Marcel Pelgrom

Marcel Pelgrom consults on analog IC design.

1 December 2021

As a seasoned hardware guy, Marcel Pelgrom often finds himself bored out of his skull at software lectures. The software community would do well to take some ancient wisdom to heart.

From a professional point of view, autumn is my favorite period of the year. Many institutions, universities and this magazine organize interesting events where current technical topics are discussed and presented. For a technical omnivore like me, there are so many developments that are inspiring and challenging. Time and again, I admire speakers who manage to convey the essence of their work to a layman like me in just 30 minutes.

However, despite all my good intentions, I can’t help but feel a strong sense of boredom coming up during a talk. This happens invariably during the software sessions. Why are those talks so dull?

Now, you might say: this columnist is such a hardware freak that even his columns smell like soldering resin. That’s true. So, let us turn to some independent observers: the Greek philosophers from some 25 centuries ago. They were talking, discussing and arguing about the organization of society, leading to the foundation of today’s civilization. Their main weapon was eloquence. In their view, a persuasive discourse needs three elements: ethos, pathos and logos.

Ethos is the starting point and refers to the authority a person has for claiming that his opinion matters. Aspects like competence, trustworthiness and charisma play a role.

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Using titles like “Stanford professor” may impress a group of young PhDs but bounces back in front of a sales force. Software speakers like titles as “senior system architect” or something even fuzzier. The target audience of this magazine is senior level and everything is part of one or more systems. In my experience, architects are mildly confused people creating funny buildings that lack a sense of practicality. No ethos in that title.

The best way to create ethos for every audience is to involve the chairperson of the session. A short and to-the-point introduction creates interest from the audience and avoids you being perceived as a big mouth.

Pathos creates tension in the audience. A natural build-up consists of the sequence problem-idea-experiment-result. In hardware talks, this is the standard structure to grab the attention of the listeners and take them on a road towards the moment where everything comes together in a nice hardware performance.

Many speakers about software put too many problems in front of the listeners. The audience easily loses attention when presented with long lists of issues, standardizations, obstacles, constraints and pitfalls – all with glorious but ill-defined names such as interoperability, backward compatibility, agility, environment, validation, configurability and conceptual modeling. When going through this list, the speaker’s voice goes low and soft. In the audience, eyes drift, a sigh is heard. If there’s pathos, it’s of the sort one finds at a funeral.

The last element of the Greek art of rhetoric is logos, ie reasoning. In a hardware presentation, this is the point where the connection is made between architectural or circuit decisions and the consequences for performance – the evaluation discussion. Software performance is often much less tangible. The true challenge in a project is much harder to elucidate in a few minutes.

When asked to clarify their main point, software presenters hide behind the well-known tree of complexity. Each time that happens, my score on the evaluation sheet goes negative. An additional issue is that despite that machine code is firmly based on mathematics foundations, the interpretation of higher-level terminology becomes vaguer and vaguer. Discussions after talks often drown into a semantic swamp, while the audience sinks in fata morganas of freshly brewed coffee.

The logos part ends abruptly, as the speaker declares that his talk has ended. No conclusions, no takeaways, and the few hardware guys who haven’t tuned out already are frustrated. Surely, incorporating some ancient Greek wisdom would improve many of these talks.

Would this column meet a philosopher’s criteria for a persuading and gripping text? Ethos comes with the reference to Greek sages. Pathos builds up thanks to the little irony sparkled throughout, keeping the attention focused. And the logos is imposed by the inevitable sequence of elements.

So, dear software professional: how do you feel? Are you smiling or frowning? Whatever is the case, if you made it this far, you’re certainly not bored!