Will the torch be passed? - Embedded.com

Will the torch be passed?

In 1973, I read Dove , a remarkable book about Robin Lee Graham's five-year voyage around the world in a small sailboat.1 It had never occurred to me that one could sail a small vessel such vast distances. He related stories of remote islands and peoples that fired my imagination, many of which were eight miles below my plane as I was on a business trip to Australia at the time. I swore I'd someday follow in his wake. Just a few years later, I pointed my ancient wooden sloop south, bound around, but that dream was shipwrecked north of Cuba. Although the fire still burns, the golden chains we weave have kept my sailing wanderings mostly confined to both sides of the Atlantic.

This February, I finally circumnavigated the planet, though in a week at 600 knots. The trip didn't slake my desire to sail around this astonishing planet we inhabit. But my visits with engineers in India and China make me wonder if, as John F. Kennedy once said, “The torch has been passed to a new generation…”

Meltdown
Engineers tend to be pessimistic: we're paid to do worst-case analysis on our products, to find ways these systems can fail, and to increase margins to mitigate against such failure. We plug exception handlers into the code to handle awful events and do FEMA studies to ensure inevitable problems won't hurt users. We run code coverage, complexity analysis, lint, and far more to find those lousy problems that we know are lurking, just waiting to wreak havoc.

Sometimes that pessimism creeps into other aspects of life. What if those investments tank? Who will intervene if the kid crunches the car while Mom and Dad are out of town? Does it make sense to keep a chunk of money in the home safe in case there's a bank holiday?

I console myself that confronting these branching possibilities is a form of risk management. My wife wonders why I can't assume we'll follow a straight and easy path.

And so I'm distraught at the current financial meltdown. Is this a world-changing singularity or just a needed correction? I know nothing of economics, but after living through many recessions, this one feels different. In other troubled times, we were urged to “whip inflation now,” to wear cardigans, or to spend like drunken sailors. Today so many dire warnings–nay, sheer hysteria–emanate from Washington that panic seems the only reasonable recourse. Most of us have become pretty cynical about scares pronounced with pseudo-gravitas by our elected representatives, but the new zeitgeist seems to be one of fear, itself. The markets and economics baffle me, but even if one filters out 90% of CNN's recession news the near future looks awfully scary. Looking further ahead, I can't help wondering if this recession will lead to a transformation in the world order.

I did say I'm a pessimist.

The last half of the 20th century saw the West essentially abdicate the industrial revolution. The world was flattening long before Friedman noticed. Cheap transportation meant low-cost providers could out-compete us in manufacturing. The quality revolution was perfected in Asia, to Detroit's dismay. “Inexpensive” and “junk” are no longer necessarily synonymous, although Wal-Mart does strive mightily to move the world's crappiest products into our homes.

In the 1990s and accelerating rapidly in the aughts, the West started to dismantle white-collar jobs as well–including engineering. Some commentators rail against short-sighted management, but I really see no alternative. Stockholders–us–flock to high-growth securities. A conservatively run company that works to harden itself against the future, one that dismisses short-term concerns, isn't rewarded. Yes, a lot of cheap hoods on Wall Street have been exposed for their baffling shenanigans that led to today's troubles, but if you were CEO of a reasonably run outfit and you ignored the cost savings promised by offshoring work, you'd be fired.

Capitalism has traditionally had a sort of friction embedded in it, embodied both in regulations and the cost of communications. I won't talk about the former as that's a political discussion that doesn't belong here, but with the Internet revolution, the latter friction is completely gone. Old timers remember the electrifying phrase “it's long distance!” The family stopped in its tracks as Dad took that rare call. In the '60s, the cost to telephone even another state was prohibitive. With IP telephony, costs and borders are no longer associated with communication.

Capitalism means that management has a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to minimize costs and maximize value. Lenin's quote “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them” reflects both the strength of our system and its innate weakness.

Students are not fools. They see the trends. In the U.S., EE employment fell 8% between 2003 and 2005. The number of freshmen in the computer science major fell 60% between 2000 and 2004, and nearly half of the remaining switched majors. The good news is that the demand for software will always grow, so those who do chose this career will, in my opinion, thrive (recessions excepted, of course). The bad news is that it seems the West is abdicating engineering as a core competitive competency. That will be a disaster for us.

This is nothing new. Magellan had the same problem. I was struck by this quote from the book Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen: “On the day before the fleet's departure from Seville, August 9, 1519, Magellan was summoned from his frantic last-minute preparations to testify that he had made every effort to hire Spanish officers and crew members rather than foreigners. He had, in fact, gone to great lengths to comply, and he swelled with pride as he delivered his sworn statement. 'I proclaimed in this city, in squares and markets and busy places and along the river that anyone–sailors, cabin boys, caulkers, carpenters, and other officers–who wished to join the Armada should contact me, the captain, or talk to the masters of the ship, and I also mentioned the salaries stipulated by the king. […] None of the villagers born here wanted to join the Armada.'”2 About this time the King became emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, one of the most powerful positions in the world. Did this lack of willing employees contribute to Spain's decline? And does this sound like the H-1B furor?

Will a similar lack of engineers push the West into decline?

The Rise of Asia
I hear many Western engineers mocking their Asian rivals. They're not as good as us; they're just coders, real design belongs here in good-ole America. A decade ago, there was a lot of truth to those sentiments. There's a lot less now.

On this my third trip to Bangalore, Slumdog Millionaire , an accurate depiction of poor India's grinding poverty, had just swept the Academy Awards and the entire country was supercharged by the recognition. Bangalore is a fascinating city, but the overarching theme a Westerner finds is the downside of Slumdog . I've been to the slums of Sao Paulo, visited native tribes scratching a living from the deep Amazon, and traveled through the desperate backwaters of Indonesia but am always arrested by the scale of want that pervades India.

Traffic is so horrific that one has to plan for possibly hours stuck on what passes for roads in that city. Red lights are apparently just advice to motorists that opposing traffic will, when it can, start to flow and eventually choke off those supposed to stop. Three-wheeled rickshaws don't have external mirrors as they would impede the millimeter-close brushes needed with other rickshaws, taxis, and cows. One wonders why they don't sand the paint off to gain an extra micron of advantage. So I planned ahead and surprisingly arrived at the company over an hour early.

Like many large multinational corporations there, this outfit has a magnificent campus that explodes with the beautiful gardens of old Bangalore. A fence isolates the grounds from the city's gritty realities. Sitting in the lobby, I watched hundreds of immaculate charter buses disgorge workers. Only a small handful of private vehicles or motorbikes showed up. The men were dressed business casual, all toting backpacks; the women nearly all wore the beautiful saris that give the city so much color. I have no insight into India's sexual politics, but find far more women engineers there than I do here at home.

In India, alas (alas, because I'm a proud American) I see the future of engineering.

Here at home, we're aging; the average engineer has 15 years of experience. My Dad was a GI Bill graduate of MIT; my generation was fired up by Apollo. Nothing since has given such a huge boost to science and engineering. Although I hope the green revolution will similarly stimulate students to embrace this profession, so far there's little evidence of that happening.

In India, engineering is a way to achieve the blessings of the middle class. Thousands of new universities are being constructed to meet the demands of the people for an education. So engineers are young; I see little gray hair and have found the average experience is about a third of that in the U.S.

Less experience does translate to a different skill level, to some extent. But youth equals excitement. These folks are genuinely thrilled by their profession. Although I can't measure it, I sense a greater enthusiasm for engineering there than here.

Apollo was created by very young engineers, mostly in their 20s and 30s. Youth, emboldened by passion and a sense of what might be invented, can change the world.

Some of the companies I've visited in Bangalore harness their engineers to do routine maintenance on extant products. But most developers are building new products, complex applications rivaling any technology found in the West.

One senses a much deeper appreciation for jobs in India than most other places. The Wal-Mart employees here in Baltimore are stuck on sullen. In India those with what we'd consider the lowest jobs seem happy for the work and are utterly dedicated to the job. While sometimes India's overarching theme is poverty, another is the industriousness of her people.

Engineers tell me their salaries range from $6,000 to $30,000 a year, depending on experience. Those are stunning sums compared with average wages of a dollar or two a day. Even more interesting is the opportunity to bolster one's salary by a factor of six over a career. In the U.S., the range is closer to two to one.

India is feeling the worldwide recession, but it continues to grow, reportedly by 5% in the last quarter of 2008. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy shrank by almost that amount.

India is hard. The advance of engineering in the country is a shining light, a Camelot of opportunity for a small percentage of her people. I suspect the benefits will be missed by a billion or so residents, and I can't imagine how the country will sustain itself. A small middle class can't offset the huge mass of the desperately poor. But the global demand for embedded hardware and firmware will ensure the continued viability of Indian developers.

Thirty-three hundred miles to the northeast, Shanghai feels less foreign than Bangalore, which is quite odd considering the lack of English speakers and a government that is the opposite of our republican ideals. The highways are like the New Jersey Turnpike, wide, well-maintained expanses of macadam that parallel huge transmission lines and factories. Like India, China is a huge country with a wildly varied population. But unlike India, in Shanghai one gets little sense that there's any poverty. Interestingly, incomes are distributed about as equally, or unequally depending on how one looks at it, in China as in the U.S. (see the Gini index on the CIA's World Factbook3 ). I'm sure rural areas have grinding poverty, but the per-capita GDP is twice that of India.

Engineers tell me they make around $10,000 a year. But they typically live far outside the big cities. In Shanghai, flats can rent for $4,000 a month or more, so many developers suffer from a two-hour commute each way or even longer. One told me he's hoping to buy a car in a few years, a $15,000 purchase that, at 150% of income, is equivalent to one of us buying a small house.

After spending four hours on the bus each day, I'd be pretty anxious to be home, but, at least at this one large company, the developers tell me they routinely work 55 to 60 hours a week. The benefits? Twelve vacation days a year, but seven of those are picked by the boss; for instance, Chinese New Year means everyone is off for almost half of these vacation days.

The local paper claims the economy will slow but still maintain 8% growth this year. That's a bit higher than most projections I've read about China. However, one constant of the Chinese papers is the government's heavy editorial hand. News about Tibet is orthogonal to reporting in the NY Times or Wall Street Journal .

That heavy hand comes from the communist government, of course, whose impact on the lives of citizens cannot be overstated. And yet they have perfected a strange mix of communism and capitalism that seems to work, at least in economic terms. Who would have thought that the red flag would ever wave over factories owned by the bourgeoisie?

Due to the troubling times, developers at the company I visited had had their salaries slashed by 5%, but all were grateful management had warned them of the impending cuts a quarter in advance. The bosses have taken a 20% hit.

Where the TV spectrum in India is given over mostly to overproduced Bollywood epics and partially-robed Hindu holy men, in China news dominates the airwaves. You can always find a channel featuring marching soldiers, perhaps dogmatic People's Documentaries (not speaking the language it's hard to tell what was going on). In India, the newspapers always feature articles and commentary about religion and the gods; in China, I never saw the subject mentioned. The Great Firewall lets most sites through, but filters many, some of which seem entirely innocuous.

Based on woefully incomplete data, my sense is there are two kinds of Chinese engineers: those who are crazy-excited about the technology and a larger group who finds engineering merely a decent career. That mirrors my experiences in some other Asian countries (such as Singapore and Malaysia), but is very different from Indian and Western developers, most of whom are somewhat amazed people will actually pay them to have so much fun.

India is about creating employment. Clearing customs at Bangalore's old airport was almost laughable as one had to present a useless form to about four clerks in sequence, none of whom did anything with it. Heavy equipment is used at construction sites, but it's very common to find laborers carting dirt and bricks on their heads. China thrives on efficiency. There seem to be no wasted motions, and labor appears to be hired, like in the U.S., only on the basis of a company's needs.

So has the torch been passed to a new generation of developers, a generation that exists in the developing nations? Of course not. I can't imagine the West not producing best-in-the-world engineers. But there's little doubt that engineering is no longer our specialty, and that the world is today competing with our very best and brightest, and that this trend will accelerate.

I'm of two minds about the future. Our frictionless capitalism has too much zest for offshoring. While a certain amount is healthy to build global markets for everyone's products, the constant quest to shave pennies off the bottom line short-circuits long-term success.

On the other hand, one of America's greatest strengths is our belief in the individual. No other nation breeds entrepreneurs like we do, and I think cultural issues won't change this fact for a very long time. Most countries, even those in the West, have extensive rules about starting a business; in America one can create a startup, one that needs great local engineers, in a coffee shop without a license.

That's a powerful force in our favor. Will it be enough? I don't know. What are your thoughts?

Jack Ganssle () is a lecturer and consultant specializing in embedded systems' development issues. For more information about Jack .

Endnotes:
1. Graham, Robin Lee. Dove . Harper Paperbacks (March 27, 1991).

2. Bergreen, Laurence. Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe . Harper Perennial (November 2, 2004).

3. Gini index on the CIA's World Factbook. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2172.html

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