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How Big Is The Problem?

"...and what is the nature of it? An interesting post over at NASA Watch, but the comments are even more interesting. I have some thoughts, and they're related to my earlier thoughts on systems engineering, but I'm curious to see what commenters here think.


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rickl wrote:

Wow. It sounds like things at NASA are worse than I thought.

At the highest levels, there seems to be a belief that you can mandate reality, followed by a refusal to accept any information that runs counter to that mandate.

"Take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat." Wasn't that the phrase used back in 1986 when Rocketdyne engineers were desperately trying to warn against launching the Challenger in freezing temperatures?

The quoted phrase could(should) also be the epitaph for Big Government in general.

On a purely personal level, I'm about to try to learn how to use Autocad. I'm not an engineer or even a draftsman; I just sort of got thrown into this. Luckily for the world, I'm not trying to design anything; I'm just trying to make drawings of already existing hardware, which apparently got designed and built by other means. :)

ken anthony wrote:

When I worked at the FAA's ANM regional headquarters we had a similar issue with project management software. One engineer found out I could produce his pert graphs using hpgl to include in his project and he just let everybody think he was using the official software to do his work. None of the other engineers produced anything with the official s/w (but had other responsibilities that kept them employed.)

Someone in the thread mentions this being a government issue, but my experience is that obtuse bosses can be found anywhere.

I had a friend that was a CATIA operator for Boeing and he thought it was great software. But someone in the thread seemed to indicate that they've 'improved it' into crap which is often the case. Boeing is probably organized differently than NASA as well. I don't think any of the CATIA operators were engineers, but I could be wrong about that.

I've been on projects where we've changed some important tools in the middle and we managed the change. But the fact is it's a classic mistake that often seems to happen more frequently when the project is under more stress.

The awful part is this engineer could probably be part of the solution, but management has another agenda.

Lastly, I've always had a unique relationship with my bosses. One guy used to occasionally come to me to do things that I had reason to believe just wouldn't work the way he wanted them to. After I explained why, he would say, "well I'll get somebody else to do it." My only response would be, "ok" and he'd storm off. Every time we had one of these situation he come back to me and we'd work out a solution. Not once did he have, "somebody else do it." ;-) Other people did do work for him, but when I told him something wouldn't work the way he wanted it to I always had a sound reason for it.

But now of course, I'm obsolete! That's the s/w business. You wonder when they'll stop improving things so we can just get some work done?

bfwebster wrote:


I deal with troubled or failed (IT) projects for a living, and Jeff's e-mail is just chock full of all the classic symptoms of a project that's in deep trouble. Sigh. As a teenager, I watched men land upon the moon nearly 40 years ago; yet I may not live long enough to watch it again. How sad is that? ..bruce..

tom wrote:

What's scary is that that kind of attitude about technology development seems to be spreading through other branches of government, including the defense sector.

It's as if the dot-com bubble has permanently and irreparably damaged our national character, or at least the character of people in the technological parts of the government bureaucracy. Too many managers want to have their name on a "revolution", a "transformative," or "game-changing," program, and along with that usually goes this idea that it can be done on-the-cheap, or faster than usual, or with a few codemonkeys in a little room. And in keeping with Clark's Law, usually the people driving the bus won't listen to people who have actually DONE development.

Curt Thomson wrote:

I was at IBM when they first entered into their marketing agreement with Dassault on CATIA and it became the recommended platform. In the years since I have used everything from AutoCAD to Pro-E to several Unigraphics systems. They’re all tools; as an engineer I use whatever I feel is appropriate to the problem, if issues of format cause a reduction in my productivity so be it. Leaving a position because of what amounts to issues of data format seems excessive to me. I suspect Dennis Wingo’s comment regarding the movement of MDA may be a more plausible explanation.

Brock wrote:

Curt, you mustn't have read Jeff's email if you think he left over a CAD issue. It's about morale, and letting engineers do their jobs.

Jim Harris wrote:

At the highest levels, there seems to be a belief that you can mandate reality, followed by a refusal to accept any information that runs counter to that mandate.

No kidding, Jeff Finckenor. That belief was on display all the way back in 2002, when Ron Suskind heard this from a senior advisor to Bush:

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

Jeff Medcalf wrote:

Jim, I don't know the context of the quote, even given the Times article, because the quote is presented incompletely and with little context. But it's defensible on its face; in fact, it's really a statement of Boyd's OODA loop strategy. You see, it does not matter if you make the absolutely perfect decision, if that decision is in reaction to a situation that no longer exists. Going with Rand's general theme, if you were to make a perfect decision on how to fix the Shuttle's problems to the point that we can fly it indefinitely in perfect safety, but you've already destroyed the tooling and staff needed to make the expendable parts for it, then you've made the perfect decision too late to do any good.

And if you apply that idea to the unattributed quote from Suskind1, it makes perfect sense. Journalists and academics are reactive; they do not create reality. At best, they create tools for understanding reality, or for changing reality (in the case of academics). When someone acts in the world in a macro sense (as the US in Iraq or Russia in Georgia or even something simpler and smaller like deciding not to ship food aid to North Korea — such an act changes the world that must be reacted to. So if you are studying a problem to death, using explicit mechanisms of control, you are always behind the times. Implicit mechanisms and a reduced cycle time put you ahead of the game, so that other people are reacting to events you've created. Done right, it looks a lot like magic.

There has to be a balance, of course. Reckless enthusiasm without any consideration of future possibilities — change for the sake of change and then reacting to the consequences as they emerge, with no advanced planning — is also bad, because while you are driving events, you are not controlling them. Some would argue that applies to this administration, and in certain areas (domestic policies come to mind) I might agree. But on foreign policy, this administration has been one of the more gifted we've seen at turning its intentions into reality, regardless of what you might feel about those intentions. (By contrast, note the way that the administration has gotten rolled repeatedly on domestic priorities, again, regardless of whether you think the administration's priorities and approaches are good or bad.)

That is a very different thing to what Finckenor is talking about, which is a bureaucratic mindset. The Suskind quote describes a strategic mindset that NASA could actually use more of, while the situation Finckenor describes is typical of any bureaucratic program that has no essential accountability for results.

1 I actually doubt that quote as having perfect fidelity to the original, since Republicans have always used "reality-based community" tongue in cheek, ever since the Democrats coined it as an anodyne to "faith based community". Only a Democrat would use that term with no irony at all. The rest of the quote just doesn't sound like the way that Republicans talk, either, including the use of the word "empire" to describe the US, and particularly in 2002 and particularly from this administration.
Brock wrote:

Jim, way to bring up Bush in a thread that is only very remotely related to the Presidency (since he is in charge of NASA, theoretically). Changing the argument much?


Bad Jeff! Suskind was describing an OODA loop, but your post was well drafted, well written and carefully thought out troll food.

//On topic//

I agree with Bruce Webster. As an outsider I can only judge the situation based on each side's proponents. Based on the arguments, Jeff's side is far stronger. The pro-NASA arguments are dissembling and weak, often attacking the messenger rather than the message, or deliberately mis-reading it (as Curt did). The pointy haired bosses appear to have taken over.

The real tragedy here of course is that NASA is government funded, so there may be no consequence of systemic failure (or the consequences will be blamed on the engineers, rather than the managers). A company that was run like this would at least go out of business.

The Army, the ultimate command & control organization, has recently seen a lot of success by using "pull procurement", giving its Lieutenants in the field budget authority to buy the equipment their troops need to get the job done. I would love to see what would happen to NASA if engineering teams were broken down into their smallest workable unit-sizes and given the same authority. If there can't be a market for NASA, there should at least be a market within NASA. It'd be even better if the teams had personnel authority too.

Jeff Medcalf wrote:

If you can't occasionally bait the trolls, what good are they? At least, until we rediscover the idea of kill files.

Jim Harris wrote:

But it's defensible on its face; in fact, it's really a statement of Boyd's OODA loop strategy.

No, what the guy described was DAOO: Decide, Act, Observe, Orient --- in that order. He belittled Suskind as someone who observes and orients first.

Jim, way to bring up Bush in a thread that is only very remotely related to the Presidency

What Finckenor described is a mentality that radiates from the top. Why should NASA be the exception? On the contrary, Bush himself mandated reality for NASA in his VSE speech.

ken anthony wrote:

It's about morale, and letting engineers do their jobs.

You're absolutely right, Brock. Focusing on the tool issue is, oh I don't know, just trying to deal with a simpler problem perhaps. We had an earlier thread about military leaders micromanaging because new technology made it easier for them to do so. Leadership issues are not so simple to solve. In most cases, failure is the only solution, where the competitions eats their lunch.

I'm glad that, while NASA is a customer (and a big one) they aren't the only one. I expect that eventually competition will provide a solution here as well (but being a government program the beast will live long past when it should have been killed off.)

That engineer is making the right move, to greener pastures. It's the ones that stay that have to endure the problem.

An engineer I once worked with told me that before the Ma Bell breakup, the TM&O (Telecommunications Management and Operations) section consisted of a single person at a desk ordering services. After the breakup, the FAA (at the time) became the fourth largest telecom in the country. When I left, they'd just completed a contract (with Sprint if I remember correctly) that sort of brought them back full circle. Perhaps something like that has to happen as NASA to return to the NACA days?

Martin wrote:

"Jim Harris wrote:

Why should NASA be the exception? On the contrary, Bush himself mandated reality for NASA in his VSE speech."

Not really. Bush's initial pronouncement of the VSE was rather broad and vague. We'd go to the moon......sometime. And to Mars, sometime after that. Then he never (to my knowledge) mentioned it again - he didn't even mention it in his 2004 state of the union speech, only a week or two after that.

And O'Keefe interpereted the initiative rather broadly too. We'd prepare to go to the moon, and simultaneously develop better technology along the way.

NASA's marching orders now are largely the work of one man - Mike Griffin. The VSE, as it has become, is his baby, more than the President's.

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on August 25, 2008 10:23 PM.

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