Once I had boarded the Air New Zealand tin can flight to San Francisco and checked the distance we still had to travel to get to USA, it was really too late to change my mind. The 12-hour flight was mostly uneventful; I only crashed the in-flight entertainment system once and I did not see any tuxedo wearing penguins appear on the screen as the system rebooted. I was travelling from Hamilton, New Zealand, with a couple of my colleagues, Simon Lawrence and Andrew Bealing. I think we were all still a bit surprised that our company, the Gallagher Group, had signed off on our attendance at an overseas conference. We had each worked at Gallagher for 15 to 22 years and this was the first time that we could recall the company sending three senior embedded engineers anywhere exotic!
The Gallagher Group designs, develops and manufactures products for the building access control, farm animal management, and petrol pump markets. These products have a good mix of PC-based head-end software written in mostly Microsoft-based technology, as well as bare metal embedded devices used for data collection, reading ID cards and animal RFID tags, weighing systems, and the like.
Gallagher Campus, Hamilton, New Zealand.
In New Zealand, the main technology conference that occurs on our shores is the annual Microsoft Tech Ed event, which is great for PC-based software development, but rarely focusses on anything remotely embedded. As embedded software engineers, we make good use of the Internet to remain connected to best practices in firmware development, and the steady stream of articles from the Embedded.com newsletters help us to remember that we need to keep on learning in this job to stay at our best.
Of course, we've been hearing about the Embedded System Conference (ESC) events over the years, and the list of locations in the past has simply reinforced our geographic isolation here in New Zealand. Eventually, we plucked up the courage to ask our management whether we could attend the three-day ESC event in Silicon Valley. We were pretty sure that, at best, we might have to toss a coin to choose which one of the staff members would be able to attend. To our surprise, however, our management made a good business case that all three of us could attend!
Upon arriving in Santa Clara, we couldn't help but notice that there was an impressive looking theme park right next to the conference hotel where we were staying. Thus, the day prior to the conference was spent on roller coasters and rides, thereby providing a therapeutic remedy for our jetlag!
The first day of the conference had four lots of two hour workshop sessions which we enjoyed. We were impressed that there were three to five streams of sessions happening in parallel throughout the three days, so we strategically chose different sessions to attend. On the second day, I spotted a Hawaiian shirt wearing man that I believed might be Max Maxfield. After surreptitiously checking out his ID badge (it read “Max The Magnificent,” so I was pretty confident that I'd found the right man), I introduced myself as being a bit of a novelty conference attendee as I had travelled such a distance to attend. I also mentioned that there was not just one New Zealander attending, but three of us! For the next two days I bumped into Max four more times around the venue, but alas, he never was quite sure as to whether I did have two travelling companions as we were never all together as a group. The “meet-and-greet” on the last day finally allowed me to prove to Max that my imaginary friends from New Zealand did indeed exist!
Between the three of us, we attended about 20 sessions each over the three days with very little overlap, so we felt that the conference did offer extra value to our company that had allowed for more than one of us to attend. Our biggest “takeaway” from the conference was that the embedded firmware practices that we use at Gallagher in New Zealand are very much aligned with the best practices that are preached at this conference. I think this is partly because the Gallagher company has been steadily improving its general software development practices for PC software development over the past decade, and — to its credit — it has ensured that the embedded firmware development process is not left out in the cold. We try to use test automation, comprehensive version control, and clean build across all of our software development activities. We have recently adopted static code analysis for PC software and, where possible, we extend this analysis to our embedded firmware.
Travelling the distance we did, we chose to spend five extra days in San Francisco to become fully-fledged embedded tourists, stopping off at the Google Visitor Centre to jump in the ball pit, test the bicycles, and take selfies in the Android sculpture park. We learnt how to “Uber” about the place and did a lot of walking around town. I even went to The Stinking Rose garlic restaurant that Max had mentioned as being suitable to attend if one was not a vampire.
Overall, we really enjoyed the opportunity to travel to USA and attend an engineering conference that did not disappoint us at all. Well done to the team of engineers who help to organize the conference so well. We would love to return some day, but I fear we may have blown the training budget for our department for the next few years!
Nick Body, Technical Leader (Embedded Software), Gallagher Group.