Friday, May 22, 2009

Overheard in the cube farm

"By the virtue of office space, I should be a director--by doing nothing and being truthful about it."

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

T.P.S. Reports

The lowly T.P.S. report: this form, filed in triplicate, is too often the only reprieve overworked engineers get from days filled with otherwise-productive engineering. It's a way for middle management to communicate with the verbally-challenged plebs that their goal isn't a product, it's a paper trail, and a gentle reminder that you're not being paid to make a product, you're being paid for engineering time.

It's government thinking in the corporate world—a beacon of hope for post AIG/Bear Stearns capitalism. New capitalism isn't about taking risks and innovating, it's about going with the flow and keeping your job, and T.P.S. reports do just that.

Monday, March 30, 2009

April Fools' Day

Who says engineering can only be used for [fun and] profit?  With loads of pent-up creativity, the only the thing standing between engineers and havoc is over-zealous daycare/management.

During the peak of the dotcom bubble (and the low of productivity), this wasn't a problem.  For pranks, one-time tech giant Sun Microsystems was the place to be.   Every year, under-worked engineers architected antics of ever-escalating complexity where the only rewards were a t-shirt and a record of the event eternally documented on the internet for future employers to see.

But as the tech sector's day in the sun came to a close, pranks became far more subdued.  While nothing less than assembling a Volkswagen in a VP's office would work in the 80s and 90s, the 2000s saw pranks that took little more than a Smart car and a screw driver.  But all is not lost.  As glorious as April Fools' Days past were, they could only be enjoyed by people who were there.  Thanks to the magic of the internet, milder shenanigans can be broadcast to the vast swaths of cube farms from San Jose to Bangalore.

Places to watch:
  • YouTube spent the day in 2008 luring unsuspecting visitors to a now-infamous 80s music video people would have otherwise forgotten and, in the process, killed Rickrolling for good.  Over the course of the next year, everyone from Carson Daly to Rick Astley, himself, participated in the meme.
  • ThinkGeek comes up with an amazing assortment of products barely too good to be true--pics and all!  But don't worry, at least one idea was too good to be fake, and a few months later, the 8-bit tie was for sale.
  • The social news fanboys over at Digg, Reddit, Slashdot, et al. will probably work up something between The Onion and WTF.  The fun is in guessing which stories are real.
  • Google's growing up before our eyes, so its days as the only toilet ISP are numbered.  That said, CEO Eric Schmidt was an exec at Sun, so there might still be a few good laughs from the Googleplex.
  • Any youth-oriented website might join in.  Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, Meebo, and any other website that provides a non-essential service targeted at people too young to remember a world with dialup are all worth visiting.  The key is a company with management that doesn't care and customers who don't care.

Monday, March 23, 2009


I might like to make fun of the 80s, but that doesn't mean they didn't advance engineering or give us a few hours of entertainment every week.

Enter MacGyver, the TV show that bought ad hoc engineering to prime time. The titular engineer/secret agent/all-around nice guy traded his pocket protector and slide rule for a pocket knife, ballpoint pen, a paper clip, and more luck than rigged die. Every week, Mac outwitted would-be assassins, hypercapitalists, and even mother nature with nothing more than what the writers put in the room and an encyclopedic knowledge of everything from particle physics to hockey.

As much as engineers liked seeing what TV magic could do for their lowly profession, what they loved was identifying with the main character. Despite all his skills in hands-on hacking, Mac was never particularly talented at romance, could count his good friends on a finger, and after a long day of defeating bad guys, just wanted to come home and sleep on the couch.

Entertainment value aside, MacGyver gave back; more than just a TV show, it made an active effort to interest people in science. During the 80s, before Mythbusters, widespread cable TV, and YouTube, edutainment was relatively new. MacGyver brought real scientific principals to the public in a catchy package, but went even further and had Richard Dean Anderson appear on PBS to explain the physics of hockey. Remember that the next time you see CSI.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Proof of concept

To an engineer, there's nothing better than doing something that's never been done. That's why The Wright Brothers and Lockheed's Skunk Works are the Beethoven and Beatles of engineering, and Cessna isn't even a cover band.

The proof of concept is the fun part of the tedious project, and the part that engineering and management both agree should be done first—failure isn't just considered, it's planned for. These greenfield projects where occasional failures, lack of usability, and the chance to do something [relatively] cool are what drive engineers. That said, the hastily-weighed shortcuts taken along the way lead to more headaches than fun the original concept brought, but that's tomorrow; the proof-of-concept is due today.

Poor engineers. As glorious as a successful proof-of-concept can be, they can't see a few short days into their future where they're destined to fix problems in a design that was never meant to be used. C'est la vie.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Ted Dziuba

You may not have heard of Ted Dziuba (say it with me: "Dzeee-ooo-ba"), but it's hard not to appreciate his work.  With inspiring lolcatz-style captions like "All aboard the failcopter," and a catchphase of "FAIL," Ted blogged his way into our hearts at the glorious monument to engineering FAIL that is uncov.

Never mind that his former startup, Pressflip neé persai, isn't worth its hosting bill, Ted stood up against everything the bubble was saying and called out fly-by-night hipster confidence men for peddling dot-com era ideas, only now with Ajax!

Ted stepped into the the dim internet limelight to say what engineers have only said in labs and break rooms, eventually making it to quasi-mainstream news outlets.  For standing up for the principles engineering and translating technical drawbacks to criticism worthy of The Daily Show, Stuff Engineers Like salutes you.

Dziuba's photo shamelessly taken from Facebook.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Apple's the archetypical Silicon Valley success story. Founded by a few engineers (don't worry, Ron Wayne isn't forgotten) and their salesman acquaintance, Apple quickly resonated with a core user base of geeks that has stayed loyal ever since, buying the ripe along with the rotten.

For engineers, buying Apple products isn't about getting a new laptop, it's buying the Apple dream, seeing themselves as the great Woz, designing the next big thing, dating the D list, all while making an otherwise-lame sport seem hip and trendy. Even Apple's home on Infinite Loop is just the subtle nod the engineering community needs to know it's remembered.

Not to say that engineers are obsessed with Apple; those are the hipster fanboys. They read Cult of Mac, loyally attend MacWorld, hoping to get a glimpse of their founder-in-savior, and wait in line for the latest gadget to best indulge their idée fixe. With conferences that are practically religious events, the Apple faithful don't just see Apple a company; it's a way of life.

Great as Apple may seem, as the market underdog, it's escaped much of the criticism that market assimilator and one-time Apple shareholder Microsoft has seen. Underpaid code monkeys, DRM, and assorted incompatible technologies are all deemed necessary evils when they come from oracle of Cupertino, but when depths Redmond make similar moves, the faithful are quick to demonize the competition with claims of profiteering and anti-competitive motives.

Photo by sHzaam!

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Sure, engineers love doing things the hard way, but there's more to it: they also like doing things themselves. Not to be relegated to the level of the hammer-swinging simian handyman, staple excuses in-hand, engineers are quick to try their keystroke-hardened hands at a problem before turning the job over to the professional with the monkey wrench.

Engineers are generally cynical when it comes to people and the dreaded thought of human interaction; between at least four years of college, above-average paychecks, and job titles that cause eyes to glaze over, they have quite a superiority complex. Even alleged peers are seen as incompetent, and the only way to avoid headaches later is to fix the problem themselves.

An entire commercial ecosystem has cropped up to serve these engineers. Make Magazine and its Maker Faire, and even Mythbusters (a.k.a. Jamie and Adam Build Stuff) not only give engineers ideas, but practically coerce them into trying to do better, all while online stores quietly facilitate a likely trip to the hospital; "do not try this at home" isn't a warning, it's a challenge.

So the next time you see an engineer attempting a task that's below him, don't ask if the glue will hold; just sit back—at a safe distance—and enjoy the show.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The hard way

Engineers have an unusual ability to turn the most mundane, trivial task into what they hope will be the next wonder of the world, and justify it, using any and every conceivable technical benefit as a mandate to choose the more complicated approach.

What turns otherwise-practical engineers into Rube Goldberg cartoons with sledgehammers? It's a combination of making an otherwise-unbearable task bearable by putting fun jobs in between—a bit like chocolate chips in pancakes—and a dream of a world where every line is straight, measurement metric, and angle is right. Think of it as a release of pent-up creativity from people trained to improve things every chance they get.

Engineers dream of a world where things automagically work. Sure, a drip-free faucet would be nice, but motion-sensing spigots are the future (just look at airports)! Why stop there? If one shower head is good, two must be better, but why upgrade an obsolete shower? Maybe a second head in a new shower makes more sense, and so it continues.

And what's the result of their once-noble endeavour; which steps do they complete? Just the fun parts—the parts that were never even part of the original task.