We were an excited bunch of Engineers as we watched the live feed from NASA of the landing of Curiosity on the surface of Mars. Given the telemetry delay of 15 minutes, the real landing had already happened. Here we were looking back in time as we were watching history being made. The tension and excitement were evident in the room and we felt it too.
Curiosity Landing taken from the Mars Orbiter
As a team of Engineers who focus on the delivery of a brand new Electronics Design with the supporting Embedded Software, we know a little of what it is like to fire things up for the first time but celebrate that it didn’t go up in smoke. Not that this happens literally very often, but it is a good feeling to get confirmation that the careful design work has been successfully implemented. We develop up to 100 new Electronics Products each year so we have had some practice at this.
In space this is harder still for 3 reasons:
You can’t easily rework it if it goes wrong. It is too hard to get to it. It has to be right.
Radiation is much worse and the environment is more demanding. You can’t just use any technology for Aerospace Electronics Development.
A lot more investment is at stake.
The celebration when the first telemetry feeds came through as ‘Nominal’ was overwhelming. So this is what it looks like to deliver on $2B of R&D Investment!
Curiosity On Mars – front leg in view
And thoroughly deserved too. Though the use of ‘Nominal’ for such a great outcome is a little understated. But then this is Engineering and science. We know a little of what that is like though we don’t get to spend that level of investment in creating the future. Certainly the win last year for the Industrial Electronics Future Awards 2011 was a moment we savour.
You can watch the whole landing here:
And some links you will enjoy if you are an enthusiast as I am
BRW recently ran an article by Matt Barrie on business ideas that are worth pursuing. If you haven’t heard of Matt Barrie, he founded Freelancer. In the article he wrote about business ideas that interest him, and what doesn’t interest him. In particular he had a sideswipe at us Engineers about our focus on the technology and solving those problems first instead of testing whether the idea has a viable market. As an Engineer who has had to learn about business in order to run one, I can agree with some of what he said. In particular, we can become so focussd on the technical problem that we don’t make sure there is a real business case for the final product or service.
Here is the short list of what Matt Barrie doesn’t like in a business:
Anything that involves selling your personal time – eg. consulting
Anything that isn’t scalable – more on that later
Anything that requires a technology breakthrough before you have something to sell
Small, niche and low total market potential opportunities
By scalable, Matt means that the sales potential is not directly proportional to either people or capital investment. Matt wants leverage. In his words “Businesses that are not scalable are bad“. But is this really the case? And what does he mean by bad?
Is non-scalable always bad?
I agree that if you want to maximise your income potential, the non-scalable businesses will not give you same ability to do that as scalable businesses will. However my business doesn’t only exist to make money. Making money is a byproduct of a good business that is well run and meets a real need. Businesses should make money, otherwise they are not adding enough value or not well enough run.
My favourite business quote is “The purpose of the organisation is for ordinary men and women to come together, and in cooperation with each other, do the extraordinary”!
For me, business is a mechanism to make the world a better place in partnership with others. It is too big a job to do on your own. And it should deliver real value.
There are many essential non-scalable activities out there. Here is a short list:
anything to do with the patient side of medical or nursing care
most forms of teaching and education
Notice I said activity. For the quote above also covers the “Not For Profit” sector and Government. Both should deliver real value. They just don’t directly derive their income from that value.
I’m sure Matt Barrie is not upset if he has to see a Doctor just because the Doctor does not have a scalable business.
The final point above is about Product Development. Thomas C. Gale said, “Good design adds value faster that it adds cost“. So I am not advocating development at any cost. It has to have a value proposition. A client of ours recently told us of a product we designed for them nearly ten years ago that they had made millions of dollars from. Given our fairly modest fees for that project, they got a massive bargain there. That was an example of very good value Product Development which they got a lot of scalable leverage out of.
Product Development uses a mixture of leverage and personal effort. Leverage comes from using existing technology tools to do the work faster. This includes things like:
Computer Aided Design and Analysis tools
Reference Designs and existing technologies
Science and technology understanding already known
Research findings, existing data, other specialists
The above all came from past work that can be used to make current work more productive or more effective. I started my career laying out PCBs using tape. Now I wouldn’t dream of not using a CAD System. We use Altium Designer for Electronics Design Schematic Capture and PCB Layout. This is much more productive than the manual methods. As part of our ongoing Product Development activities for our clients we design and lay out a new PCB every 2 weeks on average and this is only possible with the use of CAD tools and the full leverage of our experience. In general I don’t want to rediscover the wheel, or the technological equivalent of that, in whatever area of Electronics Design or Embedded Software Development we are working at the moment. I want to take as much advantage of leverage as I can, and only apply the personal effort to what I can’t buy at a reasonable price.
Likewise we use proven Software Development tools that just work every time. It is not a good use of any of my team’s time to be working out why the latest release of something no longer works or breaks a project we had nearly completed. Of course we shouldn’t do that mid project anyway, but the legacy issue still applies. Clients do want updates down the track. So we use IAR tools for our Embedded Software Development. They work, are well supported, and we almost never have an issue of any kind with their performance.
So my conclusion is that non-scalable business activities are essential to modern economies. They just aren’t where the maximum profit potential is.
Let’s take manufacturing. We serve Australian Manufacturers by providing them with the new Electronics Designs they need to either remain competitive, become market leaders or bring a brand new product to the market for the first time. The manufacturing side is scalable although the Australian economy primarily supports lower volume or niche manufacturing opportunities. But once a design is in production and the process is running, they can scale up to meet demand within their capacity.
But our business activities are not scalable. Each design takes at least some personal effort to produce. But if I stop my non-scalable activities, then someone else has to do it. And if everyone does the same, if all the non-scalable activities stop, guess what – the scalable activities also stop!
Freelancer enables the buying and selling of non-scalable activities in a scalable way. It is a great service to those who use it and extremely good value. I agree with Matt Barrie that it is a good business.
Personal effort is still valuable
There is an old joke that goes like this, “No matter how many women you put on the job, it still takes 9 months to make a baby“. Some things cannot be sped up by adding more resources. This analogy works well because we all know this is the case for pregnancy. Many other things are also like this. It will take generations to get peace in some parts of the world. Mindsets cannot be undone overnight. And it takes time to create economic frameworks. Successive Australian governments have spent 50 years working toward an uncompetitive Australian Manufacturing industry. This will not be undone with one policy initiative or one statement of a change of approach. It will take time and personal effort, by those with a vision, to make it happen.
So my belief is that personal effort is not only still valuable, but still essential, even if there are limits to how much I can scale it. I agree with Matt that it isn’t going to make me as rich as his approach will make him, but I’m not just in it for the money. For me, it is not bad, it is essential.
The twin pillars of modern business are Greed and Ruthless Efficiency according to the Harvard School of Business. If this were an organic process, we would call it cancer. Ultimately it will kill. We need a better model and we need better values. Greed and Fear are the enemies of many a good thing.
And if you were wondering where my favourite business quote comes from, it is from Aristotle, some 380 years B.C.
Want a great career?
And finally, a Ted Talk on “Why You Will Fail To Have A Great Career”! OUCH! But is it true?
This is an excellent presentation that challenges many of the common assumptions about careers. But there is hope and Larry Smith explains both the challenge and the solution.
Engineers might seem terribly serious about their work, but Engineers laugh too. And of course, what makes them laugh is as unique as the work they do. The classic Dilbert series of cartoons by Scott Adams are a case in point.
This first example of Engineering Humour is is a classic piece of Dilbert humour titled “The Knack”
In a recent blog post on Embedded Software Testing I also shared one of the jokes that looks at the way different Engineering Disciplines go about looking for faults or problem solving. It goes like this:
There are 3 Engineers in a car going for a drive. The first is a Mechanical Engineer, the second an Electronics Engineer and the third is a Software Engineer. Fortunately the Mechanical Engineer is driving because the brakes fail and they are going downhill. The Mechanical Engineer eventually brings the car safely to a halt and gets out to examine the hydraulic systems. The Electronics Engineer gets out and checks and body computer, ABS system and the power train CAN bus. The Software Engineer stays in the car and when queried about it says that they should all just get back in the car and see if it happens again!
And another of my favourite pieces of Engineering Humour is this joke:
The optimist says, “The glass is half full”.
The pessimist says, “The glass is half empty”.
The Engineer says, “The glass is twice as big as it needs to be”.
And an excerpt from a classic piece of Mechanical Engineering humour with the Engineers Guide To Drinks.
Engineers Guide to Drinks 2010
Anyone who subscribes to our blog will automatically get a full copy of this sent to them. Thanks to Steve DeLosa of DeLosa Design Services for sharing this with me.
Over time I plan to add more content here but this will get the process started. Please feel free to add any jokes or humorous stories as comments and if you know who first told any of the jokes listed here, please also let me know that so I can properly recognise the creators. As Engineers, one thing we do respect is the right be be recognised for what you do and create.
For those who don’t recognise them, the rectangular boxes with terminals sticking out the top are High Voltage capacitors used for Power Factor Correction in Power Distribution systems. They have been charged to 13.8KV and hold 9675J of energy. The pull cord is used to close the electrical circuit and the capacitor voltage is applied to the watermelon which conducts the current and the energy released causes it to explode rather spectacularly. Not what you want happening in a real Power Distribution scenario which is why you want Engineers who know what they are doing working on both the Engineering Design and the implementation of these High Voltage Distribution systems.