We Don't Communicate - Embedded.com

We Don’t Communicate


Close friends who run the neighborhood awning shop just returned from a three-day canvas convention in Ocean City, four hours away. They have a little Mom & Pop business that is a long way from cutting edge by any measure. Other than a nice CD player and an old laptop, their capital equipment is decades old. Yet these folks find tremendous benefits going to a yearly out of town convention.

We, on the other hand, work in a business whose technology moves so fast even the Internet can barely disseminate updates fast enough. In the last 20 years canvas hasn't changed at all, yet we've gone from 16-bit CPUs pushing the bleeding edge to 250-million transistor, 64-bit architectures.

How many of us go to the embedded conventions?

Next month the big one, the Embedded Systems Conference, will be held at the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco. I imagine attendance will be around 15 to 20 thousand visitors. About a thousand will pay to attend the hundreds of classes offered. A couple of surveys suggest that around 250 thousand people develop embedded systems, so fewer than 10 percent will attend this show. Somehow that seems pathetic.

I find another number disturbing: Embedded Systems Programming , which is about the only English-language magazine targeted at our biz, has a circulation of 60 thousand readers. That's only a quarter of the people doing the work. Clearly the vast majority of developers don't read the publication. How do they keep up with the latest changes in the field? Do they keep up? Are they stuck in a technological time warp, always using the same tired old tools and techniques to solve problems?

Can you imagine being a doctor who learned medicine in the '40s, before penicillin, who continued to practice through the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s using the same skills he learned so long ago? He'd be considered a butcher! Doctors and many other professionals work very hard keeping up with changes in their field. Isn't it our responsibility to do the same?

I'm a big advocate of getting folks out of the lab from time to time. Go visit your customers to learn about their problems. Attend training classes when they're available. And go to the conferences. Last year, after giving a talk at this west coast show, I was standing around chatting with some of the folks who had attended. We were talking about all sorts of development issues. One asked me if I knew anything about a particular commercial RTOS. Was it any good? Reliable? How was support? I couldn't help him, but it turned out another attendee standing there had used it for years. The two of them paired off and huddled for 15 minutes. That one brief meeting probably made the entire conference worthwhile for the questioner.

We're the very people who invented the communications age, yet all too often we do a poor job communicating. Go to the ESC this March. Check out the vendors. Talk to other attendees. Suck the educational opportunities dry.

It's our responsibility to find ways to do our work better. There are damn few opportunities. Seize this one.

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


Don't feel bad about not having a high percentage of developers of embedded system subscribing to the magazine. My work is not related to this field, yet I read it on-line frequently because I find some articles helpful in making designs logical.


David Liu
Director of Technology

A corollary to your column is to plan time not directly performing development tasks and perform other “overhead” tasks. For example, learn more about the tools you're already using, write a utility, clean out that file drawer: you might find something useful. This will only work if “management” endoses the idea. And the importance of the endorsement of management to challenge or allow the developers to do new things from time to time, really hit home to me the other day.

We embarked on “productivity/quality” improvement push at our little consulting shop after attending an ESC class taught by Jack Ganssle. While progress was solid early on, our recent status meetings on that push started to sound like a broken record: ” I was to busy with customer X's release to anything on that”. After the fourth week in a row of no progress, dawn broke over marblehead and I remembered the phrase that I read repeatedly in the CMM book ” …This Key Process insures that the process improvement of XX is supported by management through the definitive allocation of resources and ..” Over and over, that phrase was repeated in the CMM book and I glossed over it thinking that saying we are going to improve stuff is the same as improving stuff. Well it was happening, I realized it this week, and today Fri Feb 22 is the first “productivity friday afternoon”.

We'll stop development and one of us is going to finish the coding standards, another the configuation management guidelines, and a third the installation and trial run of an off-site access to our configuration management database. I, being the president of the merry little bande, have decided to “…insures that the process improvement of XX is supported by management through the definitive allocation of resources and ..” And after a few hours of exciting productivity improvement, we're going to retire to the 'Wild Irish Rover' to network over a few ales and stouts and shared what we learned with each other.

Bill Larkins
Reciprocal Designs, Inc.

You write, “Can you imagine being a doctor who learned medicine in the '40s, before penicillin, who continued to practice through the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s using the same skills he learned so long ago?”

(Aside: Some of the skills, such as knowing your patients, would be very nice today. I don't know if I'm in the doctor's office, or a bakery – “Number 32!”)

On the other hand, what about a doctor who is forced to use 1940's equipment because of decisions made 20 years ago?

Perhaps it's time for this doc to look for another locale…

Rich Ries
Embedded Systems Programmer

JACK REPLIES: Hey – I like that! Combine a bakery and the doc's office! At least the great smells would help mitigate the HMO frustration.

Regarding: “I find another number disturbing: Embedded Systems Programming, which is about the only English-language magazine targeted at our biz, has a circulation of 60 thousand readers.”

The publishers refuse to distribute this magazine outside the USA. If they sent it to those who asked for it who knows what the circulation might be. I find this nationalistic attitude disturbing but I would have thought it was good for the mainly US companies whose products are featured to have awareness of them spread internationally. (I am in New Zealand).

Les hughson
R&D Manager
Spa-Quip Ltd

JACK REPLIES: An interesting point. I'd imagine that shipping a hunk of magazines halfway around the world would be very expensive. Perhaps a local printing makes sense? I don't know how many developers there are in NZ – probably not a lot. There is a European version of the magazine. And, the bulk of the editorial is online at embedded.com.


Let's compare our countries' situation.

In Hungary:

  • there are some 400 people developing embedded systems. Half of them are young engineers, just graduated.
  • an engineer costs 2000 USD a month for his company, but earns only 550 a month. Many of them has some “gray” business: Crack GSM telephones, dungles, one-handed-robbers …
  • companies calculate projects on a 130 USD pro engineerday basis, so the profit is low.
  • benzin costs 3,40 USD a gallon.
  • a *** hotel room is 45 USD a night.
  • a dinner costs 10 USD minimum. (A BigMac is 1.50 USD)
  • a tabletop noname PC is around 750 USD and up. (With a “gray” OEM Windows and a downoaded beta development sw.)

That's why there are no embedded conferences here at all! We would be happy if we had a conference a year, but no chance…

We do not have even a hungarian website for “embedded people”, so most of us read your site, and surf the company sites. Because of the globalization more and more works abroad, or sells his work for foreign customers, who can make better margin, and push down engineer wages in the west.

Could you give me some numbers from the States, please?


Sandor Fule

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