Electronic Design

Are You Forever Battling Windmills?

The continual struggle to meet work's daily design challenges can make us all feel a little like Don Quixote, the errant knight created by the Spanish novelist Cervantes. We tackle both real and contrived challenges, and even when we fail, we usually pick ourselves up and go on to the next challenge. Whether it's a task to design something that runs faster, consumes less power, or even performs a function never done before, we gladly pick up the gauntlet.

In fact, most of us thrive on such challenges, although we may resent it when the "lords" in product marketing lead the way in defining the next skirmish. In the end, we engineers tend to bow to their dictates when they tell us that the system must run 50% faster for the same price, or include three new functions, or that power has to be cut by 70%. Usually, too, the lords want the battle won yesterday, if not sooner.

These challenges are real, but I feel they can be likened to the imaginary dragons that Don Quixote saw when he happened upon some windmills. As the challenges are attacked one by one, we probably find ourselves wondering if the goals set by the product marketers are really what the end user needs or wants. Like the unwavering Quixote, we frequently stick to our ideals and take on the challenges just to prove that we can tackle them.

Many times, the due diligence in analyzing the market is on target, and so the jousting continues. We win the battle against power, tie a battle regarding speed, reach a compromise on new features, and so the saga goes on. I believe our ability to meet most challenges and, in many cases, surpass the initial goals proposed is strong proof that we thrive on the challenge to reach the lofty goals set before us.

If the due diligence leads us astray, however, and we go after false goals, then the dragons will win—that is, until our resilience, like that of the determined Quixote, allows us to recover and prepare for the next challenge. Or perhaps we change projects, or even companies.

When most of us first entered engineering, we found taking on challenges to be both enjoyable as well as topics to gloat about among our peers when we successfully completed tasks. In today's world of megagate ASICs and even more complex systems, the windmills look especially fierce. Often we find that meeting the challenge requires a team effort—an army of knights—rather than the work of a single person. The long hours and self-imposed goal of hitting the target cause all team players to create and vanquish their own dragons individually. In most cases, the team will persevere and achieve the product objectives.

In the future, I suspect new windmills will always be popping up. But will we always be ready for yet another battle against the dragon?

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