The Design Automation Conference (DAC), normally held somewhere on the West Coast of the US in June each year, is the only technology conference I have attended where one of the fringe events is a session that attempts to bring together hacks and flacks in the same room. It's all meant in a spirit of togetherness although, if you read the transcripts from previous years, the undercurrent of hostility is pretty clear:
[From a marketer to a journalist] "And who nominated you? Who elected you to be an advocate for the engineering community? You don't have the right to be an advocate for anybody. You should be an advocate for the truth."
This year, a cheer went up from the crowd when Mike Markowitz, marcom at STMicroelectronics aimed a jibe at the other panelists: "All I've been hearing this morning is a lot of self-serving information". His fellow panelists were all from the media side: two journalists, a guy from a sponsored-podcast network and another running a website.
Unfortunately, the moderator, Novas CEO Scott Sandler, didn't leave a whole lot of time of questions or comments from the floor, so the 2007 event did not have much room for robust discussion. Given the events that followed DAC, that was a bit of a shame. There were things that should have been aired in that forum that were, instead stayed buried. What we did get was an advert for sponsored podcasts from a sponsored-podcast provider together with broad agreement that electronics engineers and Web 2.0 don't seem to mix all that well, although I don't think the picture is that simple.
Steve Leibson, who operates as a mixture of evangelist and writer within IP supplier Tensilica, had one reason as to why we don't see a lot of obvious participation from engineers working in electronic design other than through sites such as John Cooley's Deepchip.com, which provide a way of anonymising responses. They often can't comment publicly on how design tools and other products are working because they are constrained by non-disclosure agreements.
Mike Santarini, one of the editors at EDN, added that it was unlikely that an engineer at a company like AMD was going to publish a schematic and ask: "Can you help me fix this?"
John Furrier, CEO of Podtech, did have one insight, which is an obvious point but frequently missed in discussions of how to reach an audience: "Users go to where the information is". Unfortunately, that was mixed in with a surprisingly ambitious estimate of how many people downloaded a sponsored podcast of Cadence Design Systems CEO Mike Fister and observations on how journalists had discovered blogs and started using the rumours carried on some of them to develop stories, as though this was some new kind of behaviour.
I've got news for the Podtech people, journalists have been picking up on rumours for some time now - it just happens that blogs and message boards provide additional sources of them. I never ceased to be amazed at how Web 2.0 pushers seem to believe that people never communicated with each other before comment forms appeared on websites. Blogs and message boards simply act as amplifiers for existing behaviour, they aren't necessarily changing behaviour.
Brian Fuller, then editor of EETimes, explained what a lot of people running marketing in electronics companies seemed to have missed: "You guys are in the media business, whether you like it or not. If you don't get into it, you will have someone else take that position in your place."
Unfortunately, many companies have adopted the approach of assuming that audiences form automatically around media, no matter how shiny, new, dull or crass it happens to be. Take a look at the vapid nonsense put out by Podtech on behalf of Cadence from the company's DAC party, which concludes: "In truth it was a great event and everyone left a winner." Yep, that's going to get engineers watching in their droves.
I made the point from the floor that companies run the risk of losing the audience that they have now by embracing Web 2.0 and ditching more traditional media and events. This is even when the online forums attract nothing but tumbleweed but a few thousand people were filing into the centre for an old-fashioned conference and exhibition.
I added something on what has become a favourite hobby-horse of mine: how the product-centric approach to press relations now taken by most companies in this sector is simply not working. That triggered an observation from Santarini that demonstrates how much companies only half understand, at best, their role as media producers: "You guys seem to be sending out more press releases than you used to be. And it's stuff like: 'The marketing manager is scratching his ass next Tuesday'."
To underline the point, he noted that the panel started with breakfast at 7:30 in the morning. Yet, before it kicked off, he had received 40 emails "of stuff I don't want to look at". The curious thing is people do seem to be finding it hard to understand why that should be a problem.