Commoditizing Our Kids

The key for future engineers—and ours—is a deeper understanding of the what and why of design.

popularity

My son is graduating from high school this year. He’ll be starting on an engineering degree in the fall. Thinking about the outlook he will face reminds me of questions and comments I have received from customers and colleagues at various points. In my mind these thoughts reduce to a simple question: Is engineering skill becoming a commodity?

From Wikipedia: “The exact definition of the term commodity is specifically used to describe a class of goods for which there is demand, but which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market.”  Looking at this definition I would say that some aspects of electronic design have become commodities. That does not imply that the process is simple or that it can be successful without appropriate investment, but the electronic hardware design process is well understood and reasonably predictable. If we know what we want to build and can rigorously define the requirements for the hardware, we can be reasonably confident that a competent design team can implement that hardware. The engineering mechanics of implementing a well-defined specification have, in my opinion, become a commodity process.

The interesting and valuable piece of the processes is deciding what you want to build. Deciding what to build, what tradeoffs and compromises should be made, and what is most important to optimize in the target system—these questions have become much more important. As the implementation process has become predictable, the differentiation in value is not coming from the ability to realize a device but in the decisions and compromises made in how that device is realized. This is the area that system-level design approaches target, and it is a driving factor behind the growth in companies adopting system-level design techniques. With higher levels of abstraction we are allowing engineers to focus on what they are building and quantitatively analyze the tradeoffs of potential implementations before going through the process of realizing a particular implementation. While the implementation may be a commodity, it is still not a cheap commodity.

My advice for my son is that engineering is a very valuable discipline. The skill and techniques he develops in learning the implementation processes are important, but it is important to understand not just the how of the engineering process, but the what and the why. What is being built and why it is being built should have an effect on how it is implemented if it is to be successful.