Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Start of System Engineering

In my early years working for ITT, we designed computers and other related hardware, but not software.  The software for our computers was written by other companies.  Then the day came that ITT management decided that we needed our own programmers (software writers).  So they hired a bunch of programmers, built a bunch of new offices, and created a Software Department.

It seemed strange to me, but these new people kept to themselves -- they were fellow employees, working on the same project, but strangers.  They sat in one area of the lunchroom, and we sat in another area.  It seemed that the hardware engineers thought that the programmers were wizards of the mysterious realm of software, and the programmers thought that the engineers were wizards of the mysterious realm of hardware.  It was like we spoke two different languages.

It didn't seem right to me, so on one lunch hour, I introduced myself to one of the strangers, and started fishing for some common ground that we might be able to talk about.  I mentioned a 'register' (hardware holding a small piece of data) that I knew held data that the programmers used.  He told me that the programmers thought the sequence of the data was annoying, because it made their work more difficult.  But, he added, "I guess the engineers must have a good reason for doing it that way."  I told him, no, we didn't have any reason for arranging the data in that sequence.  One sequence was as good as any other to us, so we just chose an arbitrary sequence.  But if we only knew what the programmers preferred, we would happily arrange the data any way they wanted.

After lunch, I told my boss about my conversation.  My story made it clear that if the engineers and programmers had an opportunity to discuss common issues, we might be able to help each other do our jobs better.

A week later, my boss and his boss called all the engineers to a meeting.  A new department was going to be formed, it was announced.  The new System Engineering Department would oversee the technical issues common to both hardware and software, to ensure that both would work together smoothly.  And I and my boss would work in the new department.  That was the beginning of 'System Engineering' at ITT.

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