The disguise artist finishes the last touches on his makeup as the demolition expert prepares the detonators and charges. The electronics geek sits in front of a large wall of CRT monitors watching the feed from a dozen hidden cameras. The safecracker prepares his tools, and the getaway driver makes final adjustments to the car. The femme fatale watches over her crew – unlikely but convincing in her role as leader and mastermind. Soon, the expertise of all six will be tested to the max.
The scenario plays out in just about every cheesy action movie ever made. The Team consists of a loose-knit bunch of social misfits, each with his or her own special expertise. Together, they will fight crime – or commit it – we don’t really care. The thing that keeps us – the audience – glued to the screen is the potential represented by the seemingly serendipitous combination of these single-minded savants. If the movies are any indication, we never get bored with this trick.
When we walk out of the cinema and head to work in our engineering job, however, a lot of our perspective changes. “Not-invented-here” syndrome (NIH) is a problem so predominant in engineering that it has it’s own acronym. Wait, that’s not much of an argument. We engineers seem to give acronyms to everything. Using acronyms instead of the actual terms saves us valuable time that we could be using to re-invent the wheel while our audience sits stunned in puzzled amazement.
There is a reason that collaboration between experts is a compelling movie theme. It works. In fact, next to opposable thumbs, collaboration may be one of the best superpowers we humans have at our disposal. Our ability to team up with others and solve difficult problems together is one of the main things that separates mankind from other species, like… bees. OK, that was another bad example. In electronics, however, it should be obvious that no modern product could exist without the cumulative contributions of experts in a wide variety of fields from materials science to manufacturing and from marketing to engineering.
Today, as FPGA designers, we enjoy a bizarre sort of freeze-dried, microwaveable, ready-to-wear collaborative support. For the paltry sum of [take your pick: $49, $99, $499, $999, $2999] you get a veritable “custom chip design team in a box” – better known as a “development kit.” It includes all the work of some of the world’s leading chip designers, process experts, tool developers, embedded processor architects, logic designers, power supply engineers, board designers, and more. All you have to do is add your own special expertise, and you’ve got a custom chip designed by some of the best minds in the business. It’s like a video game where you benefit from all the non-player-characters (NPCs for those of you who only speak acronym) and you only have to control your avatar with your particular set of skills.
While it may seem obvious, getting the best work of the industry’s best experts for the absurdly low cost of a development kit gives the average guy in a garage a measure of product development leverage that only a few years ago was the exclusive purview of the world’s largest system design houses with huge engineering teams and design budgets in the tens of millions per project. With FPGAs, we have empowered “Fred in the Shed” (the sobriquet we soberly apply to the prototypical teamless designer) with a level of product development power that could completely change the dynamics of the electronics market.
Now, the giant, well-funded systems houses have to do something new to defend the perimeter against these well-armed legions of independent innovators. When Fred in the Shed (FITS) has access to 40nm or even 28nm process technology without the burden of NRE, expensive tools, and huge design teams, the giant design teams have to create something that FITS cannot. A bit more clock speed, a bit lower power consumption, a little smaller unit cost – none of these creates the product or business differentiation needed to offset the FITS efficiency advantage.
More often these days, the answer to the giant system houses dilemma is the ecosystem. While the iPhone is not substantially different from every other smartphone platform on the market, it has a gigantic advantage in its ecosystem. Apple can crush smaller competitors — not through the strength of their chip design team, their software technology, or even their product — but through the compelling advantage they enjoy from the app store, the iTunes store, and the huge volume of media, software, and IP represented by those. By enabling the second-order collaboration of the ecosystem, the giant systems companies solve two problems – they create a defensible differentiation for their product offering, and they provide an outlet for the independent-minded FITS-types of the world to use their design creativity in ways that helps the big machine, rather than competing against it. If FITS is busy developing the next iPhone app – or the next IP block, he’s not spending those cycles creating a competing product.
We can already see ample evidence of these enormous super-teams in a number of technology areas. We draw battle lines around areas such as operating systems, connectivity standards, processor architectures, computing platforms, and even FPGA technologies. Even the hardest-core, most independent-minded FITS-types will don the team cap and jersey, grab a pair of pom-poms, and cite the doctrine of whichever side of the techno-religious war they support – iPhone or Android, Mac or PC, Xilinx or Altera, Cadence or Synopsys, GbE or PCIe, Linux or Linux or Linux…
In today’s technology world, independence is an illusion. All of us in engineering rely totally and completely on the incredible power of collaborative design work. We are still free to choose our work style and environment, our risk vs. reward level, our business model – employee, contractor, entrepreneur… However, when it comes to our engineering work itself, we should never forget that we are always part of a team, and we will win if we act like a better team player – taking on responsibility in areas where we excel, relying on others for what they do best, and understanding the difference.