Tag Archives: young engineer

What is Sustainability?

This morning I attended a wonderful talk given by Dr. Scott Smith, retiring Dean at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment during the monthly “First Friday” breakfast event, hosted by the Sustainability Working Group of the college. During his 13 years in office, Dean Smith has overseen/participated in the radical (though he didn’t use that word) transformation of the college, Kentucky agriculture and perhaps even some Kentucky culture. He told some wonderful stories and was very insightful on the rapid KY-wide transition from a “tobacco, cattle and grain” family farm culture with a ~100% male student body (in 1978 when he joined the faculty) to one that is now highly inclusive and diverse, both in its people (60% of the students are women! and with e.g. chefs, economists, etc. on the facility) as well as in the topics and species/crops/products that the college supports and that Kentucky produces. He highlighted the fears of the unknown future that the Kentucky farm community had when he took office on what would happen after the federal tobacco pricing program stopped (in 2004). He said it turned out to be very much about sustainability, organic, ‘value-add’ programs, investment and marketing (e.g. Kentucky Proud, etc.) All concepts which were almost unheard of in his own agricultural education and early teaching days.

I can’t hope to capture all the components and insights of Dean Smith’s talk here. But one particular (and small) question that he addressed really caught my brain and is very aligned with my own recent thinking. The question was “Will there ever be a Department of Sustainability?” His answer: No. Rather, sustainability is an integrated concept in most, if not, all the college’s courses and activities, and perhaps in all of our culture. This is also very true for me. And while he didn’t discuss sustainability in exactly the same way as my own thinking, he did touch on many of these same elements.

Sustainability in my thinking has at least three major elements or themes; or, being the engineer that I am, I’d say it has three “necessary, but perhaps not sufficient, requirements” to be true:

  1. [My engineering viewpoint:] The “system” of input resources, processes and outputs has to be in balance over time. If, over time, an input resource will be depleted, then the system is NOT sustainable (obviously)! If a process produces an output (whether waste or other) that accumulates over time without a place for it to go and for it to become an input (with similar flow rates) into some other process (whether natural or human-driven) then that’s not sustainable either! The “lifecycle” of each resource/element, including also the energy used/produced, must be quantitatively in balance for it to be sustainable. Math is required! Others may label this theme an environmentalist’s viewpoint, but to me it’s the fundamental concept of “systems engineering.”
  2. [Also having a ‘product manager’ mindset:] The economics of any human-driven process must be positive! Without being value-additive, a process cannot be operated for very long. A business case must exist with positive financial gains (math, again!) for those involved. When a process depends upon charity or donations, then it may be helpful (or even necessary) to get started, but it won’t be sustainable over time. And unlike any of the “resources” in #1, the human concept of this thing we call “money” has no law of conservation.
  3. [The social (a.k.a. human) being prospective that:] Any human-driven process must not cause injustice to any of the people involved. Others may use the term morality, or some other wording. And I wish I find a positive wording of that statement, rather than the “not cause” wording here (that software logic mindset again…). This theme (of the three) was not something I had understood as a young engineer (I was oblivious). But as I age (wiser?), it is ever clearer to me that “human resources” is NOT appropriate terminology! Human beings should never be viewed in the same mindset as taken with the other things we call “resources”, whether a component, natural resource, chemical compound, or any animal or a plant species, etc. Justice (not the same as fairness!) must be present in our society and communities, or else they (we!) are not sustainable! In practical terms, injustice is cause for civil unrest which leads to civil disorder which is not at all sustainable (and this is not the same disorder as in Chaos Theory).

Perhaps this third theme is better articulated by the fields of social science, politics (which is what Dean Smith referred to often), or the domain of the liberal arts and philosophers… Or, perhaps, this engineer is still learning new concepts… Which reminds me of the bumper sticker (and the series of books by Henry Petroski) that states “To Engineer is Human.”  Yet at this time, I can only hope that humanity is also sustainable! [Time to balance those equations!]

Do you GIS?

I have come to the belief that Geographical Information System (GIS) is the next Excel – i.e. a tool that will become indispensable in everyday life, and most especially to an engineer.

My first exposure to GIS was in the mid-1990s. On a project for PacBell (now AT&T, again), we were building a revolutionary new, fully integrated Operational Support System (OSS) for their ‘new’ network that was going to replace POTS throughout California (I’ll write more about that project sometime soon). But we didn’t get very far with GIS then. A decade later, when Mary Anne was hired to teach Environmental Science at Ramapo College, one of the courses they wanted her for was GIS. She didn’t know much at the time, but with her background in CompSci, she dived in and learned it. She’s been teaching it semi-regularly for nearly 10 years, and continues to do so now at Georgetown. Last year, while on the Wi-Fi project that I mentioned last week, a super talented RF Engineer on the project came up with an analysis methodology using GIS tools. It is a really powerful way to analyze lots of data (and present it geographically), and greatly helped our clients to decide where and how much to build out their networks. I have always been intrigued, but never had the time to learn GIS myself – that is, until now.

I have had a great deal of fun these past 8 weeks, following along on some of the projects Mary Anne’s students are doing this semester (e.g. tromping through a remediated wetlands with a GPS recorder), plus diving into the textbook that she teaches from. I’ve learned a great deal, though somewhat specific to ArcGIS version 10 from ESRI, the company that has most commercialized GIS technology (and is still privately held!). If you’re interested, I recommend “Understanding GIS – An ArcGIS Project Workbook” by Harder, Ormsby and Balstrøm, and published by ESRI. They include a DVD of the software with a limited license and a reasonably complex project to work on over its 9 chapters. It includes discussion of the ‘fun’ parts of any technology project, such as uncertain or changing customer requirements (noooo, I’ve never had that challenge), how to make an analysis easily repeatable and flexible, and even a whole chapter on creating the presentation with the results of analysis. It is a little overly scripted for me, but that likely makes it easier to teach to a general audience (without a computer software background).

When I was a young engineer and anxious to get that first promotion, I looked closely at what others were doing when they got promoted. In those days, business skills were still rare in Bell Labs/AT&T Network Systems, and were ever more important than prior to the 1984 Divestiture. So I focused on developing those more (a.k.a. I turned to the ‘dark side’). For me, that included a rotational program into our sales force (more about that sometime, too), and then coming back to a role in product management. It was there, that I first started using Excel regularly. I developed spreadsheets to track our budget verses actual expenses, our software R&D capitalization/amortization schedule, another for our sales opportunity funnel and revenues, and then put it all together in a product-specific income statement. At the time my peer product managers had no similar insights into these details, as very limited financial information was computerized (and mostly on mainframes). But I could run all kinds of ‘what-if’ business cases or probability assessments, and see the profitability impacts instantly. Since then I’ve used Excel for lots of non-financial things too: engineering performance modeling, net zero energy (NZE) analysis, requirements tracking, contact lists, uncountable charts for presentations, weather analysis, and even a game or two. In 1992, I got that first promotion, and I have always attributed it to my abilities with Excel, bridging technology with business skills. But now that I’m learning GIS, I am wondering, how does an independent consultant earn a promotion…? 😉

We should all care more

One of the topics Mary Anne and I care greatly about is sustainability. Unlike some of my engineering student peers, I took extra economics classes in undergrad. I had troubles with a statement made by one of the professors: roughly phrased he said “There is always either growth or decline, never stability” (his main point was that investors can make money from either bull or bear markets). Yet as engineers we always preferred stable states (afterall, statics is much easier than dynamics!), and especially in my field of computer engineering, stable electrical states are mandatory to perform digital processing. Processor speeds are limited by the capacitance of the circuit, i.e. the time it takes for the electrical state stabilize after a state change. Of course in the last 30+ years CPU clocking cycles have gone from the kilohertz range to gigahertz, as semiconductor unit sizes have shrunk.

After I left school and entered the working world, it was the economics viewpoint that became my firm belief. Afterall, prices were always increasing (due to inflation or limited supply), or sometimes decreasing (increased supply, e.g. computers), but never stayed stable for long. But then Mary Anne went back to school for her Ph.D. in Environmental Science at Rutgers. She left the clean world of math and computers to study all those wet sciences: chemistry, biology, ecology, etc. Somewhere in that time (1994-2002) I first learned of climate change and the human-caused increases of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere. As an engineer, and especially as a “systems” engineer, the large movement of carbon from trapped underground formations into our atmosphere is easy to grasp (burning), and it’s just as easy to understand that the system (Earth’s atmosphere) must change as a result. The positive feedback loops are, perhaps, not as easy to grasp, but appear to be just as real. This is not sustainable for human civilization!

Even as Moore’s Law keeps hanging in there (due to economic drivers), we still know it can’t continue past certain real physical constraints (the size of atoms, if nothing else). And so it is with our civilization’s burning of carbon…

So, now the critical question: How do we humans wish to live in the future?
I vote for a gradual self-directed change, rather than the dynamic (and likely harsh) consequences of continuing the same behaviors as the past 30 or 130 years. Oh, and yes, we very likely need both engineering and economics (and time) to reach that more sustainable state… [Oh, the ambiguity!]

Another story of my naivety

I started work for Bell Labs in May 1984 at Whippany a very naïve 21 year old. My first officemate was an older lady named Martha, who had survived the male dominated culture there for decades before I showed up, had been programming in C since the language existed and had only recently been promoted to the title of Member of Technical Staff (MTS), which I had been given on Day 1. I was (I thought) a hotshot computer programmer, ready to take on the real world (or at least all of telecom)!  Our boss, a gentleman also named Jack, was an orthodox Jew (with which I had no prior experience what so ever), had just recently been promoted to supervisor, but had huge patience and the fabulously rare skill (including, most of all, in me) of listening before speaking. His boss and the head of Artificial Intelligence Systems Department was a noble woman named Fran, who also had long fought and succeeded in the Bell Labs culture. Yet, unlike some other executives that I would work with, Fran ran her department with a soft and steady hand.

I remember a conversation with Jack in his office sometime after I had been there for more than a few months, where we were talking about the naming of things. Not material things, but like the names of work projects, and software modules, etc. I don’t remember the specifics of this conversation, but I do remember making the most ridiculous complaint that we should only be using the word “program” when meaning to refer to software code. And that using “program” to mean a work project or series of projects was too confusing. I was so naïve! Yet, Jack took my ‘suggestion’ without judgment or saying anything of what he must have been thinking…

Later when I had other bosses, I figured out quickly how much of a good thing I had in those first few years. Martha took me under her wing and taught me how to survive and thrive in the corporate culture and coached me through the soft-side of things. Fran and Jack created a safe place to take risks and gave me opportunity after opportunity to perform. After some mildly successful projects, positive customer feedback, my participation in a one year rotational program onto one of our sales teams, and several years of significant experience, Fran was the one to promote me to supervisor (tech manager) before I turned 30 (the ‘test of success’ at the time). I grew, was less naïve and definitely learned a lot during the time I associated with the AI Systems Department and all the very smart people there. But from Martha, Jack and Fran, what I learned most, was how to work with people, of all types, as well as upwards and across management. You made me a better person! Thank you! And I am certain that those that later worked for and with me have also benefited greatly! Doubly thank you!

To all my friends and co-workers at Alcatel-Lucent

My last working day at ALU was Thursday, February 7th. And, yes, this is my “good bye” letter… I’ve read my share of these before too, so I’ll try not to ramble!

I am proud and humbled to have been a part of Bell Labs, AT&T, Lucent, Octel, and Alcatel-Lucent for nearly 29 years! I’ve worked in large variety of roles and organizations over that time, and I have grown and learned so much. I enjoyed nearly all of it, and entirely because of all the interesting and intelligent people here. Though I have had the opportunity to know only a few of you well, ALL of you, collectively and individually, have made this place a wonderful and most difficult place to leave! [Yes, I know, LOL, given the huge numbers of people who have already left and are continuing to do so…]. Nevertheless, this is the right time for me to move on; officially my ‘retirement’. But I eventually hope to take yet a new role, in some new organization. At this time I have no concrete idea where (or when) that will be, but I’m excited about taking such a risk and the new possibilities that will come. Thank you all!

One brief story, that I can’t resist telling of my earliest times in the company:
I had my job interview with Bell Laboratories in New Jersey on January 2nd and 3rd, 1984 (yes, the first couple of days after the huge Bell System divestiture took effect). I had just turned 21 years old, and was a college senior from the small southern university town of Clemson SC, and NJ was a different kind of a place! I was fortunate that when I was still a toddler, my father had worked part time at Bell Labs in Holmdel NJ, while attending Rutgers for his MSEE, prior to serving fulltime in the US Army for his ROTC scholarship commitment, (and later also a four year stint at Bell Labs in Greensboro NC) and that he had kept up some of those connections. Those connections (and I hope perhaps my good grades and some already applicable work experience) meant that Bell Labs was willing to interview me, whereas otherwise they would not normally been recruiting from Clemson.

My first set of interviews were in Whippany NJ (where later I would start my employment in May’84), but for the second day I was driven via limo down to the Holmdel building (an hour trip). I don’t remember much about the trip nor the driver, except for two things… First, the huge six lanes of road in EACH direction!, called the ‘Garden State Parkway’ [lots and lots of times spend there! – yes, that’s humor!]. This was definitely new and different from mostly rural SC. And second as we entered the Holmdel property, just past the huge transistor-shaped water tower (really more like a War of the Worlds Martian war-machine) and approaching the 6 story black-glass building that is nearly a quarter mile from end to end… the limo driver said of the building, with its five vertical rows of concrete balconies stretching the whole length of the building interior overlooking the long atrium, that it reminded him of a penitentiary. Well, I had never been in a prison, but yes I saw the resemblance to movie versions as soon as I walked in the front door that day. And that image has stuck with me ever since, including when my office was on the fifth floor there for 4+ years in the 1990s. Yet, I have to say working there and elsewhere in this company has never, ever, felt like a prison. Just the opposite! I always felt empowered by (most of) my bosses to work on things that were exciting and dynamic, to take risks, and to be free-minded about the how my work would be performed and the results it would derive. And fortunately we never had to fight a war with a Martian water tower!