Sunday, December 16, 2012

Where Did All the Systems Engineers Go?

In the early days of computing when IBM was the King — we employed a role called "Systems Engineer." This person usually worked directly with the customer defining and designing the complete solution and recommending exactly what equipment — all IBM, of course — the customer would need to solve their particular business problems. These System Engineers or SEs were very experienced in putting together the needed components for a complete business solution. Back when the focus was much more on hardware rather than software, the SE was often the chief advocate for software and a solution architect.

As time went by, IBM tended to replace the SE with a CE or "Customer Engineer." They often didn't have the depth of knowledge of the original SEs, but then systems were becoming easier to combine and integrate … except where they were becoming harder to combine and integrate! Also, the solutions were shifting from pure IBM to hybrid combinations of hardware and particularly software, so the focus was less on an IBM representative  anyway. In any case, the "solution engineering" tended to move out of the field and into the plants and laboratories. That may have been the best thing to do from a business perspective, but many of my fellow IBMers would bemoan the loss of the SE in the field as a direct technical representative and information source. The CE was more of a repair person, and they did that job well, but they didn't replace the SE for technical competence and communication.

To this day, system engineers are involved in the creation and implementation of computer systems, and computer systems engineers are professionals who are actively engaged in the process of matching current technology with the needs of a company. As part of this task, the computer systems engineer engages in the evaluation and installation of software, hardware, and other types of support equipment into a workable network that supports a variety of functions within a corporation. The computer systems engineer may function as an employee of the company, a representative of a manufacture of computer components and hardware, or as an independent consultant. At IBM the role of SE has largely moved over to the consulting arm of the business.

In the field and the customer's location, a computer systems engineer is a representative of a company that creates and sells computer equipment. The systems engineer will work to match up the products offered by the firm with the needs of a client. In many cases, this will involve getting to know the corporate culture of the client. As part of that process, the computer systems engineer will seek to meet not only the expressed needs of the client, but also look for additional ways to make the installation of the computer systems more advantageous for the customer.

On the other hand, for the computer manufacturer, the more broad systems engineering is an interdisciplinary field of engineering focusing on how complex engineering projects should be designed and managed over their life cycles.. Issues such as reliability, logistics, coordination of different teams (requirement management) and different disciplines become more difficult when dealing with large, complex projects. Systems engineering deals with work-processes and tools to manage risks in such projects, and it overlaps with both technical and human-centered disciplines such as control engineering, industrial engineering, organizational studies, and project management.

In the computer design arena, systems engineers are often the ones that combine the various microprocessor and support chips into a functioning computer system. The providers of these chips, especially the processor chip, have made this seem easy by providing design notes and specific families of chips intended to be combined and a specified manner. For that reason, the role of systems engineer has been declining at the large personal computer manufacturer companies. I'm not sure about Apple, but I know Dell, IBM (who still makes plenty of computers, just not PCs anymore), HP, and probably others have not been hiring in this role for some time. I'm concerned what that means.

I've spoken before about my concerns at HP and how they have been in decline. There are, or at least there were, several HP plants here in Colorado and many former students and friends work there. Try to find an engineer under 30 at HP anymore. HP hasn’t hired any young engineers in years. The company has focused on retaining a core cadre of veteran engineers with deep expertise; many younger engineers fell victim to the various waves of layoffs over the last few years. The situation was similar at IBM and the former IBM Printing Division where I spent my last years in harness. When Ricoh first bought out IBM Printing Systems and named the division InfoPrint, there was a sincere and fruitful hiring wave that brought young talent into the business. What a refreshing change that was.

Another long time friend from HP and Microsoft fleshed out those observations over lunch recently. Only a few computer systems engineers are left at HP, he said. They work closely with HP’s contract manufacturing partners, typically in Asia, overseeing their work, he said. These systems engineers are approaching retirement age. When they are gone, there will be no one left to replace them, he added.

HP is not alone, but its situation is not exactly universal either. Recently, I was talking with a veteran IBM ThinkPad engineering manager who now works for China’s Lenovo, the smartphone and PC maker that acquired IBM’s notebook group years ago. I asked him about system design at Lenovo.

“We are unique in this area because we do our own design work and manufacture quite a bit of our systems, too,” he said. “Some systems we have made by suppliers, but even then we do the design work ourselves — that’s one of our key strengths,” he added. That's also one of the reasons I've become a recommend-er of Lenovo products

I’m sure IBM still has several systems design engineers creating those custom boards needed for its mainframes and Power servers. I don’t know if it actually makes any of the boards, but I doubt it.

Transfer of manufacturing to the Far East has also led to transfer of skills and employees. Many of my engineer friends have traveled to foreign countries only to train their replacements. They then return to empty factories and labs and are often laid off.

Recently, Applied Micro Circuits Corp. showed four dense, complex server boards it created as reference designs for its X-Gene ARM server SoC (Systems on a Chip). That means they are a complete roadmap of "how to" for computer design. It designed one of them with engineers at Dell, I suspect some of the old hands there that — like HP — don’t do much design anymore but tend to specify things and work with suppliers in Asia. I know that most HP computers today have ASUS motherboards. Well, then why buy HP? Go right to the source and buy ASUS.

I compare this to changes I've seen in the home construction industry. Experienced carpenters are being replaced by prefabricated components like roof trusses and automation like air hammers, and the level of skill is dropping along with the wages. I suppose you could write off much of this as progress and these prefabricated building components are actually key to higher quality and lower cost housing. But I worry about the loss of talent that is ultimately required … if for no other reason than when something doesn't go as intended.

There are young computer systems engineers in Silicon Valley. They just aren't at HP. They work for Facebook, designing what goes into its data centers. They're at Twitter or YouTube or a dozen other up and coming Internet companies. They have young systems engineering peers inside Amazon, Google and Microsoft—but not Dell, HP or IBM. Amazon is hiring, but what about HP and IBM?

So it goes.

The issue spans notebooks and desktops as well as servers. I know electronics design has become relatively straightforward for many Wintel computers over the last 20 years with more focus on industrial design and software than chip and board-level choices. But the winds are changing.

Waves of x86 and ARM SoCs from Intel, AMD and a whole range of new ARM licensees are coming down the pike between now and 2014. Right behind them is another wave of SoCs using 3-D stacking that will add a whole new level (pun intended) to the technical choices.

I think OEMs are going to have a painful need for systems engineers over the next several years. Good luck stealing them away from Google and Facebook!

Sadly the tendency to outsource, to become "lean and mean," and to rely heavily on contractors and temporary personnel, even for important engineering tasks further aggravates what I view as a very dangerous situation — dangerous for our technical leadership. Dangerous for our employment situation. Dangerous for our student populations that need work when they graduate.

I'm glad that certain areas of our high technology industry … Google, Facebook, Amazon, and several other companies that have only come into being in the last twenty years understand the need for new ideas … or maybe they are just doing so much hiring they have to hire the fresh out of school, inexperienced engineers, but I'm sad that the powerhouse companies that originally built this industry from IBM to Dell to HP seem to be relying more and more on their older engineers. I'm not arguing for age discrimination, but I can tell you based on the experience of Boeing in the '90s that over dependance on aging engineering staff can lead to a dangerous bubble when they all retire at once.

I loved working at IBM and I loved the people I worked with even more. But it was obvious to me that we were not replacing the old hands with fresh faces. It was a problem that I brought to management more than once and was always told, "We know. We know." OK, then better do something about it.

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