Generation X takes control

By: Perry Sink Marshall

“Don’t be too loyal to a company.”

That was the hard-learned advice of the father of a friend of mine. His story is as follows.

John Senior graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with an economics degree in 1959 and got a roughneck job as an oil field equipment repair technician at a large steel company. A loyal company man, he worked his way through various locations and positions to the point where he was running an entire division in southern California in 1979.

When he transferred to a new assignment in Houston, his replacement had to hire two additional staff to fill his shoes. This same person later became his boss, who during a lean period pressured John Sr. to sign a retirement offer as an alternative to a possible layoff. Not fully recognizing the implications, John Sr. signed on the dotted line under duress – and forfeited a pension plan that would have paid three-fourths of his salary after retirement. But instead, after 25 years of excellent service, he got something like $1,500 per month, which is now paid to his widow.

John Sr. always regretted this decision, and sternly warned his son: “Be loyal to your family and to your moral convictions. Create your own opportunities, because the company ain’t going to be loyal back to you.”

John has followed that advice, and his career has alternated between risky corporate startup assignments andentrepreneurial ventures – opening a sensors division in Detroit for a large company, starting a systems integration house and a sales agency. He’s back to being an employee now, but the fine print describes his status as “at will” – either party can terminate the contract at any time. Even 22-year-olds know that a layoff will hike the company stock. So it’s every man for himself.

He does an honest day’s work and brings many resourceful ideas to his employer. But John is not excessively loyal to anyone – not to Bill Gates and certainly not to a corporation. He doesn’t approach design projects the same way his predecessors did. GenX is not an irresponsible generation – “watchful” and “protective” are better words to describe them. Day trading is more dependable than pension plans and 401Ks. A failed business startup is better than a layoff because if you lose everything on a stupid deal, at least it’s your own fault and not someone else’s.

How does Generation X design products and equipment? What happens when the world of Pearl Jam, Nine-Inch Nails and Billy Idol meet the conservative industrial sector? Staffs are lean, structures are flat and engineers do a little bit of everything.

Matthew in Cleveland designs controls for glass presses in DOS using Profibus. Why DOS? Does this guy live in the “˜80s? Absolutely not. Matthew is a very talented coder, regardless of operating system. He likes DOS because it’s well within his control, he can access low-level hardware directly, and get blazing speed (3msec system response time, including Profibus) from a cheap 386 single-board computer. It’s a tool in his hands, chosen to help him fulfill his vision.

Rick in Wisconsin is pushing for a Linux conveyor system on commodity hardware and DeviceNet I/O. It’s an uphill battle, but he’s determined to deliver functional systems without giving some PLC manufacturer its due. Scott, a team leader in Boston, is attempting to do control for a wafer handling system with Ethernet, despite a limited supply of compatible devices, and Greg in Maine makes etching equipment with LynxOS and Profibus.

All these guys write their own code. In most cases the processes are very complex and require split millisecond determinism. They dislike proprietary “solutions” and the term “total solution provider” is a turn-off because it makes the engineer appear dispensable. It’s really just a buzzword vendors use to make their customers’ middle management more comfortable. GenX has yet to see any vendor provide a “˜total solution’ anyway – someone’s still going to have to stay there all weekend and make the system work. And guess who gets that job?!

GenX won’t go to the trouble of embracing an open system either, unless it gives them a career advantage. GenX prefers interchangeable puzzle pieces that let them be the artist and put their fingerprints on everything. They use open components to express their individualism.

At a DeviceNet seminar I spoke at in Toronto, a casual survey indicated the #1 reason for investigating networking was “it’s sexy.” Who said techie stuff wasn’t fashionable?

Five years ago, more than a few software companies were founded and funded, based on bold predictions by industry prophets, i.e. “PC-based control will wildly overtake PLCs.” Marketers and venture capitalists relished the thought of a “hockey stick” adoption curve that never quite materialized. Former visionary companies, now dissolved or absorbed by others, are legion: Object Automation, ASAP, Event Technologies, Object Factory, to name just a few. PC control did come true, but not the way everyone thought it would.

The “hockey stick” adoption curve for PC-based control actually did happen in Silicon Valley – Compact PCI, PC/104 and VME control systems run real-time operating systems like QNX, VxWorks and RTLinux. The networks of choice are DeviceNet, Lonworks, Profibus and Ethernet. Machines use modern-day alchemy to convert sand into Pentium chips, and scarcely a single “off the shelf” software package can be found there.

Semiconductor tool customers can’t reverse-engineer the process because they don’t get the program or source code. This protects the OEM’s intellectual property in a way not possible with PLCs or SoftLogic. Programmers who’ve written thousands of lines of C code have similar leverage with their present employer when a better job offer comes along. They earn $100K per year and, if they don’t change jobs every two years, they’re coasting.

Recently, a customer in Silicon Valley who was presented with a training proposal for DeviceNet Boot Camp told me it sounded good but complained about the PLC content. “Why are you teaching PLCs? Nobody uses those anymore!” PLCs in San Jose are viewed as a 1980s form of iron underwear, and the automotive industry a relic of the bygone industrial age.

Ultimately, closed versus open systems is not a question of black-and-white interoperability. Rather, it’s a question of tools that favour the institution versus those that favour the individual. Yesterday’s professional society has become today’s newsgroup, and yesterday’s PLC programmer is today’s Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer. Which tools are used matters less than the skills of the person implementing them. Thus we have today a younger generation well aware of the shortcomings of the one that came before it, and empowering the 21st century institution – the individual.

In the 1960’s, Leave it to Beaver calmed the nerves of the TV-watching masses, while coal miners and steel workers in Pennsylvania struggled with racial issues and the replacement of men with machines. In 2001, Survivor resonates with anxious C programmers’ fear of being castaways, displaced by code-writing sweat shops in Bangalore or Moscow. Just like the cast members on Survivor, there’s one thing that’s certain about GenX: angst or not, they’re going to make their mark somewhere.

Perry Sink Marshall is a founding member of the Industrial Ethernet Association . On May 15, Chartwell Electronics will host Canada’s first DeviceNet Boot Camp in Markham, Ontario. It will include PLCs, but iron underwear is optional.