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Embedded software development in a nutshell: languages, skills, use cases

Embedded development is an interesting field of software development that emerged to support IoT devices. Companies hire agencies that offer embedded software engineering services to write low-level programming languages that can run on small devices with limited processing power and memory, like car engine control units, smart fridges, and printers. The software is embedded in the device and works seamlessly with the hardware, even with real-time constraints.

What is embedded software development?

Embedded SW development is the process of designing, developing, testing, and maintaining software used in devices and systems with a specific function, e.g., a cell phone, smart washing machine, or security camera system.

Embedded software development is a multi-disciplinary process involving software and hardware engineers, product and project managers, and quality assurance teams.

Companies providing embedded software development services usually follow a stringent process to complete their projects:

  • Requirements analysis: During the initial stages of the project, the team will analyze the requirements of the device to determine the software design and architecture that should be used.
  • Design: After requirements analysis, the team will start designing the system, including the overall architecture.
  • Implementation: At this stage, the software team will write the code using appropriate programming languages.
  • Testing: This phase includes unit, integration, and system testing to ensure that the software is functioning as it should.
  • Deployment: In the final stages, the software is deployed on the device. The team will create a firmware image, configure the system, and complete final tests.
  • Maintenance: The software will be maintained and debugged over time to ensure that it runs correctly over time.

What programming languages do you need to know to work in embedded development?

There are several programming languages used in embedded software development, depending on the specific application and the device and system that is being controlled.

Some of the popular programming languages used include:

  • C is a popular language used in embedded systems because it enables fine-grained control of the hardware, and it’s incredibly versatile.
  • C++ is an extension of C. It adds object-oriented programming features and can be used in more complex software.
  • Assembly is used in specific architecture, e.g., x86 or ARM. It’s often used in systems requiring tight control over the hardware and rapid execution of code.
  • Python is a high-level programming language that is easy to learn and use. Developers use Python to write the scripts that control embedded systems.

They may also use languages like Ada, Rust, Go, and Swift, depending on the device, system, development environment, and the preferences of the development team itself.

What are the popular use cases of embedded software?

Embedded software is used by a number of industries. The car manufacturing sector uses embedded automotive software development in systems like engine management, infotainment, or transmission control.

Embedded technology is often found in consumer devices like smartphones, smartwatches, and tablets, where it controls the user interface, manages power consumption and processes the data collected from the sensors. You may also find embedded tech in industrial systems like manufacturing robots and assembly lines or in medical devices like blood glucose monitors and ventilators.

In the home, the software is used to control IoT devices like smart thermostats and security cameras, as well as internet-connected home appliances. You’ll also find embedded software in routers, modems, and networking equipment. As technology advances, the use cases will continue to expand.

What does an embedded software engineer do?

The software engineers responsible for this technology have to design, develop and maintain the software used to control specific devices and systems. They need to collaborate closely with other teams, including hardware engineers, to ensure that the software and system can work together and function correctly.

In addition to requirements analysis, design, and coding, these engineers have to optimize the software to improve performance and reduce memory usage. They’ll also maintain, update and bug-fix, and add new features to the software over time.

Engineers are also required to document the software, including design documentation and user manuals, as they progress and to stay current with industry trends and emerging technologies.

Embedded engineers often wear many hats, as they need to test, validate, debug and improve the software they develop. Many will also need team and project management skills to carry out their duties.

What skills do embedded software engineers need?

Embedded engineers need more interpersonal skills than average because of the collaborative nature of their work, as well as specific technical skills.

When hiring engineers, look for developers with a strong understanding of programming languages and the ability to write efficient, well-structured code using languages like C, C++, and Assembly. They need experience working with embedded systems, knowledge of hardware and software components, and an in-depth understanding of the design and development process, including the use of IDEs or integrated development environments, compilers, and debuggers.

They should understand real-time systems and have the ability to design and implement software that can meet the constraints of these systems. They need strong problem-solving skills as they will often need to troubleshoot and debug software issues during the course of their duties.

Developers need to understand communication protocols found in embedded systems, like TCP/IP, UART, and SPI, and have the ability to create networked systems.

They also need to have a solid understanding of industry standards and regulations, including safety and security standards and have the ability to design software in line with these requirements. Like all software developers, they should be familiar with version control systems and software development methodologies like Agile and Scrum.

When hiring a team, look for developers that can communicate effectively with other team members, fit the company culture, and can explain technical concepts to non-technical stakeholders.

In most cases, a degree in Electrical Engineering or Computer Science will be required, along with relevant work experience in designing embedded systems.

Final Thoughts

As devices become smarter and industry leaders deploy robotics and machines to automate manufacturing processes, embedded development is becoming increasingly important.