Tuesday, July 26, 2005


I've been a designer of communications systems for 43 years (now retired), and because these are so complex, it takes dozens of people to design something like a military radio, and hundreds of people for something like GPS. And my company has several divisions across the US, and deals with many different government agencies. So along the way, I've learned something of the art of personal communication while designing electronic communications systems.

In engineering work, there are a lot of specialties -- different people have different areas of expertise. For any project, a variety of specialties are needed, and they need to communicate and cooperate to fulfil all the needs of the project. There were situations where I had longer and broader experience than others on the project, but nonetheless, they had more expertise than I in certain important areas. So I showed respect for their expertise and they showed respect for mine.

Take for example the Phase Meter invention that I mentioned in my post "Invention or Discovery". The performance of the phase meter was predicted by simulations and 'paper' analysis -- no actual phase meter was built. So at some point, my boss asked me to build and test a prototype model, with the help of others. Part of the design was hardware, detailed by two engineers in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Another part of the design was software, detailed by two programmers in San Diego, California. And I guided them, providing data from my simulations, in Clifton, New Jersey (all ITT locations). I didn't know any of the others beforehand, except John Petzinger (co-inventor), but communicated mostly by email, and occasionally by telephone. I saw some of them face to face when we were finally ready to put it all together and test it. But it was a success, proving the simulations to be correct.

Knowing that people tend to distrust strangers, I showed appreciation for their work at every opportunity, respect and thanks for their ideas, and honest praise (but not overdone. or it wouldn't sound sincere) when they were successful. Then whenever it became necessary for me to criticize or point out errors, it was not taken personally, but accepted as necessary to make the project a success. And I was careful to admit my own errors when that happened, and to thank them for finding them. After a while, I sensed a friendly tone in their e-mails, and sensed that they were not afraid to ask for help when needed, nor embarrassed to admit that they didn't understand something. Such barriers to communication can seriously hurt a project, because full cooperation and complete and accurate knowledge is important when a project is full of many complex details.

On another project, I first made the acquaintance of an engineer by email, and my initial impression was that he was careless or misinformed. However, it turned out that he was quite careful and knowledgable, but awkward expressing himself in writing.

I recall two cases where another engineer did something dumb and had a bad attitude, although most of the time people were intelligent and civil. In the first case, the engineer connected some data paths so that sometimes the data was reversed. It was like making a dictionary where sometimes the words are spelled backwards. ('Provide' is listed near 'edition' because it is spelled 'edivorp'.) When the error was pointed out to him, he insisted that nothing was wrong, and refused to change the connections. Soon afterward, he was fired.

Several years later, I wrote a specification for a digital radio design, and another engineer working miles away decided to ignore the specification. The specified data sequence was not compatible with test equipment that he wanted to use, making it inconvenient for him to test the radio. So he changed the design to fit the test equipment, rather than adapt the test equipment to fit the design. Again, it was improper data reversal, and refusal to correct the design. The design needed to be as specified to be compatible with another radio.

He didn't work directly for me, so I couldn't make him change it. I had to explain the situation to my boss, who talked to his boss, who made him change it. But I still had to work with him (over the phone), and I knew he wasn't likely to cooperate if I called him a jerk (although he was), so I treated him like a gentleman, in spite of his grumblings, so the job could get done.

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