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Merritt: Are systems engineers a vanishing breed?

Posted: 09 Nov 2012 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:system engineers? Facebook? Lenovo? ODMs? X- Gene ARM server SoC?

Rick Merritt of EE Times talks about how the giants of the technology sector seem to have a lack of young blood to carry on the work of seasoned engineers who are nearing retirement. Merritt points out that most of the young system engineers who bring new ideas to the table are employed by internet powerhouses like Facebook and Google.

Hewett-Packard's system engineers have become a vanishing breed. Such may be the case for the majority of OEMs and this phenomenon concerns me.

Earlier this year, my company did a series of interviews with engineers under 30. I asked a long time HP contact if he could put me in touch with a couple young EEs.

His response was like a splash of cold water. HP hasn't hired any young engineers in years, he said. The company has focused on retaining a core cadre of veteran engineers with deep expertise; many younger engineers have fallen victim to the various waves of layoffs over the last few years, he said.

Another long time HP contact fleshed out those observations over lunch at an industry conference 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 ODMs, but even then we do the design work ourselvesthat's one of our key strengths," he added.

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.

Last week, Applied Micro Circuits Corp. showed four dense, complex server boards it created as reference designs for its X-Gene ARM server SoC. 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 ODMs in Asia.

There are young computer systems engineers in Silicon Valley. I met four of them recently. They work for Facebook, designing what goes into its data centres. They have young systems engineering peers inside Amazon, Google and Microsoft - but not Dell, HP or 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 licences 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 levelas it wereto the technical choices.

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

- Rick Merritt
??EE Times

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