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The Price of Tools

Summary: Firmware is the most expensive part of engineering a product. Tools reduce those costs. Yet developers have a hard time getting management to pony up the cash.

I was chatting with John Carbone at the Boston ESC about tools. John's company, expressLogic, sells a real-time operating system and associated add-on components. We were discussing the reluctance of so many developers - or, more often, their bosses - to spend money on decent tools and resources.

John used an interesting analogy: you can get a nearly-free ax to cut down trees. It will work great! Who can argue with Honest Abe's success with the ax?

Or, spend hundreds of dollars and get a chain saw to clear dozens of trees while a Paul Bunyan with huge muscles is still swinging away at his first oak.

Give me the chain saw.

Actually, I'll go further. A while back I bought a top-of-the-line Stihl pro chainsaw, because a cheap Home Depot brand will eventually bring a tree down, but will probably be heard to start, will fail early, and will probably infuriate the user. The Sthil costs a lot more, but as the old saying goes, cry once when you spend the money, but reap the benefits for years.

Cheap tools are a poor bargain. That $0.50 screwdriver will strip heads, the inexpensive belt sander will run hot and die soon, and the bargain oscilloscope will drift out of calibration every time the humidity changes.

I'm biased, having started a tool company in the 80s. We tried to provide devices with powerful capabilities. They were pricey. But as in all of life there's a trade-off between functionality and cost.

Today, with squeezed budgets it's easy to understand that the boss is clamping down on all capital purchases. But meanwhile our salaries, with overhead, are in the six figures. It doesn't take much of a labor savings or productivity increase to offset the cost of a tool.

Nothing is new under the sun. I remember fighting this same battle nearly forty years ago with my boss. His response: "I have to pay you anyway." I didn't have the guts to reply "well, actually you don't." Conceivably enough savings from tools could trim engineering staff and budgets. At the very least they'll accelerate the schedule and complete more projects in less time.

Tool use is part of being human, and as we've progressed from cave dwellers to 21st century Homo sapiens the collection and capabilities of our tools has exploded. Some are free. Most of the others are cheap, once one considers the savings in effort or labor.

Meanwhile, you can have my ax. You'll have to pry my Stihl MS362 from my cold, dead hands.

What do you think? Are the tools we buy for embedded systems development overpriced, under-featured, or spot-on?

Published October 10, 2011