Thursday, December 01, 2016

The Mind of a (low level) Systems Programmer

I'm a systems programmer... an obsolete term, indeed.  But that is what I am.  It's not about coding in assembly (fun!) or squeezing out every drop of optimization in C (double fun!), but it is about wanting to "make" systems.

Compare this with an "application programmer" (another archaic term).  They love the domain.  I love the innards, the thing that runs the application.  My work should be silent and never seen. My stuff needs to just "work".

I like watching my front loading washing machine run. It is a complete system, but no fancy UI or IoT interface to be seen. It has sensors, it has actuators, it spins.... that's it.
Most of the time it works (it's getting old so there are a few faults here and there).  But it is successful because no one thinks about it. It lies in the background of our lives, silently do its job.

A year ago I had to replace the logic board in my HVAC. It was expensive ($700 list -- but I got mine new from ebay for around $400).  The complexity (and wonder) of that board is that it has to be as solid as NASA system.

My HVAC uses natural gas.  A lot of the components on that board (and the logic / program) are there to make sure my house doesn't blow up.  No fancy interface. No operating system. No complex 32-bit floating point math (I assume... I mean, my house shouldn't blow up do to a rounding error, right?).

I installed the Hunter ceiling fan, in my bedroom, over 15 years ago. It runs every night and mostly through the day. It has never failed. It is still silent. I wonder what kind of motor it has built in and how it is commutated (must be AC since brushless DC wasn't widely available back then -- I think).

That was a good design... a systems design.

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