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A geek goes to the dark side

I spent a week in September at an ISA conference in New Orleans. The conference was intended for engineers who want to escape to the dark side. I define the dark side as marketing and sales. I warned my fellow geeks that once they go into marketing and sales for several years, it’s almost impossible to get back into technology because the rate of technological change, as we all know, is something we cannot slow down.

I gave three talks at the ISA conference. The first was MIT’s reaction to the marathon tragedy entitled “MIT Media Marathon.” The second was entitled “Why You Shouldn’t Take an Engineer on a Field Trip.” I called the third talk “Pack Size,” and it was intended to give everybody a headache.

MIT Media Marathon was a synopsis of MIT’s unofficial attitude to the marathon tragedy. The sequence of events: April 15 (marathon bombings), April 18 (one officer shot dead on campus) and April 19 (suspects and police exchange gunfire, one suspect dead). Instead of rehashing the event, one thing sticks out in my research. The social media we trusted to indicate an event had occurred distorted the event beyond all expectations. I suspect that we will see repercussions about management of social media reporting. MIT has no real opinion here other than to state the obvious.

On the second day of the conference, we talked about engineering relationships to marketing and sales. We had some fun with this. On a show of hands, a significant portion of the audience would not take an engineer on a sales call. I know when sales asked me to go on a call, the primary command was to “shut up until I ask you to talk.” I tried hard to describe the engineer’s view to marketing and sales. I presented some Dilbert cartoons — we engineers believe the world is truly a Dilbert world — and a load of Star Trek imagery. To engineers, people issues are distracting and boring.


Having said that, I do believe that engineers will be more successful if they get out more. Here’s why: When we were designing the first fast food cash register (FasFax), we got nowhere when explaining how fast food works. So we put some of the engineers and salesmen to work in a fast food joint. That opened their eyes. The result: Instead of a numerical keyboard on the fast food cash register, we included pictures of the food. The keyboard became large but instantly useable by new employees in a high turnover business. There you go — proof that you can achieve success when the sales and engineering departments get out and work together.

But truth be told, you cannot teach an engineer anything. You can’t teach them how to fold a map, soft boil an egg or dress “properly.” We really do believe reality is Dilbert. Ladder logic sequence, sequential function charts and IEC 61131 are languages. And getting an engineer to an event is difficult. He won’t go unless beverages are served in cans, pizza is the common food and Wi-Fi is always available anywhere in the party.

In preparing for my talk on why you shouldn’t take an engineer on a field trip, I thought I’d do some homework. I called up my friend Rick at SCADAWare to see what the president’s opinion was. Alas, Rick was on the road. Instead, I got his secretary, so I invited her to answer a question about geeks. I queried, “Do you have a husband or boyfriend?” She replied, “Not serious.” “What do you think about geeks going out and what is your major complaint?” She thought a moment and said, “They have to measure everything,” and giggled. Enough said.

The last talk was a technical discussion of human pack size. We’ve talked about this in other columns. The short summary is (by actual experiment) that the pack size is less than 10 people. Opinions, not data, vary from seven people down to about three. A recommended reading on this is The Mythical Man-Month. It’s a small, old book written by an IBM geek.

The pack size was shown to be true by demonstration. We had several tables in a room trying to decide which city the next conference should be held in. Each table of about seven people could agree on a city, but the group could not — obvious support to the pack size.

Well, enough of the social commentary. We’ll return to real geek talk in the next issue. But don’t hold your breath.

This column originally appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.