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The wonder of Clever

by | Feb 18, 2022 | Clever, Sly and The Family Stone, wonder

wondering if Clever is good…

One of my constant refrains was “how can we compete with our cost structure so out of line??” As we had finished our prototype to great accolades, we were now in the process of putting together a real proposal to get this system sold and installed into the Shuttle. I priced out an “empty” box – that is NOTHING in it, and NO actual design work. In 1983, that was $250,000 for each piece of equipment, and a Non-recurring cost of over $4 million. Finally, someone pointed out what I was missing… and no wonder. “This is a cost-plus based business – your profit was 6% of your costs… “

… in my mid-20’s by now, I realized there was not much International, or Business, frankly about IBM. As a captive contractor to the DOD, our Division was even slower moving than the main business, with no real incentive to improve their processes or costs. The mainstream business similarly spent more time competing with each other than with other companies. And now, I was watching many smaller companies dancing circles around us all, leveraging the PC better, faster, and more wonderfully Clever.

… and worth the risk…

Cynthia Robinson was born in 1944 in Oak Park, a neighborhood in Sacramento. She played flute in elementary school, but there were no flutes available at her high school, and she was told to play the clarinet. Unhappy, she asked a fellow student, whom she had heard playing the trumpet in a practice room, if she could give his instrument a try. “Everything I blew was off key, but I knew it could sound good if you worked on it, and that’s what I wanted to do,”

She attended Sacramento High School where she played trumpet in the school band. Robinson was taunted by the boys in her band class for being a black girl playing a “white boy’s instrument”. Robinson even recalled teachers suggesting she take up a different activity and save the trumpet for the boys, but Robinson was in love with the trumpet. Her first trumpet belonged to a beatnik, who told her she could have it if she played at one of his parties. “It smelled bad, it had all kinds of green crud inside the tubing, so I took it home, cleaned it, soaked it in hot water, cleaned it all out, and it was mine.”

By design, Sly wanted a mixed-race/multi-gendered posse. As the band was forming, Larry Graham brought his cousin, Cynthia. That first night no one picked up their instrument, but the vibe was already right. “That first day we all got together, we didn’t play, we just talked about what we were going to do,” drummer Greg Errico says. “Cynthia was shy, but cordial; she didn’t have a lot to say back then, but she was always friendly and present.” Jerry Martini adds, “She was very shy, but Sly brought it out of her.” The following day, when the band finally rehearsed, the first song they played was a cover of Ray Charles’s then-recent single “I Don’t Need No Doctor.”

wonder if Clever cares…

Computing now is dominated by a few chips (Intel/AMD, Apple M Series), a few operating systems (iOS, Windows)… but that is a fairly recent shift. Particularly in Aerospace, there were unique computers designed and built specifically for the aircraft, tank, sub, or ship. This meant there was very little competition, but more importantly, almost no ability to move programmers or engineers as needed. The Air Force observed this and started the process of standardizing first on a computer architecture called MIL-STD 1750a – a reference document developed to define what most of you would compare to the Intel 8086. A 16-bit processor, it was “the only processor” you could bid on Air Force proposals. Across the services, they also developed a single language for “all software to be written in” – ostensibly named for the first “programmer”, Charles Babbage’s daughter Ada. They thought this Clever, single approach would provide more open competition and easier workforce development .

The Space Program, while having funded so much of our technical infrastructure including the rapid expansion of our universities in the 60’s, now was very much an afterthought in budgets. So while the rest of our division pivoted to following this new mantra, I wondered what it would mean for us. Recall that for each piece of space equipment, there were 20 to 40 versions built and maintained to match it here on the ground for simulators, test equipment, even software development. The PC was now pervasive, and perfectly suited for lab automation which is what the Space Station actually was – a large experimental platform with … no gravity.

The final touch was to actually get a piece of equipment into space, it had to be built to very high standards for temperature and radiation effects. Intel had been selling chips into that market since the ’60s, and was, in fact, in the process of certifying their brand new processor, the Intel 386, to be used in military and space applications. So – I wondered if we could be Clever and flip this problem upside down. Instead of building a unique computer for space, could we use low-cost equipment here on the ground, and “clone” it for the small number needed to fly?

Clever comes from the wonder perspective

Looking back, much of my Cleverness came from my family system. All of my grandparents were masters at taking the bits and pieces of stuff they had and crafting Clever pieces of equipment or amazing meals. My father had a quote that baffled me at first, but wonderfully has guided me since I started to exercise it regularly: “Change the problem to one you can solve”. Many will focus on “fixing” what they are not good at, instead of looking for a way to leverage their strengths. That ability to flip things upside down is a wonderful onramp to Clever leadership. Think about that for you, and for your team – what would make wonder and Clever show up more often?

Questlove of the hip hop band the Roots has called Robinson the original “hype man.” Robinson was among the first female trumpeters in a major American band, and the first such player in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her approach to what we now call “rap” from the stage, and her striking blond hair on a Black woman, blowing her horn at full volume… for me is the personification of wonderfully Clever. Her masterpiece, and one that suggests what you need to really focus on… once you have clarity… Sing a Simple Song.

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