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.
Leadership topic - Clever
What breeds what many are looking for in the workforce today? Creativity, Innovation, and most importantly, Engagement – all come from encouraging and embracing constraints… with this word that you don’t hear much today…
A critical skill that leaders and teams often overlook is built from the inevitable constraints we have to operate under. Budgets, schedules, markets, customers – all eventually lead to the paradox that usually then leads to tough decisions. Often in those moments of conflict, another voice can be found, one that takes a different approach, often risky, always challenging, and most importantly, Clever.
Raised in a family system that always had lots of constraints, I grew up around people who by nature would build amazing things out of nothing. And took pleasure from that versus simply buying things. Many musicians are brought up in similar environments, and the band for this week in particular, was literally a family of musicians before they became a Band. And they thought nothing of mixing races, genders, musical styles, even audiences to create brand new, iconic, and Clever music of the late ’60s.
The story of both the band and my career in this season was about being unconventional. Doing things that others said couldn’t be done, bringing together different talents, encouraging differences, and also occasionally taking a big risk to try to change the world of both space and music. If you don’t think of yourself as being a risk-taker, perhaps there are some Clever things you can take away… and if not, I know the music will take you higher.
Our design danced to life “right on schedule”, a Clever way of saying we made it just in time. After struggling for weeks, our 2nd Line manager had “offered” that if we didn’t have it running soon, they would fly in some “real” engineers from our main site to “help” us. As you might expect, it was not music to our ears … and that type of management triggered exactly the response he wanted. Maybe not the TONE he expected, but it had gotten our system running, and mostly on schedule. A good thing, as I was now the Project Manager…
partners in Clever
They had been in a conference room for nearly 2 days now, reviewing problems with our Division’s largest program. These partners had been collected to recommend changes to get it back on track. It was to be a state-of-the-art new approach to computing on a new state-of-the-art submarine. All eyes had turned to the senior architect of the systems that were used on the Space Shuttle who had been flown in. He paused … and after a very uncomfortable silence said “It’s a Bar problem”. Unclear someone asked… and he clarified. “We can fix this …we might as well go drink.”
August 18, 1981 would change the world – the day the IBM PC was announced. Built by a small, Clever team at their Lab in Boca Raton where Dad had worked when I was in junior high, the impact on all of us is still profound. For me specifically, I had grown up around microcomputers, having built one around the previous version of the Intel processor, and had been observing since then what would be coming. As I came home excited and talked about the new computer that we would get at home, my wife observed, “Does this mean we are getting a raised floor?”
The wonder of Clever
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… “
The code name for the series of PC’s that were the centerpiece of our Space Station Demonstration Lab was appropriately: “Circus”. All the Clever code names were things having to do with “circus” – like the network was “Ringmaster”, which is what I had now become. Our proposal would incorporate all of the elements simulating execution of the whole computing infrastructure. We had Fiber Optic Networks, Color Displays, real-time test equipment, all coordinated with a simulation environment that leveraged IBM’s PC’s in every element. Sadly, we had just been told, our proposal was mandated to bid the Division Standard 1750 chipset – or don’t bid…
Having poured a good portion of my life into the “Circus” project over the last 6 years, I was not going to simply sit back. It may or may not have been renewing, but I stayed up all night polishing our “appeal” of the Division edict demanding the use of older hardware, and turned it into a Clever and compelling approach. The net was that we had a very cost-competitive bid because of the savings on ground systems, the easy access to commercial off-the-shelf tools, and the general market appeal of the PC. I walked our exec through it, but I couldn’t go with him. Imagine what that must have felt like to him – once again taking a Clever and risky approach into a President’s office…