The Evolution of the Engineer

I’m always amused by the comics that show the evolution of various things. The evolution of man is usually good for a laugh. The Evolution of Dance video that spread through YouTube had me rolling on the floor. And seeing Homer Simpson evolve is always a classic cartoon. (“What took you so long?”, says his wife.)

My own evolution may not be quite as dramatic, but I’m sure it’s there. One thing that I do know from first hand knowledge is that the job of the design engineer has certainly evolved over the past couple of decades and continues to do so.

My first job out of school was with a naval architect company. As an electrical engineer, I worked in the group that was designing the power and lighting systems for a new Navy frigate. My job was to basically place all for the lighting parts and then route the proper electrical cables throughout the ship through the various cableways.

My tools…well, I had a desk, a bunch of pencils, large plots of the various sections of the ship and a room full of draftsmen. I would draw and label every place where the cables went into and exited the cableways, eventually hand that off for the draftsmen to redraw and then have to manually validate all of the work over all of the pages.

Wow, how things have changed. The evolution of CAD tools and collaborative information systems have made that job a simple and nearly automated task. The information quality is vastly improved, letting the engineers spend more time creating the future.

One of my cousin’s daughters just graduated from a top engineering school. I had talked to her before she started there about “what engineers do”. But if I had to have that talk with her again, it would probably be a bit different, at least from my perspective now within the High Tech/Semiconductor market.

In the past, people were very much specialists, or artists, in a chosen area. You were either an Analog IC designer, or a Software designer, or a Product engineering and so on. Everyone had their own comfortable space, with their own specific brushes for their part of the canvas. But that’s really not the case as much anymore, is it?

Today’s engineers have much different responsibilities. The bar has been set higher. They are expected to be “multi-discipline, multi-functional” resources.

They can’t just design hardware, they must also design software. They can’t just design, they must do some testing. They can’t just worry about the technology, they must also worry about the business. And, more than ever, they can’t just worry about their piece of the project, they must also be aware of the entire product.

It’s evolution. And its dramatic.

Think back to the days when you could literally lock a bunch of engineers in a basement office with some pizza and soda for a weekend and be happy to eventually get some technology out of them. That’s no longer the case.

There are now business constraints controlling how many engineers, how much time and what exactly has to be produced (along with the pizza and soda budget). And within today’s hierarchical, IP-driven design practices the engineers have to design what have become IP subsystems of complete functionality (transistors, software, platforms, documentation, test cases, …) that will be implemented within other products and variants. It’s a different, yet very exciting world.

Luckily, the tools that the engineers use have mostly been keeping pace with this evolution. I think that’s one of the most energizing parts of my job. I get to talk with companies that see the need for change and need some help in making that jump.

Within Semiconductor, a market that is surely a technology leader driving many of today’s most innovative products, we’ve been a laggard in using all of the capabilities available to use to make that jump. The market is just getting to the realization that everything is connected; customer requirements, project plans, design workflows, IP reuse, issues, changes, impact analysis. Grouping it provides better insight to make business decisions and drives how successfully companies can execute. And that realization is exciting.

As a wise philosopher once said (below), “I think it’s worth a try.”