Thursday, October 6, 2022

Organizational Culture: Part 1 - What is Culture?

Every organization has a culture. Culture is the behavior of people in the organization. It’s the worst tolerated and accepted behavior. It's also how a group rewards and celebrates successes. It’s how a group documents things, it’s how they run their meetings, it’s how they communicate and how transparent their finances and decision making is. In the same way that Japan and the United States have different cultures, so to do Apple and Tesla have different cultures, even though their main offices for years were 20 miles apart and they definitely shared workers.

For a long time I thought culture, the soft skills, was something that was harder to measure, but as I get older, you can put concrete numbers to it, I’ll give some examples. A company with a median tenure of 9 months. A company with a median tenure of 12 years. A company that fires 4% of it’s employees. A company that lays off 30% of it’s people in 2020 versus a company that had company wide pay cuts with higher earners having higher pay cuts. It’s a company where the normal meeting is an hour, and typically goes over time, versus a company where the average meeting is scheduled for 30 minutes and it often ends early. It’s a place where only released drawings are used in manufacturing, versus a place that routinely uses unreleased drawings. It’s a place where 100% of people in operations can pick up any part and find the part history using it’s serial number, versus a place where you’re not sure what the part number is let alone the serial number and part history. It may be a place people yell every day, or almost never. It’s a place where someone can question the CEO, versus a place where people are afraid to speak up to middle management let alone the CEO. It’s a place where managers try to build their fiefdoms versus a place where managers strive to give their people the best resources and the best coaching. 


Those are topics you can ask about in an interview to get an idea of what the culture is. You might not get good answers to all of those questions, but some of those questions will have numerical answers you can use to quantify the behavior of the company. There is no perfect place and no perfect culture. And many of the things that make a culture good, or at least fun for some people, are often things with difficult downstream consequences. For example, design engineers can often bristle that they need to release all part drawings and assemblies before the parts and assemblies are made. Having spent more than two years in manufacturing at this point, that’s laughable because without something in black and white (which a printed drawing is) what are we supposed to build? Once, I was in a meeting getting some feedback from a different functional group and my group was being told we built the thing wrong. So we compared the picture of what we built to the work instructions, and they matched. Then we compared it to the CAD model, and it matched again. Then we compared it to the original test article we had built, and it matched too. All of the documentation was in order. Moral of the story is, don’t hold meetings after 5 PM when people are tired, but 5 PM meetings are a cultural thing too.


A friend recently left a slow moving four person startup because the team hit some roadblocks and he realized that his voice wasn’t fully being heard. To paraphrase him, a company is always going to have a little bit of it’s founder in the culture and either you get on board or get off at the next stop. As I get further into the world of startups, I get to hear about more companies all the time first hand from people living those startups. It’s fascinating because there are so many really really cool technologies out there that have the ability to disrupt the world. Yet there are also a whole bunch of people out there making the same people relationship mistakes over and over. To give an example, don’t threaten an engineering team because half of them will just leave in the next few weeks. But then again, if that is your culture, one of threats, and a constant turnover of people, maybe that works for your organization. One of the big companies in my industry published a turnover rate of 21% last year, and given what I know, it’s probably been around that level for years. This company is known as the benchmark, and it’s clearly a market leader, and yet 21% of their people are leaving every year. I haven’t worked there, so I can’t really say, but the stories do seem to be a place that burns people out. Yet another example, an industry incumbent that several of my acquaintances recently left was described to me as having a “terrible culture”. When I asked if it was so bad that it would not be around in 20 years, despite having legendary status and a long customer backlog, the answer was that it might not be, it was hard to say. Surprising to say the least.


So, I’m going to write about organizational culture. Mostly companies, but also non-profits, sports teams (yes there will probably be some Ted Lasso examples), even social groups, all have their behavior norms and what is acceptable without being pushed out of the group. Let’s talk about those things. Let’s dive in and talk for example about how when a first time manager micromanages, how is that person’s manager supposed to know, and quickly, that the new manager is micromanaging? I’ll have to come back to that because I don’t know. 


This series is partly inspired by the Big ERN’s Safe Withdraw Rate series, which is an open ended series where he dives into a bunch of details, and attacks the same problem, how to withdraw money in retirement so that you don’t run out, from a wide variety of angles. Most recently how using a line of credit, like a reverse mortgage or home equity line of credit, could be used to pay for part of a retirement. In short, every person’s retirement is different, so there is no truly one size fits all answer. Similarly, as I write about culture, it’s will be based on my experiences, and how I hopefully lift up those I spend my days with so that we accomplish great things. Yet, in large part this will subjective, as quantifying things like individual productivity and the turnover and firing rate are not things usually published by companies, so I'm not sure how much I can speak to them. To be clear, I’m not actually trying to change that, I’m just trying to articulate and quantify things that could be described as the culture of an organization, so that as people are looking for their ideal culture, they can ask the right questions. 


Again, there is no perfect culture. A culture that is super high performing likely has a fair amount of turnover. A culture that doesn’t document things well, probably is a lot of fun sometimes just doing experiments, but that failure might come to bite them. This is my attempt, between culture’s I’ve lived, those my friends have lived, and those I’ve read about, to quantify organizational culture.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

The Magic (of a Good First Article Assembly Build)

In the world of manufacturing, after design has made the drawings, and supply chain has purchased the parts, and the vendors have made the parts, there comes the first opportunity to build the assembly. In my ideal world, that happens with the technician who will build it every day, standing right beside the design engineer who invented it, and the manufacturing engineer who will make it easier to build, all three together building it. It's magical. 

Why is it so cool? Well, there are often things about the design of the part that the design engineer will have to change. It's a very humbling time to be the design engineer, this thing you spent months on is happening in real time and when there are problem you are the only person to really answer most of the questions. It's also great because when the manufacturing engineer is right there, he or she can take notes and update the work instructions and maybe even the bill of materials in real time. By having a really good edit to the instructions during the first article build, future builds will go much more smoothly. Of course it's somewhat a never ending process, continuously improving the parts and instructions to make it go faster and have fewer issues. But the magic is the first time it happens. Everyone has a genuine curiosity about the process. And everyone becomes steeped in the details of the process, so that when future people are hired to learn how to do it, anyone that was there at the beginning has a wealth of knowledge about why things are done a certain way. 

I've thought a lot the last few years about how to scale from one to ten, and ten to 100, and a little bit of thinking beyond that. If you only ever make one, for the most part the engineers who designed it can build it. But very quickly, somewhere between zero and five products, it's probably best to create documentation so that people skilled at building things, can build things, and people skilled at designing things, can design things. 

Point being, the magic is the deep understanding of how the thing is built, and the ownership from everyone on the team to be there for all of the little successes and scary failures that inevitably occur in the process of building something new. It's so cool when it happens!

Thursday, September 15, 2022

I have started to cultivate Bonsai trees!

 

My first Bonsai: A Juniperus Horizontalis

For years I've wanted to get a bonsai tree, like over a decade. About a month ago I was shopping for plants to put on my balcony and I was telling my fiancé about my desire to have one, and she found this tree for me that was $12.95, and bought it for me!

Where does this hobby go, I do not know. Trees don't grow very fast. I've had it over a month and while it is definitely alive, it definitely hasn't gotten much taller. I'm going to aim to make it straight and tall even though this style of juniper grows horizontally. Next up I'd like to transplant an alpine tree like a blue spruce. Some of them are so cool looking!

A blue spruce (I think) on a recent backpacking trip. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Failure is still underrated.

Failure is underrated. We learn a lot from failure. In many cases a lot of things went right, but it only took one thing to go wrong which then puts the whole mission in the category of failure. Of course, there are many days too when something has clearly gone wrong, but the end goal is still accomplished and so to the outside it looks like a complete success.

Mountaineering is a great teacher in this respect. People will often view success and failure as making the summit or not making the summit. But in reality it's far more nuanced, there is living and not living of course, which is far more important than any rocky summit. There are injuries, there are friendships, there are new personal altitude records, there are good weather days low on the mountain, there are good meals, there are card games, there are movies and reading books, there is sleeping in on rest days. Climbing mountains is about a lot more than just making the summit. 

So it is the same in business. Failing at a goal can teach a company a lot about what went right, even when something went wrong. In fact, sometimes succeeding can teach an organization the wrong lessons, such as, of the 100 steps in the process, actually only 17 contributed to their success. Since the thing had never been tested with less than 100 process steps, hours will be debated about taking away one or two steps, when 83 of them are not needed. Or perhaps everyone worked 60-80 hour weeks to make it a success, so that becomes normal at the company for the next 15 years.

I recently read the book Scrum by Jeff Sutherland, and one of the ideas is go to market when you have some feature that works, but it's only 20% of the complete product. That might be easier done in software than hardware, but the idea of making a product with the minimum features and getting to market, so that you can get actual customer feedback makes a lot of sense. What engineers like and think are important are not always the things that customers think are important. 

So when a company has a "failure" it's a huge learning opportunity. Most failures expose one or several weaknesses, and even if it is systemic, it's never the whole process or the whole system that was wrong. It's okay to fail. In fact, testing to failure is often a great way to test systems and components so that then you know, everything was okay, right up until the fraction of a second where it failed. Without breaking things it can be really hard to definitively say how long a product will last. 

So the next time you see failure, before excoriating the organization or the people for their incompetence, consider all the things that went right, and hope we can all learn from the failure so that it doesn't get repeated. 

Friday, July 29, 2022

It will be okay.

Well, if the last few years haven't been crazy enough, now we've got inflation. Being in California, I see any gas under $5.50 a gallon and think it's cheap. There is talk that we are in a recession. I know people with new and big health problems, including myself. It's easy to be pessimistic. And I think that's part of the fun to being optimistic, how challenging it can be sometimes. 

That being said, 2010 was a big year in my life. It was really hard financially, emotionally, and mentally. Since then I've come a long way and have a much broader view than I did back then. My broader view gives me more reasons to be optimistic. 

For starters, I know a couple people that retired this year. That's a good thing because for very working age people like myself that means that there are jobs out there that people have given away. Demographics in the United States, and many European and Asian countries are skewing older, meaning less working age people. Simple supply and demand suggests that wages will continue to go up for workers who are willing to work. I don't think people realize how dramatic this is. It's not so bad now, but in 10 or 15 years when baby boomers are moving into assisted living in record numbers there is going to be a huge shortage of health care workers to care for them. Health care is probably going to get more expensive, and unequal. Of course again there are solutions, for starters immigration of health care professionals is a great first step. And raising wages for the lower paying health care jobs would be good too. That's all a long way of saying, predictions from 100 years ago of a 15 hour work week will not happen, and on the contrary, there will be demand for many 40 hour a week people. Which is good news for people looking for jobs.

Another reason people might be stressed, inflation, is another area that is not as bad as many perceive. Interest rates are going up, and that means housing sales will go down, and then shortly car sales will go down, and a number of retailers are already seeing rising inventories, meaning their product isn't moving as fast as expected, and there will be sales. In short, this is the beginning of demand slowing, and supply increasing. 

Finally, it's been raining in Colorado, that's a dry state where extra rain is a good thing. 

Maybe not what people were expecting me to write, but I'm feeling good about the economy despite the two negative quarters we just had. Restaurants are still having help wanted signs in the windows, and back in 2010 that did not happen. While housing in California and Colorado is still wildly expensive and unaffordable for many people, there are jobs, and with jobs come income and with income bills are paid. 

Monday, May 30, 2022

"It's like Grand Junction."

Today ends four days that my amazing girlfriend was out here in Oakland visiting me in the Bay Area from Colorado. We went to Muir Woods. We ate fancy food in San Francisco. We cruised around Oakland and Alameda. We went up to Napa Valley, where she made the title comment. 

Yes, Napa valley is like Grand Junction. We didn't have time or the reservations to hit up a dozen wineries, we just walked around the town of Napa, so take this with a grain of salt. The hills are maybe 2000 feet taller than the town. It's dry, very dry at the moment, but not quite a desert. All of the agriculture is irrigated. It was an interesting observation, and while I have only been here two weeks, I was not expecting it to be so dry in May. I don't think Grand Junction has any Michelin star restaurants or $175 dollar four course meals at wineries yet, but heads up everyone, it has wine and outdoor sports too.

In the short time I've been in the Bay Area I've realized that it's just different than other places I've lived because of the startup and venture capital scene. I don't have a ton of evidence yet, but two data points, I eat breakfast and lunch at work every week day paid for by my employer. Second I've seen more Lambourginis, Ferraris and Rivians in two weeks than I've seen in the last two years around Denver, and probably more than exist in all of Grand Junction.

Point being, if Napa isn't in the budget for your summer or fall vacation but you want to go wine tasting and take some hikes, check out Grand Junction, it even has an airport.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

I'm taking a job in the San Francisco Bay Area of California!

I took a job out in California and I'll be out there in just a few days! I'll write more about it in the future, and of course be as ambiguous and discrete as I can. A lot went into this decision, and I'm excited for this opportunity. I'm especially excited to explore California! While I have spent about three weeks there in my life, there is a lot I have not done. I hear the food is good too. :)

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

No Longer a One Issue Abortion Voter

Back in time, over a decade ago abortion was my big issue. I was a one issue voter, meaning I cared about that issue more than everything else and I voted for candidates based on their stance on abortion alone, either aligning with mine or not. As a Christian you can probably guess that I wasn't fond of it. I'm writing about this again today because of the leak that said the Supreme Court might over turn Roe v. Wade. Maybe Citizens United will be overturned?

In 2010 when I was unemployed I started to get into economics. Economics are not politics, but economic policy is driven by politicians and laws. When I was unemployed in 2010 I saw how little of a safety net the United States really has. For example, since I was graduating into unemployment, I did not receive any unemployment income, because I had not really worked in the past. Fortunately I stayed on my parents health insurance. And fortunately between a little bit of savings, money from my family, a job from my family, living with family, and then a summer camp job I made it through the year, but I maxed out three credit cards and deferred my student loans for most of a year. Point being, tax payers put a ton of money into my education, and then I put in a whole lot more, but without my family I don't know what would have happened to me by the fall of 2010. I probably would have ended up making snow at a ski resort with one of my good friends for a little more than minimum wage and living in the mountains, which would have probably been fun for a season, but there too, that connection was a friend, an advantage I have over others. In other words, there was a significant economic inefficiency.

We focus on abortion because it's black and white, good and evil. But I've come to realize that if we focus on the letter of the law like the Pharisees in the Bible, we miss the point of loving our neighbor. My voting philosophy for most of the last decade has been based on Jesus's second commandment from Matthew 22:39 "And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" Every law I interpret through that lens, what would loving my neighbor more look like?

In the case of abortion it's about loving those little babies, which I think the vast majority of people can agree we want to. How can we do that better? It's easy to focus on the law of abortion itself, but holistically it's often the woman who will be making the decision, so how do we show her love?

First, let's start with child marriage, why is this still legal in the United States?! We should outlaw marriage under age 18 at the national level in the United States. Period. End of statement. For more information see this group.

Second, let's talk about the cost of just having a child. A lot of people don't like the idea of universal healthcare, they like adding to the profits of insurance companies and having the right to not have health insurance. However, if we as a country really cared about those little babies, we would fully fund maternity costs. It costs thousands of dollars simply have to have a kid according to WebMD. In we can't agree on universal healthcare, can we at least agree these direct costs of having a child should be paid for by us tax payers as a country? After all, that is a future little tax payer. 

Third, let's talk about paid maternity, paternity and family leave. Once again we have no laws to pay new parents in those first weeks and months as they figure out how to raise a little baby. Retirees live on social security for years, but at the start of every person's life we can't give their parents 12 weeks to get that new human off on the right foot? There are a lot of benefits to paying new parents for just a couple months. This one seems so simple, and in light of the current economy with jobs everywhere but no one to fill them, if the government won't implement paid family leave I expect many employers to implement it to keep employees, even low wage employees.

Fourth, let's talk about daycare and preschool. I've had quite a few friends go through this, and day care is not cheap. Assuming a two parent household, both working before they have kids, it probably makes sense for each one to keep working after the first child. In Denver full time daycare costs about $1575 per month. With two kids in daycare, now you're talking over $3,000 per month! Yes it probably makes sense for a parent to stay home. After tax, with two kids in day care you're talking about close to $40,000 in expenses. Pretax you're in the neighborhood of $60,000 for a parent's income, so if you make less than that and have two young kids, yeah you might as well not work. In Japan it's even worse. Of the four things on this list so far I realize this is the most expensive by far and I can imagine that a woman making $40,000 a year who is single and finds out she is pregnant might not be ready to have that baby because if her partner isn't going to provide, and the government isn't going to provide for that baby, who is?

Fifth, and this isn't economics, but social stigma. Because of the four above reasons, or at least a subset of them, prospective mothers and parents aren't feeling loved systemically. Mental health is an issue and I can imagine that both before women become pregnant and then after having an abortion there are significant mental traumas to work through. If we aren't addressing mental health for mothers and for children we aren't setting families up for success. In the US the CDC says that about 40% of births are to unmarried mothers. Additionally, a whopping 86% of abortions are to unmarried single and cohabitating mothers. Which I think is what you would expect, that's it's harder to have a kid when you don't have a ring (commitment) on that finger from a partner to help share the financial load let alone the daily chores. Quick tangent, when I was growing up I didn't know anyone that had a nanny. As I've gotten older I've met a few friends that had nannies growing up. Now, I have several peers who have nannies and my partner and I have made it to a financial place where we could probably afford a nanny if we ever get to that stage, which is bonkers to me. And it speaks to the whole ridiculousness of childbearing and rearing in this country. There are a lot of unloved mothers in this country, and yet because my partner and I have a certain skill set that financially pays well we can access this luxury. To phrase that another way, we're not better than anyone else, but we can have a service that is better than the alternatives, which feels like a failure of society to care for all little babies. 

To wrap up, yes I'm still against abortion, but does outlawing it show those babies and those mothers that we love them? No. Without addressing the five points above we as a society aren't actually serious about loving those babies and those mothers. In other words, right now for me it seems the most loving course of action is to say, 'do whatever you want'. Because for us to really say, 'do this because we believe it is best', requires us to back that up with economic muscle to cover the costs that new parents have. An analogy, we can drive 80 miles per hour on many highways because of the NHTSA requiring car makers to have seat belts, airbags, and crumple zones. We can drive on public roads without paying tolls because we pay taxes to fund those roads, earn drivers licenses to prove we are safe, and pay car insurance in case we damage another vehicle or injure a person. It's not just the seatbelt law that makes our value of easy transportation possible, it's because in that area we have a wide range of laws designed to love each other to continually make transportation safer for everyone. Similarly, I think we need a range of laws to show love to new humans and new parents.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Manufacturing from the Start

In April 2011, in my first couple weeks at work with the company I would spend seven and a half years with, I had a Webex meeting with myself (at the time the finite element structural analyst), the design engineer, and the manufacturing engineer for a particular welded assembly. I was presenting the results of my analysis, and then we would talk about next steps to try and optimize the structure to have a higher life, lower weight, and easier welding and assembly. The manufacturing engineer attended hundreds of meetings over the next four years before we actually started production of that particular item and many other similar items in January 2015. You should have heard the arguments over how big the internal access holes had to be!

I had forgotten about this experience until recently, and it struck me how talking about manufacturing so early in the design phase helped avoid future problems. I think for anyone reading this they will say "of course", but I wasn't actually able to articulate that until just recently. I remember one day back in 2011 recommending 25 mm thick steel plates for a component, and the manufacturing engineer essentially said no, 20 mm was the max thickness unless there was a really really good reason. In this case we found a way to use thinner plates.

In April and May of 2013 we built 24 prototype machines for this program, and we found major issues left and right! There were a lot of young engineers on the program and we simply didn't know any better. Looking back it had to be one of the best learning experiences for a 25-29 year old new engineer to be able to make mistakes and then have time to correct them.

However, also looking back we did a lot of things really right. Having a manufacturing representative involved in the structural analysis discussions two years before building prototypes and four years before the start of production laid a lot of good groundwork for designs that were structurally sound and not excessively difficult to manufacturer. For example, we did a lot of welding plates together, and had welding robots, so we optimized the design of joints for the welding robots. I was thinking about this because I was recently part of an issue that in hind sight we should have thought about before we encountered it. And frankly, it's a wildly different scenario holistically from the 2011 through 2015 manufacturing story, so it's not an apples to apples comparison. Still the recent issue was embarrassing and humiliating to me personally because I realized that it was totally possible to get ahead of the issue, if we had simply thought about it two years ago.

This is part of a larger arc that I'm articulating my way through. How do you go from nothing into something? How do you see a market need, and then put out a physical product in volume to meet that need? At some point in the future I'll go into depth on systems engineering, because that's pretty underrated. For today the lesson is include manufacturing early, even when you might not think to, like on structural analysis result discussions well before the first parts get made. I think it's probably faster to iterate with more people in the room than it would be to iterate on one aspect of a design at a time (strength of the part, manufacturing of the part, etc.) in series.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

The Leaps of Technology

In 2015 when SpaceX landed an orbital rocket booster, the world changed. People have landed rockets for decades, and people have used rockets to get to space for decades. No one had put the two together before.  Now, nearly seven years later it is mostly taken for granted that we can land rockets. Another example, aluminum in the early 1800s was worth more than gold because we didn't know how to extract it from ore. Now we use it on single use aluminum cans. Electric cars might be a similar story. Currently they are really only luxury cars, but continue another 15 years of battery development to halve the price of the battery and likely raise the price of gasoline, and that trade off in initial cost versus recurring fueling costs might look even more lop sided than it is today

I'm writing this because I have been doing a little thought experiment lately thinking about what the world in 2050 might look like. I don't know what the future holds. A friend was recently telling me about fusion power, and that's another area where the first commercial power plant would be a total game changer. 

Those cool things being mentioned, something that I don't expect to change much are the mountains I enjoy. Specifically the San Juan mountains in southwest Colorado. They are some of the most rugged and most remote in the state, and I'm confident that many of those valleys in 2050 will not have roads, that they will be similar to how they are today. Of course they might burn in a fire, and not have the snowpacks they used to have, but in general they will probably look very similar. 

What do you think the world will look like in 2050? What will be the same and what will be different?

Monday, March 14, 2022

I have Arthritis

I have arthritis in my left ankle, in the talus bone, and the tibia. It's been giving me pain for awhile, I had an MRI way back in April 2021 before I went to Denali, and due to it seeming to be recovered didn't have it reviewed with me until November 2021. I recently had a second opinion on it, and yeah, there is cartilage damage and bone bruising there.

Is this my retirement from competitive running? Is this my retirement from all running? I have not run in over three months and at times I have yearned for that 30-90 minutes of relaxation and meditation in my daily routine. It's so easy to take running for granted when you are 25 and can run for hours. I've run around 40,000 miles and they have been beautiful miles. I never had this kind of pain before I broke my ankle March 9th, 2019. 

It's really a struggle. I can't get back what I had, the past doesn't work that way. Some day I'd love to chase little kids around a yard, and hike more 13ers. I will definitely sacrifice the short term opportunity (another Team USA opportunity) in order to have a long term healthy active future. 

I'm pursuing a new option, an option to use concentrated bone marrow from my hip to regenerate the cartilage, bone, and ligaments in my ankle. Who knows if it will work. This isn't my retirement from running article. 

Sunday, March 6, 2022

The Conversion of a Reluctant Manufacturing Engineer

Back in 2010 I was interviewed several times and I would get asked what I wanted to do. Frankly at the time I didn't really understand that design, manufacturing, and testing were the three main areas of engineering. I didn't understand that engineers don't do all of those things. Then in the winter of 2014-2015 I was a design engineer and part of a big product launch when a weld manufacturing engineer I worked closely with asked if I would joint manufacturing. I laughed. I laughed because I saw how hard that job was, but I still didn't make the connection that manufacturing was such a key aspect of a business and the manufacturing engineers were no different than me. I think my ego of a masters degree and design experience seemed to make me uniquely qualified for my role, while I imagined that the manufacturing engineers had some special training or aptitude for their roles, while in general they didn't.

Somewhere I saw a quote attributed to the founder of Toyota that a good engineer gets his hands dirty on the floor and has to wash his hands at least three times a day. I can't find the quote after a short search so it's very possible it's misattributed or never happened. However, it's stuck with me for over a decade. I have always felt that an engineer needs to be out there on the floor or in the field touching the parts. That's how you understand the actual parts and not just the virtual models of those parts on the computer screen. Still, I never saw myself in manufacturing, despite the months of work days that I spent on the manufacturing floor starting in graduate school in 2008.

In 2020 for various reasons, a major one being how difficult the job is, both of the manufacturing engineers involved in daily manufacturing at my company left, and I moved over to manufacturing. I've been here just over a year and a half now, and I have learned a lot. For example, Elon Musk gave an interview last year to Everyday Astronaut Tim Dodd and about halfway through the video he goes on a tangent about how design is overrated and manufacturing is underrated. Based on my 12 years in industry, yes, design is typically perceived to be mentally challenging and manufacturing is not, even though it really is quite the mental challenge and a challenge for many companies. 

In January and February I polled 20 of my coworkers who are not in manufacturing and asked "What would it take to get you to join manufacturing?" Most laughed at me. All 20 initially said no, with one saying maybe when I poked and prodded on her career plans. For six of them I then asked a follow on question "What if we doubled your salary?" and still only three said yes. It's mind-blowing to me that people would not take this job for double their salary. Everyone I asked makes at least $80,000 per year. When I moved over to manufacturing there was no pay raise, I did it because it needed to be done. 

Seeing the war in Ukraine, and not to mention all the supply chain issues we have seen in the last two years both as a consumer and in business, I've been thinking about how important manufacturing is. Specifically, while the war in Ukraine is on the smaller side, if you go back to world war two American factories were pumping out tanks, planes, ships, and all manner of other equipment working seven days a week and 24 hours a day. The size of that effort now overwhelms me just thinking about it. My personal demand for manufactured things is small, I don't buy that much stuff, yet as I approach a car purchase in the years to come, I can't help but think cars are a wonder of manufacturing.

In Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs he recounts on page 546 in the hardcover how Steve told President Obama that moving iPhone manufacturing to the USA would take 700,000 people, which they could get, but 30,000 manufacturing engineers, which they couldn't get unless there was a way to get them all trained. As the war in Ukraine goes on and people fear a new cold war, I realized again how important manufacturing is. We can do without manufacturing for months, years even, by repairing the current things we already have, but if we want new things that are more highly engineered and more capable than our old things, we need to manufacture. 

Where am I going with this? Until just recently I still saw myself as a design engineer, that is where most of my career has been and I'm good at it. For years when asked to put a job title on a form I've just put engineer, and I'll keep doing that even as my title changes. I think I've had some shame at being a manufacturing engineer, it doesn't seem as illustrious as a design engineer, but the longer I live in the manufacturing world the more I realize how interconnected design, test, and manufacturing are, and how manufacturing is in many ways the most important part. For example NASA has designed dozens of space vehicles that were never built or tested, but SpaceX has already built and is about to test a rocket which, if successful, is a total game changer. 

So I encourage other engineers, especially ones with less than 10 years experience, to do a stint in manufacturing and see what the challenges are in person. It will be infuriating at times when changes so small you can't even see the difference with your eyes take days to solve. But that is the whole point, to solve the mundane issues so that it's easier to build the thing in the future. 

Saturday, February 12, 2022

How I like to run my Meetings

Meetings have two purposes, disseminate information (knowledge leveling so that we get everyone on the same page) and make a decision (with all of the stakeholders present). Before people say meetings are pointless, if a meeting doesn't fulfill one or both of those purposes, you don't need to have it. Often things can happen one on one to keep the organization running, but sometimes you need a larger group of people. 

In my current role most of the meetings I run are typically to share information, but we do make some decisions in the meetings. Last year for eight months I led a daily standup meeting for 5-10 minutes each day to talk about the shop priorities. I thought it went well, we made a lot of progress completing the high priority items. Now my meetings are milestone based for individual products, kind of like a pre-flight checklist for a pilot. In all of these cases, 98% of my meetings are with engineers and technicians so I can't speak to how business, sales, and marketing people do meetings.

Before the meeting even begins when I am planning it, I aim for 30 minutes or less. The first meeting I ever led in industry was in 2011 to present FEA results and it took only 8 minutes, including questions. I have always seen that first meeting as the benchmark. Don't plan for an hour or 90 minutes unless you really have a lot to cover. And if it's over two hours, you definitely need to plan breaks every 60-90 minutes. 

For starters, since every meeting now involves logging into a computer and setting up a video call, I like to log in ahead of time so that we're ready to go on time. Since people often filter into the meeting early I like to then have a few minutes of small talk, such as what people did on the weekend or any life events that people are having, like a coworker is buying a house and it's always fun to ask how it's going. I do this to build trust. When we talk about our personal lives, as simple as saying "I skied at Winter Park on Saturday." We show our coworkers that we are humans. Probably 5-10% of the time small talk at the start of a meeting has prompted someone to say something like, "Hey I didn't know you live in Longmont too, we should get dinner sometime." Every day you're either building relationships, or letting them wither, and spending 1-2 minutes once or twice a day purposefully on small talk helps build relationships. For example, typically I ask person A a question, and then persons B, C and D now knows more about person A, and potentially have something in common, like loving or hating a new movie.

Possible small talk questions and items to use at the start of a meeting:

  • What did you do this weekend?
  • Did you see that new (insert franchise here) movie?
  • Did you see that (sporting event)?
  • Do you have any vacations planned in the next few months?
  • You can always poke fun at yourself, like saying how much your back hurts after shoveling snow.
  • You can ask about people's commutes when there is bad weather.
  • If people have plants, gardens, pets, or kids those are typically something to ask about. 
  • You can talk about how tired you are of Covid, because we all are.
  • You can ask about music, from new albums to recent or upcoming concerts.

I usually start the actual technical content 1-2 minutes late, and the reason is people, for a wide variety of reasons, show up late. Maybe the notification popped up on their computer right at the start of the meeting and it takes 1-2 minutes to log in. Maybe they were coming from another meeting. If you plan to give the most important information in the first minute of the meeting, starting exactly to the second on time is a recipe to have to repeat yourself. And if people aren't very comfortable with you (because for example you're three layers above them in the hierarchy), they won't ask you what they missed, they will ask someone else what happened in the first two minutes. That's another reason, instead of sitting there in silence a minute past the start of the meeting, having small talk is a good way to ease people into the conversation and get at least one person ready to talk. The one disclaimer to this is when the number of people in the meeting gets above 20, most people that aren't the presenter don't want a room of 20+ people to know all about their personal life. 

During the meeting the goal is to be clear. That doesn't always happen. And often what is clear to one group of people (like manufacturing) is not clear to another (like testing). It's okay to repeat things in a meeting. In fact, I kind of like it. If the information is very important, you better say it twice. Of course saying everything twice will sound patronizing, and I'm not a fan of trying to rehash ten minutes of a meeting if someone showed up late. You can always bring that person up to speed later one on one instead of wasting everyone else's time.

In decision making meetings I try to get everyone to add at least one question or comment in the meeting. Often that means redirecting a question targeted at me for someone who hasn't said anything. For example, "Interesting question John, Sara, what do you think about that?" In engineering there can definitely be people afraid to speak up, in particular women get talked over, and shy engineers often won't speak unless spoken to. So one goal as a meeting leader is to be inclusive and get everyone's perspective.

When the meeting is over it's good to ask if there are any major questions, and the pause will often feel awkward, especially with a large number of people calling into a meeting and needing to unmute themselves to ask a question. Just wait to make sure it's awkward, it only takes about six seconds. I've only waited three seconds before and hung up as someone was asking a question... and then I had to call back in to answer it.

Try to end early. Everyone has individual work to do, and giving them even one minute back will help. Some of them most likely have another meeting scheduled back to back. 

Finally, for meetings where a decision was made, it's good to send out notes to the attendees after the meeting confirming the decision. The same can go for meetings where information was shared, but often in those cases that information can actually be sent out ahead of time, so that people can bring questions to the information sharing meeting. A great example is a design review, the presentation and assembly number can be shared ahead of time so that people can prepare and ask better questions. 

That's about it. I hope it helps in your meetings, and if you've ever felt like my meetings were a little different this might have explained why.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

What is the Future of Fire and Water in Colorado?

The Marshall Fire that swept through Boulder County on December 30th, 2021 was pretty unexpected. The Cameron Peak Fire and Calwood Fires that affected Boulder and Larimer counties, were unexpected, but more typical for the forests around Colorado. Recently, I read an article recently that snow free winters were coming to Colorado before 2100. In other words, Colorado was going to be closer to New Mexico and Arizona in terms of weather. At the same time, the Colorado River basin is experiencing drought, and that affects a huge amount of agriculture and cities starting in western Colorado and all the way to California. 

Both issues, drought and fires are related and have some similar actions that can mitigate their damage. A decade ago beetles killed millions of trees in Colorado and across the mountain west and into Canada, and they all have a similar mitigating factor, thinning out the forests. It's not complicated, and it's not necessarily easy, but it's an excellent solution.

A crowded forest does a few things:

  • A dense forest soaks up all of the water that falls as rain and snow, leaving none to travel down to streams and rivers.
  • A dense forest grows rapidly in the weeks after heavy rain, and dries out faster in weeks of no rain, leading to being very dry and more likely to burn when exposed to fire. In other words, the forest grows rapidly in May and June, dries out in July and August, and burns in September and October.
  • A dense forest is more likely to spread bark pine beetles, and kill more trees. 
  • A dense forest constrains trees from flourishing because there is more competition for sunlight and water.
  • It's really hard to ski through a dense forest.
  • When a dense forest is wet it does product more oxygen and absorb up more carbon dioxide than a sparse forest, but that is largely wiped out when it burns, and the fact that the trees are competing for water and sunlight means that a forest with 20% of the trees will make more than 20% of the oxygen.
Before I go any farther, to be clear, I'm a huge fan of protecting old growth forests. I've never been to Olympic National Park, but I hear that's the premier old growth forest in the USA. I do know that Colorado has very little old growth forests, between logging and mining activities in the late 1800s and fires throughout history, we just don't have many 200 year old trees in this state. 

I'm a big fan of active forest management. This started back in 2002 when I did a Roving Outdoor Conservation School three week backpacking trek in New Mexico at Philmont Scout Ranch and learned all about forest fire mitigation, which was especially important because that year the northern portion of Philmont burned in a forest fire. In 2006 while a staff member at Philmont I actually carried a 4 foot long cross cut saw for nearly two weeks of backpacking to help maintain trails and thin out the forest. 

At it's core, thinning out the forest is simple, just cut down a portion of the trees, preferably the younger ones, less healthy ones (like already infected with beetles) or dead ones, simulating a fire with flames that are less than 10 feet above the ground. A way to accomplish that would simply be let people loose to cut down any tree less than 4 inches in diameter (which is plenty big for any camp fire or Christmas tree). In practice it's a little more complicated. First, people are efficient, and so the 1/4 mile next to roads would easily be cut down, but the areas 1+ mile away from roads would be left essentially untouched because it takes a lot of effort to walk in and cut down those trees and drag them out. To get those areas of forests thinned there has to be a business case. The business of lumber is such that larger diameter trees are worth more, and it's easier to cut all trees down in an area than 50% of the trees. So what do we do?

Individually, starting in 2022 I plan to thin the forests out just a bit in the areas that I use them where it's legally allowed. I have a small folding saw, less than a half pound that I intend to take hiking and backpacking. Many of the trails that I use are badly in need of maintenance and trimming some branches as I hike will help maintain the trail as well as reduce the water consumption in those area. Similarly at many of the places I camp a $20 permit allows the collection of up to 2.5 cords of dead wood, or cutting live trees and branches under 2" in diameter. While I don't have any specific plans for campfires, the forest fires the last two years have scared me into thinking that this might be every summer for the next 15+ years. I realize that my tiny impact will be imperceptible to everyone except professional foresters, but I have to do something. 

Collectively, we can support forest thinning operations on national forests. Here is a picture I took January 23, 2022 north east of Monarch Pass showing an area of forest that has been thinned, into utterly amazing looking backcountry ski lines. I bet tens of thousands of people see that section of forest from the north side of Monarch Pass and don't realize it's been thinned, especially in the summer. 
Monarch Pass January 23, 2022

We can't eliminate droughts or forest fires. We have to figure out how to live with them. We need clean air, you can only go a few minutes without it, and forest fire emissions put a lot of unhealthy particulate matter into the air. Similarly, without water we humans can only last a few days. Thinning out our forests in the years to come is one method that can help both increase the water supply and reduce the intensity of forest fires. It's not the be all end all solution to drought or wildfires, and it's impact on climate change is beyond my understanding at this time, except that it takes decades for a completely burnt forest to return to it's previous state, which of course doesn't help absorb as much carbon dioxide much during those rebuilding years. 

Of course, if we all use less resources that will help reduce our impact, and there are other options to reduce the impacts of droughts and fires that professionals are working on, and the way knowledge goes I could be proven wrong tomorrow, yet it's been 20 years since I first learned about overcrowded forests and unfortunately the problem only seems to have gotten worse in those two decades.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

What I learned in 2021

My blogging hasn't been prolific the last year, or really couple years. There is a variety of reasons. Dubuque, Iowa was uniquely set up for a person without Internet to blog, plus I was single and in my middle 20s. Independence, Kansas was not, and while Longmont, Colorado definitely is, a pandemic isn't. Well, I've had gigabit speed Internet since about my third day of working from home. I bummed low speed from a neighbor for a couple days but quickly realized that didn't cut it for video chats and loading large CAD models. However I only worked full time remote for three weeks in March and the first week of April 2020, and I've been in person nearly five days a week ever since. That's all a long way of saying, I've been focused on other things and not blogging, even though the learning to do I've done is pretty great.

I'm going to focus on one simple lesson I relearned multiple times in 2021: communication can always be improved. At my company I recently passed over 100 formal interviews I have conducted, with a dozen or so more informal ones I've been a part of. In a recent interview I made a comment that "no one in the world has perfect communication" and was struck by how true that actually is. I like to imagine I communicate well, and I think I do, yet miscommunications happen all the time. To give an example, I have a girlfriend who is incredible, and we've been dating since August 2020, and it's going well, yet we still miscommunicate. In many ways I've found having a significant other exposes communication issues better than any corporate setting. 

As I write this I have 11 years of industry experience. I've held six distinctly different engineering positions. Additionally I have a technical master's degree that I completed before I really entered industry. After going on a lot of first and second dates, I have a long term girlfriend for our third calendar year. Additionally, I've done well running and climbing, the later involving climbing partners and trying to describe those relationships is outside the bounds of this blog post. Point being, 10 years ago when I was writing I didn't understand relationships the way I do now. Communication is so important. Sure I've always communicated, but how is it that we stumble over our miscommunication more as we get older?

I read a few months ago an anecdote about how everyone is struggling with something. I think that's really true. When someone flips out that I'm wearing a KN-85 mask, they don't know I had a pulmonary embolism in 2018 and honestly it could have killed me. Similarly, I don't know what he or she is struggling with. 

My solution? Lead with curiosity and as much empathy as possible. A big challenge in today's world is that we don't understand each other as well as we need to to accommodate all of our baggage. Using an allegory, I have a square suitcase and you have a circular one, and the trunk is a triangle, how do we make this work? It's not always as simple as walking a mile in their shoes. While that is super helpful, it doesn't always give the past, as a day in my life in 2021 would not show the 2018 pulmonary embolism. 

Again, the solution, just talk to people. Ask, "how's it going?" It's okay to say you had a bad day. At work a couple weeks ago a manager brought in a bottle of whiskey after we finished building a product and we drank 3/4 of it that night between a few of us. I know I need a lot of alone time, and I'm surrounded by a truly incredible groupie of family, friends, and current and former coworkers. So ask for help if you need it. Say there is a problem when there is a problem. Don't yell at a random dude. We're getting there one step at a time. We're doing something as a seven billion person world that we've never done before. Take a chill pill and keep trudging, we're going to get there. It will be okay. Jesus loves you. And if you want to make it better, remember, communication can always be improved