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Company-Provided Training

A couple of weeks ago I spent a day training a bunch of engineers from a company in California about firmware issues. What surprised and delighted me is the outfit's policy. All employees, from janitors to executive management, must take at least 25 hours of training per year. On the company's dime. Engineers are encouraged to get 40 hours/year - a full week away from the exigencies of product development - to learn to be more efficient and effective.

Of course, this is in California where clever accountants know how to stiff the State for some percentage of those costs. But the company still bears a substantial burden, plus the cost of yanking engineers off of their projects for a week a year.

Another company has had me into nine of their sites on three continents in 2012 to train over 300 engineers. They, too, have a policy of company-provided education.

But that's hardly the norm.

Developers complain that they are not allowed to even glimpse up from the IDE on their monitor. Everyone is under the gun to get the current project done, and everything else be damned! Finish that project, and the next is already late on day 1. Education? Who has the time?

So the average engineer learns a bit on the job by making mistakes, picks up some pointers over water-cooler discussions, but any sort of disciplined learning takes place on his or her own time.

Most of us love what we do and are eager to learn. But life gets in the way. Leave the office, late, and the kids need attention, the bills have to be paid, and the lawn mowed. Maybe there's a little quality time for the spouse. It's hard to find a chance to curl up with a technical tome.

The field is changing at breakneck speed. Seemingly overnight ARM Cortex parts have proliferated to the point where dozens of vendors supply hundreds of variants. Wireless is everywhere; multicore rears its angry head even though we really don't know how to deal with symmetric multiprocessing. Android appeared just a few years ago and is now everywhere. Consumers suddenly want their gadgets to run from a coin cell for decades; at small geometries something like half the energy is wasted due to tunneling. Have you had a chance to brush up on your quantum mechanics lately?

Back in the 1970s we young engineers were expected to go to conferences and to assail the distributors for training materials (we'd quite literally have them fill our cars with the latest databooks). The conferences were huge - Electro and Wescon would see 30,000, 40,000 attendees. Those all disappeared, victims of the mad death march to get products out the door.

One of the few left is the Embedded Systems Conference, aka "Design West." The show floor is free; a pass that will get you into any of the couple of hundred talks is about $2k. Figure another $3k or so for your (loaded) salary for the week. Get one good idea - one small productivity booster - that ups your effectiveness by just a few percent and it's a net gain.

But engineers tell me the main reason they can't get to the ESC is "not enough time." I'm reminded of the old cartoon of the machine gun salesman trying to peddle his wares to the general fighting a battle with broadaxes and arrows. The latter tells his aide he's too busy to see a salesman.

That place in California? Employees stay for 20, 30, 35 years. They invest in their people and avoid the expensive and disruptive turnover that is so common in this business.

Does your company support, encourage and even demand education and/or training? If not, why not?

Though I'm hugely supportive of any outfit that invests in their people, ultimately the responsibility for our continuing education rests with us. What do you do to keep current and enhance your skills?

Published February 19, 2013