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By Jack Ganssle
Published on embedded.com, November 2012.
Recently Colin Holland posted a piece (http://www.embedded.com/electronics-blogs/double-dutch/4399454/Brazil---the-expanding-opportunity) about expanding opportunities in Brazil for technology. He notes that a panel at ARM TechCon would discuss this. Alas, I was traveling and missed the conference.
In 1978 I spent a month in Brazil working with engineers and scientists who were using equipment made by the company I worked for. The country was in the grip of debilitating inflation. Workers were paid every day, and they immediately left to buy groceries before prices went up. The generals ran the country with an iron fist. The people, though, had a wonderful flair for fun. The dictatorship was barely noticeable deep in the Amazon, and the clubs in Rio were packed at night with gyrating bodies and happy people.
But there was practically no technology. We'd hand pump fuel into the car while deep in the jungle. The airstrip in Pelotas (just north of Uruguay) was paved, but avgas was in 55 gallon drums with hand cranks. I made a number of trips between Sao Paulo and Porto Alegre. That's 1000 km across a lot of jungle (at least, back then). The pilots of the twin piston engine planes would spend 20 minutes checking magnetos prior to take off. That's normally a 15 second operation. No one wanted to go down in that vast wilderness.
Power was erratic. It was tough to find a soldering iron, and I had to bring an oscilloscope (which involved four hours of arguing and eventually some greased palms to get through customs). In one remote town 50 or more people watched us work - for three days - because they had never seen an American before.
I was told our box was one of the first microprocessor-based products in Brazil. None of the local engineers I worked with knew anything about digital circuits.
Then there was the trade fair in Sao Paulo. Pierre Samlo, our distributor, and I walked around it all day. Pierre (the late and much mourned Pierre) was a Hungarian Jew whose entire family was killed in WWII, and he had emigrated to Brazil to find some peace. A delightful man, he seamlessly toggled through five languages as we encountered vendors from different countries. Pierre was a model of Brazil in those days - a generous, very sociable people of liberal studies, without much in the way of high-tech capabilities.
It wasn't till the last five years or so that I started going back to Brazil, and the change is startling. The generals are gone, the economy seems strong. And technology has boomed. It seems all of the big names in the semiconductor industry have facilities there. The country is on a US-friendly time zone and engineers abound. Smart and mostly young, they generally speak English.
And their eyes shine! They are excited about electronics in a way that's inspiring. This isn't unique to Brazil; I see it in many places now; alas, less frequently here in the United States where engineering enrollments are in decline. Electronics is a path to the middle class in many developing countries, and the young Brazilian engineers I've interacted with see a future of prosperity from the cool technology they are paid to develop.
In the early years of this century Western engineers were jarred by waves of outsourcing. A lot of good people lost their jobs to lower-cost providers. That outsourcing continues, but the dearth of new engineers here in the US, with the increasing needs for software, seems to be a rising tide for all of us. Engineering salaries here are about twice the country's average family income and demand for our services increases. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts an increase in software employment of 32% by 2018, which bodes well for us. And for these bright-eyed developers in Brazil and so many other countries.
Meanwhile, Brazil's clubs are still packed with partying dancers.