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Taking time to play

One of the themes to emerge, directly and indirectly, from the interviews I have conducted for ADLE's Analog Profile series, is the importance of allowing engineers time to play. By 'play', you understand, I don't mean getting out the Lego set in the corner of the office, but rather to 'let off steam', have fun or just quietly contemplate a problem whilst doing something unrelated – such as drinking a coffee, or playing solitaire.

Just like creative writing, I suspect, finding the solution to a particularly tricky technical problem is more easily solved when it's left alone for a while, be it for half an hour, or several days. Ideas are hard to force, for they either come or they don't, and 'play' is an effective way of relieving stress, thus creating the conditions for new ideas and fresh approaches to materialise.

Hence, why I chuckled at Cyth System's Guitar Hero playing robot. Yes, it's a cunning marketing ploy to draw attention to the company's skills in assembly, vision systems, pneumatics and embedded control (and quite a successful one at that, judging by the blog coverage it has received). However, it's also a great example of what happens when you just let a group of engineers indulge their curiosity and 'play'.

Play is something that I am sure a few companies beside Cyth understand well. Talking to various National Instruments applications staff over the years, something they will often relate is how in the first few months of being in the job, there will be time to explore the products hands-on and 'play'. Interestingly, the CA-1000 Configurable Signal Conditioning Enclosure used in Cyth's demo is from National Instruments, and the company is a key contributor to a few of the other Guitar Hero robots that have appeared.

Guitar Hero seems a popular choice for engineers to let off steam. Apparently, and very aptly, Austin based Cirrus Logic's ceo Jason Rhode has a Guitar Hero console just outside his office, where staff are invited to compete in their work-breaks.

In our exceptionally deadline-driven world, I wonder whether there are enough companies that recognise the value of play? Are most engineers so focused on their company's core activity that they the miss opportunities to think far beyond the task in hand and really innovate?

Though an intensely time-pressured and results-driven environment, John Nisbet recalled of his time at Siltronics: “There was also the time to think more deeply about what was going on in my own work and that of other people on the project – make deep connections.” So what's changed, I asked him, understanding from his wistful tone that deep thinking time has become rare? He responded: “Taking time to evaluate alternatives, condense the 25 good ideas down to five that you can sell, is not given enough weight in modern corporate culture. It's a natural consequence of our methods of working – we are probably more process driven today than driven by abstract ideas. But I feel that time is what ultimately generates the ideas and the monetary value.” Nevertheless, nowadays John finds himself more often in the position of cracking the whip, and relating the mantra that whilst performance is important, time is money!

So to my pneumatic-fingered Joe Satriani-impersonating robotic guitar-wielding friend, I am heartily glad you are earning your keep, for pondering how you play, I earned mine today.

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