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Small Beginnings

Small Beginnings

About 10 years ago, I received a phone call from an acquaintance. He had found a new opportunity selling some sort of investments and wanted to share it with me in case I was interested. Ken had done fairly well for many years as a contract software developer primarily in the financial services sector. His specialty was writing RPG code (RPG is often referred to as a write only language). But he was seeing the handwriting on the wall as the industry moved on to other methods, and saw himself becoming a fossil. He thought this move into investment sales might be a good way to secure his financial future after obsolescence... today he enjoys driving a taxi for a living.

Ken figured that since I was about his age and since the electronics industry moves even more rapidly than the business IT community, I, too, might be feeling left behind. “No pressure, you understand, but if you are interested I can tell you more.” I thanked him and assured him that anything related to sales was pretty close to my definition of torture, not a job, and selling financial instruments was near the bottom of that list... no offense.

I do have to admit that there have been times when I wondered if the industry would leave me behind. My most serious fears came as I watched ICs go from SSI to MSI and LSI (LSI then was about the scale of an 8-bit CPU). It was obvious that cutting-edge products would make use of custom ICs, and not only did I lack the skills to design such ICs, I did not envision myself ever being able to finance the (then) $100,000 required to create one. Nor could I stomach the risk of failure, either technically or in the marketplace. But then FPGAs came along. Suddenly, that ballgame became open to “the rest of us.”

As I start this set of online columns, I want to focus primarily on designers in small-scale settings. My company, Embedded System Resources, is a one-person operation. I’m not only the lead designer, but also the chief accountant, CAD guy, marketing director... and janitor. Such companies face a number of challenges: Keeping up with a variety of skills. Maintaining hardware development tools (test equipment). Keeping current on a variety of software applications from CAD to word processing (did I mention compilers). Tracking industry trends and new components.

In addition, most of my clients are small companies in niche markets. The largest run of any product that I've designed has been a couple thousand pieces; at the other extreme, many are under 100 and sometimes only 5 to 10. This creates interesting procurement challenges. Some companies are aware that most products start small, and if you don’t support the little guy, you won’t have the design win when his product goes viral. However, a few major manufacturers don’t seem to get it (or at least care). If you aren’t making the next cell phone or tablet, they won’t support you.

I don’t have any hard facts, but I'm guessing less than 1% of the design community is working on the next cell phone or tablet, or similar mass-market product, even though the engineering media community acts like that's where all the action is. Probably the largest segment of designers work for companies that sell things ranging from appliances to heavy equipment to furnaces. And these companies likely sell tens to hundreds of thousands of them, but they aren’t exactly cutting-edge designs. To me this is the most overlooked group, especially since they are so large. What components do they need? What design tools? What languages do they program in? What techniques are most efficient for them? Those of us at the small end of that range are probably the least represented.

As this thread evolves over the coming months, I’d like to get feedback on others from this segment, as well as share concepts that have proven successful here. I may not be addressing where the largest portion of components get sold; certainly not by individual company, and maybe not even collectively. However, I suspect I represent the largest percentage of engineers doing designs.

My primary background is embedded software development, so that will be a topic here. As you may guess by now, though, hardware will also play a role, including programmable hardware. The distinction between software and hardware gets blurrier every year, as hardware become more programmable, and chips combine CPU, dedicated digital hardware, programmable digital hardware, and most recently, programmable analog hardware on the same die. It is a valuable combination that enables the small guy to do some of the things that otherwise would require an ASIC.

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