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When Blueprints Were Really Blue: Is Engineering Becoming Less Satisfying?

I graduated college in 1979 (yeah, I know…. makes me about 35, right?). Back then our college Comp Sci department had less processing power than a modern toaster. There was talk, probably apocryphal, of a PDP-11 somewhere in the building, but we in the Physics department cut our teeth on a PDP-8, which had less processing power than a modern slice of toast. Nonetheless, we made do, learning machine code, assembly language and FORTRAN, booting up the machine with a strip of paper tape and entering our programs via punched cards.

My first job post-college was working on flight simulator control loading systems at Link-Miles in Lancing on the south coast of England, for the princely sum of 4000 pounds a year. Plus shift differential, of course, flight simulation being a 24/7 kind of business.

Flight simulators were all unique, depending on the particular avionics fit of the aircraft we were simulating. The control loading was overwhelmingly analog. At age 35, my memory isn't what it was, but essentially a load cell, located at the base of the control yoke, translated pilot inputs into a force, which was then integrated twice (using opamps and capacitors, of course) to produce both velocity and position terms. These then drove a hydraulic servoactuator which moved the yoke to provide feedback modeled on real aircraft behavior. Along the way, inputs were added into the equation representing flight surface loading, cable stretch, stiction, and so on. All in all, a classic old-school control loop.

Old School board layout (Image source: Wikipedia)

Old School board layout (Image source: Wikipedia)

The whole control loop was implemented on wire-wrap boards. If you needed to add another term to an equation, you would manually wire in a new socket or two, add a couple of op amps and a few passive components, then test it out. If it worked, you'd mark up the schematic, turn it into the drafting department and you were done. Quality control? Functional safety? Hahahahahaha.

Need some logic functions? Crack open the Texas Instruments orange 7400 book. One of these days I'll find a use for some of those bit-slice parts. Analog? I always started with the Burr-Brown data book, because it contained almost magical functional blocks like analog dividers and log amps that went down to DC. Never found a use for those either, sadly.

To quote Ellen DeGeneres – my point…and I do have one, is this: back then, working as a professional EE was like being a home hobbyist on steroids. Much of what we did, at least on the hardware side, wasn't too far removed from what you might do tinkering at home in your garage.

And just like at home, we felt an almost parental involvement in the final product – perhaps because we designed, built, tested and approved our own (admittedly minor) piece of it, with no committees, peer review boards, or any of that nonsense those indispensable components.

Contrast that to the current situation. The increasing complexity of current engineering applications has led to each project being shared among dozens, if not hundreds, of people distributed worldwide.

And I think we've lost something along the way in terms of job satisfaction. I'm sorry, but being a small cog in the vast machine that's the 21st-century cross-functional team, doesn't give me quite the same, well, buzz.

What say you?

10 comments on “When Blueprints Were Really Blue: Is Engineering Becoming Less Satisfying?

  1. ozindfw
    April 8, 2015

     

    We're pretty close to contemporaries (BSEE 1978) and I *really* disagree.

    In the past it took bigger teams to accomplish the same things.  Today I have more responsibility in the end result.  I love both the process of building things *and* the result of delivering them to appreciative customers.  Today's toolsets are different, still let me get into the nuts and bolts if I need to. Harder isn't neccesarily better.

    If I have any beef, it's that in most cases I'm still (and often more) isolated from the ultimate user. If I have a better understanding of the user's needs I can meet them much more effectively – even if I'm working to a spec. 

     

    Oz (in DFW)

  2. Paul Bryson
    April 8, 2015

    I started my career in the mid 80's.  What I lament is that there is now less opportunity to be clever.  I used to get great satisfaction from figuring out some clever way to reduce the chip count, to reduce interrupt latency by 2 instructions, or to use basic function chips instead of expensive special purpose ICs.  But now it seems that processors are so powerful and have so many built-in peripherals that being clever provides no benefit and can even over complicate the design. …or worse the whole product can replaced with a cell phone app. 

     

  3. jimfordbroadcom
    April 8, 2015

    I guess I'm a bit younger (graduated with a BSEE in 1988) but not by much.  I can empathize with the lament about less opportunity to be clever, although for a different reason.  Let's call it the innovator's dilemma: When business is good, there's no time to innovate; when business is bad, there's no money for it.  These days we are so focused on execution that invention suffers.  The late, great Jim Williams of Linear Technology wrote about this as “eating one's seed corn”.  So we carry on, getting stuff out the door to pay the bills and innovating on our own time and sometimes with our own money to keep the dream alive….  Sigh….

  4. Paul Pickering
    April 8, 2015

    Oz,

    Interesting…. my experience was different. In my early career, there weren't as many formalized systems of checks & balances (regardless of their merits), so we felt much more in control of what we were doing.

    Of course my first job was at a relativey small division of a large conglomerate (Singer), but even 10 years later at GM Delco, writing engine controller code in assembly language gave me at least the (possibly illusory) feeling of control

    Of course, in later life I moved into semiconductors, with a radically different design flow. When's the last time one engineer was solely responsible for every aspect of a design? 

    On reflection, this sense of loss of control applies to other aspects of my life, too. Perhaps it's modern society passing me by….

     

  5. mr_widget
    April 8, 2015

    Like you, I started out on a PDP-8 (in 1977 high school, of all things).  My daily routine involved hand-keying the OS/8 startup code (33 words) on the panel every morning, then checking if the 4K-word core memories needed to have the dust blasted out (even the occasional moth – my first exposure to debugging code).  In that time I knew with a certainty that the system was small, but had enough complexity that not only writing programs, but _understanding_ what the hardware beneath was doing with the program logic was going to be the addictive payoff that remains with me to this day.  I wonder if all the people doing IoT and wearables are getting even close that level of satisfaction since they tend to never delve beneath the highest semantic layers of Arduino or RasPi code.

    J.R. Stoner

    BDG

  6. pconti
    April 8, 2015

    I see similarities in your article and the “division of labor” addressed in the book “Shop class as soulcraft”.  You might enjoy reading it.  It seems like it would fit your sense of humor and love of craft.

  7. Victor Lorenzo
    April 8, 2015

    @Paul, it seems to me like time is flying too fast. I started in late 80's as part of a research team and continued as a reasearcher after graduating in early 90's.

    I should say that I've enjoyed those “old times” and still continue enjoying today's IoT era.

    Perhaps I don't fully agree on “But now it seems that processors are so powerful and have so many built-in peripherals that being clever provides no benefit “. Even having a lot of power at reach from a near infinite number of processor references we still face situations requiring us being really clever and skilled.

    I remember a design a couple of years ago where we included one 32 bit Cortex CPU running at 120MHz for simulating a secure ISO14443/A smartcard… and power was not enough. I had to modify (almost redesign) the SPI driver (the chip manufacturer provides a full software package including RTOS, drivers and sample application) and optimize it to reduce its interrupt processing routine so it was possible to achieve the strict ISO14443/A timing requirements. It was not enough with turning optimizations on at compiler level, it required me to travel in time to those old days when programming was an “art” and dig into my box of “old tricks”. I suppose many of us still remember those days.

    Now I work on projects involving analog front-end, CPU and communications at the same time that require low power consumption (very low, in fact) and optimized code execution paths for reducing processing time and thus power. It is challenging again.

  8. David Ashton
    April 8, 2015

    I kind of agree.  It seems to me that in the old days, wiring up PCBs, selecting each component, coding with assembly or even machine language, was closer to the electronics itself.  These days you get a board like an Arduino, hook a few wires and sensors and displays or servos to it, and code in C.  Seems more remote from the guts of the thing.  But think of the Arduino, or Picaxe (in my case) or whatever dev board you are using, as just another component and things haven't changed that much.  If you don't look at it that way, you're denying yourself a lot of fun, which others are obviously having.  Don't miss out!

    I think my thinking is clouded by the way my career has progressed.  I started off as a radio tech, and in those days you opened up the radio, found what was wrong (one capacitor or transistor (or, yes, even a tube) and fixed it.  Electronics and telecomms were more or less identical.  I have remained more in telecomms, and these days you just change an equipment or maybe a module, maybe tweak a few settings and that's it.  No contact with the electronics at all.  Unless you're like me, grab the junked equipment and get all sorts of interesting parts out of it! 🙂

  9. Paul Pickering
    April 8, 2015

    @analog_layout,

    I found the original article that gave rise to the book: 

    www. thenewatlantis.com/doclib/20090526_tna13crawford2009.pdf

    I agree with his premise. One of the satisfactions about developing my own web sites is that I can look at the finished product and know that it's uniquely mine, a result of my own particular combination of skills, talents, foibles, strengths and weaknesses.

    It's on display for all the world to see  – even if nobody does – and only exists due to my creativity and exertion. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

  10. D Feucht
    April 15, 2015

    Valid gripes, Paul. While creativity has shifted somewhat for some EEs nowadays, the technology has matured to where it is no longer the young and free frontier it was in the '60s and '70s. Electronics has become a large industry, with much money involved, and this has attracted the wrong kind of per$ons to guide it with money decisions instead of new and interesting technical ideas. When George Soros bought into Tektronix years ago, this was a kind of harbinger of what can happen to a good thing.

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