Is This A Dead-end Career? -

Is This A Dead-end Career?

Become a dentist, CPA, or lawyer and odds are you'll be practicing that profession on a more or less daily basis till the day you retire. That seems less likely for engineers and firmware developers. How many EEs or software folks do you know in their 60s who still work as techies? How many in their 40s?

Though I haven't the statistics to support it, my observations suggest that embedded systems development is a field dominated by young folks — say, those under 35 or so. Middle age seems to wean folks from their technical inclinations; droves of developers move towards management or even the dark side, marketing and sales.

Is salary compression the culprit? My students, all of 21 and armed with a newly minted BSEE, get entry-level jobs at $50-60k. That's an astonishing sum for someone with no experience. But the entire course of this career will see in general less than a doubling of this number. Pure techies doing no management may top out at only 50 percent above the entry-level figure.

Consider that $70k or $80k is a staggering amount compared to the nation's average mid-$30k average family income — but even so, it's quickly swallowed by the exigencies of middle-class life. That $50k goes a long way when one is single and living in a little apartment. Life happens fast, though. Orthodontics, college, a house, diapers, and much more consume funds faster than raises compensate. That's not to suggest it's not enough to live on, but surely the new pressures that come with a family make us question the financial wisdom of pursuing this wealth-limited career. Many developers start to wonder if an MBA or JD would forge a better path.

What about respect? My friends think “engineer” means I drive a train. Or that being in the computer business makes me the community's PC tech support center. “Doctor” or “VP Marketing” is something the average Joe understands and respects.

Is tedium a factor? Pushing ones and zeroes around doesn't sound like a lot of work, but getting each and every one of a hundred million perfect is tremendously difficult. I for one reached a point years ago where writing code and drawing schematics paled; much more fun was designing systems, inventing ways to build things, and then leaving implementation details to others. I know many engineers who bailed because of boredom.

External forces intervene, too. Though age discrimination is illegal it's also a constant factor. Many 50-ish engineers will never learn Java, C++, and other new technologies. They become obsolete. Employers see this and react in not-unexpected ways. Other employers look askance at the high older engineer salaries and will consider replacing one old fart with two newbies.

So where do the old engineers go? Is this a career you expect to pursue till retirement?

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

I am still programming at 57 and my mind is as clear as ever.And why wouldn't it be? Politicians, executives and professors are not layed off at 40.

I recently solved a parsing problem in 2 days. I remember how I struggled with a similar problem for months when I was much younger. And I have stayed away from 'parsing' in the years in between.

Also, my employer recently had a group activity where we had to build a LEGO MindStorm robot car and program it in C.

The other 'consultants' where in the ages 25 to 40. I was only one who finished the task within the given time, 4 hours. Conclusion: Age is not a problem.

Niel Thore

First, consider how one becomes an embedded engineer. Colleges don't offer that degree. Most come from other degrees, like physics or electrical engineering and grow into it. I think that very few make it a life long career. Since I work for the government, my opinion may not count. I do a lot of different jobs. My close relationship with the IEEE though, gives me insight into what is happening in the profession. And I have been told personally that “I don't need you because I can hire an engineer out of college any day.” We become obsolete. We become old. Chasing the new technology gets old. But all of the engineers I know who got layed off were ones who didn't program. There is something about programming that keeps us marketable, whether the language is C, C++, Ada (my favorite), assembly, Java or whatever.

Years ago I took a correspondence course in electronics, and the first package had a card in it. The card read: He who knows how will always have a job, but he who knows why will be his boss. Knowing why (MBA) didn't make me a boss, but it did make me a better engineer.

My solution to the age problem is to follow the advice in “The Richest Man in Babylon” by George Clason. Make sure that at least 10% of everything you earn is yours to keep forever.My first year of college, a CPA did my taxes, and charged me $5.00. I found out years later, when I got audited, that he did them wrong. He rented a small office, and worked by himself. Five years later, he told me he was only doing them for old times sake, and he charged about $40.00. He owned his own building, had people working for him, had a plane and a boat. This year I paid over $300 to get my taxes done, and she isn't a CPA. I hate doing taxes, but if one wants to chase the money, that is one place to run. Personally, I plan to retire and buy a day spa. Anyone have experience with steam room controllers?

Dennis Ludwig
Computer Engineer

This article is total B.S.


Regarding your statements:

“Though age discrimination is illegal it's also a constant factor. Many 50-ish engineers will never learn Java, C++, and other new technologies. They become obsolete.”

Age discrimination and becoming obsolete are independent actions performed by different people-groups, and probably not correlatable. Also, if salary compression is as you say, employers would be wise to higher experienced (non-obsolete) engineers because they can produce at a rate that will be at least proportional to the pay difference.

Of course, if an old engineer allows his skills to remain constant while technology passes, he will be less likely to advance or be hired by others, but this is not age discrimination (its good business). Likewise if he rests on his laurels and spends his day talking about the good-old-days.

I work in the embedded arena and I am over 40, we just hired a guy over 40, and we just interviewed a guy over 40 and (accountants willing) will hire him, too. Its hard to get young talent for embedded projects since most new engineers rely on packaged solutions and problems that are clear, concise and well rehearsed. The real world has none of that.

Kevin Kilzer
Chief Engineer
Adtron Corporation

As an under 30 embedded systems engineer I'd love to read some of your older readers experiences and responses to this question. Please post online.

Heshy Bucholz

For me, this article hits the nerve. To me, it looks that engineers are the blue collar workers of today, at least in terms of respect. Like lemmings, even young engineers move towards a “career” in management, where “management” often means doing coordination work which does not bear the risk of failure that every technical work has (e.g. your software might not work). The opinion behind it seems to be that you can always find someone who will do the technical work, which comes close to what V.S.Naipaul once called the bazaar mentality, e.g. stuff is there and you can always buy it without caring about how it is made.

What seems to be lost is any concept of technical achievement or excellence.

Sorry if this sounds like ranting, but as I said, it hit the nerve…

Christoph Seelhorst

I find that the average high quality, experienced developer is far more productive than the average, high-quality, “new” developer with little or no post-graduate experience. When I use the term “far more productive”, I mean after correcting for salary differences.

Whether doing embedded development is a lifelong career or a phase in one's career may be a matter of personal preference. This phase vs. entire career may also be a reflection of one's interest/ability in acquiring new skill sets on a on-going lifelong basis.Many “older” engineers more than justify their higher salary through greater experienced based productivity. Of course, there are plenty of older engineers who are unwilling to acquire new skills, long for the good old days and basically are marking time until they retire. And there are plenty of young engineers who will make many costly mistakes before they learn that they really don't want to be (or have what it takes to be) development engineers.

So what's my point? – Unqualified statements like “Many 50-ish engineers will never learn Java, C++, and other new technologies. They become obsolete.” tend to reinforce stereotypes and are generally not helpful. The 50-ish engineers may take a little longer to learn the newer languages but their experience more than offsets the longer learning curve. I'd rather hire an experienced person with a new tool (Java, C++) in his toolbox at a higher rate, than an inexperienced person who “grew-up” with the new tool but lacks the “real-world” practical experience required to take a product to the marketplace.

I speak from the experience of having managed more than 200 people at one time or another in my 25 year career.

Don't be a doomsayer and “buy-in” to the propaganda that engineers are useless after 50. My experience is that this is just not true.

James Wiczer
VP Technology Development
Sensor Synergy

Jack is dead-on with his observation but he's forgetting one thing that lured many of us to this profession — the pot of gold at the end of the startup rainbow. Not too many CPAs have that upside.

This is a cyclical business. We have to except that. It's up to us to take charge of our careers. You can't stay on the technical ladder without keeping your skills current. It's not economical to pay someone twice the rate of a younger engineer to push the same bits around. Eventually we'll all be replaced by younger workers with newer skills.

BTW, I grew up in the good ole US. Paid top-dollar for my private school EE degree, and have seen at least two recessions in my lifetime. Last time this happened in the early 90's the headlines read “PhDs out on the streets”. Some of those who survived, became millionaires in the next boom. That's the sirens call that keeps us struggling in this “profession” (besides our love of technology in general).

Manoj Vis
Principle Engineer

Definitely not a dead-end career. I have about 2 friends in my age group still doing the same. I'm 59.5 yrs old and semi-retired and still do embedded systems. Money's good, hours are great, not too many of us old farts around though. After I got my endocrine system (cortisol, testosterone, thyroid) system functioning again, my mind is as clear as it was when I was 40. I built my dream house on Lake Cumberland in Southern Kentucky. My office is in lower level with door and windows overlooking lake. It is a very conducive environment to productivity.

Stephen F. Bean
Title: Principle Engineer
Company: MicroPlot Systems

I totally agreed. You've to forced to leave the career before 50. Unless you can retire by 40's. A hopeless situation. I don't have any solution for myself and advice for others.

kan chan

You mention an interesting choice of professions: lawyers, accountants and dentists. Unlike engineering all of these professions protect themselves by limiting numbers and having their own professional bodies who decidewho and how many new members there are every year (at least here in Ireland, and I am sure it is the same in the rest of the world).Anyone can apply for an engineering job tomorrow, but try opening a dentists shop! I am not saying there is anything wrong withhaving professional standard set by a body, but engineers do not do that, and this is one of the reasons why they can not commandthe same money as some other professions. I am not sure if such a professional body would benefit employers, or end-users, but it wouldput more money in engineers pockets, and keep them employed – but there would be fewer of them.

For my part, I am going to stick with the plastic surgery so that I can compete with the young guys for the techie jobs.

Niall Murphy

Great article! I voted “over 30 plan to retire” but wondering whether this will actually happen. Just wondering about the “already bailed” choice though… Would anyone still be looking at if they had really “bailed”? Maybe the choice should be reworded:

“Know someone who already bailed”.

Software Engineer

The oldest engineers I know in England in the field of Embedded systems are not more than 45ish. At that age, they are earning more than £100K a year and they are mostly contractors… apparently the older ones move into consultancy/ mgt(as you mentioned).

I am 25 and have already considered taking an MBA course, although I still have to learn JAVA properly and C++. My software of predilection is C… that's what has brought me luck in finding a job so far.


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