Handing Over the Pen

Midday yesterday, the twelve senior engineers flipped from skepticism to “how do I …?”

The software is very complex. It encompasses multiple computers with 4.5 operating systems (two are very similar so they only count as 1.5) and dozens of dozens - into the hundreds - of programs. It is monitoring and controlling a very large and intricate system.

These engineers will write much of that final software and that process of writing, testing and then running the entire solution relies on what I’m teaching.

I am teaching them a tool. They will use it to build.

The first day of class is always quiet; they’ve heard similar claims from vendors who ultimately failed to deliver. I go slow as they listen to those same words and then push the buttons to see what happens.

“Hmmm,” you can almost hear them say, “that works. Is it possible this really works?”

Making sure that our stuff is ready on that first day is critical. It has to. That’s when the first change happens. They move ftom certainty - “It won’t work” - to doubt - “Maybe?”

That’s my most stressful day.

And for the first half of day two, they keep that skepticism, afraid to let go only to be disappointed again later. But at some magic moment after lunch, one of them accepted what he was seeing with his own eyes and doing with his own hands.

You can see it in that one person’s face. His eyes say, “This is working. I can control this. It does what I need!”

And for engineers, that’s the core realization.

“I can control this. I can get it to do what I need. I can build all those programs on all those computers in all those operating systems. I can do this now. It’ll work!”

This group got there yesterday.

And I get really busy then because instead of twelve quiet skeptics, I then have a dozen ravenous-for-knowledge individuals who want to know how to do this and that and the other, each doing his own work in his own area of specialty. They become blind to each others interests. They see only on their individual problems that they didn’t think solvable. All of a sudden, that’s no longer true.

And when I suggest a solution or a possibility to one, that jars another and a problem he needs to solve comes bubbling out, half formed, half solved and looking for some key to open his lock on impossible.

Solutions flower into multiple questions and I bounce from one scenario to another, minute by minute and person by person.

For more than an hour yesterday, we abandoned the books, the projector, the computer and the whiteboard. I sat on a desk and we talked in a freewheeling, no holds barred discussion.

“Good question! Remember yesterday morning when we talked about …”

“Yes, here’s how you might put that together.”

“Well, you could do that but here are some issues you might want to consider.”

“Yes, in some cases you might be forced to do that - it’s not perfect but it will work.”

And from time to time I also had to be honest and say, “I don’t know.”

When that happens, I also have to shoulder the responsibility.

“Let me research it tonight and I’ll let you know.”


So, as I ate take-out Vietnamese in the hotel room last night, I monitored my company email for answers to some questions I sent off before leaving the classroom. Chopsticks in one hand, I searched the reference manuals and source code. When I found apparent answers, I cross-checked and noted the exceptions because the issues are complex and there are lots of “corner cases.” The engineers need to know all the details.

I packed it up and went to bed about midnight but was up again at five for a final look at emails from the other night birds who know where I’m teaching and what they’re going to build.

And I’m ready.

The first half of today will be another wide-ranging, out of the book discussion as I show them what I found out.

But then it will change.

It will happen like this: I will be talking about a diagram I’ve drawn on the whiteboard and one of them will suddenly get up, somewhat impatient, and walk to the front and say, “let me show you what I mean.” I will hand him the colored pens and he will start to draw on the whiteboard.

And I can sit down.

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