July 26, 2004

Telling the Difference on Feasability

Steven Den Beste's current article lays into a major problem, the unreasonable expectations people have of engineers and other practical problem solvers.

He justly pounds into the ground the starry eyed optimists who just wave their hands and airly declare "just make it happen". He alludes to, but does not address, a paired problem (that falls to me). He says "Engineers are magicians, and we're supposed to make magic happen. We've pulled off so many miracles before, so why not this one?" It's a very good question and deserving a serious answer.

The problem is twofold. Sometimes Pointy Haired Bosses (PHBs) ask the infeasible of engineers and are unsatisfied with the engineer's realistic response that it's not going to happen. But other times, the PHBs ask for something that is feasible but either beyond the imagination or beyond the work ethic of the particular engineer. The response by the engineer in this latter case is verbally indistinguishable from the former case. The PHB can't tell the difference. This leads to guessing on the part of the PHB as to when the engineers are lying and two bad outcomes, infeasible projects going forward and feasible projects getting stopped.

One example of a feasible project getting stopped with large worldwide consequences is the Nazi A-bomb. It turns out that some errors led the engineers to convince their masters that an A-bomb was simply infeasible. Thankfully, nobody corrected their error but from an engineer v. PHB view, the engineers were clearly in the wrong as the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki learned a short time later. The major controversy left in the area is whether the mistake was really a mistake or subtle scientific sabotage.

So the socially useful question is what is the appropriate tool set for PHBs and other non-engineers to tell when the engineers are lying, mistaken, or correct. The problem becomes even worse because there two major types of engineer liars, the lazy that I describe above and the greedy who see endless R&D budgets for infeasible projects. That particular wrinkle, I'll save for another article but this state of greed would explain a lot of SDB's skepticism to alternative energy claims.

At the heart of "just make the magic happen" pablum is, I think, a social engineering test. The PHB who says such things may be a technoignorant boob but not necessarily so. He might just be looking for secondary markers of dishonesty. He also might be pushing for a more thorough analysis of the possibilities before abandoning this course. In short, he's annoying his engineers to a purpose, a purpose that he cannot directly satisfy because he, himself, does not have the technical skills necessary to directly find out why he's hearing no.

It's pretty obvious that SDB (along with an army of engineers who don't have the audience SDB has) keeps hitting this problem in various contexts. He's likely to keep right on running into it until some sort of reliable "truth telling engineer/lying engineer" methodology is worked out. Unfortunately, in this context, my contribution is limited to problem identification.

Posted by TMLutas at July 26, 2004 10:25 AM