The news in January from computer makers was far from reassuring. The major box makers were predicting slumping demand, citing an overall slowing in spending for information technology.
That's hardly surprising, considering how strong the economy has been for so long. All good things, it's true, must come to an end if only temporarily, as technology advocates hope.
So what does that mean for engineers in the field? William Aspray, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Computing Research Association, said he's watching the job situation closely.
"It's hard to tell yet. Certainly we've seen some layoffs, and we're going to continue to see layoffs. But how extensive they are isn't clear yet."
Aspray, whose group represents academies and industrial research labs, said the fallout from January's bad news in the computer sector might not be so harmful for engineers after all.
"It's a concern; there's no question about that. The places where we are going to see the most serious assault on research and development are in the traditional, larger companies," like Lucent which recently announced 10,000 job cuts and AT&T, Aspray said. So look for workforce reductions there. On the other hand, smaller companies and startups that don't have stock prices to get battered might be in somewhat less trouble.
And academic and government engineering programs may also fare well in any shakeout. "Academics say they can't keep their graduate students in school; there's too much pull from industry," thanks to the magnets of stock options and high salaries that the New Economy promised, Aspray continued.
Yet as those lures weaken, Aspray "wouldn't be surprised" if more engineering students opted to stay in school. Not only would that help keep departments running, it would also help replenish the pool of potential faculty recruits, which is shallower than ever. "Undergraduate enrollments have skyrocketed in the last five years, so there's much more demand for faculty members," Aspray said. However, too much weakness would obviously be a bad thing, Aspray adds, since engineering departments are particularly reliant on a strong industry for support.
But while the desire to buy new PCs may be flagging, the popularity of handheld computers appears to be rising. NPD Intelect Market Tracking said that while desktop PC sales fell by nearly 18 percent in 2000, sales of palm-sized computers rose by 161 percent, from about $430 million in 1999 to over $1 billion last year.
Follow the PDA money
So it might make sense to follow the money and look for work at the companies that are producing personal digital assistants (PDAs). Like Handspring, for instance. The Mountain View, Calif., company has a few openings for engineers, including one in quality and reliability. Applicants should have a BSEE or an equivalent degree and at least a year of direct experience in printed-circuit board assembly, plastics manufacturing or computer products development.
Handspring is also looking for a communications/applications technician engineer with a BSEE or BSCS and five years of hardware and software design experience. Qualified candidates should be familiar with Palm OS development and with "common communication technology like GSM, CDMA and TDMA."
Palm, which owns about three-quarters of the PDA market, has dozens of engineering positions to fill. The company needs a senior systems engineer in Santa Clara, Calif., to work on its Palm.Net mobile Internet application service. Applicants should have a bachelor's degree in computer science or a related field and at least five years of experience as a system administrator in a "production Unix and/or Windows NT environment."
In Texas, Palm is looking for a senior tools engineer to work on debugging and compiler integration. The job demands a BSCS (MSCS preferred) or a related degree and eight or more years of experience in ANSI, C and C++. Applicants should also have at least four years of experience developing software for the Macintosh, Windows and Unix platforms, two or more years of OLE, ActiveX and COM, and a year or more of work in Java.
Also in Texas, Houston's Compaq continues to have hundreds of openings for hardware and software engineers. It needs a design engineer with a BSEE and at least four years of experience in PC architecture on both the hardware and software side. "Solid high-speed digital and analog circuit design and analysis skills are required. Hardware fault isolation and debugging skills are required, [as is] demonstrated ability to accept responsibility and work in a multitasking environment. Ability to have limited travel to Asia is desired."
Compaq is also looking for hardware design engineers with BSEEs (or the equivalent) and "strong circuit design skills and the ability to debug complex problems to root cause." Applicants should also understand PC architecture, "including the Pentium III, AGP and PCI buses as well as SDRAM and RDRAM." They "must be proficient in the use of state-of-the-art lab equipment. BIOS programming experience or experience with C++ and Windows architecture is desirable. Ability to debug problems using an ITP or kernel debugger is a plus. Must possess excellent oral and written communication skills and be able to work in a fast-paced team-oriented environment. Some travel may be required."