Q&A: Embedded Systems Consultant

Elecia White is an embedded systems engineer, consultant, author, and innovator. She has worked on a variety of projects: DNA scanners, health-care monitors, learning toys, and fingerprint recognition.—Nan Price, Associate Editor

 

NAN: Tell us about your company Logical Elegance. When and why did you start the company? What types of services do you provide?

ELECIA: Logical Elegance is a small San Jose, CA-based consulting firm specializing in embedded systems. We do system analysis, architecture, and software implementation for a variety of devices.

Elecia White

Elecia White

I started the company in 2004, after leaving a job I liked for a job that turned out to be horrible. Afterward, I wasn’t ready to commit to another full-time job; I wanted to dip my toe in before becoming permanent again.

I did eventually take another full-time job at ShotSpotter, where I made a gunshot location system. Logical Elegance continued when my husband, Chris, took it over. After ShotSpotter, I returned to join him. While we have incorporated and may take on a summer intern, for the most part Logical Elegance is only my husband and me.

I like consulting, it lets me balance my life better with my career. It also gives me time to work on my own projects: writing a book and articles, playing with new devices, learning new technologies. On the other hand, I could not have started consulting without spending some time at traditional companies. Almost all of our work comes from people we’ve worked with in the past, either people we met at companies where we worked full time or people who worked for past clients.

Here is Elecia’s home lab bench. She conveniently provided notes.

Here is Elecia’s home lab bench. She conveniently provided notes.

NAN: Logical Elegance has a diverse portfolio. Your clients have ranged from Cisco Systems to LeapFrog Enterprises. Tell us about some of your more interesting projects.

ELECIA: We are incredibly fortunate that embedded systems are diverse, yet based on similar bedrock. Once you can work with control loops and signal processing, the applications are endless. Understanding methodologies for concepts such as state machines, interrupts, circular buffers, and working with peripherals allows us to put the building blocks together a different way to suit a particular product’s need.

For example, for a while there, it seemed like some of my early work learning how to optimize systems to make big algorithms work on little processors would fall to the depths of unnecessary knowledge. Processors kept getting more and more powerful. However, as I work on wearables, with their need to optimize cycles to extend their battery life, it all is relevant again.

We’ve had many interesting projects. Chris is an expert in optical coherence tomography (OCT). Imagine a camera that can go on the end of a catheter to help a doctor remove plaque from a clogged artery or to aid in eye surgery. Chris is also the networking expert. He works on networking protocols such as Locator/ID Separation Protocol (LISP) and multicast.

I’m currently working for a tiny company that hopes to build an exoskeleton to help stroke patients relearn how to walk. I am incredibly enthusiastic about both the application and the technology.

That has been a theme in my career, which is how I’ve got this list of awesome things I’ve worked on: DNA scanners, race cars and airplanes, children’s toys, and a gunshot location system. The things I leave off the list are more difficult to describe but no less interesting to have worked on: a chemical database that used hydrophobicity to model uptake rates, a medical device for the operating room and ICU, and methods for deterring fraud using fingerprint recognition on a credit card.

Elecia says one of the great things about the explosion of boards and kits available is being able to quickly build a system. However, she explains, once the components work together, it is time to spin a board. (This system may be past that point.)

Elecia says one of the great things about the explosion of boards and kits available is being able to quickly build a system. However, she explains, once the components work together, it is time to spin a board. (This system may be past that point.)

In the last few years, Chris and I have both worked for Fitbit on different projects. If you have a One pedometer, you have some of my bits in your pocket.

The feeling of people using my code is wonderful. I get a big kick seeing my products on store shelves. I enjoyed working with Fitbit. When I started, it was a small company expanding its market; definitely the underdog. Now it is a success story for the entire microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) industry.

Not everything is rosy all the time though. For one start-up, the algorithms were neat, the people were great, and the technology was a little clunky but still interesting. However, the client failed and didn’t pay me (and a bunch of other people).

When I started consulting, I asked a more experienced friend about the most important part. I expected to hear that I’d have to make myself more extroverted, that I’d have to be able to find more contracts and do marketing, and that I’d be involved in the drudgery of accounting. The answer I got was the truth: the most important part of consulting is accounts receivable. Working for myself—especially with small companies—is great fun, but there is a risk.

NAN: How did you get from “Point A” to Logical Elegance?

ELECIA: ”Point A” was Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA. While there, I worked as a UNIX system administrator, then later worked with a chemistry professor on his computational software. After graduation, I went to Hewlett Packard (HP), doing standard software, then a little management. I was lured to another division to do embedded software (though we called it firmware).

Next, a start-up let me learn how to be a tech lead and architect in the standard start-up sink-or-swim methodology. A mid-size company gave me exposure to consumer products and a taste for seeing my devices on retailer’s shelves.

From there, I tried out consulting, learned to run a small business, and wrote a Circuit Cellar Ink article “Open Source Code Guide” (Issue 175, 2005). I joined another tiny start-up where I did embedded software, architecture, management, and even directorship before burning out. Now, I’m happy to be an embedded software consultant, author, and podcast host.

NAN: You wrote Making Embedded Systems: Design Patterns for Great Software (O’Reilly Media, 2011). What can readers expect to learn from the book?

ELECIA: While having some industry experience in hardware or software will make my book easier to understand, it is also suitable for a computer science or electrical engineering college student.

It is a technical book for software engineers who want to get closer to the hardware or electrical engineers who want to write good software. It covers many types of embedded information: hardware, software design patterns, interview questions, and a lot of real-world wisdom about shipping products.

Elecia White's BookMaking Embedded Systems is intended for engineers who are in transition: the hardware engineer who ends up writing software or the software engineer who suddenly needs to understand how the embedded world is different from pure software.

Unfortunately, most college degrees are either computer science or electrical engineering. Neither truly prepares for the half-and-half world of an embedded software engineer. Computer science teaches algorithms and software design methodology. Electrical engineering misses both of those topics but provides a practical tool kit for doing low-level development on small processors. Whichever collegiate (or early career) path, an embedded software engineer needs to have familiarity with both.

I did a non-traditional major that was a combination of computer science and engineering systems. I was prepared for all sorts of math (e.g., control systems and signal processing) and plenty of programming. All in all, I learned about half of the skills I needed to do firmware. I was never quite sure what was correct and what I was making up as I went along.

As a manager, I found most everyone was in the same boat: solid foundations on one side and shaky stilts on the other. The goal of the book is to take whichever foundation you have and cantilever a good groundwork to the other half. It shouldn’t be 100% new information. In addition to the information presented, I’m hoping most people walk away with more confidence about what they know (and what they don’t know).

Elecia was a judge at the MEMS Elevator Pitch Session at the 2013 MEMS Executive Congress in Napa, CA.

Elecia was a judge at the MEMS Elevator Pitch Session at the 2013 MEMS Executive Congress in Napa, CA.

NAN: How long have you been designing embedded systems? When did you become interested?

ELECIA: I was a software engineer at the NetServer division at HP. I kept doing lower-level software, drivers mostly, but for big OSes: WinNT, OS/2, Novell NetWare, and SCO UNIX (a list that dates my time there).

HP kept trying to put me in management but I wasn’t ready for that path, so I went to HP Labs’s newly spun-out HP BioScience to make DNA scanners, figuring the application would be more interesting. I had no idea.

I lit a board on fire on my very first day as an embedded software engineer. Soon after, a motor moved because my code told it to. I was hooked. That edge of software, where the software touches the physical, captured my imagination and I’ve never looked back.

NAN: Tell us about the first embedded system you designed. Where were you at the time? What did you learn from the project?

ELECIA: Wow, this one is hard. The first embedded system I designed depends on your definition of “designed.” Going from designing subsystems to the whole system to the whole product was a very gradual shift, coinciding with going to smaller and smaller companies until suddenly I was part of the team not only choosing processors but choosing users as well.

After I left the cushy world of HP Labs with a team of firmware engineers, several electrical engineers, and a large team of software engineers who were willing to help design and debug, I went to a start-up with fewer than 50 people. There was no electrical engineer (except for the EE who followed from HP). There was a brilliant algorithms guy but his software skills were more MATLAB-based than embedded C. I was the only software/firmware engineer. This was the sort of company that didn’t have source version control (until after my first day). It was terrifying being on my own and working without a net.

I recently did a podcast about how to deal with code problems that feel insurmountable. While the examples were all from recent work, the memories of how to push through when there is no one else who can help came from this job.

Elecia is shown recording a Making Embedded Systems episode with the founders of electronics educational start-up Light Up. From left to right: Elecia’s husband and producer Christopher White, host Elecia White, and guests Josh Chan and Tarun Pondicherry.

Elecia is shown recording a Making Embedded Systems episode with the founders of electronics educational start-up Light Up. From left to right: Elecia’s husband and producer Christopher White, host Elecia White, and guests Josh Chan and Tarun Pondicherry.

NAN: Are you currently working on or planning any projects?

ELECIA: I have a few personal projects I’m working on: a T-shirt that monitors my posture and a stuffed animal that sends me a “check on Lois” text if an elderly neighbor doesn’t pat it every day. These don’t get nearly enough of my attention these days as I’ve been very focused on my podcast: Making Embedded Systems on iTunes, Instacast, Stitcher, or direct from http://embedded.fm.

The podcast started as a way to learn something new. I was going to do a half-dozen shows so I could understand how recording worked. It was a replacement for my normal community center classes on stained glass, soldering, clay, hula hooping, laser cutting, woodshop, bookbinding, and so forth.

However, we’re way beyond six shows and I find I quite enjoy it. I like engineering and building things. I want other people to come and play in this lovely sandbox. I do the show because people continue to share their passion, enthusiasm, amusement, happiness, spark of ingenuity, whatever it is, with me.

To sum up why I do a podcast, in order of importance: to talk to people who love their jobs, to share my passion for engineering, to promote the visibility of women in engineering, and to advertise for Logical Elegance (this reason is just in case our accountant reads this since we keep writing off expenses).

NAN: What are your go-to embedded platforms? Do you have favorites, or do you use a variety of different products?

ELECIA: I suppose I do have favorites but I have a lot of favorites. At any given time, my current favorite is the one that is sitting on my desk. (Hint!)

I love Arduino although I don’t use it much except to get other people excited. I appreciate that at the heart of this beginner’s board (and development system) is a wonderful, useful processor that I’m happy to work on.

I like having a few Arduino boards around, figuring that I can always get rid of the bootloader and use the Atmel ATmega328 on its own. In the meantime, I can give them to people who have an idea they want to try out.

For beginners, I think mbed’s boards are the next step after Arduino. I like them but they still have training wheels: nice, whizzy training wheels but still training wheels. I have a few of those around for when friends’ projects grow out of Arduinos. While I’ve used them for my own projects, their price precludes the small-scale production I usually want to do.

Professionally, I spend a lot of time with Cortex-M3s, especially those from STMicroelectronics and NXP Semiconductors. They seem ubiquitous right now. These are processors that are definitely big enough to run an RTOS but small enough that you don’t have to. I keep hearing that Cortex-M0s are coming but the price-to-performance-to-power ratio means my clients keep going to the M3s.

Finally, I suppose I’ll always have a soft spot for Texas Instruments’s C2000 line, which is currently in the Piccolo and Delfino incarnations. The 16-bit byte is horrible (especially if you need to port code to another processor), but somehow everything else about the DSP does just what I want. Although, it may not be about the processor itself: if I’m using a DSP, I must be doing something mathy and I like math.

NAN: Do you have any predictions for upcoming “hot topics?”

ELECIA: I’m most excited about health monitoring. I’m surprised that Star Trek and other science fiction sources got tricorders right but missed the constant health monitoring we are heading toward with the rise of wearables and the interest in quantified self.
I’m most concerned about connectivity. The Internet of Things (IoT) is definitely coming, but many of these devices seem to be more about applying technology to any device that can stand the price hit, whether it makes sense or not.

Worse, the methods for getting devices connected keeps fracturing as the drive toward low-cost and high functionality leads the industry in different directions. And even worse, the ongoing battle between security and ease of use manages to give us things that are neither usable nor secure. There isn’t a good solution (yet). To make progress we need to consider the application, the user, and what they need instead of applying what we have and hoping for the best.

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