Elecia White is co-founder of Logical Elegance, an embedded software consulting firm. She is the author of O'Reilly's Making Embedded Systems technical book for software engineers who want to get closer to the hardware or electrical engineers who want to write good software. It covers hardware, software design patterns, interview questions, and real-world wisdom about shipping products. White hosts Embedded, a weekly podcast on how to make gadgets, from idea to engineering to production. She works on many interesting products including educational toys, DNA scanners, wearables, and a gunshot location system.
How did you get involved in embedded technology? Who or what was your inspiration to pursue a STEM career?
In college, I found computer science to be an oasis of calm logic amidst my other math and science courses. CS made sense to me in a way that other subjects didn't, at least until I got to systems engineering where I was introduced to control systems and Fourier analysis.
Both disciplines have patterns that I still find fascinating. I didn't know I was setting myself up for the world of signal processing and control loops in embedded systems but I'm happy to be here.
My path to science and engineering began long before that, back in sixth grade. My elementary school teacher loved math and science, so much so that it was contagious. She'd been in the teacher-astronaut program, washing out late in the game with a broken ankle. Even after that, even after we watched the Challenger tragedy, she kept (and shared) her enthusiasm for doing science.
What would you say to people to encourage them to get or stay involved in STEM education/careers? Why do we need more diversity in embedded computing fields?
If we all solve problems with hammers, what happens when something needs to be glued together? Diversity is about making sure we've got all the tools available; that we don't all show up with the same thoughts on how to solve problems. Diversity of thought tends to come with diversity of bodies, abilities, and backgrounds.
To solve the hard problems, we need to look at them from every perspective. Additionally, embedded computing is exploding, poised to reach more consumers than ever. To create products that work for a diverse marketplace, we need engineers who understand the problems different people have (and the best ways to solve them). To that end, I say to everyone who wants to be in STEM:
"Don't give up. Everyone feels dumb sometimes. You need more than intelligence and knowledge to succeed – you need persistence. Be okay with failing, you'll learn a lot and gain a bit of resilience each time. Oh, and it doesn't get any less scary to fail so you'll need some courage, too."
I see too many smart people give up too soon.
What are the largest obstacles to innovation in the embedded realm, and how should those challenges be solved?
By definition, embedded systems are resource constrained. To get the most out of them, embedded engineers must become experts in their systems. However, hardware and software methodologies and tools continue to grow and change. It can be difficult to stay current and aware of the progress of industry.
To keep innovating, we have to keep learning. Companies and individual engineers must make education a priority.
How do you recognize when a new technology or application is one your company should invest/innovate in, versus a technology that will experience fast burnout?
New technologies build slowly. For example, MEMS sensors, the Internet of Things, virtual reality, and smart vehicles have all been building for over a decade. They may be currently well hyped, but they aren't new.
The fast burnout technologies tend to be shrouded in secrecy, appear suddenly, and then blow away like a summer storm.
In the next 5 years, which embedded technologies, applications, markets, and geographic areas present the most interesting opportunities?
I'm excited about user input and haptic feedback in virtual reality environments. I love technologies that help people: Systems like intelligent prosthetics make me happy and proud to be part of embedded computing.
Connected devices (the Internet of Things) keep getting cheaper. There are amazing user interfaces that will become commonplace as we put inexpensive inertial sensors and RF transceivers into everything. I hope that IoT will stop being hyped, expensive, and/or silly gadgets and start integrating into our lives (but I'm afraid that may be ten years, not five).
Finally, I think that power-related areas present some of the most interesting opportunities to many areas of embedded computing. The software optimization techniques that used to be necessary for running code on processors without enough oomph are now used to keep wearable power usage low. I can't wait until we can combine smarter software with local energy harvesting and more efficient batteries.