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By Jack Ganssle

Old and In The Way

Published 1/19/2005

I recently did a survey of embedded engineers (http://www.ganssle.com/salsurv.htm) and found, not surprisingly, that salaries vary quite a lot by region. Here's the mean salary by region in US dollars:

Australia/New Zealand 49644
Brazil 20333
Canada 63337
Eastern Europe 11914
India 15725
Mexico 13000
Pakistan 6000
Philippines 6800
Singapore 33540
South Africa 44942
United Arab Emirates 7000
USA 80383
Western Europe 59927

More interesting, though, are the age distributions. Developers are mostly young, averaging 37.5 years old worldwide with a standard deviation of 8.8 years. But in the USA we're older, 39.5. Respondents in Western Europe reported ages up to 54, and in the USA up to the late 60s. No where else in the world did anyone respond with an age over 49.

But 95% of respondents were under age 50.

I don't know the age distribution for other professions. But I want my airline pilots and doctors to have at least a little grey hair. Age generally implies experience. We get better at our jobs with practice. The chance to cure many diseases, fly a wide range of airplanes, and build many different embedded systems leads to highly effective doctors, pilots and engineers.

I'm constantly asked to explain how one goes about designing systems. My answer: build 5. Then you'll know. At least one author has said the same thing about becoming a novelist: write a million words. Then you'll know.

The actual doing is where we learn to, well, do. Missteps, blind alleys, flashes of insight all combine to form of body of experience that makes us better at doing the next project than the one we just finished.

Yet most times older engineers aren't valued for their experience. Some view them as dinosaurs who can't possibly be in tune with the latest developments. They're expensive. Management wonders if it's possible to get two newbies for the price of one old fart.

Sometimes I wonder if engineering really is a profession after all. Dictionary.com defines the noun form of professional as:

1 - A person following a profession, especially a learned profession.
2 - One who earns a living in a given or implied occupation: hired a professional to decorate the house.
3 - A skilled practitioner; an expert

Definition 1 and 3 imply, sort of, that professionals follow their career for a very long time. Most doctors treat patients till they retire. Airline pilots might aspire to captain a 747 (or A380), but fly till they're 60.

Engineers don't.

A lot of us expect to be promoted out of the trenches, first as team leads, later project managers, engineering VP, or even to the dark side of sales and marketing. That's where the money is. as well as the grey hair.

Those professions perform activities of great value that are highly visible to consumers. We developers are cogs in the corporate wheel. No one cares about the competence of the engineering staff who built the plasma TV. Even in the corporate machine the engineering staff is just that - staff, a group hidden behind a veil of anonymity. The superstars are famous only to other developers in the team. The company sees engineering as some mysterious group that somehow produces products.

Now salespeople, well, the great performers are hailed and feted on Hawaiian junkets. Their faces grace the company's newspaper. Compensation is stratospheric.

CEOs and CFOs, if not in jail, get the glory and the bucks. No one's surprised to find 70 year old presidents.

But a 70 year old engineer? What's wrong with that person? He's still probably programming in Cobol and designing with vacuum tubes.

What do you think? Are aging engineers, like the Grateful Dead said, "old and in the way?"