A New Generation of Engineers: Why Open Source Really Matters

babbage-analytical-engineWe face a challenge maintaining British excellence in computer engineering. It is an industry where we excel, but last summer the BBC reported that we face a “retirement cliff”, with the average age of an engineer in Britain now being 54 years. It is not for a lack of jobs. In a period where graduate salaries have fallen, salaries for engineering graduates have been rising. A study by the former editor of Business Week, John Byrne, found that Engineering was the most common degree discipline of millionaires, with the sub-discipline of computer science in 8th place.

The UK has a long and distinguished track record with computers.  This is a country that gave us the first computer (Babbage’s Analytical Engine), the first programmer (Ada Lovelace) and the first programmable digital electronic computer (Colossus at Bletchley Park). In the late 1940’s, where there were three computers in the world, two were in the UK—EDSAC in Cambridge and ‘Baby’ in Manchester (the other was the Harvard Mark 1).  We could even exploit them commercially—the Lyons Electronic Office (LEO) was the world’s first business computer.

The simple fact is that we have skipped training a generation of engineers. While in the 1980’s, computers were fashionable, by the 1990’s we were content to be users. The old secretarial skills course became the GCSE in IT, and we bored children with learning word processing under the pretence that they were learning about computers.  And just as significantly, we have also taught a generation that computes are secret black boxes, that they should not be privileged to understand.

Yet despite this, UK computer engineering is still a power house.  Take apart any modern smartphone, and you’ll find a processor designed by ARM (Cambridge), graphics from Imagination Technologies (Kings Langley), Bluetooth & audio from CSR (Cambridge) and high speed data from Icera (now part of Nvidia, but based in Bristol).  Even where you do find a US company like Broadcom with a chip in there, it was largely designed in their Bristol and Cambridge R&D centres.

When we look at those modern companies, we see them run by engineers who grew up with the BBC Micro.  The question is where to find the generation to succeed them.

Now the BBC Micro was not a free or open source design.  The concept really didn’t exist—the GNU Manifesto wasn’t published until a year or two later.  But it was still the case that at tremendous amount of software was made freely available, and school age programmers were encouraged to experiment.  As the noted educationalist Miles Berry has observed, the free and open source paradigm is perfectly matched to education, where experiment and exploration should be encouraged.

There is no single way to address the issue. The ditching of the old IT curriculum was a good thing, even if its replacement has not yet been fully thought out, and government policy has still to make it through to classroom teaching. Initiatives like Young Rewired State help bring youngsters into technology outside the school system.  The emergence of Arduino, Raspberry Pi and a host of other computers, all of which use free and open source software (if not hardware) is a strong move to an educationally rich environment.  Perhaps most exciting is the LowRISC project, taking free and open source design right into the processor silicon itself.

My company, Embecosm together with RS Components has been supporting the excellent #techmums initiative that was founded by Dr Sue Black. As existing initiatives show, the reason children get involved with technology is often because their parents are interested. So #techmums aims to give confidence to mothers by running a range of introductory workshops, in which they gain skills and are introduced to the excitement of technology. Empowering and inspiring women, in the hope that their children will then be encouraged to take up technology.

Last year, between us, we supplied 100 Shrimp Persistence of Vision kits (free and open source software and hardware) to #techmums, and in partnership with the BCS and Ravensbourne we ran two workshops. The first of these was to train the #techmums trainers so that they can run workshops themselves. The second was for a group of mothers in Greenwich, East London. I’m delighted to report that both of the workshops were a great success, as clearly evidenced in the smiles of all those who took part.

One more step towards the next generation of engineers.  And all with the help of free and open source software and hardware.

Dr Jeremy Bennett is Treasurer of the Open Source Consortium.  He is also Chief Executive of Embecosm, a software consultancy developing the next generation of free and open source compilers for chip manufacturers around the world.