Electronics design - First steps are getting smaller
For anyone wishing to take their first steps into electronics design, things have never been easier. Technologies such as Arduino, mbed and TI's LaunchPad have made serious engineering accessible to all by not only lowering the cost but by also removing several of the hoops you would normally have to jump through in order to get started.
Three minutes is all it takes
A perfect example of this is the mbed development kit. I received one of these the other day and within three minutes of opening the packaging I had the "hello world" (flashing LED) program running and was thinking about what I could do next. In no time at all, I made a basic binary clock!
Programming isn't hard anymore
For me, I think one of the biggest advances in this field is the fact that you can now use higher level languages like C++ to program microcontrollers in a way that is not that different to giving instructions to another human being. The Arduino is probably easiest of all in this area due to having it's own specially designed programming language based on the ridiculously human Processing language.
To give you some idea of how much this has changed since I did micros at college, I'll give you a very simple example of a wait function. On a modern microcontroller development kit it's as simple as using a command such as "wait (1);" in order to make your program wait 1 second before moving on to the next instruction. Back in the old days you would have to know the speed of your clock (usually a factor of the processor speed) and count clock pulses in binary until you have a second's worth before exiting that loop and moving on.
It's not just the programming aspect that's getting easier either, the development environments themselves are becoming more accessible and easier to set up. In the case of mbed all you do is plug the board into your computer (PC, Mac or whatever) and it appears as a flash drive with one html file to click on. You are then redirected to their browser based IDE (Integrated Development Environment) in the cloud.
What's stopping you?
When you add all these factors together and combine with a site like DesignSpark, where you can find dev kit reviews, knowledge items and have the ability to ask questions related to the technology, there's very little to stop you from taking those first baby steps into a much wider world!