Every Engineer's Solemn Duty

Posted 1 Nov 2009 at 10:28 UTC (updated 1 Nov 2009 at 10:35 UTC) by MichaelCrawford Share This

This is the first of a series of essays I will publish here and elsewhere, in an effort to solve what I regard as some fundamental problems that are endemic to the computer industry.

I have felt called to my Duty several times in my career. I have never regretted performing it, but doing so has been a heavy burden, as it always came at great cost. This is one of those times - I will explain in the next essay I publish just why.

November 1, 2005

My father Charless Russell Crawford was an engineer too, an electrical engineer. Once a carpenter, he was inspired to enlist in the Navy one snowy evening while roofing a house, when he struck his thumb real hard with a hammer. The Navy sensed my father's potential for leadership and sent him to study at the University of Idaho, where he met my mother Patricia Ann Speelmon. My sister was born while they were still students. After graduation, he went on to Officer Candidate School and was given his commission. The telegram with news of my birth took two weeks to reach him: he was deep in the Phillipine jungle getting trained in survival, as the Vietnam War was just then heating up: the year was 1964. My father's engineering specialty was antiaircraft missile electronics: guidance and control systems.

The lesson my father taught me, a lesson I only now, as I speak, realize for the first time I was ever taught, is to Do My Duty. You already know my father did his for his country. I want you to know that he did his duty to his family as a husband, father and provider, and he did it well. He did his duty as a teacher too: I learned science and engineering at my father's knee, as we worked on projects together. Once we had a contest to see who could make a working telephone from stuff found lying around the house.

Engineers have other Masters who demand duty of us: our profession, our conscience, those who invest in, purchase or use what we design, our coworkers, and the public.

Listen to me carefully, and never forget what I'm about to say. I want all of you to spend some time thinking it over deeply, then I want you to discuss it among yourselves:

There may come a time in your career as an engineer when you will be called to take a stand against your employer's disastrous course of action. When that time comes, your duty is not to your employer, but to your profession, your conscience, your coworkers, your company's investors, its customers, and the public. When your coworkers, investors or customers could be bankrupted, or the public's safety could be placed at risk, it is your solemn duty to take a stand.

Your stand could be an ultimatum: you might lose your job, as I did. You could blow the whistle as I still might. You must accept the consequences: unemployment, poverty, getting blacklisted, sued or even imprisoned. Such may be the cost of doing the right thing.

But when the chips are down, it is your solemn duty to do it.

My father knew from engineering quality: After getting his Master's degree at the U of I after the war ended, he went back to work for the Navy as a civilian. His last job before he retired was overseeing the repair and testing of nuclear submarine reactor control systems at Mare Island Naval Shipyard. Now I ask you: if the Navy decided to send a sub out to sea before my father felt its reactor control system was ready, would he have spoken up about it? Even if he lost his job by doing so? And was thereby unable to feed his hungry children?

I know my father, he would have done the right thing.

Because an engineer named Roger Boisjoly didn't trust his conscience, seven brave and innocent people died. No, he followed standard procedure, by reporting a safety risk to his superiors, then trusting them to do the right thing, despite the fact that they obviously didn't heed his warning:

It got real cold one night when the Space Shuttle Challenger was being readied for launch. The Shuttle's two solid fuel rocket boosters had been manufactured by Morton Thiokol in several sections. Rubber O-rings were used to seal the joints between each section, and covered with high-temperature putty to protect the rubber from the flames. But the rubber the O-rings was made of became brittle if it ever got cold. It wouldn't flex as the sides of the joint vibrated in and out, so that the flames inside the rockets might shoot out through a crack, and make the liquid fuel tank explode.

Realizing the risk, Mr. Boisjoly filed a safety report with his superiors, yet despite the fact that they overruled his advice for fear of losing Morton Thiokol's fat government contract, he did his duty to his company and kept quiet.

But he didn't do the right thing when he realized the Challenger was going to launch to its doom. Why didn't he ring someone up at NASA? We didn't he go to the press? Why didn't he crash his way into Mission Control, arms flailing and screaming "IT'S GOING TO FUCKING EXPLODE!"?

Because he might have lost his job? He probably would have, but I don't think that's why. Gotten arrested? No. I don't know for sure, but I'll hazard a guess: either because he trusted his company to do the right thing or he didn't want to get blacklisted. And because he didn't trust his conscience, and go against orders - no, not even that - against standard procedure, he has these people to answer to, and their loved ones:

Challenger Crew

Front row, left to right:

Michael John Smith (1945-86), Pilot
Francis R. (Dick) Scobee (1939-86), Commander
Ronald Erwin McNair (1950-86), Mission Specialist Three

Back row:

Ellison S. Onizuka (1946-86), Mission Specialist One
S.Christa McAuliffe (1948-86), Payload Specialist One
Gregory Bruce Jarvis (1944-86), Payload Specialist Two
Judith Arlene Resnik (1949-86), Mission Specialist Two

Someday you might be faced with such an awful decision. Most engineers don't ever consider the possibility. I'm asking you to consider it now, ahead of time, so if the time ever comes, your mind will already be made up.

every coder's scripting framework, posted 4 Nov 2009 at 18:53 UTC by badvogato » (Master)

Michael, have you tried resisting writing about feelings that had meanings only _too_ clear to yourself? Because if you can't resist producing that sort of writing every chance you've got, _you_ will be perceived as a sort of ghost buster.

I am copying this text here. It appears to be saying that we need to leave room for holy ghost. But my interpretation could be wrong. What's yours?

All Soul's Night

Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell And many a lesser bell sound through the room; And it is All Souls' Night, And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come; For it is a ghost's right, His element is so fine Being sharpened by his death, To drink from the wine-breath While our gross palates drink from the whole wine.

I need some mind that, if the cannon sound From every quarter of the world, can stay Wound in mind's pondering As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound; Because I have a marvellous thing to say, A certain marvellous thing None but the living mock, Though not for sober ear; It may be all that hear Should laugh and weep an hour upon the clock. ...

And I call up MacGregor from the grave, For in my first hard springtime we were friends, Although of late estranged. I thought him half a lunatiic, half knave, And told him so, but friendship never ends; And what if mind seem changed, And it seem changed with the mind, When thoughts rise up unbid On generous things that he did And I grow half contented to be blind!

He had much industry at setting out, Much boisterous courage, before loneliness Had driven him crazed; For meditations upon unknown thought Make human intercourse grow less and less; They are neighter paid nor praised. But he'd object to the host, The glass because my glass; A ghost-lover he was And may have grown more arrogant being a ghost.

But names are nothing. What matter who it be, So that his elements have grown so fine The fume of muscatel Can give his sharpened palate ecstasy No living man can drink from the the whole wine. I have mummy truths to tell Whereat the living mock, Though not for sober ear, For maybe all that hear Should laugh and weep an hour upon the clock. Such thought - such thought have I that hold it tight Till meditation master all its parts, Nothing can stay my glance Untill that glance run in the world's despite To where the damned have howled away their hearts And where the blessed dance; Such thought, that in it bound I need no other thing, Wound in miind's wandering As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound.

Professionalism in all things, posted 13 Jan 2010 at 08:13 UTC by MartySchrader » (Observer)

This is what the client pays me for: professionalism.

The client says they want the quickest, easiest, path-of-least-resistance-to-market solution. They want this dumb thing sorted out last night, and they don't want any additional problems brought to light whilst I fix it.

Too bad, Charlie.

If, during the course of my investigations into the product and its infrastructure, I discover a problem deserving of the client's attention then I will bring it forward. My duty as a professional requires that. My job is incomplete and poorly done if I ignore an issue I recognize as a potential future problem. Regardless of the client's wish to be left in the dark I can't ignore problems slapping me in the face.

Fortunately, I don't live here. So, even though they may end my contract at the earliest possible moment I have completed my assignment. Those firms that have chosen to ignore my analysis and professional critique of their product's problems have gone on to regret that decision -- one way or another. Usually they just trip over their own feet when the product screws up in front of FDA or UL or some other alphabet soup agency. Somebody will recount my warnings about the product being a pile of kaka and my name will be cursed, no doubt.

It is my duty to report the bad along with the good. I offer alternatives and a list of potential solutions, but it is the client's choice about whether or not to solve the problems before they get worse. I don't live here, so the decision to put my "job" on the line is not that hard. A client that ignores my professional expertise is a client I can do without, anyway. Heh.

the good and bad news, posted 17 Jan 2010 at 15:41 UTC by badvogato » (Master)

which kind will you tell your client first?

This reminds me of Blair's advice in one of Gossip girl's episode. 'Threesome? Remember, the third party must be a stranger. Or the consequence will be a disaster and always. who comes first, and who comes last? Duh! '

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