Forty Years a Programmer – a Retrospective Look at the Future

By: Alan Levy
Lead Consultant, Embedded Systems

20th February 2020

5 minute read

Home » Electronic Engineering

Slightly more than 40 years ago I sat down for the first time in front of a keyboard and monitor in a computer lab on the campus of Durham University and typed my first “hello world” program, in C, into a computer running Unix. I’d love to say it compiled and ran the first time but I honestly can’t remember what happened next.

The one thing I don’t think I dreamed back then was that as I reached retirement I would still be typing C programs into computers running Unix (well, OK, Linux) on a QWERTY keyboard and viewing the text on a monitor. I guess I imagined that by now I’d be talking to my computers HAL 9000 style, albeit perhaps without the psychopathic killer personality. By the year 2020 computers were going to be as smart as us, smarter in fact. Keyboards would be museum exhibits. Programming computers would be like more like teaching children. Displays would be used just for the comfort factor of having something to look at while we talked to the computer or so that we could read our private messages rather than have them played out loud to us.

Back then when I thought about the computer of the future it was going to be small, portable, connected and super-intelligent. Something like the love child of a smartphone and Mr Spock from Star Trek, but please don’t think too hard about that one! In fact in many ways back then Star Trek was the blueprint for the future we all thought we were headed towards.

So here we are four decades on and what has changed? Well, the small, portable, connected thing happened, so chalk that one up to the futurists. Computers that can learn like children are sort of happening – a score draw there I think. The super-intelligent thing, a bit like nuclear fusion power generation, is still said to be 20 years away and maybe always will be. Despite much talk in recent years about “the singularity”, the jury is still very much out on that prediction. The warp drive is still very much in the realms of science fiction.

So what do I think I’ve learned during my career? Well, the world changes both quickly and slowly. Technology has indeed changed the face of the planet and is continuing to change the way of life for billions of people. On the other hand whatever may happen in the next 40 years, for now, I still type at a console, drive a petrol-powered car, watch television, shop on the high street, clean the carpet with a vacuum cleaner, vote by writing a cross on a piece of paper along with a hundred other everyday things that I was doing 40 years ago. If the futurists of the 1970s had been correct then by now I’d be talking to my computer, travelling in a flying car, watching holovision, getting all the goods and services I need from my own personal robot and voting by pressing a button.

What do I really expect to happen in the next 40 years? Well, a lot of the things I just mentioned are highly likely to change. Computers are insinuating themselves into everyday items and vanishing from sight as they do, fossil fuels really have got to go, broadcast television is already merging with the Internet, the high street is starting to reinvent itself, there are vacuum cleaners that don’t need our help to do their job and I really don’t want to talk about the future of democracy just now thank you.

What about the future of programming? A little cautionary tale presents itself here. Shortly after I left university and started work as a lowly programmer somebody came up with a revolutionary new programming language they entitled “The Last One” because it was the last programming language you were ever going to need. I never actually used it but apparently, you gave the computer a few brief, descriptive instructions and then let it get on with programming itself. This news sent a shiver down my spine because it seemed to presage the end of programming as a career. Shortly afterwards somebody else came up with another programming language that they called “The Next One”. We all sniggered and got on with our lives while both of these languages vanished without a trace. These days I can generally recognise the sound of a bandwagon rolling from halfway around the planet and I wouldn’t be so easily fooled, or at least so I fondly tell myself.

Another anecdote comes from about a decade later. One of my colleagues at the large multinational consultancy we both worked for at the time made a prediction about sales growth in a particular technology market that he had been analysing. The prediction turned out to be precisely right and champagne all round was the order of the day. Of course, nobody batted an eyelid about all of the other, grossly inaccurate predictions he had made at the same time.

I think the point I’m really trying to make is that predicting the future is a mug’s game. Sometimes the possibilities are obvious and the trends are predictable to the point of apparent inevitability. More often the future is hidden in a mire of ifs, buts, maybes and things you just didn’t know about at the time. The worst part is that you can’t even reliably distinguish which predictions belong to which category.

So when somebody tries to tell you how it’s going to be in 5, 10, 20 or especially 40 years’ time, the best thing to do is to smile sweetly, nod as if in agreement, and get on with your life.

 

Thanks to Alan for his long service at Plextek and have a wonderful retirement!!

Slightly more than 40 years ago I sat down for the first time in front of a keyboard and monitor in a computer lab on the campus of Durham University and typed my first “hello world” program, in C, into a computer running Unix. I’d love to say it compiled and ran the first time but I honestly can’t remember what happened next.

The one thing I don’t think I dreamed back then was that as I reached retirement I would still be typing C programs into computers running Unix (well, OK, Linux) on a QWERTY keyboard and viewing the text on a monitor. I guess I imagined that by now I’d be talking to my computers HAL 9000 style, albeit perhaps without the psychopathic killer personality. By the year 2020 computers were going to be as smart as us, smarter in fact. Keyboards would be museum exhibits. Programming computers would be like more like teaching children. Displays would be used just for the comfort factor of having something to look at while we talked to the computer or so that we could read our private messages rather than have them played out loud to us.

Back then when I thought about the computer of the future it was going to be small, portable, connected and super-intelligent. Something like the love child of a smartphone and Mr Spock from Star Trek, but please don’t think too hard about that one! In fact in many ways back then Star Trek was the blueprint for the future we all thought we were headed towards.

So here we are four decades on and what has changed? Well, the small, portable, connected thing happened, so chalk that one up to the futurists. Computers that can learn like children are sort of happening – a score draw there I think. The super-intelligent thing, a bit like nuclear fusion power generation, is still said to be 20 years away and maybe always will be. Despite much talk in recent years about “the singularity”, the jury is still very much out on that prediction. The warp drive is still very much in the realms of science fiction.

So what do I think I’ve learned during my career? Well, the world changes both quickly and slowly. Technology has indeed changed the face of the planet and is continuing to change the way of life for billions of people. On the other hand whatever may happen in the next 40 years, for now, I still type at a console, drive a petrol-powered car, watch television, shop on the high street, clean the carpet with a vacuum cleaner, vote by writing a cross on a piece of paper along with a hundred other everyday things that I was doing 40 years ago. If the futurists of the 1970s had been correct then by now I’d be talking to my computer, travelling in a flying car, watching holovision, getting all the goods and services I need from my own personal robot and voting by pressing a button.

What do I really expect to happen in the next 40 years? Well, a lot of the things I just mentioned are highly likely to change. Computers are insinuating themselves into everyday items and vanishing from sight as they do, fossil fuels really have got to go, broadcast television is already merging with the Internet, the high street is starting to reinvent itself, there are vacuum cleaners that don’t need our help to do their job and I really don’t want to talk about the future of democracy just now thank you.

What about the future of programming? A little cautionary tale presents itself here. Shortly after I left university and started work as a lowly programmer somebody came up with a revolutionary new programming language they entitled “The Last One” because it was the last programming language you were ever going to need. I never actually used it but apparently, you gave the computer a few brief, descriptive instructions and then let it get on with programming itself. This news sent a shiver down my spine because it seemed to presage the end of programming as a career. Shortly afterwards somebody else came up with another programming language that they called “The Next One”. We all sniggered and got on with our lives while both of these languages vanished without a trace. These days I can generally recognise the sound of a bandwagon rolling from halfway around the planet and I wouldn’t be so easily fooled, or at least so I fondly tell myself.

Another anecdote comes from about a decade later. One of my colleagues at the large multinational consultancy we both worked for at the time made a prediction about sales growth in a particular technology market that he had been analysing. The prediction turned out to be precisely right and champagne all round was the order of the day. Of course, nobody batted an eyelid about all of the other, grossly inaccurate predictions he had made at the same time.

I think the point I’m really trying to make is that predicting the future is a mug’s game. Sometimes the possibilities are obvious and the trends are predictable to the point of apparent inevitability. More often the future is hidden in a mire of ifs, buts, maybes and things you just didn’t know about at the time. The worst part is that you can’t even reliably distinguish which predictions belong to which category.

So when somebody tries to tell you how it’s going to be in 5, 10, 20 or especially 40 years’ time, the best thing to do is to smile sweetly, nod as if in agreement, and get on with your life.

Thanks to Alan for his long service at Plextek and have a wonderful retirement!!

Can Women Truly Achieve Work-Life Balance?

By: Alexandra Wright
Commercial Bid Manager

8th March 2019

Home » Electronic Engineering

Finding the right employer who can support an evolving home life as well as providing the right career progression can be a challenge. Yet, getting the right work-life balance is essential to maintaining good health, improved wellbeing, and sustaining a happy home. In today’s society it’s difficult to achieve the correct balance, especially when, for many of us, the line between work and home is so blurred. Increased technology advances means we are always connected and expected to be available 24/7.

For me, having an enjoyable job, which offers career progression, and allows me to spend time with my children is my ultimate aim. Getting this right is tough and inevitably compromises need to be made.

Just over a year ago  I decided I needed something new, the ‘work’ element in my life was stagnant and I was in search of a new challenge. I took the plunge and accepted a job as Commercial Bid Manager at Plextek.

Making it happen

Plextek is an engineering consultancy at the heart of innovation. The work here is interesting and varied, which makes for some exciting yet challenging tenders. Plextek’s main assets are the talent and skills of its employees and this is recognised by the Senior Management team who invest vast amounts of time and money into personal development.

Starting here was daunting to begin with, it wasn’t just me who had to fit into the job, the job had to fit with my family. Changing a job is always risky, especially when you have dependants. Based just south of Cambridge with easy access to major roads, my commute is relatively straight forward as I am able to whiz up and down the A14 between work and home with ease.

Plextek have been extremely accommodating of my family’s needs. Like 14% of employees here, I work part-time. I have also agreed flexible start and finish times depending on whether I’m doing the nursery drop off or pick up (which I share with my partner).

Due to the nature of my job, there are many occasions when I need to spend additional time on my work, to meet demanding deadlines. In these instances, I agree with my partner to do the nursery drop off, so I stay later in the office to get the job done. I’m fortunate to have a supportive family who I can rely on when my job needs me.

When my workload allows, I go running at lunch-time, with a group of other runners – it’s great to have the opportunity to get out. There are regular company-wide social events organised by the Plextek Social Committee, many of which encourage the inclusion of families, for example last year we had a Company Family day out to Go Ape which the kids loved.

Since joining Plextek I have become a member of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP), which aids the continuation of my professional development. I’m aiming to take my APMP foundation course next month (which is long overdue!). It’s nice to have a supportive employer who encourages me to be my best and develop my talents.

Working here means I can now spend more quality time with my family. It is encouraged to ‘switch off’ after work and I no longer feel guilty when I leave the office on time to collect my children. They’ve recently introduced a new holiday policy which allows employees to buy an additional 5 days holiday per year – which I plan to take full advantage of (Center Parcs here we come!).

What really matters

Getting the right work-life balance is a continued challenge but finding an accommodating employer makes achieving a manageable equilibrium easier. Employees aren’t the only ones to benefit from a healthy work-life balance; research has shown that with improved work-life balance comes improved productivity.

Working for an equal opportunity employer and having a CEO who believes more female engineers are needed makes being a female, in a male-dominated industry, a step closer to being equal.

Thank you to Plextek for recognising the skills I have, supporting me as a working mum and making it possible for me to progress my career whilst maintaining a happy home life.

Marissa Mayer, Google’s first female software engineer in 1999 and a former president and CEO of Yahoo once said “You can’t have everything you want, but you can have the things that really matter to you” and I believe Plextek has allowed me to have what really matters, a work-life balance.

Finding the right employer who can support an evolving home life as well as providing the right career progression can be a challenge. Yet, getting the right work-life balance is essential to maintaining good health, improved wellbeing, and sustaining a happy home. In today’s society it’s difficult to achieve the correct balance, especially when, for many of us, the line between work and home is so blurred. Increased technology advances means we are always connected and expected to be available 24/7.

For me, having an enjoyable job, which offers career progression, and allows me to spend time with my children is my ultimate aim. Getting this right is tough and inevitably compromises need to be made.

Just over a year ago  I decided I needed something new, the ‘work’ element in my life was stagnant and I was in search of a new challenge. I took the plunge and accepted a job as Commercial Bid Manager at a company called Plextek.

Making it happen

Plextek is an engineering consultancy at the heart of innovation. The work here is interesting and varied, which makes for some exciting yet challenging tenders. Plextek’s main assets are the talent and skills of its employees and this is recognised by the Senior Management team who invest vast amounts of time and money into personal development.

Starting here was daunting to begin with, it wasn’t just me who had to fit into the job, the job had to fit with my family. Changing a job is always risky, especially when you have dependants. Based just south of Cambridge with easy access to major roads, my commute is relatively straight forward as I am able to whiz up and down the A14 between work and home with ease.

Plextek have been extremely accommodating of my family’s needs. Like 14% of employees here, I work part-time. I have also agreed flexible start and finish times depending on whether I’m doing the nursery drop off or pick up (which I share with my partner).

Due to the nature of my job, there are many occasions when I need to spend additional time on my work, to meet demanding deadlines. In these instances, I agree with my partner to do the nursery drop off, so I stay later in the office to get the job done. I’m fortunate to have a supportive family who I can rely on when my job needs me.

When my workload allows, I go running at lunch-time, with a group of other runners – it’s great to have the opportunity to get out. There are regular company-wide social events organised by the Plextek Social Committee, many of which encourage the inclusion of families, for example last year we had a Company Family day out to Go Ape which the kids loved.

Since joining Plextek I have become a member of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP), which aids the continuation of my professional development. I’m aiming to take my APMP foundation course next month (which is long overdue!). It’s nice to have a supportive employer who encourages me to be my best and develop my talents.

Working here means I can now spend more quality time with my family. It is encouraged to ‘switch off’ after work and I no longer feel guilty when I leave the office on time to collect my children. They’ve recently introduced a new holiday policy which allows employees to buy an additional 5 days holiday per year – which I plan to take full advantage of (Center Parcs here we come!).

What really matters

Getting the right work-life balance is a continued challenge but finding an accommodating employer makes achieving a manageable equilibrium easier. Employees aren’t the only ones to benefit from a healthy work-life balance; research has shown that with improved work-life balance comes improved productivity.

Working for an equal opportunity employer and having a CEO who believes more female engineers are needed makes being a female, in a male-dominated industry, a step closer to being equal.

Thank you to Plextek for recognising the skills I have, supporting me as a working mum and making it possible for me to progress my career whilst maintaining a happy home life.

Marissa Mayer, Google’s first female software engineer in 1999 and a former president and CEO of Yahoo once said “You can’t have everything you want, but you can have the things that really matter to you” and I believe Plextek has allowed me to have what really matters, a work-life balance.

 

EW BrightSpark, James Henderson One Year On

James Henderson - Consultant, Antennas & Propagation

By: James Henderson
Consultant, Antennas & Propagation

27th February 2019

Home » Electronic Engineering

Following the BrightSparks award ceremony in May last year, most of my work has been on developing an electronically-scanned radar unit operating at mm-wave frequencies, applicable to autonomous ground and air vehicle monitoring and control. This has been a particularly interesting and challenging project as the design has been driven by a demanding requirement to create a small, low power, high performance sensor.

The key area of innovative design that I am particularly proud of is combining two 48-element antenna arrays on to the same PCB as the electronic circuitry. To achieve a low cost, the arrays are realised through a combination of 3D printing and PCB techniques.

This development posed many technical challenges owing to the often conflicting PCB-related requirements of antenna and RF circuitry. However, integration and performance benefits make this approach worthwhile.

System calculations

Initial work on this project required comprehensive system calculations to exactly understand the design requirements. System level planning is informative when determining how to distribute the required tasks.

Often, a number of subsystems could potentially solve the same technical challenge but only when looking at the problem as a whole can you assess how the elements of the system can best work together.

Scanning the radar beam

A key aspect of the design was how to scan the radar beam. In a previous project the antennas were mechanically moved to build up a 3D view of the scene. In contrast the new requirement was to scan the antenna beams electronically, which has many advantages over mechanically scanned systems. Electronic beamforming can be implemented digitally, at the analogue front end, or even within the antennas themselves.

In this design, the scanning mechanism was an integral part of the antenna array, which significantly simplifies other aspects of the system leading to a small sensor having low power consumption. However, this approach required lateral thinking when designing and constructing the PCB to achieve the target performance. For the first iteration of the design the electronics worked as intended, but the antenna performance was lower than expected.

Further investigation revealed the reason for the drop in performance and emphasised the many and varied challenges associated with working at mm-wave frequencies.

Special Interest

The second design iteration gave performance closely matched to my system calculations. This confirmed that the design operated as intended, which was extremely satisfying.

This whole process has exposed me to some particularly interesting design work and has consequently encouraged me to initiate a Special Interest Group within Plextek that specialises in the design and development of mm-wave electronic systems.

Following this project I expect to see substantial interest in operating at mm-wave bands, enhancing the capability of mm-wave circuits and I’m excited to be working with these cutting-edge technologies in the future.

The CEO of Plextek, Nicholas Hill, added:

“BrightSparks is a fantastic way to show your employees’ work is valued. It’s so important to get young people enthusiastic about their engineering careers and award recognition is a great motivational boost. The BrightSparks award last year won by James Henderson was well deserved and he has continued to shape his engineering career by contributing to key company projects here at Plextek.”

Following the BrightSparks award ceremony in May last year, most of my work has been on developing an electronically-scanned radar unit operating at mm-wave frequencies, applicable to autonomous ground and air vehicle monitoring and control. This has been a particularly interesting and challenging project as the design has been driven by a demanding requirement to create a small, low power, high performance sensor.

The key area of innovative design that I am particularly proud of is combining two 48-element antenna arrays on to the same PCB as the electronic circuitry. To achieve a low cost, the arrays are realised through a combination of 3D printing and PCB techniques.

This development posed many technical challenges owing to the often conflicting PCB-related requirements of antenna and RF circuitry. However, integration and performance benefits make this approach worthwhile.

System calculations

Initial work on this project required comprehensive system calculations to exactly understand the design requirements. System level planning is informative when determining how to distribute the required tasks.

Often, a number of subsystems could potentially solve the same technical challenge but only when looking at the problem as a whole can you assess how the elements of the system can best work together.

Scanning the radar beam

A key aspect of the design was how to scan the radar beam. In a previous project the antennas were mechanically moved to build up a 3D view of the scene. In contrast the new requirement was to scan the antenna beams electronically, which has many advantages over mechanically scanned systems. Electronic beamforming can be implemented digitally, at the analogue front end, or even within the antennas themselves.

In this design, the scanning mechanism was an integral part of the antenna array, which significantly simplifies other aspects of the system leading to a small sensor having low power consumption. However, this approach required lateral thinking when designing and constructing the PCB to achieve the target performance. For the first iteration of the design the electronics worked as intended, but the antenna performance was lower than expected.

Further investigation revealed the reason for the drop in performance and emphasised the many and varied challenges associated with working at mm-wave frequencies.

Special Interest

The second design iteration gave performance closely matched to my system calculations. This confirmed that the design operated as intended, which was extremely satisfying.

This whole process has exposed me to some particularly interesting design work and has consequently encouraged me to initiate a Special Interest Group within Plextek that specialises in the design and development of mm-wave electronic systems.

Following this project I expect to see substantial interest in operating at mm-wave bands, enhancing the capability of mm-wave circuits and I’m excited to be working with these cutting-edge technologies in the future.

The CEO of Plextek, Nicholas Hill, added:

“BrightSparks is a fantastic way to show your employees’ work is valued. It’s so important to get young people enthusiastic about their engineering careers and award recognition is a great motivational boost. The BrightSparks award last year won by James Henderson was well deserved and he has continued to shape his engineering career by contributing to key company projects here at Plextek.”