on August 29th, 2007

Dear Colleague

Three things today:

Engineering training survey. Thanks very much for the incredible response here. Within short order I have had over 1600 completed surveys – I will make the results available to everyone in the next two weeks. Some very interesting and useful comments have emerged – I am very grateful.

We have hounded you too much with emails. The powers-that-be here have decided that we are driving you to distraction by sending you too many emails so we plan to send out only one email every week with my note in it (together with our courses and books). Apologies for the previous deluge. I hope this makes it more palatable although it will make my life more challenging trying to find useful things to comment on more often. Please continue to send me ideas, feedback and suggestions. I will acknowledge them all. I will endeavour to add one technical tip at the end (mechanical/electrical/electronics/instrumentation).

Trust your guts and not always your engineering brain

Tonight, after reading my 10yo boy his bedtime story and fending off some ribald criticism why we still couldn’t get his crystal radio (from a kit) to work (some darned loose wire which I can’t quite find), I ruefully surveyed the technological carnage of the past few months in our firm.

I am supposed to be the technical expert here, but ….. One of my less technical colleague’s (a jovial Aussie) favourite expressions is: Mate, I don’t know sh…from rice pudding – as the engineer, you tell us what we need here. Well, two major disasters illustrate (once again) that advances in technology do not necessarily mean better outcomes. As the so called seasoned professional (one of our instructors used this to justify a pay raise), I don’t always make better decisions.

Two examples: Voice over IP (VoIP) is supposedly the name of the game – massive cost savings can be gained as your telephone calls are routed over the internet and incredible acrobatics can be performed in routing calls to wherever you are in the world. The initial cost was significant, naturally ($30k), but with a guaranteed payback within 6 to 12 months it seemed a sound investment. Once the new, beaut system from Cisco (the guys who provide the plumbing for the Internet) was installed, however, we had an almost immediate hacker attack on the telephone system (it is now linked into our computer network) which brought it down for 24 hours while our IT experts tried to work out what went wrong. And we have now found that the quality of the calls is so bad that we have to revert to the good old (expensive) telephone calls. Interestingly, effectively free, Skype, gives us far better quality than our much vaunted Cisco telephone system.

The second technology fiasco, which again shook me to my technical roots, was our computer system. For some 5 years we have depended on a cheap server which had become overloaded and slowed down a bit. We had to manually back up our data onto DVD or tape. Easy, but 30 minutes work per week. Well, the new, beaut system with redundancy (two servers – state of the art with incredible and expensive software), crashed last night with all the mail, shortly after being installed. Even with the backup the information was lost. The IT vendor was left scratching his head saying (inevitably): This has never happened before!

I read about Steve Dell, the billionaire of Dell Computers fame, who flirted with being the technology pioneer, but paid for it financially. He rapidly backtracked and now lets others try the new technologies to prove that they work before applying them to his range of computers.

So in essence – trust your guts and don’t invest in technological whizzbangery unless you are absolutely, 100% convinced that they are better and will give a great return. Avoid disappointment and save yourself a tonne of money by waiting until the herd of techno-philes have rushed ahead either crashing further up the pass or eventually proving the technology a sound and better option.

I like what James Klass says about this all: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo. Unfortunately both our computer and telephone systems are now simply useless rigged demos.

My problem now is to sort out what we do to get out of this mess. Any scrap merchants out there?

Yours in engineering learning

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