EEs, vendors search for their voice, and answers, in social media
By Brian Fuller, Contributing Editor - July 7, 2009
Call it the engineering paradox: The same engineers who helped invent the Internet are trailing adopters of its technologies.
Whether it was in the mid-1990s when engineers were unable or forbidden to go online at work or today when their involvement in social media platforms seems muted, EEs don’t have the presence online that software engineers (their Internet co-inventors) and consumers do.
“In software, there’s a culture of social media acceptance because they made the tools, and they’re involved with them,” said Jeff Hardison, a director with Portland-based high-tech public relations and advertising firm
McClenahan Bruer Communications. Hardison, who focuses on social media strategies and tactics, also notes a cultural difference between EEs and software engineers: “In the semiconductor industry, you do something wrong, and it’s a million-dollar mistake. In software, it’s a quick bug fix. The software crowd will take more risks. Semiconductor engineers are conservative, whether it’s adopting EDA tools or blogging.”
But the tide seems to be turning as more publications and vendors drive the majority of their content online, and engineers become more comfortable with the social nature of today’s online interactions as they search for answers to complex design problems.
Finding a voice
Virtually every vendor has a Web presence, and a small percentage of them are beginning to offer social media interaction with their customers, partners, employees, and others through blogs, Twitter feeds, LinkedIn groups, Facebook, and video.
At the same time, more engineers publish their own blogs or comment more on others’ or use Twitter to build community. In the former case, they’re developing thought leadership in everything from analog circuit design to test methodologies; in the latter case, standing conversations have formed around design disciplines (such as embedded) or the tools industry using Twitter “hash tags” in Tweets, such as #embedsys, #embedded, or #eda. For example, engineers this spring used Twitter to organize a face-to-face “Tweet-up” at the Embedded Systems Conference in San Jose.
Somewhere between the two parties (engineers and vendors), a new understanding of how to communicate and share information is forming as people and companies previously unused to “publishing” information and communicating on a vast, virtual scale get used to the new medium.
“Today, I don’t see a lot of engineers involved in social media,” said Gayle Bullock, who oversees National Semiconductor’s social media communications outreach. “[But] if all the stars are aligned – good content, easy to access, relevant – then social media will work.”
Engineer as thought leader
Despite an average age in the late 40s and enormous work pressures to design complex products quickly, engineers are beginning to find their voice in social media. Karen Bartleson, senior director of community marketing at Synopsys, is involved in a number of IEEE standards groups. She’s parlayed that into an online “thought-leadership” position, through blogging and Twitter as a resource for certain emerging standards.
Twenty-five year industry veteran John Ford, who started his engineering-test career at Western Digital, runs DFTdigest.com with Cisco engineer Siyad Ma. The site publishes news and information about design-for-test trends and techniques. James Colgan and JT Graveaud run Xuropa, a social-networking site dedicated to the design automation community.
And then there’s Harry the ASIC Guy.
“I did it because I felt like I needed to write,” said Harry Gries, the man behind the blog name and Twitter handle. Gries, a design engineer since the mid-1980s who now consults, added, “this is a good way to create a brand, and it’s something people can point to.”
Gries said he can’t quantify that his blogging and social-media interactions have prompted him to charge higher rates, but it has given him access to executives and companies that he might not have years ago.
“Social media is taking people who are otherwise just these names and are intimidating because of their VP titles and making them human and approachable,” he said.
This approachability is exactly what vendors are interested in as they explore strategies that range from the cautious and targeted to all-in. Communications and marketing departments almost to a company understand the need to get involved, but they’re concerned about losing control of their marketing messages and learning how to staff manage the medium.
“You can no longer own your brand,” said Deirdre Walsh, community and social media manager for National Instruments in Austin. “But you can guard the brand. If we have a customer who’s unhappy, who blogs negatively, then we can come in and be the company that offers support and shows the alternative for how to do application.”
The unfettered flow of information about a company’s products and services is one reason Analog Devices Inc (ADI)—which has experimented with blogging in recent years—launched a new online community, Engineer Zone, DSP Support Forum.
Andy Rose, community manager for ADI, notes that ADI has participated in third-party forums for many years but never had a forum in which ADI people were responsible for answering questions.
“Our apps manager gets customer calls saying ‘we saw a Blackfin [DSP] posting that was negative,’ and it turns out the posting was incorrect. That’s when we realized we need to take a look at this and become involved. We wanted to have a place where are support teams are responsible for monitoring the forum, reviewing the content and making it trustworthy,” Rose said.
Where ADI has moved selectively into social media and assigned responsibility into traditional marcom roles, National Instruments has taken a more ambitious approach, creating a new, dedicated social-media position for Walsh and offering a number of social platforms for its customers, employees, and partners to follow, from blogs to video to LinkedIn and Facebook pages to multiple Twitter feeds. Walsh notes that almost half of all questions on NI communities are answered by community members.
“If the customer provided feedback, it’s because they care,” she said.
One sticking point is ROI (return on investment), especially in companies run by engineers, who are under increasing pressure to demonstrate to investors ROI across the board. In social media, traditional and solid ROI metrics haven’t emerged and may never from that cautious audience of engineers.
Most of the early signs offer enough hope that companies – and engineers – keep participating and evolving their sites. Mentor Graphics re-launched its corporate site earlier this year with more social features and blogs. Since then, 11,000 accounts have been created to access Mentor technical resources and content, such as whitepapers and Webinars. One in three visitors who have interacted with the site have created an account, according to Sonia Harrison, a Mentor spokeswoman.
Avnet recently surveyed a number of its site visitors to get a sense of what they interact with and how, according to CarolAnn Gorden, director, marketing programs at the component distributor. Acknowledging the 200 responses is a small sample size and the survey itself is skewed toward Web users, she noted that 97% of the audience has accessed Wikipedia at some point, and half use social networks such as Facebook. Half search the Web when they need answers.
“Social media is all about that environment,” she said. “We have to meet our customers where they are.”
Will engineers’ use of social media explode in the coming months, having reached what Gorden believes is a “tipping point?” Perhaps. It’s important to remember that while the “engineering paradox” and accepted characteristics of the audience (older, more risk averse) may have influenced EEs’ use of social media to date, as well as the response by vendors and publishers alike, there is a lurking lesson from history.
“You go back to the Usenet groups—comp dot whatever,” said Gries. “Engineers invented and used that quite a bit.”