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By Jack Ganssle

Old Farts

Published 4/04/2002

Is this a dead-end career?

Become a dentist, CPA, or lawyer and odds are you’ll be practicing that profession on a more or less daily basis till the day you retire. That seems less likely for engineers and firmware developers. How many EEs or software folks do you know in their 60s who still work as techies? How many in their 40s?

Though I haven't the statistics to support it, my observations suggest that embedded systems is a field dominated by young folks – say, those under 35 or so. Middle age seems to wean folks from their technical inclinations; droves of developers move towards management, marketing, or the dark side (sales).

Is salary compression the culprit? My students, all of 21, armed with a newly-minted BSEE, get entry level jobs at $50-60k. That’s an astonishing sum for someone with no experience. But the entire course of this career will see in general less than a doubling of this number. Pure techies doing no management may top out at only 50% above the entry-level figure.

$70k or $80k is a staggering amount compared to the nation’s average mid-$30k average family income… but it’s quickly swallowed by the exigencies of middle-class life. That $50k goes a long way when one is single and living in a little apartment. Life happens fast, though. Orthodontics, college, a house, diapers and much more consume funds faster than raises compensate. That’s not to suggest it’s not enough to live on, but surely the new pressures that come with a family make us question the financial wisdom of pursuing this wealth-limited career. Many developers start to wonder if an MBA or JD would forge a better path.

What about respect? My friends think “engineer” means I drive a train. Or that being in the computer business makes me the community’s PC tech support center. “Doctor” or “VP Marketing” is something the average Joe understands and respects.

Is tedium a factor? Pushing ones and zeroes around doesn’t sound like a lot of work, but getting each and every one of a hundred million perfect is tremendously difficult. I for one reached a point years ago where writing code and drawing schematics paled; much more fun was designing systems, inventing ways to build things, and then leaving implementation details to others. I know many engineers who bailed because of boredom.

External forces intervene, too. Though age discrimination is illegal it’s also a constant factor. Many 50-ish engineers will never learn Java, C++, and other new technologies. They become obsolete. Employers see this and react in not-unexpected ways. Other employers look askance at the high older engineer salaries and will consider replacing one old fart with two newbies.

So where do the old engineers go? Is this a career you expect to pursue till retirement?