One of the joys of an engineer is the opportunity to work on cutting edge projects – particularly when you are leading the way. Another is working on a ‘greenfield’ site - starting something completely new (instead of salvaging a failing project begun by others). These opportunities, however, are very rare these days. More commonly we tend to be involved in either tacking on an additional facility to an existing site or simply doing some small improvement to an existing product design. Particularly now, with companies being somewhat risk-averse.
As engineers we dream of bringing something technically revolutionary to the market and changing the tide of human events - truly fulfilling our ambitions as engineering professionals. You only need to think of Marconi with radio or Steve Jobs with the Apple microcomputer to envy the satisfaction they must have felt when achieving these engineering wins. Another couple who come to mind are; Stephenson with the Rocket steam engine and Vint Cerf, the father of the internet (who co-developed TCP/IP).
But picking technical winners is an exceptionally brutal business. Technology forecasting is fraught with disaster. One only needs to think of some of the debacles for the dream bubble to burst. Remember the huge sun-reflecting satellites which were to bring light to the dark parts of the earth (NASA forecast that this would be achieved by the mid ‘70’s); or human cloning by 1985, or newspapers delivered by fax by 1978, or superconductors being a billion dollar business by 1975, and, interestingly, the internal combustion engine being dead as a dodo by 1980.
Why technical forecasts fail
Why most forecasts fail may be as a result of the tendency to get swamped by the sheer technology wizardry. We make the assumption that this must be the “next great thing”. This is particularly dangerous when we see people clamouring to adopt it. I shudder when I think how the media jumped onto the Internet with overwhelming enthusiasm in the late nineties with the truly spectacular juggernaut that formed here. We are all familiar with that crash. Often new forecasts are reruns of earlier ones. Or are simply fads which everyone eagerly adopts with no real economic or technical logic.
On the other hand, new technologies are often simply delayed because everyone has invested so much in the existing ones. This slows down new innovative products being introduced - think of Microsoft Windows, for example.
Unexpected “disruptive technologies” can shorten life cycles of numerous products. One only needs to think of solid-state technology which rapidly knocked out electronic valves in short order.
A market tipping one way or another is often difficult to predict – a great example here is Sony Betamax (surely, technically the superior product) being overtaken after a long 30 year war of attrition by VHS video tapes.
Thus - don’t be an engineering pioneer
My take on all this is this: It is extremely dangerous to be the pioneer in any field. If you look at the history of technology, there is no doubt that we admire the technology pioneers (and in many cases they are remembered) – whether it was for the first steam engine, automobile, radio, radar, microcomputer, internet or spreadsheet. However, most of these pioneers failed to have much commercial (and often outright technical) success with their products. They were often superseded by others who refined these pioneering efforts. You only need to look at the most recent example here (and I know you will groan when I mention his name); Steve Jobs and the iPod. For years there were hundreds of iPod equivalents before Jobs refined the concept and made it frighteningly successful. The same thing happened with spreadsheets (remember VisiCalc) invented by Dan Bricklin. These were replaced shortly afterwards by the Microsoft Excel as the de facto standard. Similarly, with the internet. The initial pioneers have been swamped by a flood of very successful companies ranging from Google to Microsoft who apply this technology so very successfully. The same applies to Dell Computers. Steve Dell tried the pioneering route, but after severe losses rapidly backed off allowing others to take this dangerous lead. He still does exceptionally well using this approach (being well behind the “bleeding edge”).
Some brave pioneers do reach the summit, with their perfect products; but mostly they arrive breathless at base camp and have to retreat, a little worse for wear.
In conclusion then
My thesis is this: Being a pioneer can be wonderfully satisfying, but, more often than not, the result is lonely and can be financially defeating. By all means watch the cutting edge developments. But come in later, with a great product which makes sound business sense and refines the pioneering technology. This will inevitably be after the pioneers have launched their products with all their foibles and problems and left the stage battered and bruised, There is so much inertia in the market place that you will have time in which to study the trends of the pioneering products and launch your success story (which may be a tiny refinement of the initial successful product). Doubtless, you won’t do as well as there will be a range of competitors coming in at the same time as you; but you will have a good solid venture which may last for many years. Until the next wave arrives, that is.
Above all, it is our duty as engineers and technicians to constantly innovate and improve. Otherwise we wouldn’t be true to our mission. So pick engineering winners, but keep well behind the leading edge so that you can optimise them with the best results for you and others.
Thanks to Donald Christiansen of the IEEE for his interesting article.
Remember as the Forbes journal once gloomily remarked: “When you get the urge to predict the future, better lie down until it goes away.”
Yours in engineering