If it is not obvious from my greatly increased blog activity, let this post make it clear that I my most recent contracted engagement expired about a month ago. Yes, I don’t seem to do much blog wise or otherwise when I am fully contracted. My most recent contract started last May and was originally for 6 months to assist an ASIC company with the emulation of their next generation network adaptor product. They asked me to take the lead on the emulation process and after that was established and they had hired a team to support the effort, they extended my contract to maintain the process until they delivered the emulation product to its first internal firmware development customer. Of course, just as we reached that milestone the company’s management purchased a competitor’s effort for a similar ASIC product and canceled their own. So although the emulation effort was successfully on track the product it was supporting no longer existed and a lot of good work was abandoned. Worse than that a lot of good people were released and of course the purchased competitor division is offshore and so on. That’s the bad news. The good news is I have recent experience with Xilinx Vivado and Virtex 7, experience with state of the art ASIC partitioning to FPGA and exposure to extensive use of System Verilog code. If you are reading this you have probably already been contacted by me and directed to this blog site, which along with my LinkedIn profile, is my primary web presence. If you haven’t then call me and tell me you saw this first and I will give you a 50% discount on your first 20 hours of contracted service.
My next observation after attending EELive this year.
Crowd source funding is popular. Maybe it was just the choices I made in personalizing my conference schedule but it appears I need to add Kickstarter to my bookmarks right along side my favorites of Google, Expedia, Amazon and Wikipedia. I wonder if I can get as good at using it as I have the others.
Trendy marketing really does make the difference. With Kickstarter you start with a product message, an entertaining, visionary and maybe informative video (not too much because vagueness creates mystery) and a prototype (maybe just a mockup, video special effects makes it look like a prototype). Marketing now precedes product development and with marketing you can convince many to risk a little instead of trying to land one big investor who probably wants to see a history of income growth and a 2 dimensional product roadmap before writing the check. A Kickstarter investor is a bit like high tech QVC shopper. He watches the video and hits the buy now button. Except, no sales representatives need to be standing by and no inventory needs to be sitting in a warehouse.
There is more technology and ideas than products. Every where I look I saw open source hardware, open source software, cheap and free and easily hooked to the internet. Websites that advertise hundreds of project ideas, development platforms and cloud services. All in search of a product. Or are they in search of a profit? I don’t know. The product seems to be the development platform and the consumer is the developer. Case in point: http://www.sparkproducts.com This company initially tried a Kickstarter campaign for a WiFi connected light bulb socket adapter that used a cloud service to connect your lightbulbs to a phone application. They wanted more than 4000 people to sign up to buy these at $59 each and surprisingly may have actually got about half that. Apparently, though, for the other 2000 people they needed, $2000 is more than they were willing to pay to control all of the lights in their average US home from their cell phone.
With that campaign expired without full funding, the company took the WiFi guts out of their product and campaigned again on Kickstarter with just a WiFi development board at $39. They already had the design and manufacturing of these boards figured out. In fact so does Texas Instruments, MicroChip, Atmel and several module companies. But they have a cool video and they do open source everything and that is attractive. So even though they only asked for a few hundred backers. They got over 5,000. So, the lesson is, you can’t get 2000 people to buy your internet of things (IoT) product but you can get 5000 people to try to do it better.
And another lesson may be sell the hardware cheap, give away the software and get people to develop lots of products that depend on your free cloud service. Which is free just like Netflix streaming and Logmein was.
Here are the slides from the ESC 2014 Presentation (ESC Slides). This project was completed under contract between Provident Systems and Advanced Microwave Products. All of the project from the interfaces to the Video and Audio codecs to the DAC of the transmitter and conversely the ADC of the receiver was implemented in two Altera Cyclone III FPGAs. One for the transmitter and one for the receiver. This included all of the COFDM processing as well as encryption, framing, packetization, buffering and data loss compensation for the delivery of the video, audio and data.
Two weeks ago, I attended a conference, EELive 2014. Last fall I decided I should pursue some exposure to increase my network in hope of finding new clients. I google searched embedded systems conference and found one called exactly that, ESC. I submitted a proposal to present and they accepted. They also changed the name to EELive. ESC was still embedded, pardon the pun, in the conference as a track.
So I attended for four days handing out business cards and doing my best to schmooze. And, I presented a case study of my COFDM transceiver work. I was second to the last session of the conference, to a couple of dozen die hards. Did I achieve some exposure? I hope so but I also made a few observations about the industry in which I currently participate and that may prove more useful than I had planned. I started writing a post with some of those observations in a somewhat random order and now that it has grown too large for one I will break it up into a week or more shorter posts. Here is the first.
My first observation; hardware is cheap. I have been to conferences before and I have had a closet full of backpacks, water bottles and logo’d footballs. But this time I brought home 3, could have been more, very capable hardware development kits as free SWAG. One is a low power bluetooth dongle, another is a near field communications kit complete with fairly good sized color LCD screen and the third is a very capable 32 bit micro ala Raspberry Pi. I was convinced I had really scored some valuable stuff until I discovered what they all cost at their manufacturer’s website. I had been reading about the Arduino and Raspberry Pi phenomena but I did not realize that these were just the most publicized of a whole catalogue of cheap, very powerful, development platforms.
Is software still cheap? Software engineers have generally earned less than hardware engineers and I think that is still true. However, everything is now full of software code. So although a hundred lines of software code may still be cheaper to develop than a few hundred ASIC gates, there is a lot more code demand than gates. The gates market seems to be saturated while the code market is still hungry. And, the software cost required to build a microprocessor based product far exceeds the hardware cost.
The real market is ideas. I don’t know how much a good idea is really worth or how much one costs to develop but Google and Facebook buy a good idea for about a billion dollars or more just about every week. The amount they pay far exceeds the hardware or the software cost. What they seem to be paying for is just the idea. And not just the idea itself but the popularity of the idea. So more specifically the real market seems to be a popular idea.
I am back. Back on my blog and back to work. I like to say engaged vs idle instead of out of work and back to work, so I am back to fully engaged. About two months ago my network paid off and one of my colleagues and good friends connected me to an ASIC company that wanted to create an FPGA emulation of their next generation offering. A big IC of 20+ million gates need to be partitioned into a number of the largest and fastest FPGA’s that Xilinx can provide. So, I am back in the ASIC world while still in the FPGA world. Great opportunity to bring old experience to bear and gain new experience in the growing field of FPGA emulation. I am getting exposed and re-exposed to processes of version control, cross-functional teams, systemVerilog, a suite of ASIC and FPGA verification and synthesis tools, etc. I am also working most of the time back in an office, cubicle, environment. More on that later. So for those in my network that were pulling for me to get a new assignment, thanks for your support and keep a look out for new work as this assignment won’t last forever.
In college I studied electrical engineering and focused on microprocessor programming. I learned Fortran, Pascal, COBOL and C programming languages as well as assembly code for MC6800 and MC68000 microprocessors. I interned as a Fortran programmer at a power industry consulting firm. When I graduated I had offers from several great companies. I graduated when EE demand was probably at the highest it has ever been. I had two top choices. One was Trane, an HVAC company, that wanted to start using microprocessors to control commercial HVAC equipment. They were ready to hire me straight out of college as an expert to help start their very first solid state controls department. It would have been a fantastic opportunity to be considered an expert right out of college and to introduce a technology into an industry.
Instead, I chose an offer to become an IC designer with Delco Electronics, an automotive company. Integrated circuit design was easy to identify as a growth career and I really like the idea of being involved with cars. I had no idea how to design an IC but they sent me to a one week crash course at the University of Waterloo in Canada. The course was an in depth study of a new design technology called VLSI and was based on a relatively new book authored by Mead and Conway. I went with one other NCG and when we came back we were two of the experts in this new methodology.
After a few design cycles using the VLSI methodology I discovered something called espresso which replaced Karnaugh maps with gate level optimization of logic expressions. Karnaugh map experts could not initially see the advantage but as soon as espresso started using more complex and more efficient logic gate structures which resulted in lower cost ICs, logic synthesis experts were sought. Soon after discovering the logic synthesis process, we discovered that a company called Synopsys was selling software that no only optimized logic but entire state machines and was using the Chapter 8 code from the Verilog logic simulator which we had been using for verification. Most people today don’t even realize that Verilog was originally a multi-state gate level simulator for schematically entered gate level designs. And, that the part of the language that has become well known for its ability to describe hardware was originally Chapter 8 of about 25 chapters from the language reference manual. Chapter 8 was original intended for describing the tests applied to the logic, something known today as a testbench. Synopsys, wisely chose a subset of the Chapter 8 code to be their hardware description language, as many testbench designers were already familiar with the syntax. I had designed some of the testbenches for the ICs I was involved with and was very familiar with Chapter 8 code, so voila, I was an expert.
Logic synthesis begat standard cell based design which required automatic placement and then automatic routing(APAR). That’s right they did not come at the same time initially and I actually manually routed designs that had only been automatically placed in rows with routing channels in between. One design like that was enough. Eventually we had a full front to back synthesis and APAR process with clock insertion, static timing analysis, a code coverage process and an Electronic Design Automation (EDA) department to maintain the constant new releases of the all the software from EDA companies. I was an EDA pioneer, and pioneers that survive to the destination are called experts.
So, after participating with the development of an EDA process at Delco Electronics and at the same time helping with the design and implementation of automotive electronic controls, I accepted an offer to take a position at Ford’s electronic division. I was sought by them as both an EDA and automotive expert. They had not yet adopted a complete EDA process and were embarking on a new powertrain microcontroller. They recognized that new IC architectures and the EDA process could leverage each other to create more cost effective products. This synergy between the design and the EDA process got the moniker ASIC development. A bit of a misnomer but then almost all of technology vernacular is misnomer. Again I was one of the ASIC pioneers and had several successful victories at Ford with gains in cost effectiveness of both product and product development. I was recognized as an expert in ASIC.
It was at this point that I started to understand the demands of being an expert. As an expert you are expected to not just contribute to the solution but must accurately identify the problem, then define the solution and quantify the results. At the same time an expert must continuously monitor and adopt the leading technological advances of other experts and effectively communicate his own. An expert’s resources are his knowledge, experience and access to outside resources. Experts begin to loose mentors and gain colleagues and depend heavily on an extensive library of information. When I first started my mentors were experts and they could almost be measured by their bookshelves of published texts and binders of notes from past efforts. Today that library is more commonly the internet. The internet has given all of us the bookshelf of an expert. I first started mining the internet when Ford Microelectronics bought a modem and allowed a few of us limited access. I discovered Archie and immediately started increasing my reputation as an expert. Not always because I had the answer but because I could get an answer and get it quickly. I also could sort through candidate answers to either find the best one or a selection of answers giving my peers and superiors options. Answers and options are the currency of an expert. It is the experience and knowledge of an expert that allows him to leverage the internet library quickly, efficiently and above all accurately. That is why the internet alone cannot really make everyone an expert.
Every position I have held since Ford was offered to me as an expert and each position gave me new experiences, new skills, new knowledge that allowed me to claim the needed expertise for the next assignment. As a consultant I haven’t always had immediate expertise in areas that my clients were seeking but now I am an expert at being an expert so I have demonstrated that I know where to look, where not to look in order to accurately identify problems and propose solutions with options. Even though I have not seen the exact problem or found the precise solution before, I can apply my knowledge and experience of finding other problems and solutions and the resources of colleagues and the internet to new situations more effectively than those without this experience. Technology moves fast and almost no one has direct experience any more. Whatever needs to be done has never been done before and once it has been done it does not need to be done again because it is quickly shared and absorbed by everyone that needs it and soon after it is obsolete. So an expert is not one that has done exactly what IS NOW needed before but has done what WAS THEN needed before. And therefore can confidently be expected to quickly identify, solve and communicate the problem at hand.