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Tag Archives: engineering

A Career Change at 70

When I was in High School (1962 – 1966) it took me three and a half years to escape) there were no computer classes. Although there seems to be some disagreement on when the first personal computer was invented, even the earliest claim puts the date six years after I graduated. There was no such thing as a computer, let alone a programming or coding, class. Also, I did not attend university and, to my recollection, nobody I knew at the time was interested in computers or information technology. Actually, I was a terrible student and wasn’t interested in much of anything by the time I finished High School.

IBM Memory 50

The IBM Memory 50 Typewriter

Fast forward to 1974. Despite having no undergraduate education, I was able to secure admission to an accredited Law School, located not far from my home in the San Fernando Valley. I began in the fall of 1973 and the following year I managed to get a job in the law office of a sole practitioner in Beverly Hills as a legal secretary/law clerk. Shortly after I began, the lawyer I worked for purchased an IBM Memory 50 Typewriter. I attended a one-day class where I learned how to use it. This was my first introduction to anything resembling “computing.”

The office later upgraded to an Artec Display 2000, which had an LED readout of approximately 30 characters. There was no CRT display. It used two 8″ floppy disks and had a document/data merge capability that made it perfect for boilerplate documents, e.g. Pleadings, Interrogatories, Summonses, etc. It was a great leap forward in word processing.

Edward Ladd & Sons

The Family’s Wholesale Food Business

Shortly after graduating from law school I had, for numerous reasons, decided spending the rest of my work life around the judicial system was not something I really had my heart in and, after much gnashing of teeth and going over my alternatives, I decided to join my family’s wholesale food distribution business. One large factor in making this determination was my father suffering his second major heart attack. The business was supporting my mother and my sister, who was only 10 years old at the time. I felt the need to help the business grow, ensuring they would be taken care of if my father were to die . . . which he did eight years later.

Edward Ladd & Sons Jacket

Our company jackets. Logo design by me, jackets created by Cat’s Pyjamas.

After a couple of years, the business had grown substantially and, given my desire for another type of challenge, I once again struck off on my own. I dabbled in a few things, then joined forces with a couple of CPAs and formed a royalty auditing business, serving some very high-end artists. The company first purchased an Apple computer (I can’t recall if it was a II or a IIe but, based on the release dates of the two, I’m inclined to think it was a II). We later purchased a Northstar Advantage, which used the CP/M OS and two 160 KB, 5.25″ floppy disks. We also purchased a dot matrix printer and, in anticipation of taking the system out on the road, we had Anvil make a hardened case for the two, with room for cabling, paper, and instructions to be packed inside.

At that point our audits required us to visit the artists’ recording companies, and my first visit was to RCA records in the Meadowlands of New Jersey. Standard procedure for the record company was to stick us somewhere that was relatively uncomfortable, then bring us stacks of paper, which we then transferred to leger pages. Upon returning to our office in Playa del Rey, we would then have to transfer all the data to a spreadsheet; we were using SuperCalc on the Northstar Advantage, though we had started with VisiCalc on the Apple.

I suggested taking the computer with us when we performed audits, so the people who went out on the road could enter the numbers they received directly into an electronic spreadsheet, thereby saving a huge amount of time and stress. We were also using WordStar at the time for writing the narratives that would accompany our audit analysis.

My first experience with programming came when we were contemplating taking the system out on a European tour with Neil Young. I sat with my friend and partner, who had performed many a box office reconciliation, and we sketched out the different scenarios that were used to close out the night’s receipts. Doing so required the use of nested “if” statements, which determined the precise equation to use for each venue. Unfortunately, that same friend who had worked so diligently with me to create the formulae that would power the spreadsheet never felt comfortable with using it by himself and it never went out on the road.

Sinclair ZX81

My Very First Computer, the Sinclair ZX81

It was also around this time I purchased a Sinclair ZX81, which was a small computer that had a membrane keyboard and used a cassette recorder to save programs on. It also had its own OS, as well as its own version of Basic, which I endeavored to learn. The first program I wrote, which took me all night to complete, counted down from 10 to 0, in the center of the screen. It then plotted a single pixel (resolution was 64 x 48) at a time, starting from the bottom and, after reaching a height of six pixels, began plotting another pixel above the previous six and erasing a pixel from the bottom of the stack, until it left the screen at the top. This required me to learn how to use either (I don’t recall the exact commands; it’s only been a little over thirty-five years) nested “if” statements or “do while” commands.

Fast forward to 1984, the year my father died. Shortly afterward, I returned to help my brother keep the business going. We purchased a more advanced Northstar Advantage, which had a huge hard disk that could store 5MB of data! At the time, we also purchased a copy of dBase II, which was one of the first database systems written for microcomputers. I taught myself how to write systems using their programming language, which I wrote using WordStar. I wrote an entire accounting system for the business. My favorite component was the preparation of a deposit ticket, where I laboriously emulated the workings of a calculator in allowing for numerous methods of inputting dollars and cents (whether or not a decimal point was included) was the real differentiator and sticking point for me but, after much trial and error, I figured it out.

Unfortunately, my brother and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on the direction the business should go in and, after a while I left again, this time taking temporary jobs to keep me afloat. It was during this time I worked for a while at a litigation support firm that used a DEC minicomputer and several of the earliest versions of the Macintosh. All of my work with computers was novel for me, as I never took any classes — with the exception of that class I took to learn how to use the IBM Memory 50 typewriter. I taught myself how to program through reading and doing, sometimes taking dozens of iterations to get a bit of code correct.

In 1987, I had been working for a company that made hard drives (Micropolis). Their business was highly seasonal and, on one particular Friday, all the temps got summarily laid off. I was using Apple One at the time to send me out on engagements and, thanks to my willingness to show up wherever, and whenever, they would offer me a job, I got a call from them on that very Friday, telling me to report to Rocketdyne the following Monday.

By this time I had been shifting my focus from working under the hood, to figuring out how to best use the systems and tools that were rapidly evolving as business tools. I was beginning to focus more on business results with whatever was available. My first responsibility at Rocketdyne was to enter text I received from Engineers into a document called a Failure Modes and Effects Analysis / Critical Items List (FMEA/CIL). It was in direct support of recertifying the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) for eventual return to flight after the Challenger disaster.

SSME

SSME Hotfire Test

It was a strange task, as the document was clearly text-based, yet we were using a spreadsheet to create it. I suppose it made some sort of sense, as the company was an engineering company and that’s kind of how engineers see the world; in numbers, rather than words.

I also worked with a stress engineer on creating an app (we didn’t use the term back then, but that’s what it was) that could be used to predict crack propagation and its effects. I was unfamiliar with the equations behind the program, but my job was to use dBase II to create an interface that allowed for data input and crunched the numbers. It was fun and was successfully used for some time after that.

One year after joining as a temp (referred to as a “job shopper”) I hired in full-time and began working with the Flight Ops team. It was exciting and I spent much of my time massaging telemetry data from hot fire tests of the SSME. I received flat files from a Perkin-Elmer mainframe and eventually ported the data to Microsoft Access, which allowed for further massaging and reporting.

In October of 1988, a little over eight months after hiring in, the U.S. Space Program returned to flight with the successful launch of Discovery. At a celebratory event that evening I met one of the managers of the Program Office. As we talked and he discovered my background, he offered me a job. I did some research and talked to my current managers, who advised me to take it, which I did. As time went on, I moved further away from anything resembling coding and, eventually, wound up concentrating on the use of software and computing tools to increase the effectiveness of me and my colleagues.

Not quite 22 years later, I took an early severance package (which was offered to everyone over 60) and retired. I would turn 63 less than a month after leaving the company. In 2015, I returned as a contractor doing something I had done nearly 20 years previously. I spent the next two years (until February 17 of 2017, to be exact) providing program scheduling for two small rocket engine programs.

Last month I turned 70. I recently signed a referral partnership agreement with an organization I worked with a few years ago. They specialize in machine learning (ML) though I was unaware of that back then. My primary responsibility will be selling their services and, when possible, any product they may create. In order to be effective, I am now studying statistics and ML, partly to better understand what it is I’m selling and partly because I’m fascinated by the algorithms that power these efforts.

I do worry that my comprehension is somewhat hampered by, if not the years, the considerable mileage I’ve managed to accumulate. There’s also a minor problem with my “just don’t give a shit” attitude about a lot of things. Nevertheless, I will persist. I intend to share what I’m learning but, as with most things these days, it may be sporadic and somewhat unfocused.

I do believe machine learning is going to drastically change just about everything humans do and I’m well aware of the disruption it might entail. I don’t however, believe that to be a show stopper. We’ve opened Pandora’s box and there is no closing it. Let’s roll!

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To Correct and Preserve

I'm an Engineer

Ahm also illitaret.

Being a member of the Grammar Police is not a pleasant thing at times. It can often be a curse, as it makes reading for pleasure  distracting and, sometimes, painful. I’m finding it also makes it difficult to write for this blog regularly because I’m too freaking anal about mistakes and how I say things. I’m seriously working on not caring . . . well, not NOT caring but not being paralyzed by caring . . . if you get my drift.

When I was working for Rocketdyne I wrote a blog post in response to the reality that many people who had a lot to share with their colleagues didn’t step up to the plate precisely because they were afraid doing so would expose them to ridicule or, at the very least, make them look less competent than they actually were. The fear was somewhat real because Engineers are notoriously lacking in overall English and grammar skills, as evidenced by the numerous t-shirts and coffee mugs available with the slogan you see here. However, my experience is blogging doesn’t require the same kind of attention to detail designing an auto, a microwave, or a rocket engine does. Unless, of course, you hold yourself out as a member of the Grammar Police.

Therein lies the rub. I do hold myself out as such and, in fact, am herein sharing a new business card I created to advertise and promote my services. The first iteration of it brought me a small amount of embarrassment because I used “ghost writing” instead of “ghostwriting”, the latter of which is correct. Careful research seems to show it’s correct to use either “Ghostwriter” or “Ghost Writer“, but “ghostwriting” is the only correct usage.  A friend of mine shared the graphic of my card and one of her friends immediately called me out on it. I thanked him profusely for his unwitting collaboration and immediately changed the spelling, after which another person suggested some design changes that made sense as well, so I once again edited the graphic.

I’m pleased with the results and want it known I do not hold myself out as beyond error or reproach. Most people are painfully aware their own writing generally contains errors they are virtually incapable of spotting because of their proximity to the subject of the text. I am no different, though I am pretty damn meticulous in reviewing nearly everything I write – including chat messages. Yes, I am a wee tad obsessive, but therein lies my strength.

I recently was required to read a novel; one which I will likely soon talk about at some length on these pages. In doing so, I asked the author if it was OK for me to make note of any errors I came across. I received the go-ahead and, although it had been read by quite a few others, I nevertheless came across a couple dozen small (but frequently distracting) mistakes. I even discovered a rather glaring error in continuity, which the author was glad to have me point out.

I am currently working with several authors and on several projects. I am looking for more business. If you or someone you know could use a little help polishing up their novel, blog post (one that requires a modicum of professionalism, that is), or even some simple promotional or marketing text, please consider running it by my discerning eye. I believe I can help more than you might imagine. BTW – Here’s the card I ended up designing and may even print out some day. If you spot an error somewhere, feel free to admonish me. I can take it.

Grammar Police Biz Card

One day the shield will read “To Correct and Preserve”


A Quick Quora Quest

The Coastline of Atlantis

How Long Was The Coast of Atlantis?

I had to test posting this here directly from Quora . . . because it’s there (here) and I could . . . and it worked!

OK, so I’m not a Software Engineer. Heck, I’m not even an Engineer, but I did sleep in a Holiday Inn a few times; plus, I worked with Rocket Scientist, Engineers, and Mechanics for over two decades, so I know a little bit about the animal. I also worked in Project Management, including some software development and IT architecture efforts.

This is a really good – and entertaining – analogy of the problem posed in the question. Make sure you read the comments as well, because there are some add-ons that extend the analogy to include other issues not raised directly by the author of the answer. There are 80 answers to the question, but read the top one; the one that got well over 3500 votes. Read the others as well if you want to. Far be it from me to tell you what to do. While you’re at it, if you haven’t been to or heard of Quora before, you might want to check it out.

Engineering Management: Why are software development task estimations regularly off by a factor of 2-3? 80 answers on Quora

Why are software development task estimations regularly off by a factor of 2-3?

Photo shamelessly stolen from Professor Tomasz Zastawniak


Are We Really Communicating All That Better?

In my over twenty years of experience at the large, very successful aerospace company where I labor, I have spent a great deal of time trying desperately to get the IT people to talk to the Engineering people. I haven’t, for the most part, been all that successful. Back in the day IT was truly an empire unto itself and it was pretty blind when it came to listening to the needs of the Engineering community. Furthermore, many of the systems that were used by various programs were dictated by the customers who were paying for our services and our products, basically NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and DOE.

This resulted in some very interesting problems with respect to systems, tools, and their use and subsequent development. What used to happen was Engineering would get an itch for a certain type of functionality but, since it hadn’t been contemplated in the original contract and since it might be some time before it could be renegotiated in order to get some money for developing the code required, Engineering would take it upon themselves to develop what they needed. You can imagine what happened many times. Though not an Engineer myself, I believe all Engineering students study one or more computer languages . .  . I’m fairly certain most of them  do.  Well, they would just get on the problem themselves, either writing code or – even worse – creating a tool in Excel.

So now we find ourselves in the interesting position of having something like a couple hundred tools, many quite useful, many overlapping in functionality. Many of them are unwieldy and kind of out-of-date, yet we don’t quite know how to get rid of them. This does seem to be changing somewhat as the tools of Enterprise 2.0 are gaining traction, i.e. blogs, wikis, user-generated content in general. Regardless, there are still numerous choices for how to deal with each of these as well. What wiki should we use? What about Open Source? (Anathema, btw, in my company – at least for now).

So the beat goes on. We keep adding tools, if at a slightly slower rate than previously (I think), and we seldom shed any. I suspect, as more and more content gets generated through the use of social media, and the ability to organize and make sense of it improves, we will eventually move away from many of the tools we’ve kind of grown up with. Data, too, will probably migrate toward a common format that can be accessed easily by anyone who wishes to and has authority to do so. It would be nice to see everyone on the same page, rather than pockets of people talking about the same thing in slightly different, and frequently incompatible, formats and locations.


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