran Rao

I'm wondering if the “engineers” included from overseas in the survey would be considered engineers here or just technicians and when technicians are included here what the results are?

– Brad Kepley

I am from Bangalore, India. I have a slightly different explanation for – engineers shifting to management roles and not sticking to engineering in our part of the world.

The idea in here is to create more and more jobs; jobs placed lower in the value chain, for which there is good supply of 'resource's ('People' for humans) in this part of the world. And then get 'somebody' to sit on top and manage things, and make your share of quick-bucks. And if my understanding is correct – the tendency for such jobs to change shores to our part of the world is going to continue (Why? Simple! 'resource's here come cheap) than stay in the US.

And the problem is there are not enough 'somebody's around, so you get pushed in to becoming a 'somebody' from being an engineer.

So those of us who want to remain engineers need to hope and pray that this kind of pressure-to-develop (really?) in this 'developing' part of the world does not touch us. Amen!

– Swarna Kumar

Not just every engineer at my site, but everyone save the receptionist is over 40.

Young males who were always the vast majority of engineers, mathmaticians and scientists appear stupid and lazy these days. They now have lower college enrollment than women.

In our day, we actually built computers, radios and hot rods – now kids think they are tech if they can instal computer games . . . which only creates new neuron connections dedicated for simply eye hand coordination for simulated holocaust.

Another trend I've noticed: just about all the people I know who are smarter than me have no kids.

It's nice to want to encourage kids to pursue engineering, but I don't see the demand for jobs – in fact, if lots of people my age weren't knocked out in the last decade and if engineering enrollments had stayed high . . . I'd probably be out of a job now.

– Eric Krieg

lthough there are many factors that may cause the decline in young engineers, two main events came together that would explain a lot of the trend, the industry downturn coupled with off-shore outsourcing. During the industry downturn often the engineers that lost their jobs were the ones without the experience and / or training. Companies tried to preserve their core expertise, which often resulted in their more experienced stars to be kept on and lesser trained new grads being laid off. (I have seen this trend at many companies. They became top heavy relative to age over the last five years.). Many of the laid off engineers have taken on other jobs in other disciplines (as the IEEE article describes). The other factor is offshore outsourcing. Who can really recommend to a young person that engineering will be able to give him a stable career in North America? Consequently only those that really love and believe in a career in engineering would start out on this path. A perfect storm came together.

– Dieter Schulz

I have to say I'm from Portugal, Europe, though I worked for one and a half years in a Brazil in a 500 employee company, with most of the work force allocated to projects for a known American mobile phone software manufacturer.

My first point is that during my time there, as a software developer, I interfaced with developers from Brazil (of course) but also Russia and India, but never from the US. In terms of software development, that seemed to be the normal case. The company's software development cycle was spread over countries with low wages.

My second point concerns how to consider an IT worker as software engineer. A great portion of the people in the company, unlike the small team I was part of, were really “test engineers”, which in my view really is not the same thing as a software engineer.

– Eduardo Marques

Jack, you write: “One can hope the law of supply and demand will kick in: open slots will drive salaries up, making the career more appealing.” There's a paradox in there. Maybe a few of us do this stuff because it pays so well, but as I approach retirement age, I can't remember money ever being a consideration in my career choice. Would higher salaries make the career more appealing to people who wouldn't have chosen that path in the first place? Lots of occupations pay more than engineering, but never pried me loose from this. It's who I am, it's what I do. It's occurred to me that I might have been hardwired for it from conception. Scary. It's also occurred to me that the explosion of young engineers in the East is a result of an explosion in their higher education systems and commercial opportunities, leading also to an explosion in foreign-student graduates returning to their native countries, who formerly would have stayed here: what we are seeing is the differentiated leading edge of a step function. There simply aren't very many older engineers in those regions – so far – but maybe a surfeit of younger ones.

When those who made the classic error of choosing this career for the money discover that it really doesn't suit them intellectually, they will gradually drift away into marketing and management, just as they do in this country. The age distribution is bound to level out.

The side effect is positive for older USA engineers – it is is a great time to be alive. In the past, it was difficult to find work at 40. These days, we can keep on plying our craft until our eyes can no longer focus on our slide rules.

– Doug Raymond

From my limited experience, I'd say the aging of the US embedded engineering population can partly be explained in the differences that motivated the old-timers to get in versus those of the new generations. Back before the birth of PCs, technology was so novel and exciting that on average it attracted people with a “passion”. Today, technology is a commodity that, for the average joe, is no more exciting than the latest reality-show. There is no glory in being an engineer anymore; the social status that accompanied the profession in the space-program era is long gone. All we hear about these days is about the google-like billionaires who made it with a web site on a dime. It's all about money! And let's face it, for most of us, engineering doesn't pay anymore! (with regard to the long hours). But more, the future seems so gloomy too. Outsourcing and the hiring of foreign workers do indeed lower wages (no surprise, that's what its about anyway!). So its no surprise, that anyone with a brain would shy away from engineering if all they're after is a safe and money-driven career. And to be honest I can't blame them. Everything being equal, and sadly, it is better to go to law school.

– Sylvain Bernard

If it weren't for the deep troughs in the business cycle, I suspect there would be more folks interested in engineering.

When I graduated in the depression of 1992 (yes, it was a depression according to some economists at the time), I was part of a graduating class of 100+ electrical engineers. Only a handful of us were offered jobs at or near graduation day. The rest wondered if the last 4 to 5 years' efforts were a mistake.

The business conditions were so bad at that time, when signing up for resume release at the school's placement office for the one or two companies that did post, we were competing with classmates who graduated 5 to 7 years earlier. In 2001-2003, business conditions were very similar. Why would anybody take up a career in a field for which the demand for its services was so volatile?

And with competition from foreign nations, whose people can afford to earn less, it is no wonder that the smart kids are re-thinking their career objectives. All the while that I was searching for a job in the 1992 market, we were living in an apartment complex that provided temporary housing for Indian engineering students for Digital Equipment Corporation. I say that was a kick in the pants: No work for engineers in Maynard, MA; but plenty of opportunity for those in Bangalore, and training for them right here in the US.

The last company I worked for conducted three layoffs in the 18 months that I was employed. Nobody should have to live or work through that angst. They shrank from 650+ to approximately 250 in the last three years.

It is an unfortunate circumstance of global competition that the engineering workforce is going grey. It is also unfortunate that I cannot provide an idea on how to change these circumstances.

Ranting and raving,

– Stephen Marple

Jack, thus far in my 12 years in embeded since getting out of school, I've been very fortunate to have had access to senior (graying) engineers with so much real world experience. These are the founding fathers of embedded systems. They understand the system, design the hardware, and can write real tight assembly. At the end of the day, they can figure out problems that new-generation engineers don't even know where to begin. I salute them…they are the REAL engineers. They are my teachers. But I also fear that they are a disappearing breed.

Vast number of young embedded engineers today rely so much on CASE tools, scripts, and automated-everything-tool that they don't really understand (or worse, don't want to/are too lazy to understand) what is is they're working on. Take away these fancy modeling and code generation tools, and they're in trouble. How can one be called an “engineer” if one doesn't know how to use a hammer and chisel?

This country founded the embedded software industry. Like nearly every other industry driven by cost and profits, embedded is being outsourced to low-cost software centers around the world. These centers may turn out the prettiest documentation and nicest-looking code, but it scares the hell out me that that code was developed without true understanding of the system or the hardware. The engineers in such low-cost countries are no different than the young engineers here — they need to grow up with experienced engineers.

I firmly believe that good engineers cannot be created solely through the educational system. They must be taught in the real world, by the graying engineers. Reading your article, I realized just how critical it is to keep experienced engineers from going into extinction. A very difficult concept for megabucks CEO to grasp.

– John Rutirasiri

Mostly depends on factors like the US dollar exchange rate andwhether the H1-B visa program continues to undercut wages here.

If the US dollar continues to be strong, then most growth inmanufactured good will continue to be in Asia.

If the H1-B visa program continues (or is expanded), then theUS college students will get the message that they need to finda different major, as is already happening.

-dave chapman

If you compare the average salary of a fresh MS(CS) graduate with that of a fresh MBA graduate you'll straight away figure out why more young professionals are abandoning engineering profession.

– Saurabh Srivastava

No doubt my opinion is very naive since I have but three years in the industry, but perhaps the face of “engineering” is changing in the US. The realm of hardware, software and firmware blur as new technologies come out and older tried and true methodologies are outsourced to the cheapest able-bodied group of people.

Keeping up with the industry is imperative to remaining useful in the U.S.. Learning new skills to save your time and in a sense make your self obsolete is what will keep your job in the future.

I do think there is a point at which miscommunication/time difference/work ethics breaks down the cost savings achieved by outsourcing work however, I do not think outsourcing is about to reach its apex any time soon.

The good thing is that there is an amazing skill base currently in the U.S. engineer population. Those of you over 50 have a foundation in the basics that us younger engineers dream of having. If the dwindling engineer population is disappointing to you, perhaps spending some of your retirement time mentoring those kids who just don't know it yet that they want to become engineers, is a good use of your time. The kids are there and behind their video games and attitudes, their creative and inventive side is dying to get out. They just need someone to show them where to start.

Someone instilled the will to learn in me and I will be forever in their debt. I am an engineer because I love learning and playing. If money is your primary concern then head where the money is. If out-sourcing bothers you, then find and go after the roots of the issue in the same way you tackle any engineering problem, otherwise re-tool and learn to adapt to your new environment. Telling everyone that engineering is a dying profession in the US and doing nothing about it at all will indeed make it one.

– Josh Frkuska

Very interesting article. I was at a meeting in Colorado Springs a couple of weeks ago and there was a presentation on workforce issues by a Vice President of Lockheed Martin. Their age issue tracks your chart there with the average age being 46. At NASA that age is 49 and fully half of the NASA workforce is eligible for retirement in the next five years.

I am very fortunate at 46 to still be able to do hard core systems and design engineering and I have the pleasure of working with engineers as old as 75.

I was working on an embedded DSP project for a launch vehicle (Shark DSP) and my 75 year old friend was then 68. I taught him how to assembly language program that DSP! It was amazing to see this guy, with about 8 hours of tutorial he took off, wrote a multitasker, and we were able to control the entire vehicle with a little assembly, some C code, and some good hardware that I built. I love these old guys and they do this job for the love of it. It is hoped that as we all get older that we take some young'uns and teach them well.

– Dennis Wingo

As a H1-B working in US for the past 5+ years and having completed my graduate studies in US I have gotten ample of time to study things in US. It is a great country! and there is none like it .. period.

But, how many engineers are there in the US Senate or Congress or Corporate America?

Some of America's most prestigious universities (except MIT) like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Duke etc are not known to produce great engineers. They all have great Medical, Law and/or Business schools. Bulk of Engineering is taught at the less prestigious public universities whose sole aim it seems is to mass produce engineers who can work under the elite graduating from the likes of Harvard and Yale with an arts degree.

So I think we should not be surprised by the situation. The american elite will continue to send their kids to Harvard and Yale and the American poor would be happy to find a job in Walmart or K-mart etc. The class that is getting squeezed is the american middle class. They will send their kids to public universities and the cycle will continue.

A techinitian in my office was very happy when his son got admitted to Priceton on a scholarship. When I asked him if his kid was going to take up science or engineering … he smiled and said “law or may be economics”. price of a 4 year degree in Princeton is about $160K … if somebody makes that kind of investment then why would he/she take up engineering and spend the next 10 years of his/her life just repaying the student loans ? They'd rather become a lawyer or work on WallStreet to recover that money and hopefully drive a porche 911 before the age of 30

But to be fair, the good thing here in America is that as an engineer one can still afford a decent life style and be not looked as a failure since he/she could not make it to management unlike in Asia.

– Mickey M

dave chapman wrote: ” If the US dollar continues to be strong”

I wonder what currency he is comparing the US dollar with. I work for a company where most of our sales are made in US dollars and the weakness of the dollar has caused us great problems. Only this week we had headlines about the pound sterling being worth 2 dollars. Not that long ago we wer worrying about dollar-pound parity.

– Ian Okey

The real reason we are behind in engineering and math is because our educational philosophy is flawed. And it has nothing to do with the teachers. I know many teachers and they are all dedicated, loving people trying to make a difference in this world. My wife is a teacher. There are too many distractions competing for children's attention. Cell phones have made it so much easier for children to spend time on the phone. It use to be that when kids were on the phone it would tie up the phone lines and important phone calls could be missed since we didn't have call waiting and built in voice mail that gets messages even if you don't pick up. So parents closely controlled this time at home. There didn't use to be MTV,incredible computer games that have no intellectual value, and parents determined to get their children in atleast 2 activities per child. I could go on and on about the distractions. Families used to play board games around the table in the evenings, games that required thinking and social interactions. All that has been replaced. So our culture has changed fundamentally, but has our educational philosophy changed to counter-balance these distractions?

What percentage of children before 5th grade play chess on a regular basis? Here's an interesting study for you to conduct. What are the math scores of American children that play chess relative to the rest of the world's math scores as a whole. I have a feeling that those results would be very different. If you were to look at a country that plays strategic games with their children and compare test scores you would see that the more engaged children are with strategic game play at an early age, the better their math and science scores.

The problem is that not one school in the US teaches the art and strategies of chess as a part of its curiculum. All schools teach children how to play the flutophone and maybe Spanish or art or anything else besides how to be analytical thinkers. And I don't mean just chess, there are so many other different games that children should be playing and learning how to think strategically about the game, but it doesn't happen ever. How many families play scrabble, monopoly, clue,chess, and so forth and so on with their children at early ages and as they get older? They may buy them at Christmas with good intentions and new year's resolutions on their mind, but follow-through is so much harder than intent…

Reading, writing, and arithmetic are ONLY the necessary skills in life we need to simply function, but to excel and compete we need to be strategic thinkers. And the schools don't see the value because they never had to teach these in the past because parents accomplished this by playing games with their children. Granted no one was aware of the real value of it, and it was done ad hoc and certainly was not done for strategic purposes or taught strategically. But atleast it was there…

So we need to embed strategic thinking skills in to the schools because it is not being done in the homes. Just like we need to teach algebra since its not being done in the homes. There is no difference. We just have not realized the profound importance of strategic thinking. The schools have to adapt to the culture of our times. It could be said that our culture has changed more so in the last 30 years than in the previous 300.

The schools must respond to the recent social changes. Sadly, it's too late to solve it in the home for our society as a whole. The home has been compromised with MTV, video games, cell phones, reality shows, and so forth and so on. The last place of solitide, free of these blinding and exciting distractions, is the school. If we must change the curriculums to fit it in, then so be it. But only 1 hour a week of strategic game playing AND instruction in how to think strategically may be enough medicine to heal our wounds. And so a result children will become better readers since they can critically think about the words they read. And they will certainly become better at math and science since strategic thinking will work hand in hand together with the math/science thought process. And they will learn how important cooperation is when they play team building games. And they will learn not to fear failure, for through failure we learn most about ourselves. And they will learn not to avoid challenges. And I could go on and on…

As an engineer I have always believed in playing games with children as a way to increase their analytic abilities. And both of my children are gifted. I don't believe that to be a coincidence or genetics. Rather I believe it has to do with all the hours of playing thinking games with my children beginning when they were 3 years old. For example, to start my daughter on chess I would teach her a little bit about the game, get her to memorize the names of the pieces, a few moves, and at the end…ALWAYS have a dancing party with the members of the Royal Court.

I am just now getting started on trying to bring this vision to a reality in the US. Please feel free to contact me at david_lupia@yahoo.com.

– David Lupia

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