Sunday, February 28, 2010

Do It Your Way

Today marks the close of the 2010 Winter Games. The winter games are for engineers - - technology and the “need for speed” dominate the games - - from curling brooms to bobsled aerodynamics to skis with “Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems.” The winter games place a focus on training, skill, attitude - - and innovation. Engineers standing in the shadows behind the metal podiums - - whispering “equipment matters.”

The winter games are also marked by individualism - - in many cases rugged individualists. Bode Miller is the poster boy for individualism and independence. You can’t argue with his success - - five Olympic medals, five world-championships, winner of 32 World cup races - - he has been on the World Cup podium 68 times. He is unquestionably the greatest male skier in United States history.

Bode, along with many other winter Olympians (Shaun White, Lindsey Vonn, and Shani Davis), operate outside the traditional mainstream. Their focus is on reinvention combined with a mindset that envisions an alternative reality. In many cases, Bode has extended the idea of thinking outside the box to thinking outside the building. Bode and others have jumped out of the box and left the entire building - - fostering innovation with a focus on impact, not inputs. This year for example, Bode began skiing with a computerized system in the tails of his skis designed to give them more stability and speed. The technology essentially stiffens the ski on turns, enabling the skier to push harder. Miller also switched from a rigid buckle on his ski boots to a “spine-flex” buckle that has a wire running through it, making it more flexible. The flexibility allows the buckle to conform to the hard shell of the ski boot, giving the foot a more locked-in feel. Individualism combined with out of the building thinking and innovation - - sometimes management is about having the good sense to just stay out of the way.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Future of Engineering

I had the opportunity and privilege to participate in the Dallas Regional Science and Engineering Fair in Fair Park today. The fair had over 900 students representing 600 schools from four different counties in North Texas. I was a judge for the fair representing the Dallas Post of the Society of American Military Engineers - - a group that provides recognition, awards, and scholarship opportunities for promising engineering students. It was great being around and interacting with the best and brightest the area has to offer. I had three observations that I wanted to share that I feel are important.

The first is the large number of students that focused on alternative energy issues. The range of projects and ideas were from wind power to solar cells to biomass - - about half the students were focusing on energy issues. Several of the students have already been granted patents for their ideas and inventions. Engineering research, but applied to current needs - - future engineers looking at big solutions for our big energy problems.

The second theme is the notion that diversity is a moving target. About half the participants were female - - in fact, my top four students were females. This represents a huge change in the context of engineering gender diversity. The other side of the diversity equation is that a majority of the students were represented by two ethnic groups. We have a ways to go in having a diverse profession that mirrors society at large. This is fundamentally important - - to solve problems, you need to understand the issues and context from the viewpoint of all the stakeholders and participants.

The third theme is the high quality of all the work - - from all the participants. What I observed were students who are fundamentally very sound in math and science - - combined with great computer skills. You end up with a future engineering corps that thinks in terms of pictures and graphics - - this is a key skill set that will be required in the future. The worlds of art, information management, and engineering all intersecting at the same point. Finally, you have ninth graders that have no fear or apprehension about explaining something technical to a complete stranger. A huge room filled with individuals comfortable with the notion of “Explain something technical to me - - you pick the topic.”

All the students were winners - - our top student had a project entitled “Optimization of Novel High Efficiency Photo-Thermovoltaic Concentrator Solar Cell: A 2nd Year Study.” The future looks very bright indeed.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Origin of Existence is Movement

Ted Conover has a great book for civil engineers. The Routes of Man: How Roads are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today (2010). A road to a civil engineer is material and geometry. Conover looks at roads in six different locations -- in six different contexts. Each of the six has a theme - - development versus environment, isolation versus progress, military occupation, transmission of disease, social transformation, and the future of the city. He explores roads and their transforming impact - - their impact on the environment, politics, economics, culture - - both the power and paradox of roads and mobility.

He writes:

Every road is a story of striving: for profit, for victory in battle, for discovery and adventure, for survival and growth, or simply for livability. Each path reflects our desire to move and connect. Anyone who has benefited from a better road - - a shorter route, a smoother and safer drive - - can testify to the importance of good roads. But when humans strive, we also err, and it is hard to build without destroying. Robert Moses, the controversial creator of highways around New York City in the middle of the twentieth century, wiped out numerous neighborhoods with his projects, turning vibrant communities (notably the South Bronx) into wastelands that have yet to recover. Of his actions he famously said, “In order to make an omelet, you’re got to break eggs.” In a related way, the same roads that carry medicine also hasten the spread of deadly disease; the same roads that bring outside connections and knowledge to people starving for them sometimes spell the end of indigenous cultures; the same roads that help develop the human economy open the way for destruction of the non-human environment; the same roads that carry cars symbolizing personal freedom are the setting for the deaths of more people than die in wars, and of untold numbers of animals; and the same roads that introduce us to friends also provide access to enemies.

Roads provide us all a metaphor into lots of issues that we have concerns about - - Where are they taking us? Where will we end up?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Becoming an Adjective

From birth, the poet Lord Byron was bent on “becoming an adjective.” He ended up just that - - ranging from “one of the greatest British Poets” to “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” People need to think about the adjectives they want to become and how they will to be remembered. I looked up the top 25 mostly commonly used adjectives and picked out five that people might want to consider reviewing and thinking about.

A Good Engineer - - what is engineering goodness? How will we define and measure the ideas of good/better/best/great in the context of engineering? My opinion of the future has one key attribute defining greatest - - imagination. We need engineers that can imagine a better world and future combined with the abilities to develop and implement their visionary plans. Greatness will be about engineering creativity and a vision of the role technology can play in the advancement of civilization. The core of creativity greatest is about, and will always be about, engineering inventiveness, originality, and ingenuity - - in the context of bringing all these elements together to solve the problems we face.

A New Engineer - - with the ability to look at old problems with new ideas. Set down and thing about all the “unsettled problems” we are facing - - there exists a huge opportunity for new ideas, new approaches, and new responsibilities. Every engineer, regardless of age, should think in terms of what it means to be new. In my mind, newness is about being current with technology, working on the continued development of key skills, and always working on and making connections with the key interfaces to engineering. These interfaces include cultural developments, an understanding of economic issues, and an interest in politics at all levels. New is about learning new things, meeting new people, exploring new ideas, having new experiences - - newness is a lifelong journey. Enjoy it.

A Big Engineer - - remember that our problems are not small - - climate change, energy independence, water resources, sustainability - - these may be the greatest and most important problems mankind has yet to face. There are two types of creativity - - the creativity of making zero to one, and the creativity of making one to 1,000. We need the big thinkers that can take us from one to 1,000. You cannot solve really big problems with lots of small ideas. We need big thinkers who are willing to dream about big ideas. Engineers with big minds filled with imagination and ingenuity - - people willing to see the big picture, the big problems, and the big solutions.

A Different Engineer - - different in this context means special. The engineer with something extra - - someone that is unique. A person that stands out. It may be engineers with language skills, with business skills, with public policy skills, or with multi-disciplinary skills. We are living in different times with more complexity and uncertainty. A world of difficult and different problems and issues than engineering has previously faced - - a world in need of a different kind of engineer.

An Important Engineer - - many of the problems we face today and in the future have a starting point with engineering. Moving from a carbon-based energy system will be a huge engineering challenge. The transition will require engineers to step forward and play important roles - - many of the roles will require engineers to accept leadership roles in the formulation of such things as public policy. An Important Engineer is one willing and able to play a significant, critical, and prominent role in our world.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

All My Heroes Use Checklists

Atual Gawande, M.D. has a new book - - The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (2010). All of his books have the context and theme of the medical profession - - he looks at the world of medicine the same way Malcolm Gladwell looks at the entire planet - - they both see links and interfaces the rest of us miss. Gawande’s insight into problems and issues that he faces in his profession should be enlightening for engineers. The medical profession and the engineering professions both have the same genetic makeup and come from the same branch of the professional tree. We are both linked to the world and practices of applied science - - our foundations and roots are in the same soil. The two professions utilize science and technology to solve problems - - in both cases they are dealing with people problems. One is concerned with curing and treating water borne diseases - - the other is focused on treating wastewater and the safe delivery of drinking water. Both live in the world of tight linkages among science, technology, and people.

Gawande is a huge proponent of checklists - - mainly because the world has changed so much. The sheer volume of material, the complexity, and the interconnections of systems - - we all live in the era of professional information overload. What information overload is consuming should be rather obvious: It consumes the attention of its recipients. We have produced a professional world where a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. Technology and complexity has exceeded our individual ability to conduct our professional responsibilities in a correct, safe, and reliable manner.

This is where the old checklist comes into play - - the low-tech idea of outlining the basic steps and procedures for a process or project. Take the complex and reduce it to routine steps on a checklist. Gawande’s “Perfect Checklist” would consider five critical elements - - (1) Include all “stupid but critical” tasks so they’re not overlooked, (2) Make it mandatory for team members to let others know when they complete one of those tasks – think linking a low-tech idea to a high-tech platform, (3) Empower subordinates to question their superiors about the checklist, (4) Allow for improvisation in unusual circumstances (the word “improvisation is probably going to be the word of the year), and (5) Thoroughly test-drive your checklist before putting it into practice.

Flight 1549 demonstrated the power of experience, skill, and professional cooperation. It also demonstrated the power of the checklist - - Captain Sullenberger and his co-pilot followed a detailed emergency checklist that greatly improved their chances of survival. The professional creed for the world of professional complexity and information overload may just be - - teamwork, preparation, skill, discipline, and a checklist.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Complexities of Certainty

At the most basic level, engineering is about "things" and how others define and measure the performance certainty of these things. Certainty as defined by many end users is perfect knowledge of the performance attributes of their "things" in any and all situations. Fundamentally the desire is to predict any and all outcomes without any doubt. The bridge will not fall and the car will come to a complete stop - - the public has an expectation of absolute certainty. The overreaching goal of engineering should be to give the public some level of certainty - - and over time the advancement of any civilization can be measured by the increasing knowledge and increasing certainty in matters relating to technology. The key question facing engineering is how do we discuss and debate certainty - - or in our case, uncertainty.

Engineers, for example civil engineers, understand that many of the "things" the public utilizes and takes for granted are inherently spatial and complex - - where our understanding of these systems is less than complete. They may never be complete. We are put in positions where we must explain that many of our systems are either fully stochastic, or part stochastic and part deterministic - - to a general public that has expectations that that their 401(k) balance will automatically increase by 8.5% every year (the last two or three years in the financial markets may have helped the general public understand the differences between stochastic versus deterministic). In some respects, the claims and demands of certainty have become a universal philosophy in a world marked by increasing complexity and risk.

Jana Eggers, the CEO of Spreadshirt, the maker of personalized clothing, has an interesting thought on the complexities of certainty:

I have another one that stirs up quite a bit of controversy, which is a Madeleine Albright saying - - “Be confident, not certain.” And it’s funny to me how many people don’t like that - - “Well, what do you mean? If you’re not certain about it, you’re supposed to be confident about it?”

The public face of engineering that is “Confident, not Certain” may be our biggest hurdle and challenge. The homeowner on the other side of the levee is probably going to have much the same reaction - - “If you’re not certain about it, you’re supposed to be confident about it?” Engineering does an excellent job in explaining uncertainty in terms of risk, probabilities, distributions, models, etc. The problem is that our culture and language is one of certainty - - and in many, many cases, absolute certainty. People want “Confident and Certain" - - and in some areas and endeavors, we will never be able to make delivery on "Confident and Certain."

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Demographics as Destiny

According to the most conservative estimates, the United States by 2050 will be home to at least one hundred million more people than live here today. California-based urbanologist Joel Kotkin has attempted to address what this means in his new book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050 (2010). This projected increase is in stark contrast to the rest of the developed world - - and, according to Kotkin, is the strongest indicator of our long-term economic strength.

Two things drive our ability to grow in stark contrast to Europe and East Asia who face the grim economic consequences of an aging population. The first is inexpensive and available land. We can add people - - because we can add people. The United States has the most productive expanse of arable land on the planet. We can add people because we have the space for them. Our other strength is tightly linked to the land advantage - - the availability of inexpensive land makes larger families more affordable. America’s continued attractiveness to immigrants combined with a high birth rate, both a function of land, means that we are less likely to suffer from “Demographic as Destiny” that will hit Japan and Europe.

Mr. Kotkin addresses our cities with several interesting ideas. He doesn’t see growth coming from the “luxury” locations such as New York, Los Angles, San Francisco or Boston - - which are all overbuilt and over-expensive. He sees the growth in the interior - - cities like Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, Charlotte, and Atlanta. Growth m0ving from the coasts back to the middle. The growth issue flows back again to land prices - - low property prices where young families can enjoy a level of comfort that would be unaffordable at the le magnifique locations. The new “cities of aspiration” will perform many of the functions as centers for upward mobility that New York and other great industrial cities once did. Over time these cities will compete with the “superstar cities” for finance, culture, and media industries and the amenities that typically go along with them. Money and commercial success has already turned Houston, once considered the ultimate backwater, into an art mecca. Similar progressions will be seen in other dynamic cities in the decades to come.

Mr. Kotkin sees a resurgence of the American Heartland. Energy issues, climate change, technology, and - - you guessed it, cheap land - - all come together as a force for future development. Pressing concerns over global energy and hydrocarbon emissions will bolster the importance of our interior regions. New sources of energy such as wind power, biomass, and even a revelation of our nuclear power industry will make our Heartland as the go to place for this transition. The other critical factor for the Heartland is the advent of the Internet and the reduction in barriers and isolation associated with rural communities. As the technology of mass communications improves, the movement of technology companies, business service, and manufacturing firms into the hinterland is likely to accelerate. According to Kotkin, this will be not so much a movement to remote hamlets, but to the growing number of dynamic small cities and towns spread throughout the Heartland.

Kotkin is also a huge fan of the suburb – not as soulless and identical, but as places of endless opportunity. Technology, allowing for the ability to telecommute combined with higher energy costs, will invigorate many of them as more and more people opt to work from or near home. All of this potential for growth feeds another of America’s great strengths - - its decentralization, which cushions us from the effects of local economic stocks.

The addition of a hundred million more residents will place new stresses on the environment, challenging the country to build homes, communities, and businesses that can sustain an expanding and ever-more-diverse society. We will inevitably become a more complex, crowded, and competitive place - - highly dependent on our spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. Our future should not be a focus on boundaries and barriers - - it should be a focus on “Demographics as Destiny.”

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Power Elite Club

In his column on Friday, David Brooks of The New York Times addressed the “Power Elite” of the United States. His central question is what a lot of people are currently thinking – We have increased our diversity and talent levels as a society, but are we better led today than in previous generations? His answer is no - - our leaders are in fact more talented and less competent.

The engineering community has membership in the “Power Elite” Club of the world - - it is hard to walk into an Apple store and not see the power and influence technology has in our culture and societal development. As we head into a future of colliding and competing problems - - a world in which energy problems, water problems, sustainability debates, and climate change will all hit at once - - the engineering community may actually move to the head of the “Power Elite” Club.

Brooks casts a warning about the “Power Elite” that engineering ought to heed:

First, the meritocracy is based on an overly narrow definition of talent. Our system rewards those who can amass technical knowledge. But this skill is only marginally related to the skill of being sensitive to context. It is not related at all to skills like empathy. Over the past years we’re seen very smart people make mistakes because they didn’t understand the context in which they were operating.

Brooks has an excellent point regarding his observation about “. . . they didn’t understand the context in which they were operating.” Our engineering leadership and vision in the new era of colliding and competing problems will force us to look at three very important contextual relationships.

The first is sustainability. Everything we do will start and end within the context of sustainability. Sustainability will be more broadly defined - - bounded by “Doing More with Less” to “Doing Less with Less.” Sustainability will become less about LEED or non-LEED and more about a 360 degree view of the world - - sustainability is fundamentally concerned with our capacity to endure. Where enduring has a biological component, it has an economic component, it has a capacity component, it has a societal/cultural component, and finally it has a technological component. Sustainability also has a "Come to Jesus" component - - where every problem has a solution - - but painful problems do not often have painless solutions. The context of sustainability is about understanding the nature of our systems - - the connections, the nodes, the interfaces, and the boundaries. Engineering projects of the future will start with one central theme - - what is the context of the design or project in terms of sustainability?

The second contextual issue to consider for the future is related to energy issues. Energy issues can clearly be considered as a prime component of sustainability. I have segregated out energy issues because energy related concerns have the potential to be such a huge problem and constraint. They need to be considered separately - - with their very own focus on context. Every project we design and build in the future will be framed within the context of energy. Your basic water transmission line will not only be under the influence of Robert Manning - - but Sadi Carnot will come more and more into play. The context of our energy future will be about developing and utilizing less carbon-hungry technology, reducing energy waste/demand, and integrating energy issues into every project we design.

The last contextual issue is related to the ideas and principles of social justice. Historically this has been an issue engineering and technologists have had little interest in or practice with. But social justice gets directly at the heart of the empathy issue that Brooks writes about. Our professional creed of protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public has a direct interface with the ideas of social justice. Our crowded and complex world will place many of our resources and ideas on a collision course - - where the context of our projects and work must focus on the fair distribution of advantages, assets, and benefits among all members of society. The social justice contextual issue looks at our “Circle of Empathy” in combination with our professional responsibilities, and broadens the idea of public welfare to include the fair treatment of citizens in a society shaped by an equitable sharing of benefits.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Experience Scale in Context

Richard Serra is one of the most preeminent sculptors of our era. He makes rolled-steel sculptures so massive that New York’s Museum of Modern Art designed a gallery to support their weight. Serra has long been acclaimed for his challenging and innovative work, which emphasizes materially and an engagement with the viewer. Over the years Serra has expanded his spatial and temporal approach to sculpture and has focused primarily on large-scale work, including many site-specific works that engage with a particular architectural, urban, or landscape setting.

He understands the material from the ground up - - Serra joined a U.S. Steel rivet gang to put himself through Yale. He has several good thoughts engineers ought to consider in the context of design and construction:

In play and experimentation you don’t foresee the end product. It allows you to suspend judgment. Often the solution to one problem sparks a possibility for another set of problems. Sometimes that happens in the process of building a work. That’s why I go to all my installations. In the actual building of something you see connections you could not possibly have foreseen on that scale unless you were physically there. One has to experience scale in context.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Grateful Dead and Strategic Improvisation

I really don’t make this stuff up - - the March 2010 issue of The Atlantic has an article by Joshua Green entitled “Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead.” It is a very good article that focuses on the Grateful Dead’s ability to create customer value, promote social networking, and engage in strategic improvisation. You see the term “strategic improvisation” more and more in the context of strategic planning. In general, strategic improvisation, like all improvisation - - is an attempt to bring creative action to a reality that you cannot control (i.e., the action of other people) in real time.

Four ideas make up the foundation of strategic improvisation. The first is the idea that managers and leaders need to be nimble. Nothing is certain - - especially not a five-year strategic plan. Strategic improvisation involves a continuous flow of acting, learning, and planning to manage and lead an organization in real-time as the situation takes form. It is a focus on fast action and adjusting plans on the fly as the situation changes and requirements become clear. You have to be a leader that is a quick study and learner - - someone who can rapidly develop new skills and knowledge to keep pace with change, particularly as an ill-defined task or situation develops. The ability to learn quickly is your primary tool for succeeding in unfamiliar circumstances, allowing you to adjust in a fast-changing situation. The Dead were great learners - - either in the use of telephone hot lines for concert updates or to understand the potential profitability of merchandise - - they listened, learned, and acted.

The second is being spontaneous - - engineering managers are going to have problems with this counterintuitive idea. It is the key element to becoming adept at strategic improvisation - - the ability to become faster and more agile. Spontaneity is the natural tendency to act to changing events and situations. It is more instinctive than the automatic and mechanical decision making tied to a fixed strategic plan. Spontaneity is not the same as being impulsive - - it is leadership and the art of the gut feel with a touch of seeing clarity during times of chaos. How do your increase your spontaneity? Listen. Be in the moment. Be open to possibilities. Adopt a bias for action. Take risks and support others who take risks. All these attributes describe the Grateful Dead.

The third is fast decision making. The context of strategic decision making is not year three of a five-year plan - - it is real time 24/7. Most of our clients and customers measure deadlines in hours and days, not years. Customers value speed - - understand this value. Know who is deciding what. Clarify what you’re trying to achieve. Identify constraints and stay flexible. We live in an uncertain world caused by sonic booms associated with globalization - - accept and embrace ambiguity. Job instability, economic insecurity, a sense of turmoil, the fear that even when things seem good a hammer is about to fall - - these are part of a larger trend toward much greater uncertainty.

The fourth idea is the ability to extend your reach. Use networks to extend your sphere of influence - - almost every organization on the face of the planet is looking and thinking about this issue. Connect to a broad range of individuals and organizations that help you to mobilize ideas and resources so you can move quickly. Build social capital - - the sum of the resources available to a leader or manager through his or her relationships with others. Map the network. Finally, develop structures and processes that allow for the quick rearrangement of expertise to meet changing demands. In other words, improvisation managers create reconfigured networks to get work done quickly. The Grateful Dead turned Adam Smith and the theories of scarcer is better on its head. The Dead worked off the theory that if you gave songs away to 20 people, and they gave them to another 20 people - - pretty soon everyone knows you and the network then starts to drive the value proposition. Lost revenue on songs is balanced and exceeded by increased revenue for merchandise and concerts.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Third of Three Women

Several weeks ago, HBO broadcast “Temple Grandin” - - the story of Temple Grandin, Ph.D., a gifted animal scientist that has designed one-third of all the livestock –handling facilities in the United States. Dr. Grandin is an Associate Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University and had “classic autism” right from the start. Like many autistic thinkers, she thinks in terms of pictures. Her book, Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism (2006), documents her unique ability to visualize problems and their solutions. The following passages highlight a key point that engineers should remember - - creativity has much to do with experience, observation, and imagination.

I credit my visualization abilities with helping me understand the animals I work with. Early in my career I used a camera to help give me the animals’ perspective as they walked through a chute for their veterinary treatment. I would kneel down and take pictures through the chute from the cow’s eye level. Using the photos, I was able to figure out which things scared the cattle, such as shadows and bright spots of sunlight. Back then I used black-and-white film, because twenty years ago scientists believed that cattle lacked color vision. Today, research has shown that cattle can see colors, but the photos provided the unique advantage of seeing the world through a cow’s viewpoint. They helped me figure out why the animals refused to go in one chute but willingly walked through another.

Now, in my work, before I attempted construction, I test-run the equipment in my imagination. I visualize my designs being used in every possible situation, with different sizes and breeds of cattle in different weather conditions. Doing this enables me to correct mistakes prior to construction. Today, everyone is excited about the new virtual reality computer systems in which the user wears special goggles and is fully immersed in video game action. To me, these systems are like crude cartoons. My imagination works like the computer graphics programs that created the lifelike dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. When I do an equipment simulation in my imagination or work on an engineering problem, it is like seeing it on a videotape in my mind. I can view it from any angle, placing myself above or below the equipment and rotating it at the same time. I don’t need a fancy graphics program that can produce three-dimensional design simulations. I can do it better and faster in my head.

I create new images all the time by taking many little parts of images I have in the video library in my imagination and piecing them together. I have video memories of every item I’ve ever worked with - - steel gates, fences, latches, concrete walls, and so forth. To create new designs, I retrieve bits and pieces for my memory and combine them into a new whole. My design ability keeps improving as I add more visual images to my library. I add video-like images form either actual experiences or translations of written information into pictures. I can visualize the operation of such things as squeeze chutes, truck loading ramps, and all different types of livestock equipment. The more I actually work with cattle and operate equipment, the stronger my visual memories become.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Jesus meets Judas

Engineering faces a future with a big carbon problem. Large segments of the engineering community are working toward a future of one day producing energy without, or with greatly reduced levels of carbon dioxide emitting fossil fuels. Our dependency on carbon based fuels will be extremely difficult to break - - but people can generally see a path with reasonable alternatives and solutions. The story of nitrogen is far different - - the story of nitrogen reads as part Jesus and part Judas.

The world’s ability to grow food at the current quantities and range of prices is a function of our ability to produce and distribute synthetic fertilizer - - namely synthetic nitrogen. Civilizations around the globe are generating reactive nitrogen and injecting it into the environment at an accelerating pace. This is driven by fertilizer-intensive endeavors such as biofuel synthesis and meat production. By 2005, humans were creating more than 400 billion pounds of reactive nitrogen each year (about 130 pounds per person), an amount at least double that of all natural processes. If you look at the time scale of synthetic nitrogen application, starting in 1909 with the invention of the Haber-Bosch synthesis process, more than half of the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer ever produced was applied in the past 20-years. When compared to carbon, the production of synthetic nitrogen has skyrocketed 80 percent since 1960, dwarfing the 25 percent increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide over the same period. As we go from a global population of six billion to nine billion (at the current per capita application rates - - this would translate into an annual production rate of 1.2 trillion pounds of reactive nitrogen) - - sustaining this much life starts with food production that needs synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. The miracle of life is the miracle of the Haber-Bosch process - - it is the Jesus part of the story.

We also have a big nitrogen problem - - this is the Judas chapter of the story. Human activities have tripled the amount of reactive nitrogen released into terrestrial environments and coastal oceans every year. As nitrogen-laden river systems enter the ocean, they trigger blooms of microscopic plants that consume oxygen as they decompose, leading later to so-called dead zones. Southern Brazil is a perfect example where population growth and industrialization around Sao Paulo, poor wastewater treatment, and vibrant sugar cane production all contribute to a nitrogen hot pocket off the eastern coast of South America. Nitrogen production is not just limited to water - - mounting evidence also blames reactive nitrogen for an increasingly important role in climate change. One molecule of nitrous oxide has approximately 300 times the greenhouse warming potential of carbon dioxide. Judas might become Jesus if nitrogen causes forests to grow faster or if nitrogen forms aerosols that help to block incoming radiation - - but most experts believe that nitrogen will speed up climate warming.

The paradox of nitrogen - - part Jesus and part Judas, mirrors the paradoxes, trade-offs, economics, and the interconnections of our systems and global communities that engineering is going to have to get more comfortable embracing. Nitrogen clearly gives us life - - it also clearly has the potential to take it away. Both carbon and nitrogen cycle problems illustrate the complexity of sustainability issues and debates. In many areas, sustainability is not about technology and innovation. Sustainability is in some respects about cultural and attitudinal change - - technology and innovation may be a force, but it alone cannot be the complete answer. It’s up to the individual - - making certain personal choices to reduce your carbon and nitrogen footprints. Supporting wind power, hybrid cars, and other policies designed to reduce fossil-fuel consumption are examples on the carbon side. Choosing grass-fed beef and eating less meat, such as a Mediterranean diet, could help to reduce our nitrogen consumption by 50 percent.

None of this is going to be easy or quick or efficient or economical in the context of a historical comparison with the Age of Oil. Problems with both the carbon and nitrogen cycles illustrates the complexity and interconnectiveness of the two systems - - where energy public policy, climate change, food production , and sustainability all come down different paths and meet at the same point. In some cases, as with nitrogen, it is the place where Jesus meets Judas.

Read the February 2010 issue of Scientific American, “Fixing the Global Nitrogen Problem.”

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Means, Motive, and Opportunity

Friendship, like crime is a simple matter of means, motive, and opportunity. You must have a certain amount of social technique. You must have the desire to be open to another. And you must be in a position to meet someone new.

The opportunity part is important and can be awkward and painful for some people - - especially engineers. Try this list of the top five conversation starters:
  1. Compliments. Everyone loves getting them. The key is to not be overly personal - - it is fine to admire an item that a person is carrying or wearing, but not to comment on someone's looks or personality.
  2. Opinion Soliciting. People enjoy their opinions. Current events provide many openings.
  3. Information Request. Who doesn't like to feel helpful?
  4. Conversation Joining. This works best at a social gathering. Pick up on something the person has been saying or doing.
  5. Provocation. This option requires a certain finesse to be amusing but not off-putting - - you want to incite conversation not annoyance!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Finding the Core of the Idea

How do engineers find the essential core of their ideas and designs? To strip an idea down to its core, we must be masters of exclusion. Engineering is fundamentally the art of relentlessly prioritizing. It is not good enough to be just simple. Being just profound is also not the answer. Engineering is about creating ideas that are both simple and profound.

Using the word simple in the context of design is not to minimize the technological complexity we all face. Simple in this context is more a function of the core ideas and their compactness. Think Apple and the iPod - - well defined core ideas, technologically profound, feature compactness versus feature creep. Now think VCR remote and a group of engineers around a conference room table - - "Hey, there's some extra real estate here on the chip. Rather than let it go to waste, what if we give people the ability to toggle between the Julian and Gregorian calendars?"

There has to be engineering triage. The French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupery once offered a definition of engineering elegance: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." The longer you work on a design the more you can find yourself losing direction. No detail is too small. You just don't know what the core idea or ideas are anymore. The problem becomes one of losing direction. A designer of simple ideas should aspire to the same goal: knowing how much can be wrung out of an idea before it begins to lose its essence.

Forced prioritization is really painful. Smart people recognize the value of all the material. They see nuance, multiple perspectives - - and because they fully appreciate the complexities of a situation, they're often tempted to linger there. This tendency to gravitate toward complexity is perpetually at odds with the need to prioritize. We should understand that this may be engineering's most difficult quest - - the need to wrestle priorities out of complexity.

Why is prioritizing so difficult? Coming up with a list of design requirements doesn't sound so difficult. Try looking at a list of design requirements and organize them into two categories - - headings such as "Critical" and "Beneficial". Sometimes it's not obvious to tell where a particular requirements belongs. Too much complexity and uncertainty leads to decision paralysis and design angst. Strategic direction and a common language are helpful in combating decision paralysis. People response better to a strategy than a fixed set of rules.

Read Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (2008) by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Only Connect

The Wall Street Journal had a story Tuesday entitled "Happy Couples Kiss and Tell." It looked at the secrets to longevity in marriage through the eyes of couples ranging from Sharon and Ozzy to Rosalynn and Jimmy - - the world of R&R to the world of Presidents. Several interesting points were made in the article - - important not only in the context of marriages but also in business, project teams, partnerships, and client/customer relationships.

Compromise gets you through the good times and the bad times. If each person can give 75%, you get 150%. Find the middle ground - - 95% of life is give and take. The "Longevity Bunch" understands that in life we are constantly faced with choices between incompatible aims that are maybe equally worthy but that cannot all be realized without a complex mixture of conflict resolution, compromise, and sacrifice. It is important to remember that compromise is a process that never becomes absolutely perfect.

Humor is important - - be funny, have a sense of humor and laugh. Find humor in situations and people. Take what you do and all your endeavors very seriously - - but don't take yourself too seriously. In the long run, we all end up in the same place. Look into the mirror and remember that empathy and caring are key to longevity.

Never give up - - perseverance is a tremendous quality. Go into any relationship and situation thinking this will be forever. Sometimes is just boils down to some combination of hard work and sheer blind luck.

Connecting is a central theme in the longevity race - - in the relationship business it is the key to launching and establishing lasting relationships. Approximately 80% of the people who fail at work do so for one reason: they do not relate well to other people. Finding common ground, a similar sense of humor or taste, or a mutual interest is where the foundation of relationship management resides.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Profile of a Disruption

What happens when an earthquake hits Haiti or a tornado plows into a GM manufacturing facility in Arlington, Texas? Such disruptions are classified as low probability/high-impact events which can generate magnified outcomes and their rarity means a lack of experience in estimating both the likelihood and their consequences. In many cases, such disruptions are accompanied by public fear that exacerbates the impact of the initial disruption.

Author Yossi Sheffi discusses this and much more in his book The Resilient Enterprise: Overcoming Vulnerability for Competitive Advantage (2005). Sheffi points out that disruptions go through several characteristic stages, even though their severity and duration vary from case to case. The nature of the disruption and the dynamics of the company, organization or countries response can be characterized by the following eight phases that are depicted on the graph.
  1. Preparation. In some cases, a company can foresee and prepare for disruption to minimize its effects. Such warnings range from the 30-minute tornado alert GM might get to the several months of watching the deteriorating labor negotiations at the West coast ports. As with Haiti and 9/11, there is little or no immediate warning. Haiti was poorly prepared - - no earthquake had been recorded in over 200 years on the island - - in a region of the world with a preparation focus on hurricanes.

  2. The Disruptive Event. This is the time when the tornado hits, the accident occurs, the bomb explodes, a supplier goes out of business, the union goes on a wildcat strike, or any other high-impact/low-probability disruption takes place. For Haiti, this was January 12, 2010.

  3. First Response. Once the disruptive event takes place, the first period in the case of physical disruption is the domain of first responders (police, firefighters, first aid workers) who have to attend to the initial damage, if any. The duration of this period is anywhere from the time period required to put out a fire to the months it took to dismantle and clean "Ground Zero" at the World Trade Center. Haiti's efforts started on the 12th and 13th primarily with local resources and limited support systems.

  4. Delayed Impact. The full impact of some disruptions is felt immediately. Other disruptions can take time to affect a company or country, depending on factors such as the magnitude of the disruption, the preparation undertaken, and the inherent resilience of the organization and its supply chain. Haiti was immediately impacted by concerns over shelter, medical treatment, food, and water. The massive international response created a very tight airspace over the single runway hindering aid efforts impacting the efforts post-actual earthquake. Additional after shocks created additional delayed impacts.

  5. Full Impact. Once the full impact hits, performance often drops precipitously. We saw this in Haiti - - especially in the medical treatment areas given the tremendous number of injured individuals. The recent snow events in Washington D.C. illustrates that some retailers are often unprepared for an increase in demand during panic buying. Examples include gas hoarding during fuel shortage periods, stockpiling food items before a snow storm, and buying lumber for boarding windows in anticipation of hurricanes.

  6. Recovery Preparation. Preparations for recovery typically start in parallel with the first response or shortly after they commence. For Haiti, this involved preparing the logistical infrastructure to support a massive recovery effort - - primarily in the context of DOD and USAID personnel and resources.

  7. Long-Term Impact. It typically takes time to recover for disruptions, but if customer relationships and civic relationships are damaged, the impact can be long-lasting and difficult to recover from. Haiti may take a considerable length of time to fully recover - - where the word recover may be a moving definition in the context of a historical perspective.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Guiding Principles in Managing Risk

Howard Kunreuther and Michael Useem of The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania have developed a set of guiding principles in characterizing and developing strategies and leadership for perceiving, assessing, and managing risks associated with extreme events. These principles apply not only to leadership in averting and responding to natural catastrophes but also to leadership facing other extreme events, whether terrorist attacks, financial crises, or governance failures.
  • Principle 1: Appreciate the importance of estimating risks and characterizing uncertainties surrounding such estimates. For developing the strategies and leadership for reducing and managing a specific risk, it is essential to have reliable estimates of the likelihood of the event and its consequences.

  • Principle 2: Recognize the interdependencies associated with risks and the dynamic uncertainties associated with the interdependencies. Many factors contribute to extreme risk, and they are connected through ever-changing linkages. For disaster strategies and leadership, understanding the evolving interconnections can be very challenging because the linkages are often hidden or indistinct.

  • Principle 3: Understand people's behavioral biases when developing risk management strategies. Among the well-documented biases are misperceptions of the likelihood of catastrophic events, a focus on short-term concerns and returns, and falsely optimistic confidence that a calamity will simply not happen on my watch - - the NIMTOF (not in my term or office) phenomenon. Appreciating such biases is an important step for creating remedies and building cultures that can reduce or eliminate them.

  • Principle 4: Recognize the long-term impact of disasters on a region's or nation's politics, culture, and society. Catastrophes often create enduring change in areas far from the epicenter in ways that public and private leaders need to appreciate in taking preventive measures prior to a disaster and use to their advantage in developing strategies following a catastrophic event.

  • Principle 5: Recognize trans-boundary risks by developing strategies that are global in nature. Most disasters do not recognize political borders. For example, the terrible Southeast Asia tsunami of 2004 killed residents of 11 countries.

  • Principle 6: Overcome inequalities with respect to the distribution and effects of catastrophes. Whether natural or human caused, disasters often bring disproportionate hardships to those already at risk from low income or poor health. Public policies and private actions can help prepare a readiness plan on the part of those with more financial resources to support those in distress with fewer resources.

  • Principle 7: Build leadership for averting and responding to disasters before it is needed. The best time to create a readiness to face and overcome a low-probability, high-consequence disaster is before the event occurs. Leadership development is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process, and investing in it now can be seen as a preemptive and cost-effective measure to ensure that the six principles above are turned into active practice.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Plan, Prepare, Practice, and Present

Six tips to combat anxiety before the big presentation:
  1. Take several deep breaths; let your shoulders relax. When nervous, we tend to take short breaths and scrunch up our shoulders, adding to tension.
  2. Talk to your audience beforehand, if you can. Making small talk while you're setting up for the presentation will help you connect with your audience and assume a more conversational tone during your part of the presentation.
  3. Know your material. If you know your stuff and are passionate about what you're going to say, your nerves will settle down moments after you start speaking.
  4. Keep your hands loose. Shake them out before you enter the room if you have to. By all means, keep them out of your pockets. Rattling change is a nervous habit and it's really annoying.
  5. Look up and smile. It may feel twitchy at first, but this will require you to lift up your eyebrows and move your face muscles - - all much better than looking down and frowning.
  6. Envision how good you'll feel when it's over and you've done a fabulous job.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Three-Tool Engineer

Super Bowl Sunday. Pulling for Saints - - mainly because of their connections to the Southlake Carroll Dragons. The Saints also have a quarterback from a university famous for their engineers. The New York Times had an article on Drew Brees yesterday, the Saints quarterback. Shorter than most quarterbacks. Better than most, too. The article referred to him as a “Five-Tool Player.” The list included shoulder strength (“awesome”), core strength (“unreal”), hand-eye coordination (“great”), movement (“great”), and awareness (“amazing”). This raised an interesting point - - what would say a “Three-Tool Engineer” look like?

Dr. Atul Gaande has written several books that reflect on performance issues within the medical profession. One of his books, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance (2007) lays out several ideas and attributes that translate very well into the idea of a “Three-Tool Engineer.” How about Diligence, Do Right, and Ingenuity as the tools or attributes you would like to see in an engineer?

Engineering fundamentally is about diligence. Engineering diligence is giving sufficient attention to detail to avoid error. It is about checking; double checking, re-checking in the context of responsibility and risk. Diligence as a virtue - - we are put into positions where we must act diligently. It is one of our biggest challenges and obstacles - - yet it defines our expectations and performance more than anything else.

Engineering is not just things, technology, and processes. It is a very human profession. Like everything else human, it is subject to and troubled by human failings - - avarice, arrogance, insecurity, and misunderstanding. The second tool is a foundation and instinct to do right. It starts with beliefs, attitudes, and character mixed in a bowl of codified ethics in a global economy of different cultures, standards, and practices.

Thinking anew - - the “Figure It the Hell Out” in combination with the “Make It Work” profession. It is not just about superior intelligence - - character is very important. The ability to have the mental and physical characteristics to constantly search for new solutions. It is a journey on a path that demands more than anything a willingness to recognize failure and problems - - to not paper over the cracks, and to change.

Enjoy the game - - remember what it means to be a “Three-Tool Engineer” - - we have all accepted the responsibility, the core question is how one does such work well.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Our Central Nervous System

Here was the vision - - tiny digital sensors, strewn around the globe, gathering all sorts of information and communicating with powerful computer networks to monitor, measure, and understand the physical world in new ways. A computer is a brain that is blind, deaf, and dumb to its surroundings - - the sensor revolution was about closing that gap. But computer energy consumption was always the issue with sensors and networks - - the little sensors needed batteries. But change is coming - - and the thing about a technological revolution is they always take longer than predicted, but arrive faster than anticipated.

Hewlett-Packard began last year what it calls “Central Nervous System for the Earth” - - a 10-year initiative to embed up to a trillion push-pin-size sensors around the globe. H.P. researchers, combining electronics and nanotechnology expertise, announced in November that they had developed sensors with accelerometers that were up to 1,000 times more sensitive than the commercial motion detectors used in Nintendo Wii video game controllers and some smart phones. Intel is doing sensor research that builds on commercial RFID technology and adds an accelerometer and a programmable chip - - in a package measured in millimeters. Its power can come from either a radio-frequency reader, as in RFID, or the ambient radio power from television, FM radio, and WiFi networks - - the ability to eliminate batteries for these types of sensors brings the vision of smart and small sensors closer to reality.

Others researchers are thinking in different directions - - the human as sensor. Researchers at UCLA’s Center for Embedded Networking Sensing have designed several projects that use cell phones and people in data-gathering and analysis. The initial focus has been on collecting environmental data - - for example, in association with the National Park Service. Twitter has similar applications - - mainly related to personal heath and habits data tracking.

As we get better performance, reliability, and cost attributes from our sensors and networks - - look for the “Labor versus Technology Curve” to come into play. Sensor applications geared toward energy management of buildings, bridges that sense motion and metal fatigue, cars that track traffic patterns and report potholes, and fruit and vegetable shipments that tell grocers when they ripen and begin to spoil - - will become highly competitive in terms of cost and performance versus human inspection and observation.

Friday, February 5, 2010

General David Petraeus

I had the opportunity to hear General Petraeus speak at the World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth last night at the Fairmont in Dallas. Over 1,000 people were in attendance including Ross Perot and his family. General Petraeus, commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), assumed control in October 2008. He recently relinquished command of the Multi-National Force-Iraq after more than 19 months at the helm. He was selected in a poll conducted by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines as one of the world’s top 100 public intellectuals and was chosen by Esquire magazine as one of the 75 Most Influential People of the 21 Century.

The structure of the presentation was a moderated question/answer format with Jim Falk, Council President serving as moderator. Questions were supplied in advance. Several leadership themes and attributes were very clear from listening to General Petraeus. How very calm, clear, controlled, and confident he is - - a national leader that answers questions completely and in a very articulate manner. Very, very intelligent - - but in a different way than many other really smart people. A very holistic and strategic thinker - - does not just see the individual pieces of the puzzle, he sees the entire puzzle and the connections. Not just the military pieces and puzzles - - but the connections to history, politics, economics, culture, language, and religion. Fundamentally the role of a strategic leader is to “Think Ahead.” As General Petraeus commented - - that is what he is paid to do. He also has a first class sense of humor.

He got this way by design - - he talks and writes a lot about the need to move out of your “Comfort Zone” - - read and learn new things. Interact with different people with different backgrounds. Travel and go to school in a different country. Learn a new language. Be curious - - look for puzzles and connections - - think about how you can solve them. People have a habit of asking the wrong questions, of looking in the wrong places, and in the wrong way. Strategic thinkers, like General Petraeus, look deeper, focusing on the things that move and change, never asking the usual questions. You add up the attitudinal shift, the curiosity, the focus on moving outside “Comfort Zones” - - we can get new leaders that have developed new ways of looking at problems that focus more on context than on reductive answers.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


The New York Times recently had two interesting comments under the general topic theme of transparency. The first was from Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist. The context of the statement was Congressional deal-cutting, “Ideas like televising negotiations are ridiculous, complex legislation has to be negotiated in private to succeed.” If like me, you are begging to ask the “Why” question, lobbyist Vin Weber attempted an answer - - “It makes the system faster.” If you were hoping for a better answer to the “Why” question - - sorry. Political strategists and lobbyists are really not on the cutting edge of transparency philosophy.

But the exchange is a great starting point for a discussion of new and pressing issues associated with the notion of transparency - - the concept of greater openness, communication, and accountability in our society. Our elevated awareness of transparency issues and concerns is basically related to the aftershocks associated with the collision of technology and mass communication. In a span of only 30 years we have gone from highly centralized communication channels that were designed and managed for control and the consolidation of power to much more horizontal systems principled on equality and openness. In the May 2006 issue of The New York Times Magazine, author Kevin Kelly has this great summation on the role that technology plays in the evolution of human knowledge and the potential for much greater awareness and openness in our society:

From the days of Sumerian clay tablets till now, humans have “published” at least 32 million books, 750 million articles and essays, 25 million songs, 500 million images, 500,000 movies, 3 million videos, TV shows, and short films, and 100 billion public Web pages . . . When fully digitized, the whole lot could be compressed (at current technological rates) onto 50, 1-petabyte hard disks. Today you need a building about the size of a small-town library to house 50 petabytes. With tomorrow’s technology, it will all fit onto your iPod.

Knowledge is power and information is required for knowledge. If you control the access to information, you control the avenues and pathways of the power structure. But information transmission has become horizontal and uncontrollable - - think about it, someday all the information associated with our entire civilization will be available on a thumb drive. We are a society that has moved to the vanguard of interactive sharing of information that is driving a shift toward shared power structures. Technology is fundamentally changing the rules of a very old game.

Business and civic relationships have become more about horizontal collaborations between equals. This requires new skill sets, approaches, and attitudes. It requires new types of leaders and managers - - with the ability to build strong interpersonal synapses capable of reaching out through these horizontal networks and bringing people together around ideas and initiatives.

This free flow of ideas and issues opens up a world that becomes more transparent. Sharing information means sharing ideas - - this produces a much more open society and business organization structure that allows individuals the opportunity to act in an informed manner. Opportunity is tightly linked to responsibility - - people can see your life and actions farther, faster, in more detail, and cheaper than ever before. Like Tom Friedman said, “You are on Candid Camera, so be good.” Remember the story and lesson of Tiger Woods.

In his book How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything . . . in Business (and Life) (2007), author Dov Seidman (who is profiled in the February 8, 2010 issue of Fortune) discusses transparency from two reference points. The first is technological transparency - - the nature of the networked work. Transparency as a noun. The second is interpersonal transparency - - more as an action, as a way of being. Transparency as a verb - - this is the active transparency we bring to our interactions with others.

Seidman has put forward several key questions that people like Mr. Carrick, Mr. Weber, and many others that are currently in positions of responsibility and power need to reflect and ponder on - -

The question before us as we consider what we need to thrive in the internetworked world is: How do we conquer our fear of exposure and turn these new realities into new abilities and behaviors? How can we become proactive about transparency?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Interview Question as Development Tool

Many top companies use estimation questions in job interviews to judge the intelligence and flexibility of their applicants. Microsoft was one of the first and probably has the most famous set of questions. Questions like “How many golf balls would it take to circle the Earth at the equator?” (Approximately one billion). Or, “How would you go about estimating the number of gas stations in the United States?” (The question fundamentally asks for a methodology and not an answer - - be sure and listen to the question. I mistakenly ask this one time and after 20 minutes into a floundering explanation that should have taken two minutes, I decided a far more pleasurable experience would involve being handcuffed to a radiator in Beirut by Hezbollah).

Many of these types of questions are contained in a book by Lawrence Weinstein and John Adams entitled Guesstimation (2008). Several of the questions are silly while others make one pause and appreciate the creativity of the human spirit (“How many people in the world are picking their nose right now?” - - I will not bore you with the calculations, but in 2008 the answer was approximately 10 million - - page 78). I think there are two things people can take away from these types of questions and the methodology/exercises outlined in the book - - (1) an understanding of the meaning of large numbers, and (2) an ability to make rough, common sense, estimates starting from just a few basic facts.

Google has its own spin on the interview question that is more reflective and open ended - - a deeper examination of potential candidates. I really like their “Tell me a joke” question (Freud would probably have a field day with those individuals that cannot come up with a joke). Their “Explain something technical to me - - you pick the topic” is not only a great interview question, it is also a really good learning exercise and development tool. Having engineers explain something technical (especially to the non-technical or to individuals and groups outside their particular discipline) requires them to rely on metaphors and analogies to express themselves. This mix of intellects, experiences, and interests in an audience forces a distinct type of interaction that produces the need for a conversation of abstraction. Abstractive thinking is a focus on the core concepts - - reducing the information and ideas down to its most relevant structure and form. These abstractions are essential for problem solving, as they encourage engineers to reconsider their basic assumptions and ideas. Having to explain the problem or technical application to someone else forces them to think, if only for a moment, like an intellectual on the margins, filled with self-skepticism. Is this correct - - have I really thought this completely through?

This is why different types of people are so useful in the audience - - they help to shake engineers out of their cognitive boxes. Google understand this - - it is why they ask the question. The engineer trying to describe his or her approach, getting a little defensive, and then getting a quizzical look on his or her face - - finally seeing what was important. Seeing what was missed. Seeing what was vague, dull, and muddy. Seeing new paths and connections to old assumptions and methodologies.

Be prepared to “Explain something technical - - you pick the topic” not only in the context of an interview but also in the context of developing better problem solving and communications skills.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

"I wanted to be a rain salesman,"

First line of a poem by John Engman called Work in his collection entitled Temporary Help (1983). We are a ways from the rain production business, but we are definitely in the flood prevention and control occupation. With 100,000 miles of levees in the United States, flooding starts and stops with the condition and backup plans associated with our levee system. Levees fail for many reasons, not all of them associated with storms such as Hurricane Katrina - - the sheer size of the system makes periodic inspections an impossible task. This is why the backup plan is so important.

A slew of new technologies have been recently released to help with the backup part and replace the ancient method of throwing sand bags and rocks on and into levee breaches. They have two elements is common - - they all use water itself to help stem the flood and they all have clever acronyms.

The first is called PLUG - - for Portable Lightweight Ubiquitous Gasket. The PLUG is a sausage-shaped balloon made out of polyester and PVC. When dropped into a river by helicopter, PLUG’s pumps switch on automatically and begin forcing water into the balloon through a value. The air thus displaced is expelled through a second value until the device is 80% full, at which point the pumps shut themselves down. Filled thus far, PLUG is still buoyant and will float wherever the current carries it. If it has been dropped in the right place that will be towards the breach it is designed to fill. If all goes well - - the failed levee should have a PLUG, so to speak.

The second technology is called REPEL – for Rapidly Emplaced Protection for Earthen Levees. It has the same material as the PLUG. REPEL is laid out flat on a levee that is in danger of being overtopped - - with a series of tubes that sit on top of it and can be pumped full of water in a manner similar to PLUG. The weight of the tubes holds the protective layer in place, while the gaps between the tubes permit the overspill to escape. Some flooding from the overspill results - - but not as much as if the spill were allowed to erode and destroy the levee itself.

The third technology is called REHAB - - for Rapidly Emplaced Hydraulic Arch Barrier, made from the same material as the over two technologies. The REHAB system can be put in place around a plugged breach to keep it sealed and dry once the PLUG has been removed. First, the arch is filled with air and floated to the desired location. Then, once it is in place, it is partly flooded and allowed to sink to the riverbed around the breach, making a tight seal. This done, a second set of pumps evacuates the gap between the arch and the PLUG, allowing workers access to the site.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Fourth Time

Steve Jobs and Apple announced their iPad to the world last week. This marks the fourth inflection point in the history of the company - - first was the graphical, mouse driven computer; the second was the iPod; the third the iPhone.

Below are a collection of comments that I heard and read last week regarding engineering and technology in the context of Apple, Jobs, and the potential impact of the iPad:
  • Apple excels at taking existing, half-baked ideas and showing the rest of the world how to do them properly.
  • Apple hopes that many people will use the iPad instead of a laptop - - it could open up a new market for devices that are larger than phones, smaller than laptops, and also double as e-readers, music, and video players and game consoles.
  • A "Jesus Tablet" such as the iPad cannot perform miracles for some ailing parts of media organizations.
  • Book publishers have the business advantage that they are not dependent on advertising.
  • Approximately 6 out of 10 sales on Amazon are now for a Kindle edition (where available).
  • The history of communication is that new technologies reinforce rather than displace the old.
  • Every age is an information age - - it's just organized in different ways.
  • People find their own knowledge paths - - reading horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, wherever the electronic may lead.
  • Technology is about to make a deep engagement with information.
  • As technology rewrites what it means to be a book, we will raise our expectations for our information experience.
  • Innovation at Apple is more elitist and individual than open and group.
  • Auteur Model of Innovation - - tight connection between the personality of the project leader and what is created.
  • Yes, there is a team at Apple. But the vision is personal.
  • Great products, according to Jobs, are triumphs of taste.
  • Taste is a byproduct of study, observation, and being steeped in the culture of the past and present, of trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then bring those things into what you are doing.
  • A defining quality of Apple has been design restraint - - an outcome of "featuritis" management (cramming everything in an engineer's head into a design).
  • Jobs formula is about tenacity, patience, belief, and instinct.
  • Great engineers are not 30% better than average engineers - - they are 10 times better.
  • Timing is essential to make big steps - - listen to the technology; find out what it's telling you.
  • Jobs is a skilled listener to the technology. He calls this "tracking vectors" in technology overtime, to judge when an intriguing innovation is ready for the marketplace.
  • People concerned about the price of the iPad should remember that iPod is an acronym for "idiots price our devices."