Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Smartest Guy in the Room: An Organizational Anti-Pattern

Every software developer thinks they're smart. Heck, I think I'm very smart. But organizations seem to go badly wrong any time they anoint one person (or a few people) as the guy(s) to make all the smart decisions, and demote everyone else to code monkey.

I worked in a big organization where several senior developers convinced management to take them out of their business units, and put them in a special R&D cost center. They were going to do user interface research that would inform the next generation of products. Now, if this had been Bell Labs, and these guys had all been PhDs, they might have discovered the Cosmic Microwave Background or something. But these were just guys. When the team I was on asked these special devs to do some user interface research for our next product, they said, "Oh no, we can't be tied to a particular product." As far as I know this group never produced so much as a PowerPoint presentation. They were disbanded after a couple of years.

A company where I worked purchased a startup that found itself out of money and on the market for cheap. Their fast-talking CTO was a former employee of my company. He talked my company into putting him in charge of all development in our division, singing the following siren song. "You've been spending way too much time and money on carefully designing and architecting your products. At my company, what we did was just built 'things' and put them in a pile. Once a year or so, I would reach into the pile and pull out enough 'things' to make a shippable product." This strategy had worked so successfully for his last two companies that one had been folded into the other, and the survivor sold to us. It worked so well for us that he went through two years and six million dollars without producing a single product. Our division was shut down and everyone laid off, including the fast-talking smart guy, but not the two managers responsible for hiring him.

At another company, a smart team was created to write a big Windows editor to solve our very complicated configuration problem for a variety of products. They spent 18 months working (not too successfully) on a universal data input editor. But they never considered the complex problem of compiling the input data for each of several rather different products into usable files. They had in fact no idea how to solve this problem. So they never showed a single working version. They built a rather elaborate castle in the air, starting from the fancy gabled roof downward, hoping they would have an inspiration for how to build the foundation when they got to that point.

Moral: The smartest guy in the room needs to be managed just as much as the most ordinary. Otherwise they are liable to go off course and waste a bunch of time and talent, just like anyone else.

Friday, December 26, 2014

NASA's "Decline" is America's Triumph

On the day I was born, the only thing orbiting the Earth was the moon. By the time I was 5, however, the two most advanced nation-states had gotten men into orbit. This culminated, when I was twelve, in a manned moon landing. I recall very clearly how the entire world seemed to stop and take a collective breath as terrible, grainy TV pictures and prosaic radio traffic chronicled mankind's greatest technical achievement.

Fifty years on, only one more nation has launched men into orbit, and a coalition of european nations can send hardware into deep space. But the United States no longer launches men and women into orbit. We retired the Shuttle fleet after demonstrating that this task, while risky and expensive, could be performed routinely.

NASA has lost its way, some people say. America has lost its will, some people say. Another symbol of decline, say some.

I don't think so.

An American company called SpaceX, with only 1,100 employees, has learned to reliably launch payloads to orbit. Manned launches are close, held back mostly by concerns that their safety be more thoroughly demonstrated. A couple of other companies are close. Their cost per kilo to orbit is a fraction of that charged by the defense giants who assemble rockets for governments.

This result is astonishing. It means, here in the U.S. at least, we don't need the government to fund commercial activities in space. They fund themselves. It is a triumph of capitalism, almost unheralded. What it means is, the United States wasn't sitting on its hands for the last fifty years. We were investing in materials science, electronics, software, and all the things that actually make up a space mission. We were making launch capability reliable enough that companies would risk nine-digit bankrolls on activities in space. In the language of business, we built a reliable supply chain to space. This was something NASA knew we needed to do way back in 1980.

And where is NASA? Right where they should be, reaching out for another planet that we cannot yet grasp. Probably all other planets by the time we put boots on Mars. This year (2014), there isn't one part of a Mars mission that we really know how to do; keeping human beings healthy and strong on a long voyage; soft-landing a big payload on Mars; building a rocket on-site for the return to Earth. Some of these problems can be solved by brute force and expenditure of treasure. That's what NASA is for. And right behind are the entrepeneurs and their engineering teams, looking to finesse these problems to make it economical.

To those who say we should forget about space and spend NASA's budget to end poverty and hunger, I have this to say. Poverty exists by definition. It can't be eradicated in a society that rewards achievement. And NASA's budget could not banish hunger from the world for as much as a single day, especially where and when evil men wield hunger as a political weapon. President Kennedy had it just right when he said we do things like exploring space, "not because they are easy, but because they are hard." Mankind needs something to strive against, in order to make progress. What Kennedy didn't mention was that the problem of going to Mars is actually more tractable than the problem of ending hunger.

And to those who say manned exploration is frivolously expensive when robots can do it better, I say this. Who cares if there is an ocean on Titan if we will never stand on its shore? Why return pictures of Mars' dusty, cobbled plains if we will never walk them? Expanding mankind's reach is the only reason to visit space. We should only use robots where we cannot yet venture.

Mankind's conquest of orbit is nearly complete. The geeky men and women who will design, build, and fly the first manned Mars mission are in high school right now. They grew up in a world where manned space launches were so routine they only made the news by being so dramatically photogenic.

I expect to watch the Mars landing in beautiful hi-def color before I die of old age. Maybe on my wall-sized flat screen, maybe on my wristwatch. The men who landed on the moon were my father's age. The men and women who land on Mars will be my childrens' age.

So stop wasting time reading this and get to work!