Seeing is Believing
What the Hell Just Happened?
Is round-the-clock engineering any way to live?
IDLENESS, n. A model farm where the devil experiments with seeds of new sins and promotes the growth of staple vices.
– Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary.
What makes a marketing expert a Marketing Expert?

What distinguishes a soft skill from a hard skill?

Is expertise conferred with an MBA at the tender age of 27? (How can somebody be considered a master of anything at 27?) Does wisdom come from meeting one’s quota nine reporting periods out of 10? Is it filling up spaces with arcane verbiage, hoping the reader is overwhelmed and won’t ask impertinent questions, like what does this all mean, and how does it benefit me?

Conversely, is acquisition of a hard skill dependent on one’s mastery of differential equations, and number theory, and polar coordinates, and game theory, and Brier scores, and C++?

What is mastery? Who attests to it? Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. Given the events of the past 14 months, have we mastered living and working at home? And Zoom?

What makes an educated person, and how does that translate to revenue-rendering job skills? Big picture: Does choosing electrical engineering over sociology make one a superior human being? How does one quantify superiority? Are engineers more adept at recognizing the untruth of alternative facts than humanities graduates? Why are so many technical professionals contemptuous of their nontechnical colleagues?

Ernest Hemingway is having a moment right now, perhaps because 60 years ago he hastened his demise, also because the media tends to fixate on anniversaries with zeros. Add guns, as Hemingway did, and the draw is irresistible. Prior to that 1961 infelicity, he wrote compact, understandable, hard-drinking, tough-guy prose that won him a Nobel and anointed him poster boy for creative writing teachers everywhere.

What can we learn by combining the literary spareness of Hemingway with the inherent tendency to dispense bullshit (for a fee) by marketing “experts” who tend to charge by the hour, if not by the word?

The Hemingwayesque response might be, “I paid for that?

Much has also been written recently about McKinsey, a famous management consultancy. It made its name peddling advice to large companies with insecure management. Insecurities come from not knowing exactly how to position companies to benefit from present trends, and separating trends from passing fads. Is such advice worth the price? Consider history: Did the know-it-alls at McKinsey make the right calls on offshoring? Reshoring? Pandemic in between? Industry 4.0 when the world returns to some definition of normal?

What does it all mean? Especially to small companies like my own that don’t have a prayer of affording such advice, now or anytime soon, but that need well-coached big companies to write the standards, attend the conferences, lobby the government, and generally stay on society’s good side? Assuming, for discussion’s sake, the advice was worth having in the first place. Are small companies, by virtue of their smallness, missing gateways and market share because they can’t afford such counsel? With apologies to Hemingway, and John Donne, for whom does the bell toll?

None dares call them soft skills. You know, the ones we aren’t supposed to showcase on our résumés. Because “team player” and “natural born leader” and “ability to navigate a pandemic with little preparation and no prior experience” are givens. Better the interviewer know you’ve mastered Python and Raspberry Pi.

Sure.

John Wayne Gacy had a soft skill. He loved kids. He was also good with knives. Quiet guy. Always kept to himself. Paid his taxes. Never bothered anybody. Kind of a “people person,” in his own understated way. Funny smell coming from the direction of his house. You simply can’t judge a book by its cover.

Why are so many American serial killers named Wayne?

What is your vision of hell?

  • Eternal public radio pledge week?
  • A nonstop flight to nowhere with a screaming toddler in the row behind you? Some Rapture. I want my money back.
  • Fox News, in a road to Damascus moment, suddenly and inexplicably praising the virtues of wind and solar power? Or MSNBC warming to the Second Amendment?
  • Life with or without video screens?
  • A 72 rpm vinyl record of Ethel Merman belting out showtunes with a skip in it?
  • Returning to the office?

A paper in the April 8 issue of Nature reports research findings that people favor complex solutions over simple solutions to problems, despite evidence that subtracting features is more efficient. No authors from McKinsey – or members of Congress – appeared in the byline.

Who knew Francis Galton was the father of standard deviations, regression to the mean, and an early version of crowdsourcing?

The Chinese say 996 (working 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, six days a week) is the key to success. To succeed, you can’t restrict yourself to 40 hours. That is certain. But are 90 to 120 hours of work per week really necessary to get ahead, let alone get rich? Whither the anthill? All work and no play makes Johnny a disagreeable monopolist.

It is a really good time to be an economist. The market for slick-looking growth forecast charts is almost limitless. A lot of data to mine, with many ways to interpret how mass unemployment begins and ends. Fertile ground to test whether green jobs are good jobs.

“A post from a
leading AOI manufacturer
says there is no such thing as
too much inspection.
Wait one damn minute.”
This morning a post from a leading AOI manufacturer says there is no such thing as too much inspection. Wait one damn minute. I came of age in the ‘80s, when the Japanese were eating everyone’s lunch, and W. Edwards Deming and JIT were the rage, and the plan was to build in quality and put quality establishments out of business. What the hell happened?

How quickly should one respond to an email or a LinkedIn request? Does an immediate or instant response connote desperation? How is desperation revealed in elapsed seconds or minutes between initial request and subsequent response, and how does one draw the line between keen interest and desperation? Who draws what impressions from this, and why?

Remember this fundamental truth: Google and Facebook are, at their core, advertising companies. Recent political controversies merely distract from the main prize. Strip away the techie veneer and that’s what you get: an updated version of the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, with hoodies.

This concludes a compendium of lockdown-induced contemplation. You may now exit the kaleidoscope of my mind as the ride comes to a complete stop.

Now we’re vaccinated. Back to work. Get organized. Focus. Clean out the mental attics.

Endure customers trying to enforce their vision of restored normalcy.

Oh, them.

Like the third party deputized by a customer to conduct a quality survey on one week’s notice. Never mind 11 years’ doing business, plus all the right aerospace certifications. Oh no, they had to see for themselves. Answer #1: We don’t do onsite quality surveys on one week’s notice. Answer #2: We don’t do onsite visits, period, until further notice (still playing it safe and waiting for widespread vaccinations to have their effect). Learn Zoom or send forms to be filled out. They went away. Nice try.

Or the engineer who really wants to sit with our x-ray technician while we inspect his product. He wants to be able to direct us where to look (as if we can’t figure it out) and where to take pictures. He also can’t let his product out of his sight. Something about IP. He earnestly sets forth his reasons for company policy. We respond with equal zeal that extraordinary circumstances demand the inflexible abstract rules be bent, and that he accept our terms and stay remote. He bends the rules; we get the job.

Or the program manager who insists we maintain a program build schedule despite our principal project engineer’s sudden, unplanned serious illness. And a pandemic. And an OEM design engineer with only the faintest grasp of the capabilities of the Keysight 3070 in-circuit test system. Minor inconveniences became major when the PM attempted to micromanage the transition from the ill engineer to his replacement. What followed was a bevy of helpful suggestions like, “Can you call Keysight and ask if in the midst of this pandemic by chance they have additional idle resources to add to this project?” (We did, and Keysight didn’t.) And, “Could you assure us that any testing activity on our boards be done separately and by separate people from the engineer debugging our other programs?” And of course, “Can we please get a day-by-day list of project milestones, including expected completion dates for each of the 26 power-up test steps contained within our engineer’s statement of work? Include in your spreadsheet both expected as well as achieved dates, and be prepared to explain any deviations from projected completion dates.” Program debug and defined project milestones don’t coexist well. They didn’t in this case either.

Or every customer who now thinks they have license to do business 24/7/365, and not because of the difference between Asian and American time zones. These are locals. The unspoken assumption is work time is endless, and endlessly flexible, and suppliers should be endlessly available to inquiring clients. Those who desire to compete ignore these unwritten rules at their peril.

What do McKinsey’s bright young things make of that over their spreadsheets? Did they anticipate round-the-clock availability emerging from our enforced hermit life?

Ernest Hemingway is not available for comment.

Robert Boguski headshot
Robert Boguski
is president of Datest Corp. (datest.com); rboguski@datest.com. His column runs bimonthly.