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New Challenges Every Day

INTERVIEW WITH FRANK SCHIMMELPFENNIG, ELECTRONICS DEVELOPEMENT
AS AT 2019

"We've written 200,000 lines of code in our current project." - Frank Schimmelpfennig, Head of Electronics Development, explains why you only get things done as a team. Together with his team he is overcoming challenges such as the growing complexity of products and the ever increasing pressure to innovate. "What's interesting about the job is that nothing has stayed the same as it was 20 years ago." The key to success lies in fluid communication between the various teams, and in each individual's personal initiative.

TOPICS OF THIS ARTICLE


Complexity of products


Product development


Personal initiative of employees

Why did you want to become an electrician? Or why did you do the training to become an electrician back then?

In the former East German states, there were hardly any technical skilled professions. I lived near to a vocational college that trained plumbers, car mechanics and electricians. So I opted to become an electrician, as that seemed to offer the most opportunities for the future.

How is it that you then moved over from electrical engineering to electronics? After all, you could have studied electrical engineering rather than electromechanics.

Electrical engineering is a sub-field of electromechanics, and the more interesting sub-field, if you consider that we were still busy with wall chasers back then. Micro-electronics started developing rapidly, and you could see that it would penetrate all areas of the industry.

How has Gira changed in the past 20 years?

I started here in 1995 and back then, one single employee could develop a product virtually in its entirety. Nowadays, our products can only be developed in teams, we always have Electrical Engineering and Electronics on board, and we ourselves have written 200,000 lines of code in our current project alone. Within Electronics Development, we now have teams for hardware development, firmware development and parallel testing. There has been a massive increase in complexity in the last 20 years, and what's exciting about this is that we constantly have to develop ourselves both professionally and in terms of our processes. And this is what makes the job interesting: the fact that nothing has stayed the same as it was 20 years ago.


"As an employee, I am able to have a serious impact on decisions, including throughout the various hierarchical levels. Personal initiative is welcome, and as a result, actually works."


How do you and Gira manage to deal with this increase in complexity?

Gira has explicitly geared itself up for this growing complexity. Last year, we started our own group called 'Systems Engineering', which lays out the requirements for the products in a way that suits us much better. The systems engineers now prepare a detailed, technical list of Product Management's market requirements during a 'requirements engineering' phase, so that the developers have a set of concrete figures, data and facts in the requirement specifications – for example: the required detection range of a sensor, wavelength of an LED or frequency range of an audio signal. Communication is something that has become more important for the team. There are now three separate teams, and we try to hold the teams together through constant, open communication. And this free-flowing, continuous communication helps us handle the complexity better. Every employee has the opportunity to tell people about the work they're currently doing and its challenges, and above all to ask for help in our daily 'stand up meetings'. We are also trying to carry out testing on an increasingly automated basis, as certain states may be passed through very rarely or only after a very long operating time in the case of a product with an operating system. So customers would come across errors in these parts only after months or even years. There is absolutely no way that we can re-test everything manually each time there is a change in the software. Automated testing makes the quality of our software better and better, and enables us to pass on a stable version to our customers more quickly.

How do you deal with the pressure to innovate?

Each product development has targets regarding the range of functions, delivery date and manufacturing costs. The challenge is to find an optimum balance for the product, as these elements are mutually dependent. If a very large range of functions is required, the development time will naturally be longer. And if a larger team is deployed in order to speed up the process, the development costs go up. For every project, we take a decision as to what is the most important factor. This helps. Sometimes it's the time to market, sometimes it's the product price, and sometimes it's the range of functions. If everyone in the team is familiar with this prioritisation, the target is reached.


"But virtually every type of music still strikes a chord with me. So a few years ago, I started devoting more time to music-making again.  It's a great way of balancing out my technology-heavy, day-to-day work."


Why don't you regret joining Gira 20 years ago?

What I really enjoy about product development is the fact that each day brings a new set of tasks. Every product that is commissioned has new challenges, and that's what makes the whole thing interesting. It's also very exciting to see the products ending up in the catalogue at some stage. That's more motivating within the company than salaries or praise. It's also important to me to develop our department further. We employ people here who can provide for their families. This is how it should stay – but to do this, we have to remain competitive as a department. 20 years ago in hardware development, a lot of components were still wired and 'huge' in today's terms. Today, you could accidentally inhale a component part, they're so small. In firmware development, we used to use assembly language. Nowadays, operating systems with several million programme lines are used, and are supplemented by their own share of functions. Programming methods have also completely changed.

What role does Gira's size play?

What really distinguishes Gira from large corporations is its flat hierarchies. As an employee, I am able to have a serious impact on decisions, including throughout the various hierarchical levels. Personal initiative is welcome, and as a result, actually works. The trust that is placed in employees naturally results in increased motivation. And this motivation then gives rise to a constant stream of good new ideas, which are then integrated into the products.

What does your hobby – music – have to do with work?

I started playing the guitar when I was 9 years old and kept it up until I was 19. I then took a long break while I was studying, starting my career and dealing with two small children. But virtually every type of music still strikes a chord with me. So a few years ago, I started devoting more time to music-making again. Now, I can play the cajon, bongos and congas a little, am a bit stronger on the bass, and am really quite good on the guitar. It's a great way of balancing out my technology-heavy, day-to-day work.

PROFILE OF FRANK SCHIMMELPFENNIG


Born
1967

At Gira since
1995

Studied
Training as an electrician / Degree in automation technology and engineering cybernetics in Chemnitz / From 1991 to 1995: transport automation in textile processing, including 1 year in Taiwan

Career at Gira
Electronics developer / Project leader / Head of Electronics Development

[as at 2019]