Feb2010

Although his father had been a well-respected mechanical engineer

Although his father had been a well-respected mechanical engineer, Bill had never taken to the subject. He was much more interested in the contemporary field of software development.

Ben, on the other hand, felt that the world of software development was just a little too ethereal. He felt exhilarated each time he developed new concepts on his computer desktop and then saw them emerge from the belly of his rapid prototyping machine.

Over the past few years, both Bill and Ben have been hard at work at the same large automotive manufacturer where, undeniably, they have contributed immeasurably to the development of new, innovative, state-of the-art automotive systems.

Sadly though, last year was a tough one for poor old Ben. You see, rather unfortunately, one of the mechanical subassemblies that he had worked on was now proving rather troublesome. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the subassembly in question was in production vehicles that were actually on the road.

If left unchecked, the subassembly might have created some life-threatening problems for the drivers of the vehicles it was fitted to. So the manufacturer had no alternative but to recall all the vehicles so that a mechanical fix might be applied to them.

It was a complete nightmare for the company management. And it wasn’t much fun for Ben and his fellow engineers in the mechanical engineering department either, as they worked around the clock to develop the fix to get the afflicted vehicles back on the road as soon as possible.

As Bill watched the chaos unfurl, he felt secretly relieved that he had chosen a career path that involved software, rather than mechanical engineering. Clearly, that had been, in retrospect, a very wise decision, since the software systems would never be as likely to fail as Ben’s inherently mechanical contraptions.

Sadly though, Bill was mistaken. Because this year, yet another one of the company’s vehicles has been recalled - this time due to a software error. It seemed as through, as rigorous and secure as the software development procedure had been, a fatal flaw had nevertheless crept into the code of the engine control unit.

Once again, the recall notices were sent out to the customers, who once again brought their vehicles into the dealerships - this time for a software upgrade.

While Bill was mortified by the goings-on, he was equally astonished to find that his management took a much more lenient attitude towards the folks in his software development department than they had towards their counterparts in mechanical engineering.

All because, it transpired, the cost to fix the software bug was orders of magnitude less than the cost to fix the hardware problem, despite the fact that its consequences might have been equally as catastrophic.

When he discovered that, Bill realised that, yes, perhaps he really had chosen the right vocation after all.
This comment was originally published in the Electronicstalk Newsletter

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About the Author

Electronicstalk and this Editor's Blog are edited by Laurence Marchini

Laurence Marchini

Laurence Marchini began his career in the electronics press with the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1980, cutting his teeth on a variety of learned and member publications, ranging from IEE Proceedings to Electronics and Power. He moved on to join the launch team of the innovative weekly Electronics Express in 1986, and became Editor just 18 months later. Sadly, Electronics Express lasted just four and a half years, wound up by the infamous Robert Maxwell. However, Laurence had already jumped ship and joined the world of electronics PR with the agency of the 1990s, Smith and Jones Communications. It seemed Laurence was lost to the world of journalism. But after 11 years we managed to lure him back as launch editor of Electronicstalk. Laurence is married to Sally and has a young son, Alexander.

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