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By Jack Ganssle

Can't Get No Respect

Published 2/01/2002

Not again! Dragged along to a party full of interesting strangers yet another asked what I do. Men, of course, often use this question to competitively profile one, to figure out what class someone belongs to, and even more to establish the person's income.

I prefer to say "I'm in the electronics biz", but that's so generic to be almost devoid of meaning. "Embedded systems engineer" or "hardware/firmware designer", both accurate, convey no information to most people.

I'm an embedded person. I have no interest in mastering the intricacies of Excel or keeping track of the latest megahertz/megabytes/gigaweenie offerings at CompUSA. Few non-geeks have any more than a vague notion that their lives are surrounded and controlled by microprocessors buried into almost every electronic gizmo. To most folks "computer" means the 100 million or so PCs shipped each year; the 6 billion processors that go into embedded systems aren't on their radar screens (if they had radar, which of course would have several embedded micros per set).

My usual response is "well, I design embedded systems, which is any electronic product that has a microprocessor but doesn't really look like a computer". But that's too much. Halfway through this spiel I can see their eyes glaze over. They're looking for a word or two: lawyer. Marine biologist. Enron accountant. Anderson paper-shredder.

Isn't it astonishing that our field, which has so profoundly touched so many peoples' lives, is so invisible? Why do we have to teach a short electronics lesson just to define our profession? It's not technology per se that's so obtuse. My dad, for years a space engineer, wears a T-shirt that proclaims "Actually, I AM a rocket scientist." That's plenty descriptive for the great mass of educated (?) people. But embedded is a meaningless term to most folks.

The spouse of a new acquaintance recently described her husband's firmware work vaguely as "you know, he builds computers and things." Huh? What does that really mean? My extensive research for this article consisted of asking my 11 year old daughter what I do for a living. "You type on a computer, right?", she answered. Well, yeah, that's correct. But it's far from complete.

I've been thinking about using a marketing approach. "You know about computer pornography, right?" That's the sizzle. Get them interested. Imagine the group now leaning slightly forward, their drinks momentarily forgotten, surprised and titillated by the National Inquirer-like response. "Well, embedded has nothing to do with that, but I do design computer-based products." A collective sigh will reveal their conviction that smut is indeed part of the deal in some obscure fashion. Surely this answer will deflect all of those annoying Excel questions.

On second thought, maybe I'll skip the party and go back to the lab to get some work done.

How do you describe your profession to people outside of the field?