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Embedded Software Community Survey Findings

Monday, February 14th, 2011 by Michael Barr

In addition to blogging here and tweeting (there), I also write a monthly e-mail newsletter about embedded software that is called Firmware Update. More than 15,000 embedded software developers are currently subscribed to this newsletter. Here’s what I learned in a recent survey of those newsletter readers, in which 452 individuals participated.


Embedded software engineers are spread all over the world. Of the survey respondents, only 40% are located in the United States; California houses about 1/4 of those. Two other well represented countries are India (9%) and Canada (7%). The remainder of respondents are spread across some 43 other countries, from Argentina to South Africa. Every continent but Antarctica is on the list. It’s amazing how quickly the world is shrinking because of the Internet, isn’t it?


According to this survey, the average age of an embedded software engineer is approximately 37 years. Overall, approximately 55% are between 20 and 39 years of age and 45% are between 40 and 69. Just one respondent is 70 or over and none are under 20.


Here I’ll admit to being a bit shocked: we are as a group far more educated than I thought going into the survey. Approximately 49% of respondents hold a graduate degree. These are mostly Master of Science degrees, of course. But almost 1 out of 20 of us holds a PhD. On the flipside, just 5% of respondents said they are practicing embedded software with only a high-school diploma or 2-year degree.

As I expected, we’ve mostly been educated as Electrical Engineers. Over 55% of all the undergraduate and graduate degrees held by respondents were EE degrees. Interestingly, Computer Engineering was slightly more popular than Computer Science among the rest. Though I offered a free-form “Other” textbox and quite a few folks entered something there, there were no large percentage of other degrees. Only Mechanical Engineering, Math, and Physics stood out as at least occasionally repeated answers. (Winner for most surprising answer: Psychology.)

Employment and Team Size

The number of unemployed respondents was about 3%. The vast majority of the rest are paid as full-time salaried employees. But approximately 15% of us are consultants (“on a per project basis; at times multiple clients simultaneously”) or contractors (“by contract to one large company for a set length of time”). And some of the consultants also have a full-time job or a contractor position.

The total number of embedded software engineers employed at the same company varies widely, from 1 to over 1,000. But the single most common choice was 2-4. In my mission to improve the quality of embedded software across industries, I’ve seen first hand that one of the reasons for poor quality is that a small team of firmware engineers working at a company that specializes in other types of engineering or product design tends not to be connected into the latest best practices.

The number of embedded software engineers on respondents’ current projects is smaller, of course, and ranged from 1 to over 200. Not surprisingly, project teams with more than 20 firmware engineers are quite rare (just 5%). On the flip side, teams with just a single firmware engineer are quite common (almost 25%). The average team size seems to be around 1.5-2.


As I planned the survey, I hoped to distinguish three types of experience: electronics design, embedded programming, and other programming. So I asked three distinct questions, each with the same answer choices.

Here’s my interpretation of the answers:

  • Over 60% of embedded software developers also design hardware–at least from time to time–or came to programming after first working as a hardware designer. That’s a big number. Shockingly, it’s an even bigger number than the percentage holding an EE degree cited above. The average number of years of hardware design experience is around 8.5
  • The average amount of embedded programming experience is approximately 12 years.
  • The average number of years of other programming experience is about 7.5.

In other words, embedded software developers are jacks of all trades. Many of us weave back and forth in our careers, and even sometimes within a single project, between electronics or chip design, writing low-level embedded software, and writing software for PCs, websites, and other platforms.

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