Engineering Disaster

When you read the news these days, you can’t help but be left with a real feeling of helplessness. I don’t mean the kind of distraught, outright despair and restless nights one might experience after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. No, this is more of a ‘we knew this was going to happen, and there’s little or nothing that can be done now,’ kind of helplessness.

At work, I’m an industrial engineer. I design, build and integrate hardware and software together to make functional solutions, so I tend to consciously, and at times, subconsciously, to analyze things and derive one or more approaches to a solution. In the last 30 years of doing this kind of work, I’ve observed that not everyone who comes to an engineering firm or group wants a solution. Further, of those that have expressed their desire for a solution to be found or created, there’s a remarkably high percentage of these clients that completely disregard the engineering recommendations, or don’t implement the solution. More on this later.

If it were a few isolated incidents here and there, it could be written off as poor engineering work product (and plenty of examples come to mind) or faulted as the result of a measure of miscommunication at some crucial stage in the solution development process that crippled the adoptive process for the client.

While I observe the engineering industry and the goings on in the companies I’ve worked at and work in, this odd tendency remains true not only across engineering disciplines and their market segments, it remains true in every industry, business and institution I’ve seen.

Let me illustrate here with a couple of examples.

Several years back, when I worked for a brand-name sports and apparel company, we developed a mobile credentialing and access control system for athletes and visitors to the company hospitality suite at all major sporting events around the world. It started life as an idea by a then defunct .COM and was dropped in my lap some years after our company had terminated the contract with said .COM – the equipment was gathering dust in a forgotten closet where I was relegated to make it work in time for the 2004 summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.

A few months later, I emerged with a working system. That’s when they added another person to the project – a project manager. Over the next year, a few more team members were added and we brought the little system from a very manually operated setup of cameras, wireless routers, badge printers and a ‘football’ server to a fairly full-featured global event management system. I traveled with the system to the pre-Olympic track & field event in Los Angeles, then to Athens Greece in 2004, and finally Helsinki Finland in 2005. When the system was being prepped for the 2006 Winter Olympics to be held in Torino, Italy, I was approached by my new manager and asked what it would take to operate the system. The idea was that they wanted to save cost by sending less expensive resources – this was understandable and expected.

My reply was that since the system had always been designed and built on a shoe-string budget, there were no automated setups or menus from which to click ‘fix’ or ‘setup’ buttons from. For instance – the ‘football’ server was a small mini-ITX form-factor setup that ran Windows 2003 Server and Oracle Server version 9i. It was the nexus point for 5 wireless laptop clients with USB-attached cameras and two dye-sublimation badge printers that jammed if you stared at them cross-eyed. I stated that they needed to send an individual familiar with the setup and one that possessed a blend of hardware and software troubleshooting skill sets, as the Olympic environment was an unforgiving one, since it was a high profile event. They (my manager and his assistant) agreed, but sent the technically challenged project manager to the event anyway.  This, at least in my field, is what we refer to as a ‘predictable outcome.’

During the event, the project manager was on the phone with me almost every night (late, very late our time) trying to make sense out of the problems that kept surfacing. The system came back with dozens of stuck-on labels that read, “bad” or “inoperative” and in a follow-up meeting, our new boss expressed his deeply felt conviction that the entire team had let him down because the customer (the Sports Marketing group) had done everything except pour gasoline on him and light him on fire. While he went clockwise around the room, asking every individual in the meeting what we could have done differently (most of them weren’t involved with the project at any level) I sat quietly and simply listened to the many theories.

Finally, he turned to me and stated that he was most interested in what I thought. I would like  to say this is where I threw him out the 3rd floor window after having set him on fire, despite the leniency shown by Sports Marketing, but I’d be writing this from prison had I entertained that idea beyond the initial mental spark…

What amazed me then was that despite my even-handed redress of the ‘faulty’ equipment and findings of no systemic problems which were subsequently validated by another engineer, he maintained that it was somehow the team’s fault that the Torino event was declared a spectacular failure (all the while looking at me when he’d reiterate that mantra.) As it turned out, the project manager had essentially begged him to go to Torino as Italy was his home country and he hadn’t been back since he was a kid. The Sports Marketing folks informed me later that he and his wife quickly jettisoned after the Olympics were over, leaving the clean-up to the Sports Marketing team, as he’d scheduled vacation for 20 days immediately after the event. A goodly portion of their ire, as it turns out, was directed towards the project manager’s work-ethic and not so much at the equipment which had worked beautifully at all the other (and subsequent) events.

Here’s the point.

Had the manager taken the good advice of someone who knew the system and had sent a technically competent person (even if it was or wasn’t me) we would’ve avoided that bad experience with our customer altogether. In the end, the manager’s decision was manifestly less about the responsible thing to do than it was to satisfy or appease a friend by doing them a favor. His attitude and behavior following this event demonstrated that he’d learned nothing about listening to and acting on the good counsel of his team.

The second example illustrates that it’s not just in engineering work that we see this problem.

Despite your political inclinations to one side or the other, one can’t help but wonder how the President of the United States could conscionably skip half of his security briefings and yet assert that it was an intelligence failure that allowed ISIS to become what it is today? Perhaps I don’t know enough of the relevant facts, or have the real story behind the unfolding events. That could entirely be true. Since most news outlets are now unabashedly peddling partisan views of world events, there’s no room for anyone suggesting they know everything for certain.

Despite the warnings, the best advice and input from his most senior military advisers, our President has made and continues to make the decision(s) to play down, disregard, (and as documented, 50% of the time) has outright skipped-out on the security briefings that raised the issue of Al-Qaeda (now ISIS) growing in numbers and power.  ISIS has demonstrated itself as an evil terrorist cancer that needs to be met head-on and decisively. Yet, we can readily read and watch the actions and statements from the Oval office that the commitment and decisiveness to do just that are bizarrely missing from the equation.

Again, I fear this is going to be what we refer to in my business as a predictable outcome.

To conclude this observare commentarium I’m left wondering how deeply corrupt our current model of self-governance has become? I see this problem everywhere I turn, everywhere I work and in just about every relationship I see or read about.

Good inputs are routinely disregarded, and are exchanged for convenience, or as it were, to do a ‘favor’ for someone else at the expense of the greater corporation. Is our record-low approval ratings President now feeling a little embattled? Is his fragile ego ultimately driving his decisions? Is he trying to appease the ever dwindling circle of his sycophants by making such foolish and blind declarations that we can solve the ISIS problem without putting boots on the ground? No competent engineer would have advised my manager back then that it would be a good idea to send in an un-trained, technically challenged project manager to do an engineer’s job at a high-profile world event.

And you know what else? I think I can also boldly state that no competent military adviser has told the President that we can even begin to address the ISIS crisis with a handful of airstrikes and tomahawks.

Golf, anyone?

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