Jack Ganssle, Editor of The Embedded Muse Jack Ganssle's Blog
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Thoughts on Firmware Seminars

September 12, 2018

21 years ago I sold my tools company and retired. For one day. It was boring.

Thinking back over the previous 15 years in the tool business I realized that many of the engineering teams I visited were mired in problems, in many cases problems that had been solved by others. I resolved to find ways to share this knowledge to help improve the field.

Hence, my bi-weekly Embedded Muse, which is written somewhat in collaboration with the readers. For when I write an article, many reply with great ideas that get folded into the next issue. Some readers are frequent contributors; it feels like a community of embedded engineers.

And I started teaching a one-day Better Firmware Faster class. To date over 400 companies have had me conduct this class at their facilities. In addition, I do a few "public" classes each year, where individuals from different companies attend. (Coming up: Boston and Seattle in October).

Others, notably the Barr Group, the Beningo Group and James Grenning, offer seminars on other embedded subjects. I hear great things about them.

Though I teach the class, doing so has taught me a lot. Two things happen: attendees will explain a novel way they solved a problem. And in subsequent email dialog we'll explore an idea and both learn something useful. That's a ton of fun!

The engineers are almost always very bright and engaged. They toss out tough questions. They challenge my assertions. Most of the time I can convince them of the validity of my statements, because each one is backed up with hard numbers. And engineers like numbers. I don't do the "we like this approach because it's fun and the team enjoys working this way." Better: "multiple studies have shown this approach leads to a 70% reduction in bugs."

Particularly for the on-site classes, especially those taught outside of the USA, a portion of the group will invite me out afterwards for beers or dinner. An old saw states "an extraverted engineer is one who looks at your shoes when he's talking to you." Yet my experience is quite the opposite. These gatherings are generally full of laughs and stories. The folks are just a delight. Sometimes my wife is with me and they always invite her along. She is an artist, not a techie, but fondly remembers many of these evenings.

How effective is the class? Roughly a third of the groups who attend really "get it," change their processes, and gain substantial benefits. It's hard to measure this precisely, because so few groups keep any sort of metrics prior to the class, but those who do report a 30-40% reduction in schedule and about the same reduction in shipped bugs. (One of my requests at the end of each class is "Even if you decide not to implement any of these ideas, at least start collecting metrics so you can establish a baseline to measure future changes against.")

Another third implement a subset of the ideas I present. These reports are anecdotal and never metrics-based, but they tell me they're getting a substantial improvement in performance.

Another third either don't "get it," or actively resist implementing any new ideas. That's understandable; change is really hard. And in some cases the teams are wedded to their approach and are not interested in change.

Of those one-third that "get it," the bigger companies often ask me back, to a different location. In a couple of cases this meant visiting a dozen or so facilities. Sometimes those are distributed over six continents. (My friends are all retiring and are anxious to travel. When/if I retire, I'm staying home!)

And I've learned that those international trips are getting more exhausting with age. Not long ago I did a seminar in India, and a day later one in China, going completely around the world in 5 days. That's too much for this senior citizen.

Some companies ask for two and even three-day versions of the class. I've found that three days is too much for a non-hands-on seminar. Some of the aforementioned seminar companies do week-long classes, but those feature a lot of exercises for the attendees.

Another thing I've learned: charge a pretty high price for the onsite classes. Too little, and the team dismisses the ideas. Something inexpensive is perceived as having little value.

Finally, having turned 65 this summer, I've learned once again that I'm not interested in retirement. As long as health permits I plan to keep up these activities. For, this is such an interesting and fun field!

Feel free to email me with comments.

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