Archive for October, 2009

Pay Peanuts, Hire (fill in the blank)…

October 31, 2009

There is an old phrase that I don’t particularly like – I think it belittles people: “Pay peanuts – hire monkeys…” A better word for “monkeys”? Maybe I’ll think of one before I get to the end. But the point of this phrase is clear:

You don’t get an expert if you don’t pay for one.

And non-expert employees don’t capture exceptional opportunities.

I’m going to rant on this topic – please bear with me while I lay it out, and then trust me to “tie the bow” at the end. I have a home project that entails unusual materials (but not exotic) and modern 3D fabrication methods, and I am using some very modern software tools to move my project forward. My materials are 316 stainless steel and titanium grade 6. I am using 1/8″ wire rod bent into several 2D and 3D forms; I need common hardware such as clevis pins made of these materials. Nothing in this sounds exotically high-tech to me, but I have hit one brick wall after another – mostly due to the ignorance of the employees of the suppliers and service providers with every company I have dealt with.

Hardware – I need a small clevis pin in 316 stainless – many manufacturers will make this part for me for an extravagant sum – one large stateside manufacturer actually stocks this part and will sell it to me through their mid-scale distributor for a reasonable price. Fine.

“Mr. Distributor, I need a clevis pin with these dimensions in this material, please.”
“We sell this size in zinc-plated steel.”
“Please order this size and material from this particular supplier – please order this specific part number – it is exactly what I need.”
“OK, it is on order”
“What did you actually order?”
“They sell the stainless for $2 each – that’s what we ordered.”
“316 stainless?”
“What’s 316?” “Is it stainless?”
“You didn’t order the 316 stainless?”
“No, I guess we didn’t – we’ll reorder and be sure to use your part numbers this time.”
“Great – thanks”

“Mr. Wireformer, I need this 3D form in 1/8″ 316 rod, please.”
“Send us a dwg file – no problem.”
“What format version do you want – 2000 or 2007?” (my cad software exports to dwg-2007 more reliably than dwg-2000…)
“I don’t know – just send us a file, and we’ll see if we can use it…”
“OK – here is dwg-2007.”
“We can’t open it.”
“OK – here is dwg-2000.”
“We can’t open it”
“What software are you using?”
“AutoCAD LT.”
“This is a 3D drawing, not 2D – your software won’t work well with a 3D drawing.”
“OH – OK, we’ll get our expert to look at this – he has AutoCAD.”
“Our expert says that the file has no units – I don’t know what he means, but that’s what he says…”.
“Please ask him to use the dwg-2007 file and look at properties for units – he should see that they are inches.”
“OK.” “He says that he can’t use the 2007 file.” “He says that the 2000 file doesn’t have units.” “He says that you sent him a pipe part – he needs the path.”
“OK – here is a 3D line drawing.”
“He says that the curves are too complicated.”
“What does he suggest – what kind of curve is useful?”
“He doesn’t know how to answer your question…” “He says to please figure it out and send us a better file.”

It turns out that the wireformer needs dwg-2000 format line drawings with any elliptical elements converter to poly-splines – that answer from my software manufacturer’s user forum. Now, we’re talkin’. It also turns out that the wireformer’s AutoCAD user could have converted my pipes to lines, and converted my elliptical segments to splines – if he knew how – but he didn’t…

What is obvious here is that these employees at the supplier and wireformer are pleasant to talk to, but they are naive in their field – they are not experts – nowhere close. A conversation “business owner to business owner” revealed that these companies have shed their experts, opted for lesser-paid employees, and try to turn away unconventional requirements.

I find this same trend with several of my own clients. In a nutshell, a few of my smaller clients have steadily shed their expert engineers over the years. They offshore technical services as much as they can, and I guess that they cross their fingers that they can address their opportunities when they come. These clients are each grumbling that their business is declining and that they are less and less able to attract business from their long-standing service provider customers because they are more and more often technically noncompliant.

My advice to my clients and also to their service provider customers: pay for expertise – hire a few more talented engineers – your deficient resources won’t deliver exceptional products and services. Engineers build the future, and more importantly, they make it work!

National Parks are Sacred

October 14, 2009

A recent series on PBS was a “must see” not to be missed. PBS and sponsors generously made this series available online for free for a short while, too. I want to thank PBS, their sponsors and Ken Burns for this wonderful series of documentaries.

National Parks – America’s Best Idea

This is a program about the passion of a few people beginning 150 years ago or so who were determined to preserve our unique scenic wonders and historic treasures for the ages, and for everyone. This series of documentaries is about people – the story of greedy politicians and opportunists vs. the naturists. In some sense, we have greedy politicians and opportunists today who are financially destructive, and I fear that we don’t have a passionate community of idealists to fight back for the good of our society as the naturalists did more than a century ago. I am thankful for our National parks.

I have three particularly powerful memories in my life in our National parks. I remember several weeks working in Yellowstone one October in the 1970’s installing a microwave network to provide telephone service to the park offices. Several times I walked past a large herd of bison gathering in a valley for the coming winter, and I could hear them breathe and move about – these animals were magnificent and some not much more than an arm’s length away. When a group moved, I felt a rumble in my legs and stomach. When they looked at me walking past, I was certainly the one who did not belong there.

I remember a technology meeting in Yosemite in the 1980’s where a number of the telephone industry’s network planners and manufacturing product planners gathered to define aspects of SONET standards. If my memory serves me, I think I was there to help define an esoteric notion of a path and a trail. Our first day in the park was spent walking together in small groups throughout areas of the park close to the lodge. The second day, we walked outside after a brief time in morning meetings to marvel at the landscape that surrounded us – we all disappeared into the park until dinner. The third day, we ate breakfast outside the lodge and soaked in this awesome park for another precious day. That night, many of us worked through the night until dawn to complete our deliverables so that our time in the park would not be wasted. But truth be told, it would not have been wasted if we returned to our desks with nothing but the experiences we shared in this park. Some of us to this day still talk among ourselves about that special meeting in Yosemite.

And finally, I remember a day in Big Bend with my father in the 1990’s. We had driven to Midland, TX with several great friends for a ham radio convention, spent a day in Ft. Davis, TX to see the observatory and the new solar and wind power generation projects under construction. And on our last day of our trip, we took the “long way” back to Midland driving through a portion of Big Bend. We stopped at a scenic vantage point for lunch and stayed much of the afternoon amazed at the remoteness and massiveness of this desert. My father and I ate sardines, stale French rolls, cheese and apples for lunch, and we talked about things a father and son should talk about – the only time my father and I talked about such things – the desolation of Big Bend was inspiring and beautiful and truly special – and a wonderful place for a “father and son picnic”.

I hope that society continues to value our National parks – they are sacred places and the source of lifelong memories for many – and for me.