I rolled into my own defeat with the resignation of a mortally wounded rabbit. “Gate arrays,” I replied, already knowing the next step of the dance. Then I made a futile attempt to divert him. “They’re chips used to…”
“Oh yes, that’s right, Gatorade.” he interrupted, determined to repeat the entire game despite my desire to resign. “I used to give that to my marching band members so they wouldn’t get dehydrated on hot days. Don’t remember it coming in chip form, though – seems like it was liquid or powder.”
We had repeated that exchange dozens of times and, like the series of jokes and stories he wore around like favorite old sweaters, he never tired of it.
My father misunderstood me for sport. He was a brilliant man with an engineering degree and a master’s in music. He spent his career teaching high-school band because teaching was his passion, but he had the problem-solving and analytical skills of an engineer. He was a born leader, and more than a little mischievous. I was one of his favorite sparring partners – his practice target – a crash-test dummy, of sorts.
While we all may not have been raised by my father, all of us in high-technology face a similar challenge every day – explaining our jobs to the technically unannointed. The reality of our day-to-day work life is so abstracted from the normal experience of the average citizen that it becomes difficult to find enough common ground in order to even begin an explanation. Where would you start, for example, to explain to your grandmother what it means if you’re one of the world’s leading experts on optical proximity correction (OPC) for nanometer-scale semiconductor lithography? Could you perhaps relate it to some difficulty she has with needlepoint and her cataracts?
Even those with a scientific or technical background often won’t understand precisely what we do. A PhD in molecular biology won’t help the guy next to you on the airplane understand VHDL and Verilog logic synthesis for FPGAs, even though that may be the entire focus of your career. Trying to relate DNA sequences to LUT truth tables might offer a starting point, but somebody has to be able to bridge the technology and terminology gap, even to initiate that analogy.
Metaphor and simile may supply some measure of mutuality, but meaningful understanding requires relating back to something your audience cares about. In any electronics-related field, that usually amounts to popular consumer technology products. “Well, it’s kinda’ like one of the chips inside your iPod or Xbox,” is a variation on a theme repeated countless times to eagerly curious offspring by literally thousands of parenting technology professionals worldwide. It’s difficult enough to span generations without a technology-driven terminology gap preventing the understanding of something as fundamental and important as a parent’s career.
Dennis Kish, vice president of marketing at Actel, has seen success explaining FPGAs with the consumer electronics approach. “People tend to relate when you tell them what your part goes into,” Kish explains. “Today, finally, ‘chip’ seems universally understood. I never get people asking about potato chips anymore.” (Apparently, Kish never ran into my father in his travels.) “On airplanes, traveling in and out of Silicon Valley, of course, the situation is even better. Twenty or thirty percent of the time, they’ve even heard of FPGAs because they know one of the local companies involved. It’s helped by the fact that people in high-tech travel a disproportionate amount too these days. If you run into someone in IT or computers, they may even understand that FPGAs are programmable, but they’re likely to start thinking of a microprocessor. I can usually make progress explaining to them that we can make logic functions change.”
Kish also observes that non-technical people often don’t care about the technology, but ask about the job function. “If I tell people I’m in marketing,” Kish continues, “they have some idea what I do, even if they don’t know anything about the company. They get the fact that people in marketing name the products, promote and launch them, define the brand…” Speaking of branding, Kish has seen a love of logos work in explaining high-tech marketing to kids as well. “One of our marketers did a presentation at our ‘bring your kids to the office’ day where he asked the kids who had heard of which logos and brands. He went through McDonald’s, Google, a bunch of popular ones. The kids went crazy about it. He used it as a platform to explain what marketing does for a company.”
In technology areas like electronic design automation (EDA), the complexity of explaining the career and technology are compounded by the extra level of indirection. Sanjay Bali of Magma Design Automation says he has to explain EDA in terms of the technology it enables. “I explain that we help design chips the same way GPS helps you get around in a car,” says Bali. “The GPS doesn’t transport you, and it doesn’t even do the driving. It just helps you do the job efficiently.”
Of course, once people know you’re in high-tech, a myriad of misunderstandings can follow. How many times have people asked you to fix their computer? How about an old television? More than one semiconductor marketing executive has found himself staring, bewildered, at the inside of some aging piece of electronic equipment with the helpful owner offering a blowtorch and a roll of acid-core plumbing solder. Lucky for us, er, I mean – them, a lot of real-world hardware problems amount to bad connectors. TIP: It’s easy to come off looking brilliant occasionally by unplugging and re-plugging a couple of boards.
The frequency of travel in technology-related occupations also often positions us as accidental cultural ambassadors. Even those completely disconnected from the vagaries of our career and its technology may be fascinated by tales of the latest trip to some seemingly exotic destination. Of course, the reality of the situation may be decisively less glamorous than imagined owing to the fact that the majority of business travel time is spent in airports, meeting rooms, and culture-free zones like internationalized hotels. Nonetheless, stories of unintended adventures in rental cars, unidentifiable cuisine, cryptic currency confusion, and well-intentioned cultural and language gaffes can salvage a cocktail party conversation even if your impassioned explanation of the real-time performance advantages of reconfigurable computing systems got you off to something of a bad start.
Many of us in technology also have faced challenges in courting when our efforts to impress that important date with our prowess and virility are stymied by the reality that our most significant life accomplishment might be a performance improvement in an implementation of an algorithm for edge sorting in a graph-based layout verification system. Of course, they’d understand if they’d only been there in that conference room and seen the faces of the other engineers when we almost shouted with glee our epiphany that k-dimensional trees are most definitely not the best solution. Wow.
Mass media hasn’t done much to help the cause of truth in technology careers, either. Everyone has heard about the pressure placed on women by the impossibly attractive supermodels portrayed in popular press. However, consider the TV tech hero who breaks open his cell phone, connects it to some salvaged components from his girlfriend’s MP3 player, and merges them to create a makeshift broadband wireless terminal which he then proceeds to use to break through triple-des security into a top secret government network where he repurposes a secret surveillance satellite to locate the girl’s missing puppy seven blocks away. That sort of stunt puts a lot of pressure on those of us in the real world attempting our next techno-party trick.
One party trick you may be asked to perform, particularly if you’re hanging out with retired folks who are trying to maximize the runtime performance of their nest-egg, is how your technology may perform as an investment. While they may not care about the considerable gains your product picked up going from 130nm to 90nm, they are keenly interested to know if your company getting there first constitutes a market advantage. The reality is that those of us immersed in the technology seldom have insight into the moving forces of the markets. Market performance is determined far more by how our technology is perceived emotionally by the non-technical. At a grander scale, our companies trying to impress the investment community face the same sort of challenges as we do explaining our careers.
Of course, as a high-tech journalist, I have the option to stop at the top level. When asked about my occupation, I can usually get by saying I write articles for a living. If the person wants to know more, I just explain that I develop technical treatises for an online publication that caters to hardware and software professionals who are engaged in engineering embedded electronics systems based on a variety of semiconductor and software implementation technologies including microcontrollers, application-specific integrated circuits, field programmable gate arrays and… Hello? Wait, don’t you want to hear the rest? Oh yes, I agree. The wine is very nice tonight.