Stop Texting Me

Why social media will never, ever gain traction in the engineering enterprise.

popularity

By Brian Fuller

It was a simple request for a story: “You play around with this social-media stuff: Is it having an impact within engineering organizations?”

My first thought was “social” and “engineer” should not be in the same sentence. Someone recently told me a story about trying—through Twitter no less—to set up a face-to-face meeting with an engineer at a live event. It wasn’t going to happen. It boiled down to an inherent unease at being in social situations such as trade shows.

That anecdote tickled out the real question: Can engineers—who tend to shy away from social interaction—embrace social media at all in the design environment? Or because engineers are socially shy, will they tend to gravitate toward social media and its arm’s-length world of ones and zeroes to make their jobs easier and socially less stressful?

“In short, engineers are not really social. Big surprise, huh?” says Harry Gries, aka Harry the ASIC guy, an engineer and prolific blogger. “But you can look at that two ways. On the one hand, if they are not social, then they probably do not use social media very much. On the other hand, perhaps social media is a way to have social relationships without the stress of a real face-to-face relationship.”

My feeling at this point in history is that any attempts to bring social media into the engineering organization are doomed; they’re doomed partly because of engineering DNA and partly because of engineering-companies’ chief concern: security.

Social Media Today
If you follow social media trends at all, the marketing communications story is already being written; just say the words in a marcom meeting and everyone in the room swoons.

But the next big step comes in whether social tools and techniques will get embraced within product-design organizations to improve communications, collaboration, and, ultimately productivity. It’s happening in the enterprise-software industry, in spades, but that’s another world—a world in which software engineers design the user interface and, as such, are natural first-consumers of their own dog food.

For engineers, it’s a different dynamic. They build the behind-the-scenes stuff. Facebook doesn’t exist without computers, handheld devices, wireless systems and network routers. But that behind-the-scenes stuff puts engineers several steps away from the user—and being bleeding edge adopters of the technology like their software brothers.

Still, social tools seem a natural solution to address what some call the industry’s design productivity crisis today. Cadence Design’s recent Encounter product was directed at improving engineering productivity, and the company I work for, Numetrics Management Systems Inc., sells software that helps companies build more accurate and reliable product-development schedules and manage staffing better.

“Social tools as a company policy are still mostly non-existent in the design world, at least as far I have seen,” says Olivier Coudert, a design engineer and noted social media maven who blogs about the EDA industry.

Are EDA vendors thinking about incorporating social functionality into their design-tool offerings? There’s no major push today, but that’s not to say it’s not on the drawing board somewhere in the Silicon Valley or Oregon. There are dribs and drabs (Cadence, for instance, uses Yammer, a Twitter-like tool for intra-company collaboration), but big pushes are few and far between.

Where it’s at
Where social media is big today is at the confluence of communication and community. Most semiconductor and EDA companies have varying levels of social media adoption used primarily as channels to distribute news and messaging and places to cultivate prospects and build customer loyalty. In short, it’s a marketing paradise.

Synopsys, Mentor and Cadence all have robust blogging and Twitter programs; FPGA vendor Altera has 16,000 Facebook friends. National Instruments created a social media lead position. Former editors, such as Richard Goering, have been hired (Cadence) to blog about industry issues and company news or run company publications (Michael Santarini at Xilinx). Intel is a thought-leader in social media communications circles.

Success is modest but measurable for the most part.

“Perhaps our most powerful social media tool, the community forums are available directly from Cadence.com and accessible to anyone. Contributions come from within and outside of Cadence and comments are both counted and visible,” says Cadence spokesman Dan Holden. Fully 24 percent of Cadence.com’s overall traffic is generated by the community site, adds David Stokes, the company’s blogging-community manager.

Since engineers are trailing adopters of the very technology they helped create, their participation in “public” social media is limited today, and their embrace of those tools and techniques in their work flow is unlikely to catch fire soon.

“It’s hard enough to get engineers to embrace instant messaging in the enterprise,” says JL Gray, an engineer and industry blogger.

Lou Covey, founder of VitalCom PR in Redwood City, Calif., and another active social media voice, adds: “In talking with the major vendors, I know they are already encouraging engineers to look beyond unquantifiable email collaboration and use social media intra and interdepartmentally. It’s hard going because EDA engineers are about three decades behind the curve.”

In addition, there’s the age-old issue of command and control: managers traditionally won’t cede control to a technology that inherently takes away their power.

Hyper-Sensitivity
But the big, lingering concern—and the thing that smothers the social media baby in its crib in electronics companies—is security. If they’re designing within an environment that allows intra-company collaboration and extra-company information gathering and social communication, the first time a sensitive piece of information slips out, the company’s future is imperiled.

According to Gray, one large semiconductor company uses Yammer to improve engineering communications but only up to a point: No engineer can post sensitive information to it because Yammer is hosted on external servers.

Since almost everything about engineering collaboration within a company is sensitive, what’s the point then?

This is not to say that social media as an information-gathering tool for engineers won’t take off. It surely will.

“Social media doesn’t change what engineers talk about, but it does change the potential of ‘how’ they talk,” says Rick Jamison, social media strategist at Synopsys. “Social media is not a fad, it’s an inevitable manifestation of what technology enables within human culture. As such, stay tuned for the steady and irreversible adoption of social media within engineering communities – after all, engineers are people too.”