The Frodo Baggins analogy - Embedded.com

The Frodo Baggins analogy

In December I asked why embedded developers don't get any respect. Responses were interesting and varied; I posted some with the article.

The poll question asked when we'd be unionized. An overwhelming majority responded, “when hell freezes over,” which says something about engineers' individualism. In this era of collective bargaining, whether through conventional unions or professional associations like the AMA and ABA, engineering is one of the few holdouts. We're the last of the rugged individualists, echoes of the romantic cowboys riding their lonely ways across the Great Plains. We dare to be different, to set our own course.

That's pretty cool.

In keeping with this notion, many respondents wrote variations of “who cares what anyone thinks about us,” a comment most of our spouses would no doubt recognize in frustration.

Those readers are right, of course. I'd never advocate that we worry about what others think. In thinking about the replies, though, I started to wonder if being so individualistic helps accelerate our demise?

Many of our jobs are being exported to cheaper providers. This disturbs me greatly, but it's a natural outcome of capitalism's drive to optimize costs. Unionization, government initiatives and other attempts to stem the flood would be nothing more than short-term props doomed to ultimate failure.

Yet since we care so little what folks think of us, no one understands or cares about our jobs. Engineering jobs that drift overseas will go mostly unlamented.

After corresponding with hundreds of readers over the last year or so, I've come to the two conclusions about the outcome of outsourcing. First, it's inevitable. Some engineering jobs may be immune, such as classified government work, but over the next decade a great number of creative jobs will flow overseas.

Second, in the future there will still be a market for engineers in this and other high-wage countries. But it will be a very different kind of work, one requiring a stunning variety of skills. Engineering will belong to those folks adept at the social sciences as well as the technical arts. Engineers will be a bridge between customers and the offshore suppliers. They'll be experts at extracting implementable requirements from the contradictory desires of the marketing droids and consumers. The engineer of the future will be an expert at the science that underlies a particular technology (e.g., the science of measuring and controlling the color of jeans and food). Tomorrow's engineers will write with a skill that will be the envy of English majors, converting needs to documentation so clearly it's not confusing even across cultures. They'll rival Dale Carnegie's presentation skills as they're called on to explain technology to consumers and CEOs.

Of course, we won't need many of these people but those we have will make fabulous wages.

I've yet to see part three of The Lord of the Rings but hope the producers captured the book's most poignant story. The war is over, Aragorn restored to the throne. Gandalf and the elves stop by the Shire to collect Frodo, his mission in Middle Earth long over. Frodo suffered so much and saved the world, yet Hobbiton didn't care much about his efforts. His journey done, his mission quietly accomplished, he fades off to the Gray Havens and is forgotten and unmissed except by a very few. The dawn of the Fourth Age is a time for community, of new mayors and kings reconstituted. It's a different world, with much less of a place for individual heroics and accomplishment.

Is this our destiny? To fade quietly away, no longer needed by this new world? What do you think engineering will be like in a decade?

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 .


In manufacturing, it is well known that the benefits of offshore production outweigh the costs of managing from adistance, only if the the amount of goods produced is sufficiently large. In other words, there is an overhead associated withoffshore production which local production is not burdened with.

Once the engineering offshoring “fad” is over, it will become understood that the same is true of engineering. Foreignengineers will design the standard building blocks and platforms, local engineers will add customization for niche customersegments.

Standard hardware sub-systems and open source software will make it easy to build a customized product for a specific marketsegment or customer. I believe that niche/custom design is the future of US Engineering. And there could still be quite a bitof work, though never as much as in 1999.

– Doug Arnold


That is a pretty gloomy picture you paint. How ever, I have no doubt it is becoming reality–in big companies.

I do believe the future has a lot of possibilities for small & medium size firms to produce cool products. There will always beroom for people with Bright Ideas. These people will always need good engineers working closely with them to help them maketheir dreams come true.

I sincerely hope that increasing regulations will not make it hard for small firms to create new products. Apart fromregulations, it has never been easier to make new things.

Our economies desperately need small and medium size firms: most of the nations annual income is generated by them!

So if you've got a Bright Idea: go for it, and make it a reality!

– Evert van de Waal


Nice article.

Our worst fears are going to come true: engineering will go to the lowest cost supplier. Our only hope is that the American engineer (be he/she a hardware or software engineer) is the true lowest cost supplier. I don't mean that we have to lower our saleries: rather we have to be the lowest cost in terms of the complete life cycle: the initial design, corrections and updates, continuing support included. If we are as good as we are supposed to be; if we are the professionals we claim we are, then perhaps the inefficiencies of outsourcing will show up and turn the tide. (Yes I realize it is easier every day to collaborate with engineers in remote locations, but there always seems to be something lost “in translation” as opposed to face to face communications. Besides, there is always the problem of time differences.)

In addition to the above true life cycle cost issue we have the issue of liability. Who is going to be left holding the bag when some code or hardware design by a foreign engineer fails? I would venture to guess that the US corporation that outsourced the job is going to take the wack from the lawyers: the US corporation has the deepest posckets usually.

The only long term answer I see is that we all have to become true professionals: no just solder flingers, metal bangers or code jockeys. We have to show by the quality of our designs that American Engineers are World Class Talents, and that we can design rings around the rest of the world.

Pehaps it is time to require all that engineer's to be licensed. This at least sets a minimum requirement. If someone can not meet the requirements for professional registration (they are really technically not that difficult) then perhaps they should not be designing on their own.

As a small aside, my father was a professional engineer for over 35 years, and he always refused to compete on price. He and his firm won jobs based upon quality of work and reputation. If someone wanted to go with the lowest bidder then they (usually) got what they deserved: substandard work. This work for my father and his company: I try to follow the same rationale in my professional life.

– Mark R Walter


The reality that this article portrays demonstrate hard facts that engineers need to realize. The current enrollment in most of the Universities is very high for foreigners. In higher tier university it is greater. For these foreigners to work in the US they will work for a number of years underpaid. These people will be reluctant to leave thier current job because of the US visa restrictions. Hypotheticly if I was a CEO and wanted an engineer that could lead a engineering outsourse team abroad. Who would have good communication skills and understood the culture these foreign students would be placed very easily. The Engineers now should be prepared. Not only will they need to develope interpersonal skills and writing. But the ability to speak fluent in another language will be just as much a tool as the computer.

– Mike ZK


I wonder if lawyers won't be the next professional candidates for export. Their services areexpensive, but most of the work is done behind the scenes, so could just as easily be done in, say, Baghdad as here – if thelibraries of legal proceedings and the current case files were on-line. (How much of your last home closing needed legalservices greater than the paralegal level?)

As the legal profession lurches into the technology of the 20th century , they'll be opening themselves up to this. Of course,you'll still need a local lawyer there in the courtroom, just as you said we'll still need domestic engineers to set therequirements and finesse the designs.

– Tom Brennan


The article on outsourcing is an eye opener.

I agree that we will need to be able to read, write, speak (English and another language) better than any liberal arts majorever can or will. We will still fling solder, run analyzers, look at mystical oscilloscope tracings, and solve the problems.

And we will have to be licensed.

After 17 years, licensure was not easy, but was obtainable. There are good study guides, internet resources, etc. Just do it ifyou want to be doing engineering. And with most states now requiring continuing education to keep the license, I am leaningtowards the widely experienced engineer winning.

– Douglas L. Datwyler, P. E.


The choice to move offshore is not just about price. It also reflects the fact that offshore engineersare every bit as good as domestic engineers, and that quality, accountability, and honor are no longer the issue. For toolong, self-righteous Americans have ignored social and educational advances in other parts of the world. Now, when someonedeclares “The kid won't need math, the computer will do it for him!”, its just too bad that it will be an Indian or Romaniancomputer, because Americans won't know how to make one for themselves.

I encourage my colleages who are versed in process controls and effective testing methods to apply themselves to our publicschool system. Observe school administrators that have no clue about the processes they oversee, and test techniques thatleave no opportunity to recover information allowing timely and systematic feedback for process corrections. Compare what yousee to the Detroit of the 1960's, and I believe you will find many similarities in attitude and habitual ways of doingbusiness. Its not about drugs or guns or parents or money, since these are simply environmental factors. Its about the needfor controllable, repeatable processes in the education arena, uniformly applied, openly discussed, and carefully adjusted withtimely feedback.

It takes 20 years to make an engineer, and at least 3 or 4 product generations to correct systemic problems in peoples'attitudes and ways of thinking and working. Ladies and gentlemen, we are stuck at the bottom of a cycle and can only lookforward to the long climb back to the top. Economics will always win until it makes technical sense to bring those engineeringjobs back to our children.

– Kevin Kilzer


I agree with several of the previous respondents with respect to the micro-economic decisionsthat companies must make with respect to outsourcing. As with early offshore manufacturing, early adopters may display acertain degree of naivete when it comes to assessing the true costs of shipping work offshore, including the hidden costs ofcommunication (and miscommunication!). Engineering can be an even more difficult task to manage remotely, since it consists ofdesign, decision-making, and interfacing with a number of different stakeholders – it is an ongoing, adaptive process. Amanufacturing line, in contrast, can be designed and built ahead of time, have the kinks worked out, and then set loose withminimal changes to the process over time. The engineering projects most likely to succeed when shipped offshore are those thatare concrete, require minimal interaction with other designs in the works, and employ technology that has “been done before”.

What is often missed in these discussions, however, is the macroeconomic impact of offshore outsourcing. Because of offshoremanufacturing, I can purchase everything from jeans to consumer electronics at a greatly reduced price than I would be able tohad they all been produced entirely within our borders. All other variables held constant, this improves my family's qualityof life. In addition, the influx of money into developing nations generates demand for products as their citizens' disposableincome increases. The associated rising quality of life and demand for goods and services drives an increase in efficiency inhow these nations develop their own natural resources, and drives demand for products engineered and manufactured within ourborders. Everything is linked on a macroeconomic scale, although the time constants are significantly longer – so it is moredifficult to discern the causal relationships at work; in this case, US firms beginning to make use of cheaper engineering forlow-risk products causing greater global and national prosperity in the long run.

Twenty years ago, labor unions issued dire predictions that the manufacturing base of the United States was going to disappearentirely due to the offshore outsourcing of manufacturing. Last month, the US manufacturing index hit its highest level in 20years… case in point.

– Eldridge Mount


It takes time to make an engineer. It takes no time to distroy one.

If I lose my job to outsourcing overseas, I will retaliate any way I can. It is unfair competition. How can you compete with someone who is willing to work for $3.00 per hour?

We strive in our work area to be team driven. Why do I have to train my competition to take over my job? It is my skill set that they are learning in just a few weeks. Skills I built up for over 14 years.

Me and my family live here, in the U.S.A. What is my family to gain if my job goes overseas? I will just start buying products not made here. Maybe I will move to India. From what I here, their economy is growing by leaps and bounds. General Motors just finished up their tech center there.

– Esmael M. Beydoun


Great article. I also read the arguments. I work in an OEM/ODM structure as one of those engineers that is more a professional technical liaison, rather than heavily involved in the design aspect. I have been watching development engineers around me drop like flies during the “lean years” (layoffs), whereas my workload actually increased. I have some things to say about each:

-Accountability of outsourced companies is still a problem. It is very difficult for a company to make a supplier be accountable unless there is future business involved. International contracts may or may not be honored.

-Getting a PE is a moot argument. The End User (EU) does not care if you have a PE. They are only interested in costs.

-Quality of the engineering depends on the outsource company, and in general, the cheapest of the outsourced engineering is absolutely trashy. You get what you pay for.

I believe that the evolution of the engineering model (in-sourced to outsourced) is a natural derivation of the evolution of the market, and all the commodities that are marketed. As the technology becomes aged, and the products become more “commoditized”, the free market will always look for ways to cut costs. That is why an engineering degree is so tough to get, because we are very malleable professionals that can fit in anywhere in any market. To succeed in this market, were going to have to be aware of what is out that and accommodate appropriately–or move to Taiwan, I guess.

– Carl Anthony

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