Gimme Five – Chris Hills

Chris Hills, founder and CTO of Phaedrus Systems, talks to Steve Rogerson in our series of interviews for CIEonline. Phaedrus Systems, which has been around in some form or other as a vehicle for Hills’ extra-employment activities since the 1970s, became his full time activity in 2005 as he set it up as specialist company in safety-critical and high-reliability embedded systems. It is a distributor for a range of development tools and provides access to consultants and other expertise.

Hills has both hardware and software skills. Real world hardware experience covers analogue and digital, while software skills include development in several different languages on systems ranging from large Unix-based projects to smart cards. He has lead technical teams and projects working on military systems (both air and ground based) at the sharp end and in development, on experimental systems in safety critical industrial control, in maintenance and even reverse engineering.

A prolific writer, he has contributed regular columns to print magazines and written technical articles, conference papers application notes and the Quest series of embedded development tools guidelines.

He is a Chartered Engineer, an MIET and an MBCS and a fellow of both the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Commerce & Manufacture (FRSA) and the Royal Geographical Society. Topically, he has been involved with Misra-C since 1998, served on the Misra-C2 Working Group and then on its successor for Misra-C: 2012.

His personal interests include travel, history, writing, the arts and photography, but since he owns a small company, he doesn”t have time to do much of this, as customer support extends even to Sundays and bank holidays if his customer has a real problem.

1. Before 2005, what was Phaedrus?

In 2005, I started it as a proper company. Until then I”d been working with Hitex and I-System. I didn”t start running Phaedrus till I left Hitex. But way back in the 1970s, I used Phaedrus as a vehicle for my writing activities. I was producing bits and pieces, mostly in my own time so I gave it my own branding. I was also doing work on software quality so I did that with my own branding too.

I was doing proper software engineering as opposed to hacking. My father was an aircraft engine designer, so I have always had computers in my life. In the early 1970s, I was in the school computer club. We actually had a computer. Well, it was really a terminal linked by landline to a computer at the University of Surrey.

2. There is a new version of Misra-C about to be released – what was wrong with the old one?

There is no such thing as a perfect coding standard. The old version wasn’t C99 compliant. When we released it in 2004, no-one had implemented the C99 standard. That has only happened in recent years. We also put Misra-C out for public review, but even when you do that it is not the same as a road test with hundreds of projects. When that happened, we got feedback. We realised that the same words don’t always make sense for various things. The phrasing was wrong. So we have extended the rationale and the explanations as to why the rule is there. It should be a lot clearer on guidance.

There have been other adjustments. It looks new in front but a lot of the rules themselves just needed a little adjusting. It was basically fine tuning. I am sure in a decade’s time they will tune it again to fit with C11 if that is taken up in the embedded space. This version is an evolution rather than a revolution.

3. With the internet, do conferences and exhibitions still have a role?

Absolutely, yes. You can get far more out of a conversation face to face than you can over the internet. Actually going to a trade show lets you find out a lot more than you possible can over the internet. You can ask questions and get immediate answers that are more informative. You can find out so many more things. If you spend a day at a trade show, you can talk to half a dozen companies without giving them your details. You can do more in an hour at a trade show than you can in a day on the internet.

When we exhibit, we get new customers and meet current customers. We put faces to names. I can talk with them for ten minutes and get more out of them than with a couple of days of emails. You also get to see things you weren’t expecting.

And I talk to my competitors as much as my friends at trade shows because the gossip is how I find out what is going on in the industry. You also get more of an idea if the information is genuine than you can over the internet.

4. Have tools such as Photoshop deskilled photography?

No. It doesn’t deskill it but it does need a different skill set. If dark rooms were as cheap and easy to use as Photoshop, then everyone would have been doing it in dark rooms for years. You can do a lot more, more easily. I can edit photographs in a high-street café. The skill in using Photoshop replaces the skills in using a dark room rather than the photography skills.

Those tools did not use to be available. For example, the moon landing couldn’t have been faked because they didn’t have the tools in those days to do it. But if you are good with Photoshop, you can do far more that you could do with a dark room.

5. Is software an art?

Yes, in exactly the same way as architecture is, as bridge building is, as the Bugatti Veyron is. The Bugatti Veyron is a beautiful sports car. It costs about £1m and is faster than a Formula One racing car. You don’t buy it as a car but as a work of art, but it was designed by engineers.

There are many rock musician that can’t read music, but most of those don’t make it. But the session musicians learn all the techniques and styles. Even artists have to do all the training and learn various methods. Once you have learned them, you can break the rules because you know how they work.

It is the same with software engineers. You have to learn the rules first and if you don’t you will probably never be a really good software engineer. So software is an art, but the art in embedded systems comes from engineering discipline. Architects have to work within the rules of physics, engineering and planning requirements, but they still turn out art.

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