Sunday, October 24, 2010

Are employee-inventors fungible?

In a story about the development of a new type of sensor to detect shock waves traveling through steel, one WIlliam Ketel describes some careless work by one consultant, and how the internal employees solved the problem.

The set-up for the story portrays the consultant riding in on a white horse to save the day:

One day a consultant who was working with us on the project announced that he had found the solution, and had even published and circulated a report on his discovery. (...)When the generator was set to the plates resonant frequency, just one cycle would produce a beautiful copy of the signal, from the sensor. A breakthrough! Our consultant was going to publish a paper about HIS discovery, since it was so wonderful!

Of course, the consultant's work had a bit of a problem:

The sad reality hit: The beautiful signal that I was seeing [using the consultant's approach] was capacity coupled from the driver. Grounding the metal plate removed all of the simultaneous signal, and left my noisy delayed signal visible, and ugly. I disconnected and re-connected the ground several times, and verified that was what was happening.

I wrote a report describing what I had done and the results that I got, and then discussed it with my boss. He seemed a bit relieved that the discovery was not something that he had overlooked, and should have discovered himself. At the same time, he was disappointed that it did not work. So now I had to find a way to make it work. I thought that it was a good concept.

The idea was re-worked to succeed, but the bottom line was a bit interesting:

We used the back-to-back configuration of driver and sensor quite a bit, and during every testing sequence, part of the procedure would be to disconnect the ground lead from the driver and observe that there was no capacitive signal coupling into the sensor. We called this β€œthe cheap reality check.” While my manager realized the value of this discovery, the division manager continued to believe that β€œall engineers are interchangeable,” and he showed his respect accordingly.

This relates to how senior management may view intellectual property and those to create it. A good created by fungible people. Sadly, all scientists/engineers are not inventors.

The comments to the story were interesting:

Of consultants:

"If you're not a part of the solution, there's good money to be made in prolonging the problem."

In favor of the consultant:
So, let me get this straight. You're taking credit for refining your consultant's idea, then you're bashing consultants.


What a pathetic article by William Ketel. Here comes this individual (consultant) with a good idea none of the others in the team thought of and which obviously needed work (engineering does not come without sweat) and William has to immediately bash the consultant since the idea was not perfect, and further goes on to claim the glory for the idea for having stolen it and then finished it.


My experience is that the majority of the time, the problem is with people in the client's organization -- not with the consultant. People like Ketel are over-night experts who generally knew nothing about the subject until poaching someone elses idea. I bet his co-workers really love him.


The outside consultant has classically been the duty whipping boy. The consultant is not always like by the engineering staff, because he represents their failure to solve the problem. I see it like the role of a Irish wake eater. The consultant is their to eat the sins of the engineering department and 'make it all better and have the problem go away' for the engineering department manager.
As they often say, the consultant knows exactly where to kick the box and make it work, not necessarily how to kick the box. He is the idea man the comes in to refresh the train of thought of the engineering staff to a new solution approach. this is often his best value. Engineers that work on a project for over a year, get tunnel vision and need new ideas.

On the point of interchangeable employees:

Here's an example. I originally was going to make this comment, in response to the article: "Engineers are interchangeable? He must mean until they're 40 or 50. Then they suddenly don't fit anymore."

I changed my mind after I read some of the other comments to the article, and realized that it was probably going to be taken the wrong way, and criticized for being unfair. So, let's analyze:

My first impulse to leave a funny comment (or sarcastic, but in a collegial, friendly way) was to refute the point made by the engineering division manager, that engineers were completely interchangeable. My point was, if that is so, then why is there such age discrimination against older engineers? Now, I purposely left out a discussion of how not everyone thinks that way, because that would have buried the point I was trying to make.

The bottom line is that sarcasm, humor, and stories in general need to be somewhat economical in their speech, logic, and reason, to make a point stand out. I wouldn't fault the author of this article for using standard techniques of communication to get across the point that the presumably lower paid staff engineers can be just as good as the consultants, and that NOT all engineers are interchangeable.

[Conference on Innovation in New Orleans last week sponsored by the Daily Beast.]


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