In the Deep End and Sinking

My job is to help customers use my employer’s product to build ultra-high reliability computer software such as that used to autonomously fly drones or to automate much of a real pilot’s interaction with, for example, the Boeing 787 over which he/she is in the left-hand cockpit seat.

As you might imagine, this is extremely critical work. It absolutely has to be done right and while there are an incredible number of reviews, tests and verifications that must all be passed before an aircraft is certified to take on passengers, the engineers that build those systems don’t all have the same level of experience. There are the very senior ones who’ve been through this many times – they tend to dominate the ranks in this business – but there are also the “promising newbies” just entering the profession.

In the classes I teach, I tend to meet – in-person or by keyboard and telephone – more of the latter than the former. Companies send them to us to “get them up to speed” with the tools they will need to use.

And, on occasion, we get someone who … well, let’s just say there are warning signs that this may not work out.

  • “My computer isn’t working. I’ll reboot it again.” (Keyword: “Again”.)
  • But before they can do so, “Oh wait, it’s working now. I guess they fixed it.”
  • And then they don’t say that they bypassed the instructions, clicked any and everything on the screen and entered all sorts of made-up gibberish. Instead they complain, “The lab instructions don’t work.”

What we’ve got here is, unfortunately, not a failure to communicate. It’s someone on the job who shouldn’t be there.

They aren’t ready. They don’t have the education. They don’t have the experience. They’re in way over their head, they know it, and they’re struggling to keep their head above water.

What makes it fatal is when they’re afraid to admit they need help.

I understand why – I struggle with this myself sometimes.

They need the job. They need the paycheck. They’ve grown up or experienced an environment where admitting ignorance has gotten them whacked instead of nurtured. Bad boss, bad company, bad parent, bad teacher, bad culture.

Rather than admitting they don’t know some fact or how to do something, they find something that prevents them from having to reveal their deficiency.

It’s the equipment or the instructions, the network or the telephone.

It’s not their fault.

In a small class – I had a class of one recently – I can take the time to give them the extra education and encouragement needed. Sometimes that’s enough and they come around, they get it, they get excited, they succeed and are ready to get to work.

But those are the easy ones. They’re the ones that just need a little encouragement. They already have the ability, the background and experience. They just lack the confidence. A few words of encouragement, a couple of successes and, voila, they’re ready to take on the world.

But for others, it’s clear they’re not gonna make it.

They lack the years of education or experience it takes to do this kind of work. They don’t have the depth of understanding of the skill of engineering, they don’t understand how very human that activity is nor what they must do to engineer-out all the human failings we share.

Engineering an aircraft is only partially about the technology. It’s not just materials science or electronics or software.

It’s also very much about what we as humans tend to do that will break the aircraft, and then learning how to “engineer” that out.

At this level in this industry, it is about understanding ourselves, our predilections, our prejudices, our foibles and failings, and then figuring out how to make sure we don’t leave some on those things, those failings, in the airplane.

Engineering at this level is not what they teach in school. Instead, it’s what we learn about ourselves in life and then figure out what to do so we don’t put ourselves too much into what we make.

“I don’t know.”

“I’m confused.”

“I can’t figure this out.”

Those are statements the successful engineer will say aloud.

He and she knows they have failings, shortcomings, bad days when they just can’t do it.

And so they own up to the fact and ask for help.

They have to. They’re human. They know it.

They’re not afraid to ask for help.

In the classroom, whether in-person or remote, I sometimes have to choose between helping eleven that will succeed and letting one flounder and fail, or helping one but failing to help the other eleven succeed.

Regardless, that group of twelve is then going to write software that flies the airplane in which you ride, that flies over your house, or that flies into enemy territory with a pre-programmed mission to complete.

In the couple of days I will have them, I sometimes have to make the hard choice of who gets left behind.

I choose and we move on. And sometimes someone is clearly left behind.

I’m sorry.

Life is like that.

While I’d like to see everyone happy and successful, healthy and productive, I’ve seen enough of life to know that it isn’t gonna be that way for everyone. I wish all the starving in Africa had food, but no matter what I do or how long I sacrifice, I can’t feed them all. And I wish all the crippled could have the surgeries and therapies needed so they can run the four-minute mile but if all my resources and efforts are going to feed (only some of) the starving in Africa, I can’t also help the crippled.

My resources are limited. Our resources are limited. There isn’t enough.

Someday when we can synthesize food like Captain Kirk did on the starship Enterprise then we can feed everyone. And maybe McCoy will then wave his medical wand over the crippled and heal all their ills.

But that’s not today.

Until then, we have to make choices, hard choices, sad choices.

Help who you can, when you can.

And hope the rest somehow get by.

God help them.

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