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Embedded Muse 202 Copyright 2011 TGG January 3, 2011

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EDITOR: Jack Ganssle, jack@ganssle.com


- Editor's Notes
- Quotes and Thoughts
- Tools and Tips
- Advanced Degrees
- Jobs!
- Joke for the Week
- About The Embedded Muse

Editor's Notes

Are you happy with your bug rates? If not, what are you doing about it? Are you asked to do more with less? Deliver faster, with more features? What action are you taking to achieve those goals?

In fact it IS possible to accurately schedule a project, meet the deadline, and drastically reduce bugs. Learn how at my Better Firmware Faster class, presented at your facility. See https://www.ganssle.com/onsite.htm .

I'll be offering a two-day version of this class in Brazil in March. There's more information here: http://www.temporealeventos.com.br/?area=123-projetando-sistemas-embarcados-com-jack-gannsle-no-brasil-aos-Programadores-e-engenheiros-desenvolvedores-lideres-que-atuam-em-projetos-de-sistemas-embarcados .

Happy New Year to one and all.

Embedded systems continue to find their way into the most unusual products. According to Technology Review postgrad students have created beer coasters that suggest pickup lines for prospective daters in bars. The pickup lines cited in the article are so lame that I suspect users will go home alone. But the technology is pretty cool!

Quotes and Thoughts

"I always wanted to be an engineer" - Will Smith in the movie Seven Pounds.

Tools and Tips

The tool tips keep pouring in! Keep `em coming.

Don Peterson wrote: "I've put some of my open source stuff here: http://code.google.com/p/hobbyutil/. In particular, you might want to take a look at the inductance spreadsheet (in Open Office Calc) at the bottom of the page (get it here <http://code.google.com/p/hobbyutil/downloads/detail?name=inductance_06Dec2010.zip&can=2&q=>)."

Advanced Degrees

My comments on advanced degrees garnered an avalanche of replies. Some of the more interesting are here. Jon Titus wrote: "Here's my take on advanced degrees based what I have seen at schools and what students have done. Often a BS degree provides a good basis for engineering work. Unfortunately, today's engineers get involved with more than designing things and an engineer must know how to write well, how to think about project costs, design for manufacturing and test, and so on. Many engineering programs do not provide education or training in these areas.

"Also, I have found some engineering students deficient in how they explain what they have done. This year reviewed several senior-level student projects and found places where experimental information and results didn't match schematic diagrams and program listings. Schematics had wires and connections that went nowhere, "backwards" diodes, etc. As you can imagine, lots of spaghetti code with few comments. Sloppy work. I don't know why a teacher or lab assistant didn't catch these problems.

"An advanced degree requires rigorous attention to details. After all, you can't do research and write a thesis based on sloppy work. Also, MS or PhD research helps students better understand how to work with a mentor (thesis advisor), how to present information in a formal setting (seminars), and how to think independently and use peer-reviewed research information that goes beyond textbook examples and problem sets. Students who aim for a Ph.D. tend to develop critical-thinking skills that others don't get with a BS degree until they have had a lot of hands-on experience. I don't know if MS or PhD students get involved with business decisions, but I'd encourage them to take one or two business courses in addition to those required by their department.

"Not everyone is suited for graduate work, either by time, talent, or loot, but I'd encourage engineers to take on at least an MS, even if they go to school part time.

"I would caution advanced-degree students to take courses and plan research to stress the practical as well as the theoretical. Some Ph.D. engineers are great at pencil pushing, but don't know which end of a soldering iron to grab. And advanced degrees are not for everyone."

Eric Hamilton said: "I too am non-degreed and my biggest problem is "getting in the door", once I make it past that point almost everyone I work with can see through the degree lack and figure out that it is the person that counts. Not the degree.

"My basic education is that I joined the USMC because I didn't want to go to school anymore. The USMC responded by putting me in a 15 month long course of electronics and then sent me to the field for "real world" experience. Following that I ended up in the electronics school as an instructor for 2 years. (Teaching forces learning on an instructor.) At the time the USMC claimed that their electronics schools were the >equivalent of an AA degree and they were probably correct. After the USMC, I ended up in Silicon Valley and got to work with many very sharp hardware people. After several years at that I discovered software, went to night school, and have been writing software for 39 years now and plan to do so for a long time in the future.

"There are places where an advanced degree in some very narrow field is needed, but a good generalist that is actually interested in what they are doing, will do well. No "9 to 5ers", learning is a full time job on top of the job you get paid for.

"I consider it normal to go home at night and read data sheets about whatever it is that I am likely to have to work with in the near future."

Larry Affelt had this to say: "My career has followed a path somewhat similar to your own. I never finished college, got a job as a draftsman at a local electronics company, was taken under the wing of an excellent engineer who saw my potential, started building and testing prototypes, then finally was designing new products. I have moved around in my career, working in instrumentation and measurement, FDA compliance, PC based software for data acquisition and analysis, and now I am back with my original company as its VP of Engineering. I do all the product development from initial customer contact, writing specs, designing the hardware, designing the boards, building the first protos, and writing the software. What a long, strange trip its been...

"Like you, I believe that experience is much more valuable than advanced degrees. Theoretical knowledge is wonderful and has value, but nothing can replace working directly on making a design work from the first bits and pieces. That is where the rubber meets the road, where the theoretical information about how something should work is tested, refined, analyzed, and fed back into the design process for current and future products. When I have been stuck on a problem, I have also brought in consultants to analyze the problem and find the solution, because they have the most experience. I have learned a lot from consultants and mentors over my career by working directly on problems, not on cookbook examples in the classroom or theoretical examples that only exist in bits and bytes. Newsletters and websites like yours are also a valuable tool. Through resources like yours and suggestions by consultants, my one man operation has a defined product development process using static analysis tools, design check lists, and anything else I can find that will make me a more effective engineer and reduce design flaws, production problems, and field issues.

"I believe that a BS degree in a technical field gets you your first and maybe your second job, after that its up to you, your abilities, and your willingness to learn."

And then there's this from Michael Wilk: "Interesting article about having a degree. I have argued that some of the most brilliant people I've worked with don't have a college degree or simply have a B.S., yet some of the most useless people I've known have PhD's.

"After 18 years in the industry as a software engineer, I still find myself short of some skills and continuously strive to improve. I sit in on classes in Electrical Engineering, Computer Engineering, Mechatronics, and Computer Science. There is no replacement for experience, but gathering the theoretical understanding can be quite useful as well when facing tough problems. Anybody that does not continue to gain knowledge and/or skills will be left in the dust and it will likely haunt them during tough economic times. I urge peers to attend conferences, read books/magazines, and tinker with various tools. It's an investment in yourself. I love being an engineer, so learning is not a chore, it's a privilege!"

Brian O'Connell wrote: "I have seen this discussed for approx 20 years in usenet and in several heated threads on, fwiw, slashdot. I have not seen a compelling argument that can be generally applied to all engineering cases.

"But when dealing with the legal system, there is no argument - the combination of a P.E. and degree from an ABET school trumps all others. So this needs to be divided into two domains - technical and legal.

"Legal discussion. Much of my position is compliance engineering, where there is an atypical and significant overlap between the legal and technical worlds. If I did not have a degree, the company's lawyer and insurance agency would probably request my termination. Question answered.

"Technical discussion. We have been interviewing engineers for software and hardware positions for almost one year. Most of the degreed applicants would not qualify to be a test technician in our factory and/or could not read and write English. There was a competent applicant without a degree, whom did not accept our offer. Question cannot be answered."

Richard Wall contributed this: "I worked in industry for 18 years. During that time, I took graduate classes and ended up earning my PhD almost by accident. Frequently, I found that I could walk out of the class and immediately apply what I had just learned. It was so exciting that I couldn't wait for the next class. For the past 20 years I have been teaching at the university level. My own personal observation is that the top undergraduate students (GPA above 3.8) are quickly gobbled by industry and highly sought after by academic researchers. Undergraduates with a GPA 3.0 and up are still getting jobs but not always in the subject area or geographical area of their first choice. I find that the students in the second category also make excellent masters degree graduate students. They generally have a superb work ethic and, with a little encouragement, rise to the challenge of advanced classes. The additional degree is also an advantage in allowing them to be more selective in seeking jobs and generally results in a higher initial pay. My advice to students who come to me is - each person must make that decision based upon his or her career goals, social obligations, and economic resources.

"The patent dispute discussion in the recent e-muse did cause me to think. Great effort is spent by engineering programs across the US to have their programs accredited by ABET. This accreditation asserts to the public that students who graduate have met minimum educational levels. The problem with attempting to assign competency level based upon experience is that are no standards. Unfortunately, there is no engineering license equivalent for CS hence the reliance on academic performance. So the question remains - how is expertise to be measured. It appears that the judge used what to him was the only available defensible standard."

RadhaKumar Pulyala wrote: "When reading Advanced Degrees, it reminded a situation I faced. It is common to prefer an MS/MTech compared to a BS/BE/BTech while recruiting. But it stops there. They expect that you come with specialization, more technical 'maturity' in terms of handling code, technology and stuff. But when it comes to counting experience and compensation, an MS is considered along side a BS. At least that is the situation in India.

"So, Instead of discussing on whether it matters at recruitment or not, I would rather say we discuss on whether we have good advanced degrees that add value to you after spending 2 years extra at the University."

Here's Charlie Palanzo's perspective: "As the manager of the Embedded Development group at Crestron, and as someone who has hired 40 embedded developers in the last 5 years, here is my take on degrees:

"For applicants with little or no real-world experience, from fresh-out to about 5 years, a BE or BS is absolute requirement. (Bachelors in Engineering preferred over Computer Science.) Masters Degrees show additional "focus" and indicate to me a desire to excel but are not a requirement.

"For recent graduates project work in the embedded arena is key! Exposure to RTOS's, standard com IC's, Ethernet, etc... is a big plus. Experience with a scope and/or logic analyzer is impressive. Working on some web based coding project using "AJAX", PHP, PERL etc. does not impress me.

"As for PHD's - for me, over my 20+ year career, that degree has been a "red-flag" - I've hired a handful - and in every case they turned out to be developers who had trouble producing code or products - they never seem to finish. However, PHD's are very good at representing a companies interests on standards bodies, (IEEE and ANSI), and very good at analyzing and simplifying complex technical problems into constituent pieces.

"However, for applicants with five or more years of practical experience - what they did and what they know trumps everything. If you've worked in the embedded space and can describe what you've done, how you tackle problems, especially real-time issues and interaction with real hardware, I will hire you - even without a degree. However, in most cases, your salary and earning potential - at least at hire time, takes a hit. (And this can be seen in salary histories as far as I can tell.)"

Frequent contributor Steve Litt had this to say: "I hate unyielding degree requirements passionately, even though I have a BSEE. I was just lucky enough to be the only child of a middle class family. Others aren't so lucky.

"It's immoral and un-American for an accident of birth to cripple one's lifetime upward economic mobility. Not in America. And make no mistake about it, with the costs of tuition, books and housing, it's hard to get a degree without help from your parents, unless you go in hock for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you do acquire such a debt, you'd better hope not to graduate into a recession, because with the current bankruptcy laws, you'll be in the 21st century equivalent of debtors prison.

"Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I view unyielding requirements for a college degree as class warfare designed to impede upward professional mobility of those who might otherwise compete with the current leaders.

"My books on Troubleshooting, Rapid Learning and Performance Improvement are written for technologists of every academic degree or lack thereof. I find it especially gratifying that my books help a high school graduate outperform a college grad who hasn't read my books.

"My fervent hope is that some day we technologists do an end run around the degree mills and find a way to market ourselves directly to our future bosses on the basis of merit. I hope to help implement that end run."

Scott Whitney wrote: "I appreciated your comments on Advanced Degrees very much. I am an EE by training, and earned my BSEE with a Computer Engineering concentration many years ago. Right out of the gate, it became apparent that employers needed people who not only understood how hardware works and how to design it, but how to write software to control it and make it do something useful. I had a lot of comp sci coursework during my undergrad program, along with part-time and summer jobs writing software for various microprocessors and microcontrollers, including the 6502, the 8048, the 8042, and 8085, and Z80. I even had some experience writing business software on minicomputers like PDP-11s and Prime computers (remember them?).

"The mixture of hardware and software background made me a bit unique compared to the strict sparkies or pure softies. At one employer, however, it became apparent that my older GE-trained manager (a Ph.D. who preferred to be addressed as Doctor) didn't really think that a Bachelors level EE could be a good software developer too, so I went back to school to earn an MSCS.

"Somewhat like you, I stopped two courses shy of obtaining that MSCS. Why? Because I wasn't learning anything new. I left partway into a software testing course, and was doing the same stuff in school that I already did every single day at work. Instead of adding value, my education was simply sapping energy, time, and money that could be better spent becoming a better engineer at my workplace. Ironically, the degree was actually getting in the way of my education.

"I have now worked in engineering for more than 30 years, not even counting the high school, summer jobs, and hobbyist experience in BASIC on the PDP-11 and assemblers for the 6502 and PDP-11 that I obtained before I even started college. For the most part, it has been a very enjoyable and challenging ride, getting a chance to coordinate real-world phenomenon using electronics, software, mechanics, optics, fluidics, and other disciplines.

"Nevertheless, I have occasionally run into some recruiters and hiring managers who have succumbed to degree bias, and are only looking for the correct set of magic letters in your educational history. To me, that is an indication that the person does not understand the value of experience, and I probably shouldn't waste any more time with them. I was once approached about teaching a C/C++ course at a local tech college, until they found out that I only had a BS! What kind of nonsense is that?

"I am a better engineer today in part because of my education, but even more because of my resulting experience and the continuing desire to become better at this strange amalgam of disciplines that we call embedded systems development.

"Degrees do not define you. Its what you do with your education, experience, and creativity that counts most. Managers who tell you otherwise tend to be full of BS, and not the degreed kind!"

Mike Davis said this: "I hold an MS and I've participated in hiring all of my 20-some-odd year career.

"I've found that a masters is an advantage, all other things being equal. Of course, they never are equal, so in practice it's the experience and personality that counts most. When you're fresh out of college with no experience, an advanced degree counts most. Over time, it counts less and less.

"Some (larger) companies give your salary a bump for merely holding or obtaining an advanced degree.

"Oddly, a PhD is a minor warning flag where I've worked, simply because it was overkill for what we did. We'd worry about someone being overqualified or overly-academic in attitude. But once again, experience and personality dominated the decision.

"All together, I'd argue that an advanced degree (technical of course) will pay benefits over one's career. It did in mine. The question left as an exercise for the reader: is the cost worth the benefit? A few $K, sure. $10K, probably. $100K, maybe not. Since a PhD will probably have higher costs, it's less likely to be worthwhile."

And then there's this from Charles Manning: "Surely all that matters is what level of skill a person has and not how they achieved it. If the judge had said "skilled to the level of ..." then that would make a lot more sense.

"Unfortunately courts love documents and "facts". A degree can be waved around in court.

>But is a BS, at least in computer science or electrical engineering,
>enough in today's hypercompetitive world?"

"Lose the focus on papers. Any employee that focuses on paper deserves what they get.

"A while back, I helped out hiring for a company here in NZ. Some people would look for degrees with lists of As. I would look for the "Bush Tail Factor". I was far more interested in curious people who learnt outside their curriculum rather than those who just focused on their coursework.

"One of the best embedded programmers we hired was a business school grad who had done a half year course in Visual Basic programming and taught himself python or something similar in his spare time and got excited by this programming game. He just had the right mix of curiosity and being able to learn on the job. Within three months he was an embedded C pro and could read schematics, write interrupt service routines etc.

"On the flip side, one of the worst electrical engineers I ever met had a PhD. Even with his PhD he could not figure why driving a 115200 bps RS232 connection worked fine for a 5 metre cable but failed to work on a 100m cable.

"The stuff of good engineers can unfortunately not be captured easily in a number in a spreadsheet."

Paul E. Bennett wrote: "Seems like that judge needs some education in the fuller requirements of an Embedded Systems Engineer. I have come across all types in my long and varied career. Some of the most useless had CS degrees. Some of the best had completed an apprenticeship. So, for the judge to rule as he did is somewhat wide of the mark in my opinion.

"Like you, I have no degree. However, I have a wide range of experience from hobby electronics, through an apprenticeship to becoming a fully fledged Systems Engineer. I don't consider that a lack of a degree should bar anyone with the right aptitude and skills from being considered an engineer. The roll requires that one is open to learning new things daily."

Jacob Beningo weighed in with this: "I found your question concerning advanced degrees to be interesting. It's been my experience that advanced degrees (at least in the last few years) seem to provide a major hiring advantage over engineers with only a bachelors degree for engineers with less than ~5 years of experience. I earned my bachelors degree in EE back in 2004 in Michigan and found along with my graduating colleagues that it was nearly impossible to find a job as an EE. I was fortunate (unlike many of my management track bound Home Depot former EE colleagues) to find an entry level position as an EMC test engineer while I pursued a Masters degree part time in systems engineering. I eventually found my way into product development but the opportunities still were slim to none until I re-focused on developing embedded software. I saw more opportunities with smaller companies but it wasn't until I completed my masters degree that my voicemail and email box have become job opportunity central. I'm convinced that the advanced degree, a strong background in embedded software and 5 or more years of experience seems to be the hot spot for hiring opportunities."

Luca Matteini has an Italian perspective: "I read your latest EM201 article, and I found to share at least a few thoughts and personal experience with you, even if in different time and place.

"I was an EE student as well, in late 80's, and because of some stress conditions in my family, I interrupted my higher degree education, and started working. The first obstacle was that for many positions I already was "too much skilled", cause I had too many interests to be just a lower level technician. At the same time, I couldn't offer myself for jobs that required a graduated engineer. Feels like living in middle-earth. Funny enough, if I look back at my "great skills" of that time, I really don't see anything that "great", beside my hunger for knowledge.

"Now, living in Italy puts yourself, all the time, in front of that "missing" EE degree, even without any technical skill involved. Almost every time I answer to a phone call, from someone yet to know, I'm asked "Dr. Matteini?" or more often "Engineer ...?", cause a title gives you an immediate bonus with your interlocutor. Specifying that at most I'm the humble "Mr. Matteini" makes a sudden delusion to fall loud on the other side of the phone. So, even if years ago I trained some freshly graduated engineers to move from theoretical to real life designs, I keep being on a lower step (and not simply from the educational point of view).

"My concern about today's world is shared by two feelings, one about myself, and another one more general. I hadn't reached for an excellence in a single specific field of engineering, as indeed you succeeded; so as a freelance (but not an engineer!) with more than 20 years in wide spectrum real life problem solving, with embedded systems, I find very hard to gain acceptance by new customers ("why him, when we can hire a /real engineer/?").

"The general thought on engineers, is that a BS may not be enough, to find a good job and express their potential, as it happened with me years ago."

Dave Miller contributed: "As for Advanced degree's I am in a similar situation as you are describing. I am pretty much self taught although I did go to night school and earn an Associates Degree in Electronics from a now defunct school. My 17 year old son is a Junior in high school and is interested in pursuing a career in some kind of an engineering field. Right now he is considering some kind of Bio-Medical field.

"Our local high school has a program called Running Start that allows high school students to attend the local community college during their Junior and Senior years. They earn college credit at the same time as high school credits. If a student works hard enough they can also obtain an Associates Degree when they graduate high school. My son wants to graduate with an Associates degree allowing him to enter college as a Junior. This means it should only take him 2-3 years to earn his Bachelors degree. I stress that he has an opportunity to earn his Masters degree in the same time frame it takes many people to earn a their Bachelors so he should take advantage of that while he can.

"I am using my experience as a reason why he should at least get a Masters degree in what ever field he chooses. I have learned that only a few doors are open for those without a 4 year degree, more doors are open for those with a 4 year degree and even more doors are open for those with a Masters as well as more dollars are available.

"I do believe that when a potential employer is looking at 2 similar applicants a higher level degree will play a significant factor in the hiring decision."

Joke for the Week

Bubba and Ray were standing at the base of a flagpole, looking up.

A woman walked by and asked what they were doing?

We're supposed to find the height of the flagpole," said Bubba, "but we don't have a ladder."

The woman took a wrench from her purse, loosened a few bolts, and laid the pole down. Then she took a tape measure from her pocket, took a measurement, announced, "Eighteen feet, six inches," and walked away.

Ray shook his head and laughed. "Ain't that just like a blonde? We ask for the height and she gives us the length!"

About The Embedded Muse

The Embedded Muse is a newsletter sent via email by Jack Ganssle. Send complaints, comments, and contributions to me at jack@ganssle.com.

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