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Where Are Tomorrow's Embedded Developers? 245

An anonymous reader writes "In a similar vein to the previous discussion about the New York professors taking Java to task for damaging Computer Science education, Mike Anderson of the PTR group wonders why it's so hard to find good embedded developers these days. 'As for today's CS programs, it seems that long gone are the computer architecture classes, writing code in assembly language (or even C at this point) and engineering software economics. In fact, a large number of CS majors apparently believe that everything can be implemented in a virtual machine and that both memory and [CPU] cycles are infinite.'"
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Where Are Tomorrow's Embedded Developers?

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  • College Classes (Score:4, Insightful)

    by kmsigel ( 306018 ) * on Tuesday February 12, 2008 @05:32PM (#22397728)
    I'm in my late 30s and have been doing embedded development since college. Back then we built finite state machines in PALs and complete embedded systems using microsequencers and UV eraseable ROMs. We both built (hand wired) and programmed the systems from scratch. Doing that gives you a very good appreciation for what's going on. That kind of stuff just isn't done much anymore in college. From what I can see, there aren't many good embedded programmers more than a few years younger than me. It looks like good embedded programmers (whatever their age) will be in demand and well paid for many years to come. :)
  • by kninja ( 121603 ) on Tuesday February 12, 2008 @05:38PM (#22397830)
    Used to be an embedded developer for devices, but then I got interested in Ruby on Rails (it was much more fun).

    I think there are probably more than a few people out there that have the skills, but have been moved into other paths by market forces. They will come back if you pay them enough, but that is unlikely to happen, so they will probably stay where they are.

  • Re:College Classes (Score:2, Insightful)

    by jim.hansson ( 1181963 ) on Tuesday February 12, 2008 @05:42PM (#22397906) Homepage
    I wonder is this a problem in USA only or is the trend spreading to other countries?
    here in Sweden it does not seem as there should be any bigger shortage of embedded developers than other types.
    Still embedded development are a lot more fun than doing some ordinary desktop app, or even worse webapps
  • Eh. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Mongoose Disciple ( 722373 ) on Tuesday February 12, 2008 @05:46PM (#22397966)
    I'm neither surprised by this nor do I necessarily find it something to get up in arms about.

    There's not really time in a 4 year degree (well, along with all the other crap that goes into it) to teach someone the kinds of things you need to know to be a good business application developer and to teach someone the kinds of things you need to know to be a good embedded applications developer.

    A good embedded developer needs experience with languages that run "close to the metal" of the machine, needs to know how to manage memory, needs to know how the machine architecture works, needs to know how to perform optimizations within that world, etc.

    A good business applications developer needs experience with languages that abstract or hide a lot of the above details in order to let them focus on business logic, needs to know a decent amount about databases, needs to know about software architecture and design patterns, needs to know about networking, generally needs to know something about UI design, etc.

    Yes, there's some overlap.

    Speaking as someone with a college education emphasizing the former and a career emphasizing the latter, I'm not convinced this is a terrible thing. There are a lot more business style applications that need writing in the world than embedded applications. That specialization and the need for it I don't see going away any time soon, but it's the exception rather than the rule, and I'm not convinced there's something holier about understanding the guts of the machine than in understanding how to design a complex system for extensibility, maintainability, high availability, or whatever best suits the project.
  • by PhrostyMcByte ( 589271 ) <> on Tuesday February 12, 2008 @05:47PM (#22398002) Homepage
    The reason for Java/C#'s popularity isn't because of the VM, it's because of the huge accompanying frameworks that allow for rapid development which is in most cases much more important than efficient cpu/memory usage these days. Build one of these frameworks for C/C++ and you will find it much easier to compete with newer langs.
  • by trb ( 8509 ) on Tuesday February 12, 2008 @05:51PM (#22398068)
    I'm an old school UNIX hacker, I worked at Bell Labs in the '70's. These days I hack software that controls robots used for rehab of stroke patients. It's not exactly embedded, since the code runs on an Ubuntu/Xenomai COTS PC, but it's similar in nature to embedded hacking.

    The relevant question is, how many embedded-system hackers are needed? If only .1% of job opportunities are for embedded-system hackers, then there really isn't much incentive for people to learn to hack embedded systems. If embedded hacking is a lucrative field with attractive opportunities, then hackers will follow. We saw it happen with other forms of hacking, we even saw it happen with web-page hacking. If there is a need for embedded hackers, it will be filled (guided by Adam Smith's Invisible Hand).

  • From EE, not CS? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by SleptThroughClass ( 1127287 ) on Tuesday February 12, 2008 @05:53PM (#22398128) Journal
    Maybe the Electrical Engineering Department is training device programmers, not the Computer Science Department.
  • by Shados ( 741919 ) on Tuesday February 12, 2008 @06:12PM (#22398464)
    Thats what I'm thinking. If you train people too much in niche fields, they're more likely to be attracted to these niche fields... And then you have a market saturation. There's a reason why everytime there's an article about IT jobs, you have a billion CS majors from Slashdot posting about how they can't find one (even though the market is currently starved and needing developers like never before): too many people trained in things that simply don't have a market for. Its nice (and even a must) to know the basics of that stuff...but god damn....
  • by pdh11 ( 227974 ) on Tuesday February 12, 2008 @06:22PM (#22398622) Homepage

    Perhaps tomorrow's embedded developers are programming today's desktops.

    The desktop machine I learned to program on was an Acorn RiscPC. Later in life, I helped write the embedded firmware in the Rio Karma portable MP3 player. Rio Karma had two 90MHz ARM CPUs, 16Mbytes of RAM, and 20Gbytes of disk. That would have been one kick-ass RiscPC. If anything, programming and optimisation techniques learned on late-80s and early-90s desktops are too "embedded" for a lot of today's embedded programming.

    And to those advocating hiring EE graduates for embedded programming: unless your device isn't far north of a toaster on the embeddedness scale, please also hire people with broader or higher-level software expertise for system design and architecture. It's not the same skill as squeezing one more instruction out of a loop, you find people with one skill and not the other, and any medium- or large-scale software project needs both skills (whether in the same person, or through good collaboration).

    People go on about the spectrum of computing, software/assembler/logic/gates/transistors; what some don't realise is that there's a spectrum even within software. Some really good, tight, expert coders just can't see the bigger picture. I've seen medium-scale software architected by the toaster contingent: it wasn't pretty.


  • by Rycross ( 836649 ) on Tuesday February 12, 2008 @06:30PM (#22398752)
    I wish I could jump on something like that too. As it is, I have a CS instead of EE, and no real embedded experience. I did want to pursue embedded systems early on, but as my first job was a .Net related job, I'm pingeon-holed into .Net jobs.

    As it is, I'm looking at doing an English-teaching-in-Japan stint. I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment.
  • by j35ter ( 895427 ) on Tuesday February 12, 2008 @06:35PM (#22398828)
    when comparing x86,PIC or (shudder) 8051 ASM to some more modern Python programming, I dont really want to go back anymore. Even though I maintain Python code with a curses GUI Yuck!

    Last thing I worked on was a GPRS/GPS combo on an ARM device, which was quite fun.

    Why such a long prelude? Well, I just cant find serious employment on the field of embedded devices in Eastern Europe. Most guys who need a developer are of the type with "A good Idea" and hiring a dumbass to do the work; you just cant feed a family from those guys payments. So, I'll just stick to my Python stuff and keep integrating some Brainfuck code, just so they cant fire me anytime soon.

    And at night I dream of indirect addressing, C pointers and interrupt vectors...
  • Re:College Classes (Score:5, Insightful)

    by adpowers ( 153922 ) on Tuesday February 12, 2008 @06:57PM (#22399158)
    Really? Cause I seem to remember creating FSMs using PALs just last year in my undergraduate CS program (in a required 300 level class). We also had a class where we put together a microprocessor, put it on an FPGA, and wrote low level code to run on it.

    A number of my friends took the hardware capstone where you did even more of this type of work. It still goes on, perhaps you just aren't looking in the right place? It seems the CE and EE folks take more embedded classes than CS students, so that is where you should look. CS is a huge field, and not everyone is going to follow the story's author's preference of study.

  • Re:College Classes (Score:5, Insightful)

    by secondstory756 ( 989242 ) on Tuesday February 12, 2008 @07:26PM (#22399536)
    I have to agree. I'm a computer engineer at the University of Illinois. It's the computer engineers that are doing the lower level development. I've had extensive systems programming (in assembly and c) and every CE here makes both an OS and a 16-bit processor. CS students don't see that stuff unless they elect to take it.

    I haven't seen a speck of java (or even c++) in my ECE (Electrical & computer engineering) courses, but that's all I've used in my CS courses. Furthermore, I have a lot of friends in CS that know very little about what the actual computers are doing on a bitwise level. (I had to help one of them work on bit masking last weekend.)

    If you're looking for embedded people don't look at CS, look at CE.

  • by Samrobb ( 12731 ) on Tuesday February 12, 2008 @07:27PM (#22399552) Homepage Journal

    Perhaps tomorrow's embedded developers are programming today's desktops.


    I more or less drifted into embedded systems work from a desktop/server background. I frequently point out to people that there's a lot of confusion about what an "embedded" system is. Some people use the term to refer to 8-bit mircocontrollers that have a whopping 4K of memory and no persistent storage. Others use the term to refer to 32-bit devices with 2-4 MB of memory and 256 MB of flash for storage. There's yet another camp that's really talking about dedicated-purpose desktop systems in a compact form factor.

    The point is... there used to be a pretty well defined spectrum of what "embedded" meant. Economies of scale and new technologies have started introducing gaps into that spectrum, so there's not a single continuous spread of processors, memory and storage that qualifies as "embedded". When you can take a desktop system from 1995 and shrink it down into something like a Hammer board or a Gumstix... it may be small, it may be compact, it may be used for a dedicated purpose; but practically, you're developing on something that has massively superior capabilities when compared to the traditional idea of an embedded system. You are, in fact, developing for a desktop system - albeit a desktop system in a small package with some unusual constraints.

  • by Grishnakh ( 216268 ) on Tuesday February 12, 2008 @07:44PM (#22399810)
    I wish I could jump on something like that too. As it is, I have a CS instead of EE, and no real embedded experience. I did want to pursue embedded systems early on, but as my first job was a .Net related job, I'm pingeon-holed into .Net jobs.

    This is a hard lesson to learn in technical/engineering jobs: be extremely careful what job you first take, because it will go a long way in determining what you do for the rest of your career. Employers always pigeon-hole people based on their previous experience. So if your last job was a .Net programming job, your next one probably will be too, because it'll be extremely difficult to convince anyone that you'll make a great Linux kernel programmer, for instance.
  • by John Courtland ( 585609 ) on Tuesday February 12, 2008 @08:26PM (#22400252)
    In your example, the Bus Factor [] is 1. Dangerous.
  • Re:College Classes (Score:5, Insightful)

    by turbidostato ( 878842 ) on Tuesday February 12, 2008 @09:30PM (#22400880)
    "It's the computer engineers that are doing the lower level development."

    Of course!

    "a large number of CS majors apparently believe that [...] both memory and [CPU] cycles are infinite.'"

    That's the difference between a computer ENGINEER and a computer SCIENTIST. After all, complete turing machines *do* have infinite memory and cpu cycles. /me fastly ducks away
  • by GrpA ( 691294 ) on Tuesday February 12, 2008 @10:36PM (#22401386)
    What happened to the embedded developers? The industry got rid of them...

    So if it doesn't have any now, then it really can't look elsewhere to blame anyone.

    I started out as a R&D engineer working with video game technology, but essentially, it was all embedded work... I lived and breathed machine code and logic - to me software and hardware were one in the same, a symphony of technology with blurred distinction between the two. I remember sitting down with six spare GAL16v8s and a couple of low-power walkie talkies and a spare afternoon and built myself a radio modem for fun. That was the sort of work I used to do.

    But there weren't many people like me - Assembly programmers were hard to find, even back in the 80s and most engineers fresh out of university just didn't know how to write real-time code in assembly language properly - didn't know how to write fault-tolerant code or build a spinlock as the starting point for your application. Didn't understand the necessity of understanding how many cycles an instruction took or how to watch for errors by measuring the duty cycle of the interrupt pin with a logic probe.

    So the people who employed hardware designers (back then, if you knew machine code, you usually had a hand in the design of the system as well) found that it was difficult to get replacement engineers. As a result, they couldn't employ similar salary replacements and as old engineers got tired of being mistreated and poorly paid, they simply left and went off to do something different.

    Industry responded to the lack of engineering by eliminating the need for the machine code engineers - they moved away from the embedded design with assembly to embedded design with C or even to outsourcing the product they needed, and the hardware got designed by dedicated hardware engineers.

    Once again, any real skill in the area was lost as employers wouldn't pay for experience and the best engineers realised they would never be paid what they were worth, so left to do something else.

    Then the industry got around this constraint by using really powerful embedded devices - basically a complete PC ready to run whatever PC programmers could write for it.

    That's where we're at now. The skills left the industry because the industry wouldn't pay what they were worth... If you can make more money at another job (in my case at the time, selling PCs and Journalism) then why would you keep on developing hardware for a company that doesn't want to pay what you're worth?

    I'm seeing the same thing now in Network Analysis... The world is full of network technicians (and I include many people who consider themselves engineers in that description, but don't really know how to actually measure things or understand the technology they work on) but has very few network engineers.

    The solution for me? I got smart and moved to management.

    I'm a lousy manager ( really, I suck at it ) but I try hard and for once, my contribution is recognised by the company I work for financially... And I have a family to look after.

    Would I even go back to engineering or even embedded engineering?

    I would love to go back, I really would. I can sit in front of circuits all day and build something and I enjoy every second of it, but I can't afford to do company critical work that won't feed my family or pay my bills.

    So unless the industry is prepared to pay for skilled people, and by pay I mean pay them more than they would get being a manager or an accountant or even a journalist, then they will leave.

    The other embedded engineers I know all did the same thing... One works on an offshore oilrig, another as a miner, one went to a call centre. One even opened a grocery business. These are all smart people and although they all miss working with electronics and embedded designs, they have families to feed too.


  • Re:College Classes (Score:3, Insightful)

    by StarvingSE ( 875139 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @12:26AM (#22402044)
    Of course, these engineers had one thing in common. Like many schools, they took their programming and algorithms classes in the CS faculty because the schools were trying to save money. The CS schools are doing their best to churn out people who know all the buzzword technologies (Java, HTML, AJAX, etc) but have little marketable skill. CS courses seem mostly a left-over from the dot bomb era.

    I've yet to meet a CS grad who properly understands the difference between TCP, UDP and IP. I haven't met one who knows anything about algorithm analysis (or big O notation; I think they were all out getting a lot of Big-O's instead of studying).

    If you've met anyone that has a CS degree and gives you a blank stare when you mention big-O notation, then they either failed out or graduated from Rafael Alonzo's I.T.F. Technical Computer Institute.

    And, let's be realistic here. Concepts such as TCP, UDP, etc are advanced programming topics and are either taught as electives, or in post-graduate classes.

    Computer Science involves a lot of math classes, and then programming classes that implement those mathematical ideas in code. Yes, the school will offer classes like HTML and AJAX, but these are electives used to broaden a student's understanding of the buzzword technology du jour (in an effort to make those students more marketable after graduation). Your post just makes you sound ignorant about what is actually offered in a *good* CS department.
  • Re:College Classes (Score:5, Insightful)

    by xenocide2 ( 231786 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @02:55AM (#22402956) Homepage
    This is what always bothers me about these "shortages" complaints: why do you feel the sample population you've encountered is a valid cross section? If you are a hiring manager, it could be that your HR dept. is failing you. Or it could be that your company's pay scales immediately dissuades talented programmers from applying. Can anyone honestly say they've accurately surveyed the graduating class of '0x?
  • Re:College Classes (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Shinobi ( 19308 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @11:19AM (#22406176)
    It is a problem here in Sweden too. Many of the colleges and uni's spend too much time teaching high-level stuff, and just a bare minimum on low-level. So what we get out here is people who need a ton of libraries to get anything done, who believe that Getting It Right The First Time is a waste, it's better to patch early and patch often(Rather anathema to embedded work, don't you think?) and who believe that if something doesn't quite work with the hardware available, you can just get MORE hardware....

    And these guys were from KTH :/

    Had to spend several hours teaching them about the realities of quite a few embedded projects. Such as the fact that the hardware we were targeting had a limitation of 256kB of RAM, of which 192kB needed to be available for data+processing, so no, you couldn't squeeze SSH+auto-patcher and some other stuff in there. Also, these were supposed to stand outside, in severe temperatures, so there were limits on the hardware itself. And, they were to be placed all over the country, to collect and pre-process weather and climate data. So yeah, we HAD to get it done right the first time... unless they wanted to travel around and handle reflashing manually?
  • Re:College Classes (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Z00L00K ( 682162 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @02:04PM (#22408606) Homepage
    Not too bad to start with Java, but it's not really close to the hardware at all.

    A starting language shall not be too unforgiving, and there is a small advantage with Java, and it is that it's very C-like. At least as long as you don't use a lot of built-in classes. If a student is limited to the "java.lang" package and isn't allowed to use anything else from the Java library it can actually provide a good learning base. But I assume that many teachers aren't into this... The really great disadvantage with Java is that the programmer relies completely on the garbage collector.

    The "not to worry too much about memory or speed" is a REALLY stupid opinion. Hardware is good today in the upper-end systems, but even if the speed is doubled every 18 months or so the optimization of a program can improve speed a lot more. It's more a question of several magnitudes than percent if you find the right spot to optimize.

    Learning C is really a good thing - it's small, efficient and fast. Of course - you can do stupid things in C too, but it will bite back pretty fast!

    A really good course would be if students were to build their own computers and program them. Not too hard considering the components available today compared to the components available in the 80's when I built my first computer from a Z80, 2716, 6116 and a lot of TTL chips and a few other chips. I still have it, but I'm not sure if I can make it work anymore. Programmed completely in assembly.

    Today it would have been either some kind of 8051 (like the nRF24E1 []) or an ARM. Neither are too bad, and the poison of choice depends more on power consumption versus performance. The only disadvantage with modern processors are that they aren't usually DIL packaged, which means that they are a lot trickier to use when throwing together something just for learning.

  • Re:College Classes (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @05:10PM (#22411388)
    Or they'll come from smart folks who get hired and trained in assembly, C, and hardware. If employers really need people to do these things then they can quite easily train them to do it.
  • HA! (Score:2, Insightful)

    by BrunoUsesBBEdit ( 636379 ) on Thursday February 14, 2008 @12:00PM (#22420842) Homepage
    One perfectly chosen word!

Never say you know a man until you have divided an inheritance with him.