The most neglected component is time

My wife and I are working on clearing things we no longer need out of the house. We’re selling the stuff online, and she’s getting a little depressed about how long it is taking. However, it takes time for people to come across the listing online and reach out. No matter how fast we can sort, list, pack, and ship, marketing anything takes time as people need to find offerings and compare them.

And it extends beyond marketing. If making something physical, some amount of the project is going to happen, or not happen, as time continues to pass. Most people are familiar with negative end of that, waiting for something to happen, while time continues to pass and nothing does, but there is another path.

Do something today.

Make something people want to read, watch, consume, and put it online. Time will only continue to rack up more consumption of it. It’s like compound interest in a bank account.

Do something today, make time your ally.

9 Pin No-Tap

9 Pin No-Tap is a scoring system that counts 9 pins knocked down on the first ball as a strike in the game of bowling.

It’s interesting for good bowlers how it changes the psychology of the sport. In normal competition, the best bowlers are only separated by their ability to knock down all ten pins in one shot rather than getting 9, this is referred to as “carry.”  It seems obvious that striking is the point of the game, but good bowlers commonly continue to hit “the pocket” and get only 9 pins. Keep in mind, every time there are two or more strikes in a row, and a 9 count happens rather than a strike, 21 points are lost from the maximum score, a big problem in competition.

The common approaches to rectifying 9 counts into strikes are changing ball speed, moving left or right on the lane, changing the amount of loft on the ball, changing the ball thrown, increasing or decreasing rev rate (AKA rotation) and changing the direction of rotation on the ball. What change to make depends on the motion the ball is making and the way the pins respond to the ball. However, in 9 pin no tap, the confidence in knowing that as long as the headpin is hit, there is a good chance of at least 9 pins going down, and counting as a strike, is liberating. I’ve seen that good bowlers make more aggressive changes and actually throw more real strikes than they do under the normal scoring system.

The irony is the same opportunity for aggressive adjustment exists in the regular scoring system if the fear of not striking didn’t scare bowlers out of it. This isn’t unique to bowling. Whether consciously aware or otherwise, we’re all scared our decisions won’t pay off, no matter how minor they are. It’s time to switch your mental scoring system to “no-tap” freeing yourself up to do your best work ever.

Rising Technical Overhead

With technical overhead rising due to compounding knowledge and technologies, upfront interaction with the audience being served must increase. It follows naturally, because sinking huge amounts of money and time into a product that no one wants is about the most nauseating feeling in the world. Upfront interaction is the cure.

Sharing ideas with those who will likely be customers. Starting communities around a product while it’s still in implementation. This is where big companies today are losing and where things get tricky.

It’s tricky to navigate this path because the community needs to be all moving towards the same goal. A focused group. With too many different needs represented, the final product will come out meaningless to most. For exactly this reason, big companies struggle to pull this off. They want big markets, so they need big communities, which makes sorting priorities a high effort task, and a mostly meaningless endeavor.

An illustrative example of rising technical overhead is AI tools vs. a simple programmed widget.

In software today, one guy can start to build a simple widget with only a computer and some spare time, and if it doesn’t work out, the audience doesn’t like it, no big deal. He can shoot for the next widget. Moving into the age of AI, which may be a bit more hype than revolutionary at this point, the technical overhead is rising. The concepts behind AI require specific knowledge that lowers the amount of people that can do it compared to general programming. Starting an AI project may require an AI developer, a web developer/programmer for additional parts that aren’t linked specifically to the AI, a significant investment in computing power, and likely someone with a background in the industry they are trying to make a change with AI in, healthcare for example. Don’t forget the CEO or someone to manage those people, find funding to keep the project going, and to start finding some customers.

That’s some rising overhead there, and the reason for seeing a growing number of open source projects. It’s about getting the right group together. In the future, products will have to be developed with small groups of similar customers, even for consumer products. Part of this is going to stem from the long tail that’s already become a bigger opportunity due to technology.

Think about where you can fit a project into the world, and how to bring that group together, in order to get feedback during development, it may be just the ticket your idea is looking for.

Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth

R. Buckminster Fuller is a man who has a lot of words used to describe his career. Author, engineer, architect, professor. He was a visionary, and a man of very concise wording.

His book Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth is certainly a book I would recommend any engineer to read. To me the most interesting part is that it was written in 1969, 50 years ago, and yet Fuller’s observations are still as true today as they were then. Briefly, he even mentions people worrying about automation taking their jobs, a modern day concern getting a lot of press in the right circles!

This book is not an easy read. Fuller certainly doesn’t “dumb it down.” It’s one of those books that is so dense in it’s conveyance of information that it probably requires a couple reads to understand all the depth of what is contained.

The book starts with the premise that while the world works towards specialization in jobs, it’s generalization that allows for the most success. Fuller states the premise, with a reference to a story about Great Pirates that ruled the world. From there he follows it up with many different distinct lessons about man, society, and the ability to work together since we only have one spaceship, Earth. It’s also the book that I believe popularized the term “synergy.”

This book is quite possibly one of the hardest books to describe I’ve ever read, and yet, I would still recommend it to anyone who has the fortitude to continue reading after the first chapter (simply because the writing is difficult for some to read). Take a peak at it online, and buy the book if it interests you. Personally, I’m going to reread this one multiple times in the future, to further integrate the ideas and concepts into my own work.

Interesting has less downside

Most of us are hiding. If I count the number of interesting ideas I’ve heard in my life, the number would be really large, not sure the exact number but I would guess around 2-3 zeros in length. The number of people that I know actually working on those interesting ideas they talked about, likely in the order of magnitude of ~10.

I’ve spent a significant portion of my life thinking about what drives people in their thoughts, fears and responses. Obviously, fear of failure is something that is easy to see, and a good go to when looking for excuses, of course most of this is imaginary. The downsides are much less than we ever expect.

Let’s look at Elon Musk. What if Tesla failed today? Bankrupt, out of business. The papers would probably write headlines weeping for the stockholders, but Elon would likely just jump over to his gig at SpaceX. Even if that didn’t exist, it’s likely people would chock it up to the world not being ready, and I’m sure Elon would come back with new ideas and investors ready to pile money into it. His reputation is strong, and the running of Tesla, failure or not, is a learning experience that can’t be found in many places, so the chance that the next venture Elon would work on goes up.

On an alternative thought, even if Elon lost everything and no one was willing to invest. A simple book written about his experience, building running, and lessons learned in the failure would likely sell enough copies for a reasonably, rather than extravagantly, living the remainder of his life. That’s the value of interesting.

When you do interesting work, there really isn’t as much downside as it appears on the surface. Keep that close to your chest, hopefully it raises your bravery to take the right risks.

What my father once asked

Why can’t someone bring together all our best engineers to create a super fuel efficient vehicle, say 100+ MPG?

Well, that’s not how it works.

The world currently isn’t setup to solve challenges in that way. There is no absolute authority. Most of the engineering successes are the result of economic impact. As engineers create innovations, companies make more money and can afford more engineers. The challenges that society is working on are brainstormed by entrepreneurs, R&D teams, and government labs, but what gets implemented, iterated and refined is largely based on the consumer preferences. That’s why it doesn’t work the way my father asked. Consumers don’t see value in 100+ MPG vehicle if the fuel savings aren’t enough to offset the vehicle costs.

However, the interconnection brought to humanity by the invention of the internet creates an opportunity. This opportunity is currently most easily visible in the open source projects available in the IT world. Similar opportunities could exist in more hardware based designs if egos could get past who makes the money off the project and who is simply a contributor. The other challenge in this open source methodology is sharing of resources for development and funding for prototyping, an issue that isn’t prevalent in IT due to the same tools being used for their day job, and no material costs.

I’ll be thinking more about this topic in the future. How to gather people around issues, get funding, and open source some challenges that society should be thinking about. It’s my opinion that while the their is a lot of doom and gloom about automation and AI destroying job, a hysteria in some circles that can be easy to get caught up in, there is also an opportunity that could come where we collectively as a society pool our intellectual capacities and labor to solve difficult challenges facing the world.

 

Medium seems to have it backwards

Medium.com sends curated content to my inbox, then when I’ve read a certain amount they ask me to sign up. To me, the curation is their value add. All of a sudden you want me to pay $5 for access, but along with that access I’ll have find things to read instead of them being sent to my inbox?

This alone is a thought that there is a lot of room for product differentiation, even if it’s just in the way billing is done, and what is paid for vs. free.

A 3 hour wait…

that’s what the restaurant told us tonight. It was in a mall, with multiple restaurants all lined up in a row. It’s difficult to walk down a long, narrow, crowded hallway on the way to the host counter at this particular restaurant and there isn’t much room left to sit.

It would have been easy to put a sign outside the restaurant that said wait time approximately 3 hours. Which would have served two purposes:

  1. If you’re hungry right now, we’re not the place for you. Don’t waste your time checking in with the host, and allow our waiting room , filled with people waiting hours, to be less chaotic.
  2. Display how popular the restaurant is. 3 hour waits are nothing to sneeze at. While it’s not for me because I’m too impatient, social proof is certainly a powerful thing.

Item #1 feels like it’s risky, that it will turn people away, but the wait isn’t going to change whether I read it from a sign, or hear it from the hostess. 3 hours doesn’t fit my schedule, so I’m gone regardless of the method of being informed.

The simple, generous act of putting a sign out front to save everyone time can be a positive for everyone. Not everything has to be complicated, simple items can make a big difference on the experience too.

Who can choose the right team members?

It’s easy to be blinded by the structure of long established companies. Think of an upstart company doing something big. Something highly technical in nature. Fuel cells for vehicles, or something along those lines.

As those companies grow, who has the right background to choose the team? Complex products require multiple disciplines to design, and someone, who isn’t an expert in the fields they are hiring for, will have to hire each discipline’s first member or manager. The world is too complex, at times, measured guesses are the best that can be done.

Once comfortable with the idea that no one has all the answers, dancing with fear becomes a bit easier, as you’re not out there on an empty floor. It’s crowded, and each person is nearly unrecognizable in the vast sea of unknowing. They’re all weighing the options at the dance, and figuring out who their date is going to be.

In professional sports, player selection seems more straightforward. They’ve figured out the categories, and the quantities, needed for comparisons. Though the metrics aren’t always followed, the comparisons in sports are simpler. In engineering, or other creative endeavors, those categories don’t exist, all the data isn’t measured, and it’s not straight-forward. There is no draft.

there is a tension that exists between the work that needs to be done, and who should do it. There are no right answers. If you want to do the work, it’s time to make your case. Share your thoughts, past work, and the tension you see in the industry. If you want to find the person to do the work, dance with your fear, everyone is unproven until they aren’t. There are no “engineering Super Bowl champs.” Instinct is at a premium.

Generosity as engineer

Generosity as a whole means different things to different people. To one person, it may mean giving money to charity. To another, it may be volunteering at a food bank. But what does it mean to be generous in your career?

For engineers, generosity in their careers can mean three things:

  1. Teaching others around them, even when not tasked to.
  2. Sharing ideas for improvements with the world or with your company.
  3. Marketing to push good ideas forward, or to stop bad ideas from happening.

The last item is what may seem the most confusing. Marketing? That’s generous?

Yes.

Marketing can be a generous act. When you bring together facts, figures, and stories, presenting them consistently to an audience that is willing to listen, you are being generous. Anybody can make a statement, and while it’s more generous than saying nothing, putting in effort to help others make a decision in their best interest is a generous act.

If you received a lukewarm response to an idea and it’s going to be a big benefit, don’t stop trying to convince the right people. Be generous. It may be that generosity is just the thing your career is missing.

The Engineer’s Paradox

Engineers are trained problem solvers. How many times have you heard that? It turns out many engineers want to solve more challenging problems, growing bored with the routine. As a result, the REAL challenge is then finding more difficult problems. Many engineers change jobs searching for these challenges, but reality comes quickly, the new problems become routine.

Less often are engineers trained to be problem proposers. I call this, “The Engineer’s Paradox.” In order to work on challenging problems, an engineer who is highly creative and well-versed in technical knowledge has to propose one. If (s)he does, (s)he’s most likely the person to solve it. At it’s core, “The Engineer’s Paradox” boils down to the fact that in order to solve the most difficult engineering challenges, you can’t be an engineer. You have to be more than an engineer, becoming either an entrepreneur, or an intrapreneur, thinking up new inventions, the challenges they face, the business case on why they would be an improvement, and who the customer would be. While there are some exceptions, the best odds for working on interesting problems is through your own creativity, salesmanship and persistence.

The real point that makes it a paradox is that an engineer doesn’t work on the most interesting problems, a great salesman or marketer with an engineering background does. It challenges the idea of what most engineers think sales and marketing are.

P.S. If you ever read about Nikola Tesla, one thing that’s commented on routinely is his “showmanship.” Think about how that contributed to his career.

That idea in your head…

isn’t about thermodynamics, or electromagnetism, or AI. It’s about people. Connecting those who have a problem with those who need a solution. For the opportunity to bring it to life, starting with the people component is the best way.

If people skills aren’t a comfort zone, seek out someone who has the experience to help. One man shows are for the movies, more often than not, making an impact comes from teams.

Here’s a couple thoughts before getting too deep into a project (definitions may vary on that):

  • Ask 10 people that you believe would be a good fit for the product what they think about the idea. If it’s a consumer product, don’t ask friends and family.
  • Connect with people on LinkedIn you believe you would need to make your product  successful. Salespeople, marketers, etc. Ask their opinions on bringing that kind of product to life. Making a product is a wonderful thing, but does it have a clear path to sales and catching on is different.
  • If the first two steps above are positive, figure out what it will cost to produce. Does it still have a path to the market, or is too costly?

It’s amazing how small steps can prepare for big leaps. Or save us from a long fall.

 

The skills of a good engineer

The skills and value an engineer can bring aren’t limited to his technical knowledge. The majority of skills and value that make up engineering in my mind are:

  • Management (Project, Time, Resource) Skills
  • Customer Service
  • Mentoring Ability
  • Marketing Skill
  • Sales Skill
  • Presentation Creation Ability
  • Network of Clients, Vendors, Engineers, etc.
  • Mathematical and Physics Prowess
  • Construction and Manufacturing Knowledge
  • Drafting Skills
  • Brainstorming Skills
  • Troubleshooting
  • Email Writing
  • Phone Skills (Definitely a real skill)
  • Technological Savvy (Usually assumed for Engineers, though that can be a fallacy)

For most engineers I know, the focus is skewed almost entirely on technical ability like math, physics, drafting. Those abilities grow automatically with time spent in an engineering role. The rest of the list, management, customer service, marketing, brainstorming, emails, and phone calls often require outside effort to learn, which is why it’s scarce to find for those with a technical focus. However, it’s possible those items are what is most important to the customer, so it’s ultimately what will be most important to the company.

One of the reasons I started writing, was to clarify my own communication skills with external practice outside of work. Reading your own communications, it becomes obvious where your own patterns of conversation often becomes too vague. Too many, “this”, “that”, “things”, “etc.” uses and everything starts to blend together. The thoughts become harder to follow. With deliberate practice it gets better.

The mechanics.

Statics. Dynamics. Report Writing, etc. Those are topics we learn. They are the nuts and bolts. The things we need to know to do the job we want. However, there’s some tension with what society actually expects.

The businesses that we love, are loved because of their care. Their creativity. Their passion. Their difference.

None of that is taught at school, at least not the at the typical schools.

Part of my job used to be training people to perform Finite Element Analysis (FEA) and Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) using the software we sold. Before classes, I would always clean the board with spray and paper towels, sometimes twice to make sure it was pure white. I would wipe the keyboards with sanitizing wipes in the classroom. I would make sure the kitchen was stocked, that there was nice snacks, and not just cheap sugar packed stuff. Nuts. Veggie Trays. Fresh Fruit. And some breakfast pastries.  Everything on the counter was lined up, there were bottles of water all in straight lines like little soldiers and easily accessible. I would place the books that we worked out of, along with company branded notepads and pens at every desk, in exactly the same spot for each person. It was a book, with smaller notepad on top, and the pens all facing the exact same alignment. I would make sure every keyboard, mouse and monitor started the class in the same position, and that all of the chairs were nicely pushed in.

Not once out of 200-300 trainees did anyone ever say anything to show they noticed any of it. Yet, class after class, I still did it.

The care matters.

It mattered especially to me. If I didn’t have the energy to do that before the class started, how would I have the energy to make sure they all had a great experience. How would I get myself in a mode of caring? How would I tell myself that all of these people are here to learn, and every question they ask, every time they need help, everything they do, is a chance for me to make their experience better? My routine must have worked, because overall my training survey scores were high.

And I’ll tell you something. It never felt like enough to me. I always wanted to do more. I wanted to improve so that those I taught could improve. And some classes were worse than others due to health, or tiredness from travel, but even then I cared.

One of the most powerful aspects of your career isn’t necessarily something that needs to be learned, or inside information, or a credential. It’s a choice. A choice to care more than the other guy does. And when you do, we all win…except the other guy…but he doesn’t care anyway.

A tailgate every 45 seconds

That was the goal a customer I visited stated. They make tailgates at the facility, and the goal was to pump out a finished product every 45 seconds. Incredible!

Really, it’s an impressive feat. His job was to keep those systems running, or finding ways to make processes more efficient. I didn’t have time to ask him his thoughts on how he liked the job, or if he desired a job that was more “visionary.” But I looked at his job as an “optimizer.”

His job is the exact kind of work that built the industrious society we live in. The kind of work that allowed more people to have homes, cars, access to clean water. However, with those needs met already, “optimizer” jobs, aren’t the ones that create tension with society as whole and say, “We can do better. Here’s a new trajectory.” Instead, “optimizers” say it to executives, and end up with a tailgate produced every 40 seconds.

Ideas that push society forward are things like fuel cells allowing Semi-trucks to run on hydrogen, 3D printers allowing increased creativity and manufacturing never before possible, I’m sure the list could continue ad nauseam. If there is a vision floating in your head, share it with society. Start creating some tension. It will create a path for it to come out of your head.

P.S. I think both “the optimizer” and “the visionary” are necessary, however, I think one has a more clear career path, so I share what I’ve witnessed and learned about the less clear one.

 

Stealing from tomorrow

Listening to Ray Dalio in How the Economic Machine Works ( I highly recommend clicking the link and watching the video if you have 1/2 an hour.), it becomes clear that debt creates cycles. These cycles are what shape the economy. There is straight, linear growth, plus fluctuating short-term debt cycles, and long-term debt super cycles.

These cycles in his presentation center around money, however, I like to think of investments also in terms of time, the scarcest resource there is. It’s crazy how often people, myself included, “borrow” time from tomorrow for something they don’t feel like doing today. The equivalent short-term example, would be failing to clean the kitchen after cooking because you’re exhausted. Or because writing sounds more attractive. Or playing video games.

Whatever the reason, eventually, the dishes will be needed, and they’ll have to be washed. Whenever that happens, that day will lose time as repayment for the borrowed time from the day before.

For me personally, I’ve taken on the “debt” mentioned above at times through extracurricular activities, like writing this blog, something I’ve enjoyed and wanted to put more effort into. That zeal leads to borrowing time day after day, neglecting car maintenance, or ignoring that stack of mail that needs sorting. Eventually, things caught up to me in other ways, and “balance” was forced upon me, I had to pay back the debt, making me have to do all the other things I neglected.

It seems counter-intuitive, but it’s a powerful way to think about life. The things that are important, need to be accomplished with small, incremental and persistent steps because life needs to stay balanced. If there is something you dream of accomplishing, don’t start by doing too much, start by doing a little, everyday. The other alternative is foregoing the small, incremental steps and ending up with a “debt” super cycle, a huge amount of work to catch up to your ambitions due to skipping the many small steps.

Don’t end up trapped by “debt” take small steps with persistence to get what you want in the future without paying too much for it tomorrow.

Tension and Suspense

This is a post about sales and marketing, Engineers that want to work on something important to them, eventually will have to find the ability to sell an idea to someone, a customer, a boss, or an investor. I’m sharing this to up the odds of success.

Ideas and products that relieve tension (I’m not talking just headaches and muscles) are the items that get purchased.

I was discussing with a friend how to make customers more interested using tension. The reply was, “The customers have heard it all before, if it didn’t work then, it won’t work now.”

That’s a pretty grim outlook, but it conflates things too.

When watching a movie with an awkward tension between characters, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen it, the tension is still there. Suspense on the other hand, can disappear after the 1st viewing because the 2nd viewing you know who is hiding behind the door.

Thinking about sales pitches, they often are suspenseful, leaving the audience to wonder what product will solve all the problems presented. That’s not the same as tension, which is an unavoidable collision course of forces.

The mechanism of suspense is “Problem. Problem. Problem…Solution!” while the mechanism of tension is “Here is the path you’re on. Here is the path the world/politics/the competition/technology is on. If you don’t do something about it, the future you think you have won’t exist.” Use the latter, apply some history to paint the picture of the trajectories and add some imagery. That’s how tension is created.

Once the tension exists in someone’s mind, a better product is the one that relieves it. A product that changes a trajectory, rather than simply solving a problem.

For example, revising an existing product to cost 10% less to manufacture, so it can sell for 5% less, probably doesn’t keep a failing business from going under. But launching a new product that shifts the market may. That’s better.

P.S. Most of the sales pitches I’ve ever seen have been suspenseful, little tension is created at all.

Trajectory: 3D Printing

3D printing is the colloquial term for additive manufacturing.  In recent years, it’s popularity has exploded, but it has been around in different forms since the early 80s. That’s coming up on 40 years soon! To understand where it’s going, we have to understand where it’s been and the path that it’s following.

I’ll start with the big picture. The technical trajectory of 3D printing are these items in a nutshell:

  1. Increasing resolution
  2. Increasing material selection
  3. More aesthetic possibilities
  4. Increasing speed of building a part
  5. Increasing strength (in concert with item #2)
  6. Lowering costs of machines and materials

The approaches that are taken to achieve these different results are highly varied, in fact depending on who is asked there is about 7-15 different technologies that are all called 3D printing! However, the end result is that 3D printing technology is reaching the level where it can actually displace other manufacturing methods for certain volumes, which wasn’t always the case.

Beyond that, consider the trajectory of it’s applications throughout it’s history:

  1. Prototypes for seeing how things look and feel.
  2. Prototypes for testing fit.
  3. Fixtures, gages and other manufacturing accessories
  4. Manufacturing tooling, prototype tooling currently capable
  5. Production parts – Likely low volume, or extremely complex geometries.
  6. Production tooling

With each step 3D printing takes, it’s drastically lowering the amount of time, and the cost it takes to turn concepts into products. This is important, because in the age of the internet, particularly the age of Amazon, the long tail (read that link about the long tail, it’s important) represents the biggest market.

The reason the long tail matters is that this shift in the popularity of those items is tied in with manufacturing and 3D printing. Traditional manufacturing runs off of economies of scale. Setup times are fixed costs, then part costs are incremental, so for small demands, prices skyrocket. However, as 3D printing begins making low-volume parts and tooling cheaper, the price or margins of the “long-tail” products can start to come to a reasonable level as well, likely further increasing the market size of the long tail, and perhaps allowing some of them to move closer to the popularity level of the “short head.”

This is the custom revolution that industry will start taking on. A few people that I would think this would matter for:

  • Custom machinery manufacturers – The whole point people buy off-the-shelf machinery is because of the huge price savings, however as custom machinery comes down in price, due to things like metal 3d printing, the attraction of a machine that fits your specific workflow rises.
  • Anyone currently making low volume injection molded parts – As metal printing can become capable of cheaply printing a mold, the cost becomes more attractive even for small volumes. Things being made for business swag, niche toys, or other widgets that may have many customizations, can become more popular due to lower costs.

3D Printing is on a collision course with the way the market is demanding more and more niche products and the way these products have traditionally been made, there is no stopping it.

 

Speed up, or be more efficient?

When put under pressure of tight deadlines, there are two choices, increase haste, or reduce mistakes. The latter usually requires working slower, making sure not a single movement is wasted, taking extra time to look around and making everything is ready for the next step. However, haste is what comes naturally.

I practice slowing down under pressure, and increasing my focus. As it turns out, 85% of my normal pace with no wasted movement is much faster than 150% with tons of redos.

For years, I heard about 10X (ten-ex, as in ten times faster) programmers and 10X marketers (as in 10X the returns). Seth Godin put it eloquently in the 10X Lesson, a while back, a 10X anything doesn’t do it by outworking, 10 x 8 = 80 hours a day. Not possible. They do it with efficiency and intelligence. That’s what I’m promoting here, under more pressure, increased efficiency through intelligence is necessary, and intelligence shouldn’t be rushed.

Make it a habit to calm down under pressure, and work slower, it’s counterintuitive, yet powerful. And after the pressure drops, brainstorm a relief valve that will prevent the pressure from ever rising that high again.

Differential equations and changing minds

Understanding of differential equations is a great tool for engineers designing complex systems, but taken by themselves, they’ve changed few minds that aren’t engineers.

It’s often that as technical leaders, the importance of non-technical people is overlooked. Have an idea for a new clean energy? How good will the adoption be without buy-in from politicians, investors, consumers, etc?

Not a likely success.

It’s unlikely that buy-in will come from a basis of showing them some complex math, after all, maybe 2% of the population has that much of a technical background. So instead, that buy-in is going to come from making an emotional plea. A chance to improve mankind. A chance to leave a brighter future for our children. A chance to put money back in every family’s back account by lowering energy costs. All of these things are emotional. They change people’s perspectives and outlooks.

While that differential equation might be the most important tool for an invention, it’s the least important for the adoption of the invention.

Rome wasn’t built in a day…

the history books tell us that. Often engineers, or any creative for that matter, are pressured to finish projects on the kinds of timelines that aren’t conducive with good products.

The work engineers do isn’t obvious to others. It’s lines and dimensions on a page. It’s not apparent to an outside observer that’s the easy part. It’s the tasks performed to decide what those lines should look like and what those dimensions should be that’s the long road. Calculations, simulations, tests, vendor coordination, product literature review, ordering, and administrative tasks are the real time consumers.

Unlike a construction site, these tasks aren’t in ready view, they require communication to paint a picture to management of what remains to be done. When the pressure is on, it’s possible before increasing haste, an increase in communication is order.

Here’s two things that could be going slow, and some ideas about how to communicate the issue:

  • Assembly instructions take a long time. “Our assemblers need clear instructions. If you tell 4 different people to make spaghetti and meatballs, you’ll get 4 different versions. If we want to control the customer experience, we need to write ‘the recipe’ clearly in a way that can be consistently repeated. If we don’t we’ll end up dealing with returns and recalls.” If assigning cost savings, and recall savings numbers is possible, add that as well. If management still doesn’t see the value, make some of the higher ups do a cooking exercise, ask each to make the same dish without a recipe. Have them bring it in and see how different they all look. It will be clear why documentation is needed.
  • Analysis is taking longer than is comfortable. “The physics involved are complicated. If we don’t want to build many prototypes, which will require more time to design, and even more time to fabricate, we’ll need to make sure everything works correctly. That’s a lot of calculations to be performed and reviewed. Even using software, computers can only calculate so fast. Doing this work right is the fastest way to launch our product.” If it’s still not clear why the analysis is taking so long, ask if they have been involved in any business planning, the answer is likely, yes. And it’s likely a 1 year, 3 year or 5 year plan. Ask them how long those numbers took to put together. Those numbers are all a lot more subjective and simpler, and it probably still took months, weeks if it’s a smaller company.

The trickier balance is not putting more time into communicating the issue than it takes to resolve the issue. After all, many things can be resolved faster than writing that history book, save paper, save your sanity. Do what you can, communicate what you can’t.

Work that can’t be trusted to a human

I was recently talking to a small startup in the space industry. They mentioned the use automation equipment with a lot of Fanuc components.  I asked why, because it’s intriguing that a startup spent so much money on automation this early on. What they shared was essentially, “It’s beyond human capability.”  The parts are too heavy, a person can’t easily lift them. They also require precision placement, which even if group-lifted, the group won’t put the components in place with the required accuracy. The strength and coordination required are too much.

This is a wonderful example of how to technology is going to augment people and companies. However, in order for it only be “augmentation” rather than “replacement” it needs to be reflected on what a person can do that a machine can’t. Work that can’t be trusted to a machine.

I’ll put more thoughts on the physical actions machines are currently weak on in the future, but for now, I’ll keep it simple. There are tons of physical tasks machines can accomplish, but the work that a machine currently can’t do is related to connecting with humans. Turns out, at least for now, people still want to interact with people. In the meantime, Fanuc will have to help companies do the work that can’t be trusted to a human, and leave the work of connecting to us.

To anyone reading this. I’d love to connect with you on Linkedin. Linkedin.com/in/brandondonnelly.

 

The First 100 Hours

For a President, their first 100 days sets the tone. Scaling that down appropriately to 100 hours and applying it to your project, what would happen?

I estimate that >80% of all business ideas are quit before 100 hours of time is put in to them. 100 hours of time and whatever resources are available is enough to make a decision on whether to invest more. Even at an hour a night of investment, that’s only 3 months. And if you start this habit when you’re 20, there will be room for 200 of these attempts in your lifetime! No doubt one will take off before you’re even close to that!

Here are some big steps that can be accomplished in 100 hours with estimated times attached:

  • Business Planning – 20 hours
  • Preliminary Product Design/Calculations – 40 hours
  • 100 Sales Discovery Calls/Emails – 40 hours

I wouldn’t recommend doing these all in sequential order as each one can change the previous. A sales call can give feedback about a design. Or the number of people returning your emails can change the assumptions about the market size and volumes.

Now you’re the President (of your project), how are you going to set the tone in the first 100 hours?

The Worker and the Leader

Schools brag about creating leaders, but they really create workers. Sure some may come out leaders, but it’s hard to pin that effect to any cause stemming from school. R. Buckminster Fuller, perhaps put it best in Chapter 2 of his book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. In that book, he claims that early civilization leaders started making their people specialize for two reasons:

1. To have a smarter and more knowledgable group of advisors, and

2. So that none of those advisers would have a broad enough perspective to be capable of rising to power, or overthrowing the leader due to their lack of being able to comprehend full strategies that deal with multiple topics like people, economics, supplies, geography, etc.

By being the connector of all those fields, the leader maintained his dominance in the broad picture of things and was the only one capable of running a kingdom.

With Fuller’s thoughts in mind, I make the assertion that schools weren’t created to give a free (or cheap) education. They were created to make labor cheaper. People that could read, write, take instructions, and possibly be knowledgable about some specific topics. This is exactly the reason there is so many stories about people who didn’t do well in school that still went on to have great success. After all, the goal of school wasn’t to test leadership, it was to test “cognitive ability.” (Notice the “cog” in cognitive) Failing at school, isn’t the inability to lead necessarily.

Synthesize this with a couple things I’ve heard from a number of people like, “School didn’t teach me about finances,” and, “I never learned about sales in college.” It starts to ring true. School didn’t make a leader, it made a good, possibly very specialized worker. Industry leaders want people who spend money, so that’s likely the reason strong finance skills are left out, plus with no savings it’s difficult to become a future competitor to any business.

All this to say, if you want to be a leader, it’s up to you to learn to lead. School didn’t and isn’t going to teach that. But you can educate yourself, read, experiment with techniques, write, give talks, and do work that no one else told you to do. Work that matters.

Chopsticks change the recipe

Imagine making a dinner with all sorts of finely diced vegetables, but before starting any cutting, you realize someone has stolen all of your forks! Looking around frantically, they are nowhere to be found, but there are a bunch of old sets of chopsticks leftover from various Chinese takeaway dinners.

Knowing the chopsticks will be the utensil, it’s likely the vegetables will be easier to eat sliced rather than diced because they will be easier to pick up. So an adjustment to the recipe is in order.

Thinking about the downstream interaction is a way to make life more convenient for everyone. It’s also the reason to put your product idea out there, so that your audience can tell you, “Your dish tastes great, but it’s a pain because it’s finely diced and we only have chopsticks.”

The Engineering Fear…

is that we’re frauds. We don’t know anything special or unique and that there is nothing that we can offer. That we’ll eventually be found out. There are even famous quotes in the community, such as:

“Structural engineering is the art of molding materials we don’t wholly understand, into shapes we can’t fully analyze, so as to withstand forces we can’t really assess, in such a way that the community at large has no reason to suspect the extent of our ignorance.”

-James E. Amrhein, Masonry Institute

Getting at the heart of it, the feeling isn’t that you’re a fraud, it’s that you’re overlooking something. A missed calculation, a reason why it won’t work. After all, anticipating why a design my fail is what engineers are paid to do.

It should be noted, many discoveries that pushed the field forward, came from disasters that some engineer couldn’t have foreseen. Studies of natural frequencies of bridges came out of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge failure.

Thinking about that, taking a new project all the way through leads to two outcomes: 1. success or 2. learning something new. Neither seems particularly bad. Some pessimistic engineers will shout other bad things could happen, but most of those are only true in the case of negligence.

You’re not a fraud. You’re smart. You’re capable, and you have something to share with the world. Just start sharing.

P.S. If you want to start by sharing your idea with me, my info is on the about me page. I’ll be happy to share ideas about how to bring it to life. 

We’re all creatives

Cooks, Painters, Sculptors, Designers, Writers, Engineers, Architects, we’re all creatives.

We all have our “art.”

To any engineer out there who doesn’t consider their self artistic, rethink that for 5 minutes. There is a lot to be learned from art. It’s easy to think that artists like Picasso created nothing but masterpieces, but that’s not reality. Every “artist” had plenty of projects to practice new skills or techniques that no one cared to look at. While today’s engineering project might not be the most exciting, it may be exactly whats needed to prepare for future masterpieces, so give it your best.

Now here’s a question, could an artist be famous without putting his work out there? How would they get the feedback needed to make something special? How would anyone know what they do?

I don’t think it’s possible for an artist to get famous without their work being public.

Why would that be different for any other creative work? What is an engineer’s work? Is it always the final product? Is it a prototype? Or is it the big plan set? That may depend on the project and the resources needed to complete it. The important part is getting as far as possible with the resources available. Whether that is calculations in Excel, drawings on paper or in CAD, or building a prototype. People will jump on board with the more and more tangibility.

Let me share an anecdote. When I was in college, a couple of friends started a limo business. They were looking to build a system for making booking easier for their fledgling business as it took too much of their time. They talked about it for a long time, but neither of them had money, nor technical skills. I eventually created a mockup of what the software could look like and brought it to a pool party. It’s started a lively discussion. Other people started talking about being investors, though they didn’t have the sort of money needed. From there, it became a real project. I started building an app, the other guys started looking for investors, and eventually we pitched an investor for significant money.

That story doesn’t end with us becoming Uber, and the project didn’t go on too far. We were young and inexperienced. However, the simple act of moving from a continuous conversation to mockups was enough to kick off the momentum to have an actual shot at achieving something. The lesson is just do what you can and share it, the results may astound you.

The Obvious Use Case

A while back, I was scheduled for a meeting showcasing software and how it can help engineers design a better product. Paraphrasing the customer, “It’s interesting, but probably too time consuming and it’s five figure price tag is out of our current budget.” I pivoted to an entirely different way to use the product, using it as a marketing and sales tool that would help their customers visualize what their purchase would do. Paraphrasing again, “We could probably use 2 licenses.”

It’s been shown through history, the better product, whatever that means, doesn’t always win. Sometimes it’s the right sales strategy. Or it’s the right marketing method. Or it’s the right time.

It’s impossible to know what will work without trying. And this is where innovation is required. A couple thoughts on increasing the odds of being the product that succeeds by finding the right use cases:

  1. Build a community around the product and build the product with the community. They are the ones that are likely to show you all the unique use cases. Community creates the network effect. The more people involved, the more they invite friends and the more valuable it becomes.
  2. Hire creatives, people that like to connect and share, and people that have backgrounds that understand your audience. Ideally, all of those in the same person. They will make the connections, personal and in idea form, that will transform the product.
  3. Be generous and share plans in advance of development if you can. If you’re not doing top secret government work, it will prevent you from doing work your audience doesn’t care about. Wasted time is a lost opportunity that could have been spent doing the work your audience cares about.

Galileo, Newton, Euler, Eiffel

Galileo’s work landed him the title “father of modern physics.” He was a scientist, but his work was heavily observational based. Advanced mathematics to explain his most complex work didn’t exist until…

Newton came along. Newton built the framework of calculus, established the laws of motion and universal gravitation and performed numerous works on other topics in astronomy, optics, and various physics. He was a scientist like Galileo, but then started building new fields of mathematics.

Euler became one of the most prolific mathematicians of all time, writing more volumes of work than any other mathematician. He contributed to physics and mechanics, but did so by working out the complex mathematics for them in the form of proofs. When he needed data to prove out the realities, he would enlist the help of scientists, if he wasn’t enlisted by them to help with the mathematics in the first place.

Eiffel then wanted to apply the work of these men and others, to build the tallest tower the world had ever seen. It took creating a team of many engineers to pull it off.

Galileo did his work in the early to mid 1600s. Newton in the mid to late 1600s. Euler in the early to mid 1700s. And Eiffel in the 1800s. The point of talking about these gentlemen is to show that over time our knowledge is growing, fracturing into new fields and being turned into amazing applications. There is a rising technical overhead, as each generation has to study all the work of the previous ones. In Galileo’s day, the highest level of mathematics professors may know is geometry. Today, that’s taught in high school, or earlier even.

This ever increasing level of knowledge will lead to longer and longer educations required to reach an adequate starting point to develop on what others have done up until the current time.

What if at some point in the future, it takes someone the first 50 years of their life to reach the ability to add to a field? How do we push past that? What if it grows to an entire lifetime? How could we solve that issue before it happens?

I’ll give some thoughts, in a general sense, because each these will require their own discussion:

  1. Use technology to increase educational efficiency, how fast we learn.
  2. Be generous and start teaching each other what we know. This is is already happening, Khan Academy for example. This gives people a chance to choose when they learn the next subject, rather than waiting on the curriculum to get there.
  3. Develop an AI that can learn or synthesize information. Though depending on who you ask, this may be the end of mankind.
  4. Develop an ever more fractured number of learning and career paths leading to more specialization than ever. To pull this off will require phasing out lower skilled positions that can be automated in order to have enough people to train in more advanced fields.

This problem is something that can be seen spanning centuries. Today, far more careers exist than a century ago. Applications Engineer, Software Engineer, Electrical Engineer, Semiconductor Engineer, are all examples of jobs that didn’t exist. There is no easy solution, but at least looking at it now is a chance to start thinking about what the future could be.

Innovation and Bravery

I’ve rallied against the overuse of the word “innovation” when presenting technology. It screams of “I don’t understand your business enough to tell you EXACTLY what this technology will do for you.”

I don’t completely abstain, but I use my definition as a precursor:

Innovation is the bravery to lead with your vision rather than relying on historical or social proof.

If not using technology in a way that increases confidence in the vision, you’re not doing it right. If the people selling technology to you aren’t increasing your confidence in your vision, they’re not doing it right.

Engineers never retire.

At least not most of them. And I’ve talked to a lot, probably 1,000 in the last 6 years. For those who I’ve discussed ambitions with, nearly all have a side project, or a dream to build a prototype when they get enough money in their savings, or a business to start when they are entirely financially independent.

An engineer never retires, they simply start working on their own projects.

That’s a quote that an engineer who was 79 days away from retiring from the company he had worked at for 30 years told me.

With that idea in mind, what then becomes the tipping point for deciding when to start working on your own? Is it purely financial? Is it skillset development? Is it when the work feels too monotonous to continue? It’s probably different for everyone, but one thing that I know is true, it’s later than anyone would like.

To me, the idea of never retiring is freeing. Thinking about how wrapped up I’ve got in the past, worried about “making an impact”, I can’t stop worrying about it. Its just a feeling. A feeling that the impact won’t happen fast enough, rather than inability.

For those who haven’t embraced never retiring, perhaps it’s time. It’s time to retire that attitude, and find what it is you want to achieve and start working on it, no matter how little. When it reaches the size you’re comfortable with, maybe a year, or a decade or more from now, then retirement, even if just from being an employee, is an option. Better to start early.