From constraints, Clever engages
It was another late night in the lab, and by now we had been slugging away at our project for over 18 months. It was just me and my office mate/partner, everyone else had long gone home. We KNEW our design would work but it just was not coming to life. Each reset, it would make it a bit further than before… then, nothing. Finally, I looked at the pattern coming up, and realized that 6 of the signals never changed. “I think those memory chips are bad”. Replacing them, we hit the reset button… and up came the greatest 7 characters I have ever seen: MACSBUG.
While the Cosmic Ray journey was one of my most memorable, I actually had a “real” day job. If you know me, focus is not a word that people use with me often. However, a word that I have been called, and now actually aspire to is Clever. And like many people’s “normal” it is hard to define what it actually is. With MANY years behind me now, I have a better idea of what it is, and also how to show others how they can engage this critical leadership skill to their teams. So building on the themes so far this year, I would like to dive into Clever – what is it, why do you need it, and how do you nurture it – in you and others.
And Diversity is naturally Clever
Continuing our focus on Black artists for their History Month, I can’t think of a band that mixes together the themes we have been exploring with more Cleverness than Sly and the Family Stone. If you haven’t seen Summer of Soul on Hulu, please find a way to see the whole thing. Sly’s set is just amazing, and QuestLove put in more of their material because they were so alive and full of the power that permeated the movement. The outtakes of the people who were there now in their 60’s were priceless. One exclaimed, “How do you put this together? A woman trumpet player, an organ, some guy slapping the bass… and with a WHITE guy playing drums???”
Ben Fong-Torres, Sly Stone (né Sylvester Stewart) explained the concept behind Sly and the Family Stone: “If there was anything to be happy about, then everybody’d be happy about it. If there were a lot of songs to sing, then everybody got to sing. If we have something to suffer or a cross to bear – we bear it together.” They became the poster children for a particularly San Francisco sensibility of the late Sixties: integrated, progressive, indomitably idealistic. Their music was a combustible mix of psychedelic rock, funky soul, and sunshine pop It placed them at a nexus of convergent cultural movements, and in turn, they collected a string of chart-topping hits. And they were fully integrated in the mid 60’s with whites, blacks, women, and men, all playing at the top of their game.
Clever engages way out there…
We were designing a new display system for the Shuttle using modern chips, and also modern color displays. My office partner was working on designing the processor board, and I was assigned to design a memory board to match it. Reaching as far out as I could, I picked the fastest and densest memory chips I could find in 1981 – 64K – or 64,000 memory bits. So with 16 of these, we would have 128K bytes of memory. By reference today your phone comes with multiple GIGA bytes – so nearly 1 Million times as much. And with that upgrade, the display system would have more storage than the onboard computers that were flying the whole Shuttle.
… by leveraging the little you have already…
As you read more about musicians, one common denominator is most start out very poor, and had to figure out a way to create something that not only was new and different, it had to pay the bills. One definition I like of Clever is “quick to understand, learn, and devise or apply ideas“ with this additional proclamation: “ingenious”. It is natural in engineering, which is all about constraints. If you remember the scene from Apollo 13 where the disheveled engineer dumps a box of parts on a table and says, “We have to build something that makes this fit into that using only these things”… that is it. It is not the smartest, or necessarily the best, but the most off the wall… that works.
While I was not poor, my family system was formed during the Great Depression. My grandparents raised small kids in a time when work was hard to find, to say nothing of what path to follow. One wandered across Oklahoma, the other across North Texas, and both made it through that with amazing Cleverness. Thus my entire family system was unified with the theme of “how can I do something with the least cost, reusing things I have, etc…” Just buying something “new”… well, that was like admitting defeat – if you couldn’t build it, bargain hard for it, modify it, it was not worth having. It is an undying belief that you can actually figure something out if you work at it hard enough. I am not saying that is the only approach to things… but it is where I have seen Cleverness happen the most.
engage to drive Clever
That night, we did it. We had proven we could actually get a modern set of chips to come to life, and start the process of showing what a “real” computer could do to automate the work of the astronauts. But what made that Clever? Stick with the story this week and there will be a few glimpses along the way to show how to put yourself into a place to be Clever… or at least understand those around you that are always bringing you off the wall ideas… like Sly did with this multi-gender, multi-racial band that was a walking testimony to fun and Cleverness. Their very first hit, and one that appropriately describes where Cleverness usually starts – as the Underdog.