Academics On Wall Street

Ok, it’s true.

Although I consider myself a teacher, I am not an academic.

What I learned and now teach, I didn’t learn in school. Instead, I learned it on the job. And often as not, it was by doing it wrong and then learning from my mistakes.

As they say, I learned it the hard way.

Recently I had a chance to work with some real academics. Between the three of them, there were five PhDs and, while their ideas sounded pretty good, well to put it directly, they hadn’t done their homework.

They were preparing a bid for a DARPA contract – lots and lots of money in these – and had chosen a piece of software that had the most basic qualities they needed. But in some critical areas, the software would not only *not* do what they needed, it was actually intended to not permit them to do what they needed.

And possibly their worst sin, if you could call it that, was to assume that the software’s owner would modify it for little more than the honor of playing along.

It wasn’t my job to rain on their parade. But it was mine to explain that what they wanted to do with our software was going to be challenging and to explain why.

But I don’t think they were listening.

When I said, “You need brand X operating system on which to run this software,” they configured the computer with brand Y.

When I said, “That won’t work,” they said, “but this is the latest thing!”

“That may be,” I said, “but it won’t work.”

“How about if we change this and that?”

“Nope, won’t work. It has to be brand X.”

“Well,” they said, “we’ll see about that!” And proceeded to waste almost the entire day – at my consulting rate – trying to prove otherwise.

At the end of the day they said, “Looks like we need the brand X operating system.”

Now what makes this particularly interesting is that about a year ago, I was called to consult with a different group of engineers in a different state and in a different organization, but for this same DARPA project. This earlier group had some different ideas, very interesting of course, that also required the owner of the software to do some significant changes, and again with no compensation or recognition, and with little hope of selling it elsewhere.

And again, it was a group of academics, five this first time, and with eight PhDs among them.

Six months later, that company’s effort on the DARPA bid was canned.

“Our approach, while obviously superior, is not possible on today’s technology.”

We told them that a quarter of a million dollars ago.

And now another group if going to have a go at it and, with their arrogance blinding them to their own ignorance, another pile of money will be burned up.

How stupid!

I have a lot of technical books on my shelf. There are several shelves like the one you see above and, packed away in boxes, are dozens more books that are, for the most part, hopelessly outdated. I’ve read most of them and worn out a couple from frequent use. Some, like “The C Programming Language” in the original edition, inhabit my bookshelf purely for nostalgia. That book and language have been with me for a very long time and have been a fundamental block in most of my work. A few of the books – perhaps a dozen – are consulted each month for this or that detail.

I need them, but they aren’t what I do.

An engineer is not the books on his shelf just as a pilot is not the license in his wallet. And a teacher is not standing in front of a class and talking.

I’ve worked for Silicon Valley companies for several decades. They can be brutal. There is no loyalty, no security, no gold watch after twenty five years.

Instead they ask, what have you done for me this week?

And the operative word is “done”.

It’s not, “What do you know?” Or, “What degrees do you have?” Nor even, “What are you doing?”

The question is, “What have you done for me this week?”

And to that I can answer, “Ask the engineers I’ve taught what I’ve done for them.”

Ask the engineers at Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Rockwell Collins, and Northrop Grumman. Ask them to point to the finished products – what they have “done” – as a result of what I taught them.

And then ask the Wall Street protesters, “What have you done for me this week?” Ask them to point to the finished products they have “done” this week. Or last week. Or the month before. And the year before.

Go out and make a difference. Build something. Solve a problem. Help someone.

But don’t try to convince me that occupying Wall Street and showing your signs is actually doing something because it isn’t.

That’s not doing.

And while the protesters protest, inside those buildings those they protest against are inside, and they’re doing!

So, what have you done this week?

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