Changes

Yesterday morning at sunrise the thermometer said that it was only 40 ºF outside – in the August summertime. I don’t live at 8,000 feet, and it’s supposed to be in the 80s or hotter this time of year. Clearly the global weather is changing, right along with everything else in technology. Globalization affects us all in a myriad of ways. It’s essential that we recognize that the landscape’s changed – and our need to change with it on a company, product, and personal level.

Engineers and technical designers are very focused. We’re analytical, organized (in our own way), and task-oriented. We like to keep our heads down and chew on the project at hand, often failing to look up and take in the big picture for fear it will perturb what we’re already doing and push us out of our comfort zone. These are positive traits when problem-solving, but they can prove disastrous in a world that’s rapidly changing. Being open to new ideas – even conflicting ones that might cause re-work or personal discomfort – is the key to progress.

Likewise, changes are all around us in the high-tech industry. Two years ago few people had heard of Wi-Fi, and the concept of wirelessly connecting computers in your home was relegated to early adopters. Today, Wi-Fi can be found citywide (though the recent “Federal Anti-Municipal Wi-Fi Bill” might change that), and it’s being integrated into cell phones and home telephones. Point is, wireless computers and appliances have immeasurably expanded former Sun Microsystems CTO Bill Joy’s vision of “the network is the computer.” If engineers, software designers, and marketers fail to notice this change and remain solely focused on single-user, autonomous products, they’re unknowingly building in obsolescence and probably writing a product or company epitaph.

You might be wondering how a Wi-Fi analogy applies to PC/104 Embedded Solutions readers. After all, PC/104 probably isn’t used in many Wi-Fi appliances and if it is, it’s easy to add a PCMCIA Wi-Fi adapter or an Intel Centrino, DPAC AirBorne, or PMC-Sierra AirPort IC device. All true – but it’s important to keep a sharp eye on the changing marketplace while conceiving of and designing products just to assure the feature set and product longevity that customers demand. This broad view is echoed by PC/104 Consortium president Tom Barnum in his column on page 8, as he reveals the Technical Committee’s plans for evaluating serial fabric PCI Express as the likely replacement for the PCI bus.

Similarly, it’s critical that engineers start thinking like customers and marketers by adopting an intellectual property (IP) policy. Management often fails to communicate the value of unique ideas (or even the definition of what is “unique technology”) to their hardware and software teams. Without an IP policy, if an engineer creates, for example, a way to remotely re-Flash and boot a SOM across the Internet via a G3 smartphone via an SD card image, the engineer and company may never grasp the potential elegance and brilliance of their approach. Or that it might be used in an ancillary market, create an entirely different product, or represent the basis for spinning off a new company while re-invigorating designers’ energy and enthusiasm.

Designers should be constantly thinking about how what they’re designing or coding can be used as unique features and product differentiators. Even when the marketing team provides a rigid spec for a new product, think about how the product will be used by the end customer and muse on the bigger picture: Is there a better way to solve the problem?

Instead of doing a complete PCB redesign to accommodate two extra serial port connectors, is it possible that the final application really wants to be a node on a network, so shouldn’t the new layout include Ethernet instead? Or is it possible that most of the end applications are used in remote locations so adding a Web server with a TCP/IP stack might add even more value?

Even if your job is more narrowly focused than being the project’s lead engineer – say you’re responsible only for fitting all the components on the board’s topside – you might still suggest that adding a mini-mezzanine daughter card wouldn’t violate the z-axis inter-board spacing, but it might add more memory or CPU flexibility options.

And finally, for heaven’s sake, please keep in mind your own personal growth. With today’s the well-documented technology outsourcing and off-shoring shift, it’s very important to continually broaden your skill set. Could your job be done in India, China, or Russia? Adding more value, according to consultant Dan Saks, is the basis for survival and happiness. His keynote speech “Keeping Your Job Onshore” at last year’s Embedded Systems Conference was the best-attended I’ve ever seen. (See www.dansaks.com for a copy of his briefing.)

Here are a couple ideas for you to cope with market changes: If you are the one creating the project’s critical design review and technical data package, perhaps you could write the user manuals too: clear documentation is imperative. And if you’re the one taking charge and giving internal presentations, perhaps you could do the same in front of customers as an applications engineer or (“Heaven forbid!”) a member of the marketing team.

With an estimated 140 million jobs in the US labor force – and nearly a million moving off-shore by the end of 2005 (according to the Detroit Free Press, 5/24/04) – maintaining your value-add is a matter of survival. Recognizing change is the first step toward dealing with it.

Drop me a line with any comments or questions; I’d like to hear from you.