For novel ideas about building embedded systems (both hardware and firmware), join the 40,000+ engineers who subscribe to The Embedded Muse, a free biweekly newsletter. The Muse has no hype and no vendor PR. Click here to subscribe.

By Jack Ganssle

We Don't Communicate

Published 2/14/2002

Close friends who run the neighborhood awning shop just returned from a three day canvas convention in Ocean City, four hours away. They have a little mom & pop business that is a long way from cutting edge by any measure. Other than a nice CD player and an old laptop, their capital equipment is decades old. Yet these folks find tremendous benefits going to a yearly out of town convention.

We, on the other hand, work in a business whose technology moves so fast even the Internet can barely disseminate updates fast enough. In the last 20 years canvas hasn't changed at all, yet we've gone from 16 bit CPUs pushing the bleeding edge to 250 million transistor 64 bit architectures.

How many of us go to the embedded conventions?

Next month the big one, ESC-West, will be held at the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco. I imagine attendance will be around 15-20k visitors. About a thousand will pay to attend the hundreds of classes offered. A couple of surveys suggest that around 250k people develop embedded systems, so under 10% will attend this show. Somehow that seems pathetic.

I find another number disturbing: Embedded Systems Programming, which is about the only English-language magazine targeted at our biz, has a circulation of 60k readers. That's only a quarter of the people doing the work. Clearly the vast majority of developers don't read the publication. How do they keep up with the latest changes in the field? Do they keep up? Are they stuck in a technological time warp, always using the same tired old tools and techniques to solve problems?

Can you imagine being a doctor who learned medicine in the 40s, before penicillin, who continued to practice through the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s using the same skills he learned so long ago? He'd be considered a butcher! Doctors and many other professionals work very hard keeping up with changes in their field. Isn't it our responsibility to do the same?

I'm a big advocate of getting folks out of the lab from time to time. Go visit your customers to learn about their problems. Attend training classes when they're available. And go to the conferences. Last year, after giving a talk at this west coast show, I was standing around chatting with some of the folks who had attended. We were talking about all sorts of development issues. One asked me if I knew anything about a particular commercial RTOS. Was it any good? Reliable? How was support? I couldn't help him, but it turned out another attendee standing there had used it for years. The two of them paired off and huddled for 15 minutes. That one brief meeting probably made the entire conference worthwhile for the questioner.

We're the very people who invented the communications age, yet all too often we do a poor job communicating. Go to the ESC this March. Check out the vendors. Talk to other attendees. Suck the educational opportunities dry.

It's our responsibility to find ways to do our work better. There are damn few opportunities. Seize this one.