Old and in the way - Embedded.com

Old and in the way

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I recently did a survey of embedded systems engineers (www.ganssle.com/salsurv.htm) and found, not surprisingly, that salaries vary quite a lot by region. Here's the mean salary by region in U.S. dollars:

Australia/New Zealand $49,644
Brazil $20,333
Canada $63,337
Eastern Europe $11,914
India $15,725
Mexico $13,000
Pakistan $6,000
Philippines $6,800
Singapore $33,540
South Africa $44,942
United Arab Emirates $7,000
USA $80,383
Western Europe $59,927

More interesting, though, are the age distributions. Developers are mostly young, averaging 37.5 years old worldwide with a standard deviation of 8.8 years. But in the U.S. we're older, 39.5. Respondents in Western Europe reported ages up to 54, and in the U.S. up to the late 60s. Nowhere else in the world did anyone respond with an age over 49.

But 95% of respondents were under age 50.

I don't know the age distribution for other professions. But I want my airline pilots and doctors to have at least a little grey hair. Age generally implies experience. We get better at our jobs with practice. The chance to cure many diseases, fly a wide range of airplanes, and build many different embedded systems leads to highly effective doctors, pilots, and engineers.

I'm constantly asked to explain how one goes about designing systems. My answer: build five. Then you'll know. At least one author has said the same thing about becoming a novelist: write a million words. Then you'll know.

The actual doing is where we learn to, well, do . Missteps, blind alleys, flashes of insight all combine to form a body of experience that makes us better at doing the next project than the one we just finished.

Yet most times older engineers aren't valued for their experience. Some view them as dinosaurs who can't possibly be in tune with the latest developments. They're expensive. Management wonders if it's possible to get two newbies for the price of one old fart.

Sometimes I wonder if engineering really is a profession after all. Dictionary.com defines the noun form of word “professional” as:

  1. A person following a profession, especially a learned profession.
  2. One who earns a living in a given or implied occupation: hired a professional to decorate the house.
  3. A skilled practitioner; an expert.

Definition 1 and 3 imply, sort of, that professionals follow their career for a very long time. Most doctors treat patients till they retire. Airline pilots might aspire to captain a 747 (or A380), but fly till they're 60.

Engineers don't.

A lot of us expect to be promoted out of the trenches, first as team leads, later project managers, engineering VP, or even to the dark side of sales and marketing. That's where the money is, as well as the grey hair.

Those professions perform activities of great value that are highly visible to consumers. We developers are cogs in the corporate wheel. No one cares about the competence of the engineering staff that built the plasma TV. Even in the corporate machine the engineering staff is just that — staff, a group hidden behind a veil of anonymity. The superstars are famous only to other developers in the team. The company sees engineering as some mysterious group that somehow produces products.

Now salespeople, well, the great performers are hailed and feted on Hawaiian junkets. Their faces grace the company's newspaper. Compensation is stratospheric.

CEOs and CFOs, if not in jail, get the glory and the bucks. No one's surprised to find 70-year-old presidents.

But a 70-year-old engineer? What's wrong with that person? He's still probably programming in Cobol and designing with vacuum tubes.

What do you think? Are aging engineers, like the Grateful Dead said, “old and in the way?”

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. Contact him at . His website is .

Reader Response

In the chip business, we hit our mid-30's and realize we're tired of working 7-day work weeks, 12 hours a day.There's not enough money in the world to make up for the lost time, so we start looking for more rewarding ways to liveand work. The problem with this is that most of the senior people have moved on to more rewarding work and aren't thereto mentor the younger people, and the younger people simply aren't in a position to architect reliable systems (or manage project teams and get products out the door on time).

I don't know what the solution is — this seems to be built into the culture of the engineering business. Its moreimportant to get cheap worker bees than it is to get a product out the door that works right and hits the market-windowon time. I do know if I was just starting out, I'd latch onto a “graybeard” and learn as much as I could.

– Mike Kentley

The article is spot on.I am 57 and I am a real embedded designer.One who does his own hardware and software development.Iam at the top of my game and will give the young TURKS a run for their money but the respect is lacking from managementand the younger crew.I would not change anything in career but it has been this way forever!!

– Bob Laragione

Perhaps we ourselves are the problem. As an industry, we should praise the experience of older engineers andnot think of them as “old farts”. These older engineers have valuable experience and knowhow. I think our egos areessentially shooting us in the foot. A young engineer probably doesn't think that they will get old. They perhaps thinkthat they can do it better than the old codger. This doesn't help the collective us. We should beware of “faster &cheaper” mindsets and think more of “Better & Safer”

– Tim Flynn

Well Jack, I'm proud to be one of the 5%. I haven't seen a vacuum tube in 25 years. Never wrote a line ofCOBOL. Is ATLAS close enough? That was also over 25 years ago. I hope to keep engineering until they run out of spareparts for me.

– Jim Montville

I am 57, worked for Bell Labs, Motorola, have patents and awards for excellence in engineering. I am nowpaying the bills by designing products with embedded microcontrollers and PCs. I will take work at $25/hour because thereis so little work available. It seems to me that engineering is no longer a profession, but skilled labor. It can be doneanywhere in the world for much less than we can charge here in the land of opportunity. It's just business.

– Ron Sanecki

I think I understand why engineers are fired when they're older: eventually, management lies becomeintolerable.

“We're all in this together,” says the well-tanned CEO as he drives away in his red Porsche, leaving the engineers towork all night so they can fail to deliver on an impossible schedule.

Younger, underpaid workers will always say YES when the correct answer might be NO.

The truth, in most cases, is unwelcome. This is why I am not encouraging my son, who is very sharp in math, to become anengineer.

– Robert Knapp

Interesting article since I am one of the “old” balding farts (48 years old and still hacking) 🙂 Theyounger people make be faster but I am more cunning and detailed. While younger people are doing the job the second (andpossibly third) time to fix the mistakes caused by rush I am kicking back for a beer and enjoying myself. Only down sideis upper management likes the perception of speed.

– Marc

Well, I am in early 60s and still doing embedded design work. In fact, when I look at work I do now, it ismuch better than some of my designs years ago. Having run my own businees for more than 30 years I have to do everything,management and sales included. However, my major task is in design with the latest microcontrollers. And yes, I couldalso design with vacuum tubes if someone needed it!

– Charles Kosina

It all comes down to the almighty dollar. Companies are run by bean counters who care about nothing besidesthe bottom line. Experienced engineers earn higher salaries, so they are the first to go. This is done in a calculatedway to skirt the age discrimination laws. I did a 9 month project in 4 months, saved the company millions, and they letme go 3 days after my project was completed. I've been out of work for 2 years and can't even get an interview. 30years of experience means NOTHING.

– Charles Johnson

You have hit the nail on the head as to how we are preceived. Part by a socity that does not know how topreceive us and partly by ourselves as to how we project ourselves. Which is geaks who don't know the first thing aboutbusiness, marketing, bottom line, manufacturability. We need to expand our horizons and be aware of the total businesspicture. The counterdiction to this is the older engineers offen obtain these trats but better not stay engineers orthey will be out of work. My brief thoughts for a subject that probably takes a forum.

– John Kopsky

I think there is an age stigma on engineers. I think we have caused it.

Society also has set the “professionals” up so they must be licensed. Doctors, lawyers, CPAs are licensed. Engineeringhas not required licensing. So to the public, we are not professionals.

Also, some of the engineers over age 50 that I know have been in and out of management (mostly in, and starting young),and some quit keeping up with technology shifts long ago. They have obsoleted themselves.

So, I say, if you want to be an engineer, keep up, learn something new, and keep doing it.

– Douglas Datwyler

Hey, the co-inventor of the transistor (Bruce Deal) spent his last years at Fairchild, in charge ofmaintenance! While Dr. Early still had a desk and nice office up front.

A corporate senior scientist for Perkin Elmer (has a list of patents too large to fit in a book) can't even find a job asa part time teacher.

Another senior research scientist ( has several patents on laser diodes and fiber-optics) is working as a linemaintenance tech in a small fab.

definition: Fab- Gallium-asenide mine, where good people get sent to disappear.

The last two guys want to do real engineering work and both are over 60, they don't like the fade away scene at all.

– Jan Van Kort

I am 49. You hit a nerve with me. I plan on retiring as an engineer around 55-60, and I will not acceptpromotion to a management slot. I love what I do and the difference in pay between the two jobs is not worth the addedfrustration. Hope I can bust the statistics.

– C Rice

You ruined what could have been a very good day. Since I'm going to be 57 in March and just want to build products, notmanage a team. It looks like I'm overpaid too. I guess toaster repair is on the horizon ;->

– Jamie Tarricone

Great article! I too am puzzled why engineers don't stay in this great profession. I am ONLY 39 and I can'tsee myself doing anything else. I can't think of any other job that you get paid to play. What do you think the meanage is of the Indian engineers? We have been outsourcing some of our software tasks to our sister division in India. Ihave yet to meet any one of them that is over 30 (excluding managment). We just recently announced that we are hiring1000+ software engineers in India. Can you imagine that? I don't even think Honeywell has 1000 software engineers inthe USA. They must be pulling them straight out of school.

– Rick Policy

I absolutely agree that experience is one of the strongest factors in training a professional, and that a number of”older” and more experienced engineers are not recognized for the value that they offer.As an older engineer, I have come to believe that there are a number of factors which contribute to this issue.

1. As you mention, the company leaders are sales and management people who do not fully understand the value ofexperienced technical professionals. Because of this, they tend to believe that the less costly engineers can make up forexperience with energy. I believe that they forget the old adage of “work smart”. Also, since they are generally nottechnically as astitute, they do not realize the ramifications of sub-optimal designs.

2. Older engineers are a mixture. Some do design with older technology because they are comfortable, while others are”right up” on the latest technology. Some hiring managers may not know how to tell the difference since they are lesstechnically fluent than the professionals they are hiring. I believe that they sometimes exclude older engineers to avoidthe risk making a bad decision. If a yonger engineer is hired, the training is guaranteed to be more recent. In thiscase, experience is ignored for the sake of a safer management decision (refer to item 1).

3. Management wants well integrated teams. Younger and older people have different intrests. People of different agegroups mix professionally, but perhaps not as well in after hours activities (i.e. mountain bike riding vs. theatregoing, etc.) I believe that some of these differences can build sub-groups and management tries to avoid this.

4. Competition with your parents. I believe that younger people tend to see older people as parents, and younger peopledon't like being corrected by their parents (older people) after they have “grown up”. I am an older engineer working ina younger group, and have reasonable answers for most questions.Not because I am more intelligent, but only because I have had those bruises before. This tends to annoy some people andcan hinder acceptance if not controlled.

The whole situation is self sustaining. As less older engineers are hired, they look “out of place” and may not be hiredfor just that reason.

This is a very sad state of affairs and a squandering of valuable resources. The current state of the industry does nothelp either.

Understand that this is a generalization from one person, and every rule has exceptions. However, I have seen some ofthis in action and believe it to be pertinent.

– Bob Kugler

Another excellent article. It puts into words what I have been feeling for a long time. (Guess that means you're getting old,like I am).

I am not sure if this is bad. We know that industry does not want engineers: if they did they would cherish every one they couldget their hands on. Instead they treat engineers as a comodity: “Let's get the cheapest one we can and run him/her till theyburns out. We can always hire a new one.” My son is gifted in math and science: I told him don't be an engineer.

– Mark Walter P.E. WB2IOQ

I would hope not… I've met my share of engineers/developers who haven't adapted as the field(s) has changed (and thosefolks are not generally worth mining for information), but by and large I feel its better to learn from the mistakes of othersbecause I won't live long enough to make them all myself

– Pat Thomson

In response to the issue of the age of embedded systems engineers, I think there are two main reasons why you don't see many 60+year olds. One is as you said, the migration to management and marketing is where the money is so many people go in that direction. The second reason though, is because we are in a field in its infancy. I am 35 and have already noticed a change. I would say thatthe average embedded engineer in San Diego when I came out of school was 30. It seems to me that it is currently at least 35 – thatchange has occurred in a mere 12 years! As a side result it seems that the opportunity to migrate to management is less due to thefact that there are more and more engineers every year. In '92 it seemed that 90% of the engineers above 35 moved into management. Nowadays that would be impossible no matter how many managers many of today's topheavy companies try to hire. I think our occupation will match those of others in 25 years or so (assuming we don't all find ourselves unemployed due to the muchcheaper alternatives in other countries).

– DaveO

This topic is very close to me. I am 37.5, so I fit perfectly in the demographic. In terms of next steps in my career,I struggle with going into management, or staying where I am. Part of the struggle is just what others have alluded to: advancement. If I continue to want to work in code, I will soon run out of places to go. I might make the leap from Sr. SoftwareEngineer to Architect, but there are only limited opportunities. If I go into management, then I have a lot more opportunities. Asone person already mentioned, there are some definite downsides to management.

On the other end of the scale, my father, an engineer for 40 years, was downsized from the research department at a rather largecompany. Being 60+, he can't find another job. Was he current with technology? Yes, in his last 5 years of employment, he developed10 patents. [Even now, he has several patent ideas he is now developing himself.]

In his quest to find something to do with his time, he has found that the skills he has are not the flashy skills that land a job. His specialty is analog circuit design. As he points out, “at some point, everything you measure is analog.” If he wanted to be amanager, there are openings. If he wants to do what he loves, there aren't.

So what does that leave? Well, there is always teaching, but even that is not as simple a move as you would think. Would I loveto take a class from someone with 30 patents and 40 years of experience? Yes. Will a University hire a professor without a PhD? No.

– John Werner

I am well aware of the issues raised by the great Jack G. Ganssle article. Being an EE I was also interested in finding out thereasons for such dire state of the profession. In my opinion some important causes of the decline are:

1) Since the advent of industrial mass production the power balance has shifted from the engineers to the sales people; Forexample now the principal goal of a company is to sell the huge amount of car produced instead to reward the clever designer of oneof its parts.This is quite different situation compared to the fame obtained by a 19th century engineer designing a single instance of a railwaybridge.

2) About reward and salaries. I believe that your salary is directly correlated to how much money your decisions involve forthe company and how much they are visible.And sadly the embedded software engineer decisions don't usually involve much money and are hidden into the complexity of thesoftware architecture.

– M. Dassisti

I moved to the USA from Canada as I saw that there were more older engineers in the USA. I found in Canada, my employer, who wasvery large, felt that if you were not a director or VP by the time you were 30, you were over the hill. The perception of how hardyou worked was more important than what got accomplished. On my yearly review when I was in my 30's, I was told that I don't work ashard as the 20 year old's, and this was bad. While I exceeded all my goals, and did more than the 20 somethings, it didn't appearthat I was working the 120 hour weeks that the younger crowd was. No raise, and pushed out.

At least in the USA, there are engineers with gray hair. With the tech downturn in the past few years, I saw and felt that theolder people were the ones to go, as they cost more, and are more of a threat to the younger management.

When I go for an interview, and the hiring manager is 25 and single, I find they can't relate to an older person who has a familyand a life outside of work.

We need more 40 something engineers to start their own companies and provide an environment for the more mature crowd.

– Paul Burega

Im a young Engineer (25) and I value the education I received and the field I am in. Some of my thoughts:

1. While I find the article quite interesting, Im not sure how relevant it is without data pertaining to other fields of work. Ithink many older people (regardless of profession) are tired of working 40 hours over and over. They want more money, they wantmore time off. In my experience, Engineers stop being Engineers so that they can be Entrepeneurial Engineers.

2. I hear several complaining about lack of jobs. This is fairly cliche of the last few years, and in my opinion, far from thetruth. There are LOTS of jobs out there for us. The economy has come back in a strong way. Our training is difficult and our jobis profound; I think *most* employers know this, and I am adamant that the state of affairs is not even remotely as bad as thepessimism I sense here.

3. At the end of the day, I think this article is a bit of a wake-up call. While Im not sure it really changes anything, its goodto know and good to be conscious of the possibility and plan for it. I can vouch for myself: When Im 50, I dont plan on being anEngineer at a company; I plan on owning my own company and making my own schedule. Does that mean I wont perform Engineering work? I think not, its what I love. But Im not sure that studies would call me an “Engineer”.

4. As an engineer, the goal is to innovate, to use what we know about the Universe to design something to work in a certain way. To me, its about pushing the boundaries, the frontier, creating useful machines from simpler pieces. And I feel that if we are goodengineers, we will create things that people want, produce ideas that people would pay for. Theres no reason all of us cant do it. So you ahve 2 choices. Give the idea to the company you work for so they make the riches, or make it for yourself. Maybe thatswhere all the Engineers are going…To make thigns for themselves.

– Josh Walker

I'm 51, and I've been in the embedded systems industry for over 25 years now. I always say that banging out code at my age is theequivalent of Nolan Ryan throwing 98 mph fast balls at 48. Yet I don't think I ever get credit for my durability! Oh well, I stillenjoy my work, and occasionally I still impress one of the “kids” with my skills…

– Harry J.

Bob Kugler's response was excellent.

I am 38 years old. I was a very good freelance engineer, capable of designing, programming, purchasing and manufacturing(anything but sales).

Sorry about the length and sloppiness of this comment, but its just a comment after all, and the last 2 paragraphs sum it up.

Regardless of age, bad engineers do not like to have their questions answered. That being said, I find more “bad” younger engineersthan older engineers.

I think that this is characteristic of a person who has been raised in a protected environment, where they are trained to think thatthey are better than others.

When they exit the protected environment, their egos have trouble coping with the fact that they are not really all that special.

One team member like that will make the entire team look bad, in order to make themselves look good, and management is usuallyfooled because they say what sounds good rather than what can actually be achieved. Who gets fired? The honest engineer.

Another issue is that I studied from 45 minutes to 4 hours every day. I got tired of staying up to date.

But that is not why I quit. I “retired” when I was around 35 due to the frustration of losing money and dealing with cons. In the 2years before retiring I lost US$40,000 in unpaid bills. I took precautions, but I simply did not have the money or the desire totake things to court. I wanted to be an engineer, not an attorney, besides, a contract means nothing when dealing with theunscrupulous.

I do not know how many others have heard this line, but it is familiar to myself and other freelance engineers with whom I havediscussed this topic, “If we want it, we'll take it, and there is nothing you can do about it.”

This problem is not just in engineering, it affects all creative people in all fields.

An aquaintance who called me for advice said that a company that had licensed his software, had not paid the license fee for 2years. When contacted, they said that they wanted to buy the source code outright. He offered to sell them the source code and allrights for US$20,000. They declined. According to friends in the company they have now invested over US$250,000 trying toduplicate his software.

You cannot reason with that, and that is a source of frustration.

That is why he no longer works as an independent programmer.

When I was younger, I developed some fractal algorithms. It took ten years. I used them in a copyrighted program that I upload to aBBS, from which 2 well-known mathematicians downloaded and published them practically word for word, without any mention of my name. When I contacted a copyright lawyer, I was informed that I could not enforce the copyright, because the algorithms in a program arenot protected, only the program in its entirety is. I was so frustrated that I stopped studying math for several years. Later Ideveloped some financial probablility algorithms that I was not allowed to copyright, but a famous insurance company was allowed tocopyright their versions of the algorithms. That is frustrating.

Just one more example; some of my original artwork was picked up by one of those graphic arts companies that scours the internet,and sold to the US Postal Service. It ended up on a stamp. The copyright office has informed me that I have a case, but I just donot have the money, the time or the inclination to sue anyone. I just don't care that much. I don't want to fight with idiots, Ijust want to create things; and that is a source of frustration.

Good engineers are creative, and they enjoy seeing things take shape out of nothing.

That creative spirit is what drives people like us, it keeps you going, regardless of the specific discipline, field, or project;but that spirit can be frustrated when you do not see the fruit of your labor, and when you have to deal with people who just do notunderstand. I think that many engineers quit simply because they never found a good environment to work in.

– Jeff Leonard

Engineering is but a step in the manufacturing process the costs of which management seeks to minimize. So it seems weengineers have more in common with the guy running the milling machine than we do with the one in sales. The difference between usand the milling machine operator is that we generally derive a deep satisfaction from the creative part of our work. While thissatisfaction may be sufficient to sustain us in our younger years, as we get older, start to raise families, etc. our needs change.We tire of doing the difficult work for relatively low pay while the big bucks go to the guy (or gal) in sales. And if we don't likethis state of affairs there are always some fresh recruits eager to take our positions.

Maybe the doctors, lawyers and airline pilots have the right formula: limit access to the profession with onerous licensingrequirements and let the law of supply and demand do the rest.

By the way, Old and In the Way was the name of a group of which Jerry Garcia was a member. It was also the title track on the albumby the same name X-#

– Hugh Shane

One thing I do not like seeing in the responses is that there is an assumption, that younger engineers do not respectolder engineers, I do not believe this is true, not for me any way. They are usually happy to divulge information and their pastexperiences, and I try and learn as much as I can from them, it is beneficial to listen to their past experiences on particularproblem, even if it does not solve your current problems! I have noticed that older engineers are wary of adopting new practices( Iput this down to their experience, of adopting 'the latest' new things over the years), also some don't like suggestions forimprovements on their current methods of working, usually falling around laughing at the young engineer who made it, even when it isprobably

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