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Kids These Days

Back in my day, we had to build our own equipment!

Published in Embedded Systems Programming February, 2005

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By Jack Ganssle

  

Kids These Days

I hear the complaints from my middle-aged electronics friends. New engineering graduates know nothing about electronics. They have no feel for what circuits should and shouldn't do. As designers they require years of apprenticeship before becoming productive.

This, of course, wasn't true when we were kids. Nah. From the moment we entered the work force we were the gurus of digital, delighting employers and amazing our colleagues.

Hogwash.

I remember making dramatic mistakes, some from sheer ignorance, and others due to the lack of common sense that becomes bitter experience. There was that time I blew up an entire instrument by not being careful with the AC mains. Another project was abandoned due to my careless assumptions about required compute horsepower.

My boss somehow tolerated these missteps and put up with the arrogance of youth, giving me a chance to mature and develop an understanding of the industry. Somehow the years color those times so we're left with a subtle feeling of superiority to today's generation of new hires.

The early days of embedded systems were very different than today, though. Many of us started engineering - or even started engineering school - with some grounding in basic electronics. We were immature and undisciplined, but perhaps had at least some feel for what electrons were likely to do.

Many of my colleagues served in Vietnam; those who enlisted before the dread draft notice appeared went to military electronics schools. They learned to service equipment, gained a lot of technician-level theory, and were then soaked in two years of experience working on real circuits. College (for those who went) bolstered their knowledge of calculus and transistor theory, but those tempering Army years taught them the practical secrets rarely found on a university campus.

In the 60s and early 70s a national Apollo-era fascination with things technical helped groom youngsters for an electronics career long before entering college. It wasn't (quite) as dweebish to enter a science fair as is the case today. Kids were excited about science and engineering.

Above all, perhaps, was the specter of ham radio. Like so many others of the time, I got my first ham license at age 16. Though even back then sophisticated operating modes like single sideband existed, most of us teenagers just couldn't afford the latest cool technology. We were forced to build our own equipment.

"Forced" is hardly the right word, since building stuff was much more interesting than actually using it, when and if it finally worked.

Most novice hams had access to a supply of cheap surplus electronics gear. Vacuum tubes were the state of the surplus art, which was not a bad thing, as high power RF transistors were simply too expensive for teenaged radio buffs.

My pals and I created a never-ending stream of "hi fi" amplifiers, transmitters, and power supplies, some of which actually worked. Sometimes not terribly well, of course. In fact, the best radio contact of my high school career was acknowledged by an angry letter from the FCC - they picked up my signal on the second harmonic, clear across the USA. I was so proud of that 3000 mile transmission that the pink letter stayed prominently displayed on the wall for several years.

The bible, The Radio Amateurs Handbook, contained plenty of schematics and construction tips. Even kids with no formal electronics training could quickly master a transmitter design that required no more than 5 tubes.

Anyone with a bit of creative acquisition ability and the will to learn could create useful gear. When problems arose you'd turn to the ham radio community, which was - and still is - a huge support organization populated by folks who loved electronics.

When money was available we could order electronics kits from Heathkit and quite a few other companies, most now long defunct. Detailed step-by-step instructions more or less guaranteed success and increased our confidence. You could build a TV, stereo, ham radio, or practically any electronic device from these kits, and wind up with a device that equaled any commercial product.

Things have changed over the last couple of decades. Ham radio, while still a popular hobby, is a victim of the electronics revolution. Most (not all, but most) hams buy their equipment now, as it's just too hard to build your own. Years ago we worked almost exclusively on trivially simple AM gear. Today, SSB and FM dominate; both require much more sophisticated receivers and transmitters, equipment far beyond the construction abilities of the average teenage wannabe. Yes, there are many kits available, and many cool projects possible with the advanced technology we have. But the barriers to entry are higher; it's tough to build a device unless one has far more skills than were formerly required.

A decent radio is a significant financial commitment now; it's expensive enough to be a barrier to young folks, and the act of purchasing, rather than building, limits the educational experience.

Personally-accessible computers came along in the 70s. In the succeeding ten years the entire history of ham radio repeated itself in a time-compressed form. Amateurs grew fascinated with the technology, acquired parts by hook or crook, and built their own very useful machines. An industry grew up to service these devoted homebrewers. Apple and IBM, though, finally provided machines that no one could duplicate in their basement in a reasonable amount of time. High integration and escalating complexity all but killed off computer experimenting. Today, "building a computer" means buying a motherboard, disks, and other modules, and then bolting them together. There's neither opportunity nor need to learn about the electronics.

Building a crystal radio at age 10 was fun. Not at 15. How much fun would a teenager today have working on a circuit as antique as a crystal radio? I think fun is the vital ingredient needed to entice youngsters into the field, yet fun is the thing we've made obsolete.

Youngsters enjoy learning by doing more than by studying. Besides, they already spend all day in school; few have the desire to extend that day into their hobbies. The "doing" part is awfully difficult today, unless you'd care to build equipment that is so behind the state of the art that it's a joke.

How satisfying would it be to spend weeks building a computer kit that doesn't measure up to the 3 GHz Pentium he's got on his desk? Yes, it's interesting to put things together, even simple things, and see them work. It's hard to get passionate, though, about a field where you can never approach the state of the art.

And this, I think, is one place where the advance of technology is hurting us. When I was young, I could build things that were useful. That's much more difficult today.

The insatiable curiosity of youth, when directed at electronics-like subjects, now turns to software. It's the last great area where you can make something that works, at your own pace, and in your own way. Kids can wrestle with the computer just as so many of us wrestled with a soldering iron, and produce something though their own creativity. This desire to learn is wonderfully encouraging.

Computer programming is a highly desirable skill. These computer wizards will become skilled and productive CS people! but possibly not EEs. Where will we get future the crop of electronics designers?

Even now it's getting harder to find good designers. Far too many embedded people have little knowledge of basic electronics. Now we manipulate parts with a million transistors as easily as we once worked with a single FET. Designing a big FPGA is more a software exercise than an experience in electronics. Too few of us, who are so adept with the latest high-density devices, remember Ohms Law.

We use mountains of decoupling capacitors, whose behavior is critical to our circuits yet which act not at all like logic gates. As speeds increase we're dealing with Maxwell's dreaded Laws, not simple wires. Electronics, not discrete ones and zeroes.

Is basic electronics obsolete? Has Boolean algebra has replaced Kirchoff's Law? Is digital engineering immune from pedantic electronics concerns? Perhaps the benign clock rates of embedded designs in the 70s and 80s insulated us from the underlying yet critical physics of circuits. I do think that the colleges pandered to this, creating a generation of "computer engineers" who are adept at software and high level design, but who are adrift when confronted with a component's transfer function. I don't want to diminish the importance of these skills and people, but where will the EEs come from? Who'll be crafting analog circuits in 10 or 20 years?

I play a little game with new EE graduates. Clamp a 10 ohm quarter watt resistor to a power supply that has both voltage and current meters. Ask the newbie what will happen at 5, and then at 10 volts. He'll do a little mental scribbling and give current and maybe even power predictions. Now ramp the voltage up slowly and watch his eyes as, first, smoke pours forth. Contemplate the look of panic when the resistor bursts into flames.

Only by experimenting outside of the classroom does one get a visceral feel for how components and circuits will perform.

To be fair, the academics have an impossible task. There's far too much to learn in a 4 or 5 year stint. How can a potential embedded person learn real software engineering (not just the coding which is all that's taught in too many colleges), electromagnetics, transistor theory, Verilog, Spice, UML, and all of the other skills we eventually master?

The good news is that schools now focus more on projects. Few engineers graduate without actually building something substantial. The bad news is that these are nearly always computer systems; again, the electronics is neglected. And, I believe a 3 credit class is just too little time to get the feel for the circuits that a great engineer exhibits. Just as no one is becomes good at a programming language till cranking out 10,000 or more lines of code in that language, EEs need to spend a lot of time making and fixing mistakes before becoming proficient at their art. These are experiential subjects one masters by lots of practice.

And so, I worry that our profession is drifting too far from its roots, that "embedded design" seems to be a subject taught and practiced independent of the electronics it relies on. Increasing speeds and the decreasing margins of low voltage logic are already bringing basic electronics back to the forefront in importance; will future designers be knowledgeable enough to deal with this?

Ham radio is still alive and thriving. It's practiced by a graying population though hams work relentlessly to bring youngsters into the hobby. Today it's easier than ever to get a license; the test is easy and Morse code requirements minimal.

Get a Digikey catalog. Surf over to http://www.imaginetools.com/. There are indeed a lot of resources for young EE-wannabees. Check out www.arrl.org, or Ward Silver's Ham Radio for Dummies.

Try to turn a kid on to engineering.