Analog Angle Blog

‘That Should Be No Big Deal’ (Yeah, Right!)

Many years ago, when working as part of a project team on a complex, first-generation electronic-control system for some high-power electromechanical machines, we ran into some problems. Nothing newsworthy about that, of course — it's pretty typical for almost any project, especially one which is implementing a new technology.

(Source: Wikipedia)

(Source: Wikipedia)

The manager of the engineering department was a true “administrator”: good with the paperwork and charts, but lousy on engineering insight. At a project review meeting, when the project leader (a solid engineer's engineer) delineated a particularly challenging software/hardware interaction issue we were grappling with, the manager chimed in with his suggestion, “Hey, that should be no big deal, just put a relay there.”

At first, we thought he was either kidding or making a brilliant out-of-the-box suggestion, as it could easily have been either. After all, there's nothing wrong with using a relay to solve a software, hardware, or I/O problem — I have done it quite successfully myself. (See: How an electromechanical relay literally wrestled my software to the ground and Control the Process with Relays.)

But in this case, it turned out neither was the case. Our manager just felt he had to say something at the meeting, so he simply blurted out the first thing that came to mind. It was a meaningless outburst by someone who thought he was obligated to contribute, regardless of value of his comment. Doing so certainly didn't boost his stature among the designers, that's for sure.

Of course, feeling this need to say something, even if it is of no value, is not unique to engineering managers; even engineers can succumb to it. In a related load-frame project, we had a potential problem with vibration-induced fatigue cracks and subsequent failure in a major structural member. When the mechanical engineer (ME) in charge brought this concern up at the design review, one of the EE's blurted out, “I don't see what the big deal is; just put a big piece of aluminum for support in there.” (Steel was not an option, for magnetic reasons.)

The ME said “just sit there for a minute” and came back with a hefty handbook of available standard aluminum alloys; there were several hundred variations listed with their key parameters: tensile strength; ductility; hardness; corrosion resistance; surface finish; machinability; crack-growth resistance; various moduli; available shapes, extrusions, and sizes; cost; and more. He dropped the book down on the table and said, “OK, smart guy, which one?” His point was valid: there were many top- and secondary-tier parameters to consider and trade off, just as when you are picking put a power resistor for a challenging environment. When you don't know what you are talking about, the decision appears to be a “no-brainer.”

We all have had the urge to blurt something out, even when we don't know what we're talking about. Some of us, though, can squelch it better than others. Have you ever seen someone (who should know better) say something dumb, just to “contribute” to the technical discussion? And be honest: Have you ever done so yourself?

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4 comments on “‘That Should Be No Big Deal’ (Yeah, Right!)

  1. RedDerek
    July 17, 2013

    On one custom IC project I worked on, I was in a meeting with the customer and we were discussing the specifications of the flip-chip. At one point we talked about power dissipation and, after a quick calculation, realized that the chip would have to dissipate 12 Watts. That is a lot of power, but when there are 10 chips on a board, that becomes a BIG power problem. With this spec on the table it was a bit silent until I blurted out, “Cooling would have to be liquid cooled.” Granted this was an obvious solution, but what further ensued was my idea to use the ink that was what the chip was designed to drive – a high speed ink jet printer.

    It seems simple because the customer did have to heat the ink up to a certain temperature in order to print properly.

    Years later, I did find out that the chip worked well and that they did use a liquid cooling system that involved the ink.

    Beats spending the power to heat the ink when the chips already does the heat generation.

  2. eafpres
    July 17, 2013

    This reminds me of another sort of manager who, inquiring about a complex task with a lot of variables, after lisenting to the reasons there is uncertainty in the predicted completion of the task, says “Just give me a number”.  This is used as a red-flag example by Sam L. Saving in his book “The Flaw of Averages“.  Many of us have encountered this type of manager.  A lot of such requests get codified into “templates” which is code for “put a single number into a box on this spreadsheet that magically collapses all the distributions of possible values of all the variables, known and unknown, into a definitive estimate with 0 uncertainty”.

    FYI, for anyone dealing with uncertainties whether it be schedules or electrical system parameters, I highly recommend Mr. Savage's book.

  3. Brad_Albing
    July 18, 2013

    Wow – not bad. Made you look like a genius.

  4. Brad_Albing
    July 18, 2013

    @eafpres – Ah – the bane of our existence as design engineers – the boss who wants to know when it will be done. “Well if everything goes right, 1 month. Everything goes wrong, 12 months.” And the boss writes down, “1 month.”

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