The idea of learning from experience breaks in the face of rapid change

From Slashdot | The Curse of Knowledge Bogs Down Innovation

Engineering Credo (Score:5, Insightful)

by anorlunda (311253) on Sunday December 30, @11:22AM (#21856978)
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The point in the NYT article was much more profound that just user interfaces. I spent my entire career in engineering software battling the tendency of engineers to build ever thicker walls around their thinking boxes as their careers advanced.

Most difficult were engineers who learned clever tricks to conserving memory in their programming. As Moore’s progressed, those skills devalued, then became worthless, and finally became negative in value. I had one engineer at late as 1987 who would spend two days effort to save three bytes of memory in his program. Engineers are trained to build on experience, and they expect their experiences to add to their value synergistically as the years pass. The idea that past experience could have negative value was a threat to their personal credos and their career strategy.

It got so bad in my company that I once advocated hiring programmers at age 13, taking them out of school and exploiting them until age 23. At 23 we would force them to retire and finance them to finish high school and college, then move on to some other career. Needless to say, I didn’t get very far with that policy.

What should we expect? The whole profession of engineering is based on the concept of incrementally adding to and improving on past experience, from the Romans up to today. Every time a bridge collapses or some other engineering disaster occurs, the public demands that we learn lessons and never ever commit that error again. After 2,000 years of that, how much innovation can you expect?

Contrast that with what is happening at Google. According to reports, Google employees dink around with their own ideas. Sometimes they show up for work on Monday with a bit of prototype code, then they circulate it around the company looking for reactions. The winners survive and the losers disappear without any bridges collapsing or innocent people being killed. That’s what so great about software — it is so easy to prototype. To fully exploit it, you need people who don’t know what they can’t do.

There was a great book called Computer Wars [amazon.com] made the same point about innovation and corporations rather than individuals. The book’s point was that if and when the time comes to change the base business model and technology upon which the company was founded, that the founders feel threatened and the company fails. The battle fields re littered with the corpses of countless companies that fell victim to that trap. Now think of Google again. If and when the day comes that the Internet is no longer the big thing, will Google be flexible enough to reinvent itself or will it just die?

How about yourself? if someday the sun came up and the Internet was no longer important, could you reinvent yourself? Can you even imagine that possibility? Probably not — your thinking box won’t allow for such possibilities.

Why pick on engineers? (Score:3, Insightful)

by jwiegley (520444) on Sunday December 30, @12:40PM (#21857616)

I’m tired of hearing engineers blamed as being uncreative, uncooperative, stubborn, “need to think out of the box” people. It’s a generalization based upon limited knowledge and fear of those people.

The axiom is true of every other field or profession I can think of. Do you think politicians are thinking outside the box these days? Or are they sticking with what worked in the 1920s? How about natural scientists? Einstein went to his grave refusing to believe in quantum entanglement calling it “spooky action at a distance”. Marketing people? Have you seen a really different car ad in the past three decades? Accountants? Bound by limitations of math. Their numbers just have to add up and like bridges falling down if you do something shaky you get Enron type accounting.

Oh! you meant children and artists are creative. First, children. They draw on paper and come up with crazy new ideas. Well except that the things they draw can’t be built due to physics of materials and usually they’re crazy ideas can’t be built because they aren’t practical enough to be profitable or affordable. They don’t have an understanding of constraints and constraints must be factored into any product. Second, artists. Come now… really look at the works of Jackson Pollock. Are his later pieces really that much more outside of his box than his first splatters of paint? I went to a gallery exhibit once and one artist painted nothing but cloud scenes over country sides and the other made nothing but abstract, headless sculptures of narrow shouldered big assed women. No artists do not think outside of their boxes any more than engineers do.

The reality is that the world, people and the universe impose constraints on any projects. As any person gets older they learn what works to keep them alive and what does not and it is very effective. It has been very effective for ten of thousands of years. Do not eat the pretty frogs no matter how hungry you are. “Out side of the box” dictates: “consider that this frog is different.” NO! do NOT eat the pretty frogs… period. You are much better off thinking inside of the box.

Engineers are some of the most creative people I have ever met. They are given a goal, often with no direction of how to get there and they must reach that goal while always satisfying very tight constraints. This type of creativity is very hard. It’s easy on canvas with paint but a canvas picture of an engine doesn’t have to be manufacturable, it doesn’t have to be profitable, it doesn’t have to produce a certain minimum horsepower, it doesn’t have to spin at a certain maximum revolution without seizing the bearings, it doesn’t have to be made out of a certain material yet be strong enough and weigh less than a certain amount, it doesn’t have to fit in a limited size cavity or connect to other components in a functional way. Yet engineered products have to have enough creativity in them to accomplish all of that and more.

Software engineering is no different. If lines of code are considered like bolts, screws and components; all of which provide some functionality. Then there are as many individual pieces in any application you use today, be it games, Word, Mozilla, than there are in a space shuttle or strokes of a brush by Monet.

The real disappointment is that the art and creativity that engineers produce is rarely recognized or appreciated. And it should be. It is so creative, in fact, that most people don’t even know it’s there or could understand it even if it was explained to them.

Engineers have their own wu and it is very, very strong.

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