View From the Valley iconView From the Valley

Is Apple “Poaching” or Just “Hiring” For Its Rumored Electric Car Project?

The rumors about Apple’s move into the electric car business have been rapidly proliferating. There’s enough smoke that there’s got to be some kind of fire at its source, though Apple has yet to confirm anything. If you’ve missed the buzz, the short version is that Apple has launched “Project Titan” and is planning to start production of an electric minivan, possibly self-driving, as early as 2020. The company reportedly has several hundred engineers working on its electric vehicle program, which may or may not be related to the blue minivans cruising around Silicon Valley.

While Apple has been able to keep many of the details of its project under wraps, it has had less success keeping its hiring activities quiet—after all, the vast majority of experienced engineers the company is bringing in are leaving a current—or future—competitor.

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The Oscar Goes to… Engineer Larry Hornbeck and His Digital Micromirrors

At some point during Sunday’s Oscars telecast, in between actresses in stunning ball gowns, actors trying to redefine the tux, movie clips, dance routines, and acceptance speeches cut off when they go on too long, there will be a nod to the technology that makes it all possible. An announcer will talk about the Academy’s Science and Technical Awards, presented earlier this month, then an Oscar-winning engineer will wave from the audience. Don’t blink, or you might miss it.

This year, that engineer will be Larry Hornbeck, who developed the digital micromirror device (DMD) used in Texas Instruments’ digital light processing (DLP) projectors. He gets the Academy of Motion Pictures Award of Merit (that’s the official name for what most of us call the Oscar) for the invention.

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A Snapshot of Software Engineering Salaries at Silicon Valley Startups

Software engineering salaries at Bay Area startups were up in 2014, for an average senior engineer with Java experience. The big job growth was in San Francisco. And while knowing C/C++  and Java gives you a little boost, it’s having experience working with Hadoop that really gives you an edge.

That’s all according to a recent analysis by recruitment firm Riviera Partners. Although the firm was using its own limited data set of 500 engineers who took jobs at venture-backed startups in 2014, Riviera believes its numbers are representative of the bigger picture. (The analysis did not include data on stock options or other equity grants that may have been made to hires.) Here are some of the numbers for senior engineers; lead engineers and managers make a little more, mid-level engineers a little less. The engineers in the study had an average of eight years of experience.

The language differential. For engineers who haven’t yet moved into management, according to the Riviera Partners’ study, C/C++ and Java developers pulled in an average of $143,000 annually, with Python developers slightly behind at $141,000. (Spectrum’s most recent ranking of popular programming languages puts Java on top.) For engineers with some experience in working with distributed-computing framework Hadoop, however, the average salary jumps to $150,000. These numbers are all up from 2013, when Riviera found that senior engineers specializing in Java averaged $135,000 and C/C++ $119,000; Hadoop experience wasn’t analyzed at that time.

The picture changes somewhat when engineers move into management. In 2014, managers of C/C++ teams had the edge, at $161,000, followed by Python at $159,000, Hadoop at $152,000, and Java at $151,000.

Where the jobs are.  San Francisco came out on top here, with 62 percent of new hires crowding into San Francisco’s 47 square miles. Twenty-nine percent landed on the Peninsula, generally defined as the area south of San Francisco extending as far south as Mountain View. And just nine percent ended up in the South Bay, an area that tends to be more of a hotspot for hardware folks rather than software specialists. (Silicon Valley author and historian Mike Malone recently said, “They code stuff up there, we build stuff down here.”)

School spirit. Where did these recent hires get their education? Not surprisingly, the biggest group came out of the University of California at Berkeley, which is well connected in the Bay Area tech network. (Many, of course, also came from Stanford, tied with UCLA and Cornell for the number three spot.) Number two—the University of Waterloo—came in as a surprise for me, but it shouldn’t have; Waterloo is reportedly the largest feeder school to Silicon Valley and I’ve met a number of Canadian entrepreneurs launching through local incubators, like YCombinator.  Interestingly, Waterloo wasn’t in the top five in the Riviera study last year, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came in at number three and Tsinghua University at number four.

So the net-net if you want a job at a Silicon Valley startup? Go to Berkeley or the University of Waterloo, learn Hadoop, and find an apartment in San Francisco. That last to-do just might turn out to be the hardest to check off.

California’s No Drone Zones

Do property owners have control over their airspace? That’s the question on the table when the California legislature considers bill SB 142, which bans trespassing by drones.  The legislation would only cover drones flying below 400 feet (122 meters); above 400 feet, the airspace is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA is still working out its drone rules, but at this point the regulations require hobbyists to keep their drones below 400 feet.

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Which IBM Layoff Numbers Add Up?

Last month, tech journalist Robert X. Cringely  reported that 26 percent of IBM’s employees were about to be shown the door, potentially more than 100,000 people if you look at IBM’s worldwide workforce of more than 400,000. IBM responded that it had already announced that it was writing off $580 million for “workforce restructuring,” a number consistent with laying off several thousand people. That’s a big gap. Is Cringely wrong? Or are IBM’s public projections very low? Or could each simply be making different choices about what to count?

After writing earlier about Cringely’s article, I’ve had all sorts of numbers coming my way, from IBM via an official spokesman, from insiders who've stepped up to help me sort this out under promise of anonymity, and from folks pointing me to other press and analyst reports. And I talked to Cringely himself for a few clarifications.

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Calling IBM’ers Who Have Been Chrome’ed, RA’ed, or PIP’ed: Tell Us Your Story

IBM is currently in the midst of a workforce reduction. Journalist Robert X. Cringely reports that more than 100,000 current employees will be dropped from the payroll by March; IBM counters that it’s planned a layoff that will be less than a tenth of that amount. The IBM union website, Alliance@IBM, says 5000 already have layoff notices in hand. TechCrunch says some 43,000 will be gone by the end of the year, at a pace of roughly 10,000 a quarter until “the company righted the ship.”

Besides all sorts of numbers being tossed around, we’re hearing about all sorts of internal IBM acrononyms, all of which mean bad news for employees. There’s RA’d, or Resource Action’ed: that’s IBM-speak for laid off. There’s put on PIP, or Performance Improvement Plan—that’s when an employee gets a poor performance rating, and a deadline to improve it or leave.

For IBM—indeed, for the computer industry in general—layoffs are nothing new. However, every person laid off or threatened with dismissal has a unique story. And I’d love to hear them. Please share your experience with me directly at t.perry@ieee.org, on Twitter @teklaperry, or in the comments below. Keep yourself anonymous if you’d like, identify your job function and location if you’re willing, but tell us your story, we want to hear it.

Massive Worldwide Layoff Under Way At IBM

IBMers: Please share your experience with me directly at t.perry@ieee.org, on Twitter @teklaperry, or in the comments below. Keep yourself anonymous if you’d like, identify your job function and location if you’re willing, but tell us your story, we want to hear it.

Project Chrome, a massive layoff that IBM says is not a massive layoff, is under way. According to tech writer Robert X. Cringely, reporting in Forbes, the company’s workforce will be reduced 26 percent as part of this initiative. With potentially more than 100,000 people at risk, this could be the largest single layoff by any U.S. corporation since 1993, when IBM cut 60,000 people from its roster. Cringely writes that notices have started going out, and reports that most of the 26 percent will be gone by the end of February. 

IBM immediately denied Cringely’s report, stating that a planned $600 million “workforce rebalancing” is going to involve layoffs (or what the company calls “resource actions”) of just thousands of people. But Cringely responded that he never said that the workforce reductions would be all called layoffs—instead, multiple tactics are being used, including pushing employees out through low ratings (more on that in a moment). And some managers are indeed admitting to employees that their jobs have been eliminated as part of Project Chrome, leading employees to coin a new catchphrase: “Getting Chromed.” 

Folks in sales, support, engineering—in just about every job category—will be affected. The only IBMers who  have been specifically reported to be safe are those working in semiconductor manufacturing, an operation that GlobalFoundries is in the process of acquiring.

Alliance@IBM, an organization for IBM employees run by the Communications Workers of America, says it has so far collected reports of 5,000 jobs eliminated. Numbers available on its site—not all are public—include 250 in Boulder, Colo., 150 in Columbia, Mo., and 202 in Dubuque, Iowa.  Layoffs in Littleton, Mass., are reportedly “massive,” but no specific numbers have been published. Pink slips have been said to be flying at IBM Australia, with rumors of 400 workers to be cut. And the Economic Times in India reported last week that employees of IBM’s offices in Bangalore were scrambling to find new jobs, trying to get out of IBM ahead of the coming tsunami. Those are the known layoff numbers to date. But then there’s that performance rating scheme—also known as a stealth layoff—that involves giving previously highly rated employees the lowest rating (a 3) before showing them the door. A 3 can lead to immediate dismissal, particularly for employees who signed on to what IBM calls the “Transition to Retirement” program, in which employees commit to a specific retirement date and accept cuts in hours and pay in return for being protected from dismissal unless they get a poor performance rating. For a regular full-time employee, a rating of 3 can put him or her into what is called a performance improvement plan, and if the rating doesn’t improve in a set period of time, the employee can be fired for cause. PIPs are not uncommon in the business world; it’s the number being given and the dramatically short length of time to improve that is concerning employees. Giving out 3s works to the company’s benefit because it can lead to reduced severance benefits.

This isn’t the first time IBM employees have received aberrant poor performance reviews shortly before a layoff. A former employee who was cut in a resource action, or RA, in 2010 confirmed this, telling me that after years of top ratings, he received a 3 just before he was let go, even though he’d just had what he perceived as his best year ever.

Anecdotal evidence of an increase in poor ratings is beginning to surface. Here are a few examples from the employee comment thread at the Alliance@IBM website:

  •  “I worked in the Lenexa, Kansas, lab for a year and 8 months. I received an unexpected 3 on Tuesday and then had a meeting Wednesday informing me that I am part of the resource action.”
  • “After 13 1/2 years got RA’d today, age 38. Received a ‘3’ after years of 1, 2+, 2.”
  • “In [Research Triangle Park], I have talked with several people this week who were given unexpected ‘3’ ratings and were told that they have 30 days to improve their performance, with consequences if not successful.”

The fascinating stream of comments is available here.

Some older employees believe they are being hit the hardest, and are trying to collect data for a potential class action suit, which is hard to come by. Some examples of experiences posted:

  • “54 years old, 22 years of experience rated 2 last five years, just had my rating with my manager, 15 minutes, rated a 3, no reason given by manager. RA’d”
  • “RA’ed yesterday. I’m 56 years old. I [had] a consistent 2 as an information developer in [the software group] in San Jose, CA.”
  • “RA’d; last day 2/27; Rating: 2; Age: 61; Job Responsibilities: Chief Engineer. Played and RA’d”

Of course, the appearance of the situation, in the eyes of employees and the public, is not being helped by the fact amid IBM’s actions comes the board’s announcement on Friday of a big raise for CEO Ginni Rometty.

The text of this post was reedited for clarity on 6 February 2015. 

Corrections include:

The subhead was changed to reflect the fact that 100,000 is not a hard and fast number.

The name of IBM's retirement program was incorrect. The program is called Transition to Retirement. Bridge to Retirement was a similar, previous program.

The description of Alliance@IBM was clarified. It is a nonunion organization run by the Communications Workers of America labor union; it is not a union itself.

Facebook Engineers Turn Hackathon into Drone-a-thon

The Facebook hackathon: It’s a part of the company’s culture that has spread to other tech companies as a way to get engineers try out new ideas. Last year, Facebook engineers held 17 such events at locations around the world. They developed software to better distribute server load to save power, they built add-ons for a security tool, they tweaked an LED display to monitor Facebook’s infrastructure, and they mapped voters choices shared with Facebook friends during the midterm elections. All are obviously connected to Facebook’s day-to-day business.

One group, though, took the mission of its hackathon a little farther outside their day jobs than most. In November 2014, they launched a drone-a-thon.

It was the first hackathon for Satish Sampath, engineering manager at Facebook’s London office, just hired a few months earlier. The general rule for Facebook hackathons is for engineers to work on something not connected to their regular jobs. Sampath took his interpretation of that mission to the extreme—he wanted his group, which focuses on Android apps, to work on something not tied to its regular environment at all—no computers, no phones. That left drones.

Facebook’s facilities department is used to helping out with hackathons by setting up work areas and providing food. But the idea of drones zooming around inside the company’s cafeteria raised a whole new set of issues—how do you drone proof a room? They scrambled to protect the lights, ducts, and wires with nets.

Sampath also did something else a little out of the ordinary—he invited in engineers from other companies, in particular, Android engineers. “We wanted to get connected to the Android community in London,” he says.

He set up a Facebook page (of course) to collect and vote on ideas for drone projects for the hackathon. The final five were:

  • Dancing drone: it would listen to, recognize, and respond to the beat of music
  • Tour Guide Drone: a drone that could fly along as you walk through a city and give instructions and information
  • Watch-Controlled Drone: a smart-watch app that would translate voice commands into drone commands
  • “Follow-That” Drone: a drone that can follow a selected object, say, keeping an eye on your Roomba or other home robot
  • Teacher Drone: a drone that could be easily programmed by kids, to teach basic programming skills. Sort of an airborne “Turtle graphics” system

The group selected the Parrot Drone as its platform. Sampath reports that drone programming turned out to be a lot harder than expected.

“We had some trouble with the software development kit in the beginning, and everybody pitched in for the first couple of hours on that,” he says. 

But most of the group had never worked with a drone before, and, he says, “people didn’t realize how difficult it is to balance a drone when it is flying—it would shake from left to right. Given enough time we would have figured out these issues.”

In the end, the teams got the dancing drone working well; the rest of the projects didn’t get finished that day.

But people are still working on them, the Facebook group created for the effort is still active, and new ideas for drone applications continue to emerge. And Sampath, along with a number of the other engineers, has bought drone-building kits to work on in their free time.

Some of the technology developed at Facebook hackathons makes it into Facebook’s main site: Chat, Timeline, and even the iconic “Like” button started at hackathons. These drone apps aren’t headed that way anytime soon. But if Facebook ever does launch a fleet of drones, history may remember it as an effort that, once again, originated at a hackathon.

Maser Man Charles Townes Dead At 99

Maser and laser inventor Charles Townes died yesterday at age 99, after a nearly 80-year career. University of California at Berkeley professors reported that the Nobel Prize and IEEE Medal of Honor winner was still working in his office or laboratory daily as recently as last year.  Colleagues called him “one of the most important experimental physicists of the last century” and say his passing marks the end of an era.

I interviewed Townes in 1991 when he was 76, an age at which many would have at least contemplated retirement, but not only was he still as busy as ever, working six days a week and often into the evening, he had just moved into a new area of research—using infrared spatial interferometry for astronomy. “It is a tough thing to do, but I think quite important,” he told me at the time. “In the long run it could open up a very exciting field.” It did indeed, and he published papers on the subject, built a laser interferometer for the Mt. Wilson observatory, and advanced the field for decades.

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Hey Tech Guys and Gals, Uncle Sam Wants YOU (to Join the U.S. Digital Service)

Can tech folks fix Washington? And do they want to?

After working on last year’s effort to repair healthcare.gov, former Google reliability manager Mikey Dickerson in August joined the White House staff full time as administrator of the newly formed U.S. Digital Service. At the time of the announcement, U.S. Chief Information Officer Steve VanRoekel said that the Digital Service would include the country’s “brightest digital talent” and would remake the digital interfaces between citizens and the government.

The initial team included other healthcare.gov veterans and a handful of other folks who had already been working for the administration on digital projects. Dickerson took a little time to get settled and sort out a few key issues—like what to wear to work in formal Washington when you come from informal Silicon Valley. Looking at recent videos of the operation, the men appear to have followed Dickerson’s lead in adopting the classic geek look of a button down shirt, often plaid, over a logo T; there appear to be no ties allowed on the premises; the women seem to have a more varied stylebook, but even some of them have gone plaid. Silicon Valley comfort has definitely won out over Washington formality.

Having gotten that dress code thing settled, Dickerson is now in full-out startup mode. He’s got $20 million to spend in fiscal year 2015, and is recruiting around the country, using a new short and easy to navigate online application form that a decided improvement over the usual government application process. In particular, he wants designers, product managers and engineers who can both strategize and innovate and “push your own code.” No word yet on how many will be hired; the organization’s just-launched website now lists just a dozen people; a similar organization in the U.K., reportedly a model for the U.S. effort, now employs 500.

New hires may have some adjusting to do, because life in the U.S. Government is not going to be life at Google. “We wish we could pay for dry cleaning and free lunches, but we can’t,” Haley Van Dyke, the U.S. Digital Service’s chief of staff told Re/code.

The U.S. Digital Service hopes to appeal by offering meaningful projects, including:

  • In the Veteran’s Administration, “redesigning the tools that Veterans use to interact with the VA” (I’d translate that as preventing another “appointment-gate”).
  • In Healthcare, continuing to support healthcare.gov (translation: we patched it, now we have to really fix it).
  • In Ebola response, coordinating data requests (that sounds mundane, until you read the fine print—one thing the team has done so far is work to connect the Red Cross, the military, and the Open Street Map community. I’m thinking these groups had never previously crossed paths.)
  • In making government more accessible, building tools to streamline Freedom of Information Act request (long overdue, and potentially game-changing; if agencies can’t stall the FOIA process anymore, we’ll have a lot better idea of what’s going on in time, maybe, to fix it.)
  • The appeal of working for the U.S. Digital Service, according to current employees speaking in a recruitment video is the ability to address “the needs of people who are in need…a real difference [from] Silicon Valley,” along with the chance to solve “big complex difficult problems.”

Because for someone who likes to fix things, what could be more challenging these days than fixing government?

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View From the Valley

IEEE Spectrum’s blog featuring the people, places, and passions of the world of technologists in Silicon Valley and its environs.
Contact us:  t.perry@ieee.org

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Tekla Perry
Palo Alto
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