25 November 2009

Gabe's Axiom

This is a reprint from my own blog, but I think it's applicable to the audience here.

I devised a new platitude that I’ve dubbed Gabe’s Axiom:

Engineers make stuff work. Designers make stuff useful.

I did so in response to my overall experience as an engineer to date. This thought coalesced recently while reading the book The Design of Everyday Things. Engineers love making and using gizmos and gadgetry and they love figuring out how to use a new widget. Therefore they find it frustrating when Joe user isn’t as passionate about learning all 15 ways to shut down a Windows based computer. I’ve often seen this frustration manifest as rebuke when a layman has trouble using equipment in the shared workspace (office copier, coffee pot). I’m guilty of it myself. I’d posit that a great many engineers don’t design with elegance or ease of use in mind. Making stuff work is their MO. However, the gizmos that are most useful are ones that are intuitive. It’s not the users fault if a gadgets operation isn’t readily apparent. True engineering involves synthesis and distillation with an eye toward elegance, not tech savvy alone. It’s the simplicity on the other side of complexity. It’s more challenging, but definitely more fun. After all, if it isn’t useful then what’s the point?

19 November 2009

On Vacation

And now, a brief commercial message and a peak behind the scenes of the Rogue Project Leader blog.

For those who don't know, in addition to this blog, I write childrens books. I started writing them as Christmas presents for my own two munchkins, but they are available at Amazon and RoguePress if you're interested.

This year's book is Skyler and the Shadows on the Sun. It's a cool little fantasy adventure, and it's been eating up a fair amount of time lately. I just finished it (whew!) and am now waiting to receive my final "author's review copy" before making it available for purchase.

I mention this because, while I have lots of ideas for upcoming blog posts, I'm a little short on words for the next few days. And I'm planning to take next week off because of Thanksgiving. So I'm hoping to post something here again by 30 Nov. In the interim, maybe you could peruse some previous posts.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

18 November 2009


I don't recall exactly when I started carrying around a little notebook in my pocket, but I know it was a long time ago. I always feel a little bit naked anytime I inadvertently leave the house without one. Brrrr - I hate when that happens.

My first pocket notebooks were green AF-issue Memoranda jobs, that flipped open like a reporter's notebook (Federal Supply Service #7530-00-243-9366 - no kidding). I still have a few blank ones, but have no desire to use them.

At some point, I went with hardcover Moleskine pocket notebooks for a while, then made the leap over to the Moleskine Cahiers (smaller notebooks, with soft covers). It took me a while to get used to the smaller cahiers (and I don't like the word "cahier" - it doesn't exactly trip off the tongue), but eventually I was won over.

Then I heard about FieldNotes brand notebooks on Dan Pink's blog and have been using them for a couple years now. They aren't hugely different than the Moleskine Cahiers, but I like the story & vibe of FieldNotes. Plus, it's a better word.

Despite my history of changing brands, I have to admit I feel a little bit funny about a recent purchase. At the Newseum in DC, I picked up a 3-pack of WritersBlok notebooks. A set of 3 (80 pages each) cost $6. In contrast, a pack of 3 FieldNotes (48 pages each) costs $9,95 and a 3-pack of cahiers from Moleskine, 64 pages each, go for about $7.

I haven't used my new WritersBlok notebooks yet - still have plenty of pages left in my current FieldNotes. But it'll be interesting to see what it feels like to try a new brand.

17 November 2009


When I talk with people about using the FIST (Fast, Inexpensive, Simple, Tiny) approach to project leadership, we inevitably arrive at a point where the importance of talent comes up. It's not uncommon for people to experience an epiphany, where they say "Ah ha! The FIST approach means you need to have good people working on the team."

To which I can only respond "Yup." (At this point, the process-oriented types and the misanthropes generally write the FIST concept off as unachievable).

From here, the conversation often heads in the direction of objections like "But talent is rare!" and "Good people are hard to find!"

To which I once again reply, "Yup."

Yes, FIST requires a small team of talented people. Yes, talent is rare, but with FIST, you only need a small number of excellent people. So that's something.

But there's more. The other cool thing is that across a large organization or a large portfolio, FIST actually increases the pool of talent. How does it do this incredible feat, you might ask? Well, let me tell you.

FIST is an iterative approach, best used as part of a portfolio. It's about large numbers of small projects. This means you're creating more opportunities for more people to get relevant experience and to expand their practical, professional education. More opportunities to lead. More opportunities to learn. And, by keeping schedules short, more opportunities to see the end of the story (which is a key element of learning from experience). All of this combines to make your people more talented. And that's pretty cool.

In contrast, if you've only got one or two big projects, you're providing fewer opportunities for your people. Fewer opportunities = less learning = less development = less talent.

Sure, FIST requires talent. But it also helps produce it. I think that's pretty cool.

16 November 2009

Big Budgets Limit Innovation

Craig Brown, who blogs over at Better Projects, recently passed along a link to a very cool article, titled Why Great Innovators Spend Less.

It basically shows how big budgets get in the way of innovation. Definitely worth a read - pass it along!

13 November 2009

Precision Is Frivolous

It struck me the other day that extreme precision is frivolous.

Engineers in particular tend to overvalue precision. I have three engineering degrees, so I think I can speak with some authority here. And I can attest to the fact that when engineers (and others) use extremely precise data, they are often overstating the value of their analysis. Just because they measured the distance between A and B to the micrometer doesn't mean they measured it in a meaningful way.

In mathematics, we talk about "significant figures," but we probably are not sufficiently aware of the presence of "insignificant figures." That is, 3.1415926 is pi to 7 "significant" figures... but depending on the application, those last 5 digits may or may not actually be significant.

So don't tell me it's exactly a 3-minute walk from here to there, when you know full well it takes "approximately 5 minutes." I don't want to hear that the wind is blowing at 42 knots, when clearly it's gusting to roughly 40. And really, finishing 33% of a project isn't any different at all from finishing 30% or 35%.

Don't get me wrong - I like frivolity when it's fun, and I like precision when it's necessary. But I have no interest in the grim frivolity of unnecessary precision.

12 November 2009

It can be done

I admit I'm a wild-eyed optimist - it's probably as much by my emotional / biochemical / psychological predisposition as anything, but the older I get, the more optimism becomes a matter of choice and less of a default position.

My optimism isn't entirely accomplished in the absence of reasons, but it's not solely based on reason either. If that was the case, I'd be a realist, right? Of course, I think optimists are the only true realists, but that's a discussion for another time.

But whatever the origin, I think optimism is important, because it drives change. If you don't think change for the better is possible, you're unlikely to work in that direction, and you end up with a self-limiting, self-fulfilling prophecy.

So from a purely pragmatic perspective, I think optimism works. But I also think optimism is true. We can make things better. We can fix problems. And specifically for the context of this blog, we can improve the way we lead system development projects.

That just might be the whole point of everything I write...

11 November 2009

Exciting Aircraft

Two of the most exciting new aircraft projects are the MC-12 Liberty and the C-27 Spartan. Notice anything unusual about those designations? Neither one is an F or a B! Maybe this has something to do with the fact that the Chief of Staff of the AF is a C-130 pilot, but whatever the reason, I think it's awesome (and it's about time).

The MC-12 has an ISR mission, and they started development last summer. According to a Global Security article, "SAF/AQ tasked Big Safari to procure and modify aircraft as quickly as possible." They're flying operationally now. Nice!

The C-27 is a "mini-Herc" (a smaller version of the C-130 Hercules). It too is a rapid development effort based on a mature airframe. Very, very FISTy.

I hope we continue to see more efforts like this!

10 November 2009

Even though...

Paraphrase of something overheard at a recent conference: "Even though it was complicated, they still had problems."

I believe this particular statement was said tongue-in-cheek, but it points to a belief that is seriously held by many technologists and program managers - namely, that making something more complicated makes it better.

That is precisely the attitude that caused me to write The Simplicity Cycle (incidentally, it has now been downloaded over 1500 times! How cool! You can get your free PDF at www.lulu.com/RoguePress)

There is a related belief, that adding money and extending the program's schedule makes things better. And the truth is, that just isn't the case. I'm quite convinced that 99% of the time, the worst thing you can do to a project is give it more time and money. Far better to scale back the requirements (or push them to a future increment).

(Thanks to Pete for the prompt on this one!)

09 November 2009

Defense AT&L Posted!

The latest issue of everyone's favorite defense technology magazine, Defense AT&L, is now available online for your reading pleasure. My contribution to this issue is titled There Are No Facts About The Future, a fun little piece full of pseudo-faux math and tongue-in-cheek pretend science... but very real ideas and suggestions about how to do this crazy little thing called program management (and there's some real data in there too, just to mix things up a bit).

You might also want to check out Let's Fix It, by Scott Reynolds. A man after my own heart, Prof Reynolds doesn't pull any punches.

As an added bonus, DAU changed the magazine's URL - not just for this issue, but for the whole archive! So, if you've got any old bookmarks or links, you'll get a 404 page-not-found message. But Google has apparently caught up with the change, which is cool and impressive.

02 November 2009

Taking Off

I'm probably going to take this week off, blog-wise. Got a pretty crazy schedule for the next few days, visitors, travel, etc.

But don't worry - I'll be back...