Engineering management

Most of my friends engaged in management (and marketing) carry a common perception about engineering positions. They believe that when it comes to people versus computers, a job that involves engaging people is always harder and more complex than engaging machines.

For discussion, I assume hard to indicate a class of problems where acheiving a goal appears challenging and uncertain, and often the stakes for success are not trivial but high.

Fernando Alonso - Williams Renault

I thought back to a long time ago. Back then the designers, engineers, and scientists who built the fastest race automobiles on our planet inspired me. As I stared into the pictures of drivers Alain Prost, Niki Lauda, and Ayrton Senna taking hairpins, chicanes and straight-runs at insane speeds – I more than anything coveted the opportunity to behind one of those machines. I thought “what does it take to make these cars go that fast?”. I knew then that I wanted to be an engineering success.

Fast forward a couple of decades and I find myself speeding up machines of another pedigree. Sure, my position is not as coveted as an engineering position on team Ferrari or Renault. One truth remains universal, engineering is damn right hard.

Be it competing on a race track, or in the Internet space, or elsewhere – engineering is a complex and never-ending process. If it comes down to understanding the properties of a machine to leverage and optimize it, your understanding will remain incomplete until you day after day get out on that race-track and push the car to its limits. On race day, while a success can be spectacular and breathtaking, an engineering failure can be equally foreboding in magnitude. A coveted engineering position can then quickly turn into a position no one would want to hold. Space Shuttle Columbia

Space shuttle Columbia. On February 1st, 2003, the space shuttle disintegrated on re-entering the earths atmosphere killing all seven crew members on board. It was also a huge public relations disaster for NASA since investigations revealed NASA did not do enough to prevent it. During takeoff, foam from the external tank of the Columbia struck and damaged the left wing. Going by previous experience, damage assessment photographs, reports from the crew, and other information a team of engineers and scientists from Boeing had concluded that the Shuttle could land safely despite the damage.

From the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, press release (August 26, 2003), highlighted that the accident was the result of an engineering and management failure to ensure the safety of the shuttle.

The CAIB report concludes that while NASA’s present Space Shuttle is not inherently unsafe, a number of mechanical fixes are required to make the Shuttle safer in the short term. The report also concludes that NASA’s management system is unsafe to manage the shuttle system beyond the short term and that the agency does not have a strong safety culture.

The BBC BlackBerry bug. Imagine getting e-mail delivery wrong when your customer specifically pays for security and delivery! Research in Motion did exactly that with the BBC in the UK. They were managed to avoid a tremendous amount of bad press simply because the bug was a known bug and that information had been conveyed to all customers with the option to upgrade their systems. If things had gone terribly wrong, no management person I know would want to trade places with the engineer who had the distinction of shipping that bug.

I am sure you have heard of the Y2k problem, what a dud that was! But have you heard of the year 2038 problem on Unix?

What do you think? While failures can be uncompromisingly purely engineering, I cannot think of a single instance where success was purely engineering. Similarly, I am convinced that there is no such thing as a management success. While I try to keep the references to Bill Gates on this blog to a bare minimum (I truly feel Microsoft can be evil at times) he undoubtedly is the biggest business, management, and engineering success in my field of work.

Ever since Bill wrote Microsoft Basic and later commercialized Microsoft DOS (edit: dan pointed out that Bill did not write the original DOS that later formed the basis for MS-DOS, but Bill did write the BASIC interpreter with Paul Allen and Monte Davidoff), people have written better programming platforms than Basic, better operating systems than DOS ;-), only did he actually make it to the Time 100, Builders and Titans.

References.

Manjunath – will he get Justice?

Ever wondered about the Manjunath Shanmugam trial? “Two witnesses turn hostile“, Indian Express.

One of them, Rajendra Singh, denied that he had heard gun shots on the night of November 19 last year, when Manjunath was shot dead. Rajendra’s house is next to the petrol pump were Manjunath was allegedly killed. He was cross-examined by the District Government Counsel, Chandra Mohan Singh.

The other witness who turned hostile today was Balwinder. However, prosecution lawyers claimed that they had successfully extracted the evidence from both the witnesses.

The question now is – have we (as a nation) made it a habit turn hostile? Does the media turn hostile? I think I was lucky to have found Indian Express carrying that article. Or do we just occasionally suffer from collective amnesia?

Kanan wrote (in reply to my earlier post on Priyadarshini Mattoo):

The investigating agencies (police and CBI), the prosecutors and the judiciary have collectively failed to serve the cause of justice in this country. When they can do wrong so brazenly in cases of English speaking elite living in the national capital, one can very well imagine the fate of ordinary justice seekers not fortunate enough to live in the metros.

If your a victim, more than justice – you need swift justice.

Justice for Priyadarshini Mattoo

(October 17th, 2006) Santhosh Kumar Singh Convicted of Priyadarshini Mattoo’s murder.
Justice for Priyadarshini Mattoo [ourpriyadarshini.org].

Delayed Justice = Injustice [justice4priyadarshini.blogspot.com].

(Added) Protest over 1996 student murder [BBC News, South Asia].

Those in the Delhi area are probably aware that a rally will be held at India Gate on the 23rd of July, 2006. 23rd July is Priyadarshini’s birthday. The rally is to get the authorities to listen to our demands for justice and for a retrial of her murder case. The main accused was acquitted in an earlier trial due to alleged destruction of evidence and false testimony by both the Central Bureau of Investigation, India and the Delhi Police. From ourpriyadarshini.org, the judge who tried the case has gone on record stating that the DNA evidence had been tampered with, false evidence had been created and false testimonies had been submitted by the Police.

Priyadarshini was raped and murdered on January 23rd, 1996 in Delhi. The perpetrator has been free for the last 10 years. Please spread the word, join in the rally, or make a donation towards her case. This is important – our chance to show that we want to punish those responsible.

From ourpriyadarshini.org,

The CBI internally investigated their own people. They found fraud and concealment of evidence. Under new management, they appealed the case in April 2000 and the Court accepted and intends to hear it one day. On October 17, 2000 the Delhi High Court rejected the CBI’s appeal to have the accused arrested while the case was waiting to be heard. The case has remained pending since 2000.

Justice 4 Priyadarshini

Various degrees of violence

The events of the past week reveal the rot in Maharashtra. On 9th July, the Shiv Sena (also written as Shiv Saina, literal translation “Shiv’s Army”, a very strong political party in the state) went on a rampage in Mumbai tearing apart a private bus as vengeance for an insult to a statue of Meenatai Thackeray. The same evening, as the rioting got worse in Mumbai, Pune experienced a spill-over effect. I will admit, I would hesitate before even driving through the areas where they had rioted. My relatives and friends who had business’ in the affected areas thankfully closed early and left for home after receiving reports of violence.

On the 11th of July, Mumbai was struck by 7 bomb blasts. An additional 8th bomb was defused elsewhere. As I write, as many as 200 people were reported to have been killed. The unfortunate targets were mainly middle class working men travelling by first-class coaches in the Mumbai section of the Western Railway at rush hour (equivalent to city and suburban metro). They were returning home. I was lucky to be able to get in touch with most of my friends in Mumbai that evening. The communication networks failed to keep up with the surge in traffic.

The Shiv Sena then condemned the blasts and quickly blame the Goverment for not averting the attack. It was interesting that the two events were so close to each other. The images of the burning tourist bus, train compartments ripped apart, injured and dead commuters, and finally of rioting shiv sainiks have left a deep impression on my mind.

In both cases, the common working man was impacted – to different degrees (also see “It could have been any one of us” – India Uncut). We are still not sure who attacked Mumbai (It wasn’t SIMI as claimed earlier- NDTV).

It gets worse. CNN-IBN demonstrated on television (as part of what they call Operation Water Rat) that it still is ridiculously easy to land 100kg of RDX on Mumbai’s shores from international waters. In fact, they landed their pseudo-RDX at Shekhadi, the exact spot where Dawood was purported to have landed RDX in 1993. Truly, we have not learnt from our past mistakes.

A month after the 7th July 2005 attack on London, the UK police were able to make arrests related to the attack. I am sure I speak for many Indians. We all are awaiting justice.

Earlier on Thursday, I realised that this was a sensitive issue to blog about. I almost did not. My point is – violence cannot be the answer. It isn’t that we are soft, I think we stopped caring. All that is going to change, we promise.

Italy beat France to lift the FIFA world cup

I want to believe that Football is bigger than the individual, despite David Trézéguet’s missed penalty, Thierry Henry’s many opportunities, Fabian Barthez’s inability to keep a clean sheet, and Luigi Buffon’s incredible block that kept Zidane’s shot out. There was no one reason why France lost. The better team won. And yet, I thought France could no longer win after Zinedine Zidane’s irrational reaction to the verbal duel with Marco Materazzi.

It was also sad to see Patrick Vieira leave the field with an injury mid-way through the game.

BBC News: Italy beat France in penalty shoot-out.

The 5 minute WordPress installation on GoDaddy

Update: If your looking for a detailed step-by-step tutorial, head over to Mel’s page, (thanks Mel). There was also a question on which theme to use. The themes that are updated to take advantage of the wordpress platforms dynamic nature are the best. Start with the list of featured themes and try out “Connections” – Patricia Muller, or the themes by Becca Wei. Install the updated versions that the designers host on their home pages – this is if you would like to minimise your own changes to the theme.

By way of introduction, WordPress is a user-friendly, “state of the art semantic publishing platform“. My blog is currently powered by WordPress and is hosted by the folks of wordpress.org on their own servers. Choosing this route meant that I lost flexibility. For example, the current theme the blog is based on cannot be changed extensively. Since WordPress.com is hosting this blog, they have very clear and valid reasons for not allowing users to edit the internal mechanics for serving content.The other route is hosting your own blog for maximum flexibility. The requirements are easily satisfiable by most hosting providers. We had a GoDaddy basic plan to work with. Going by my previous experience with Movable Type (I tried installing a version 1.6 way back in 2002), I thought the installation would take up the entire weekend. I did some homework, and was mentally prepared to mess with the PHP internals if required.

None of that was necessary. It took me 5 minutes to install it and get it running. Disappointed? The speedy install meant that I could then focus my energy on getting the presentation right. That is what I call Great Software.

(I did have to tweak the database server location in the wordpress configuration file wp-config.php, you can get the correct location of the MySQL database for your host from your control panel. Look for the MySQL icon).
The WordPress developers are amongst the best with PHP. Their code is worth understanding. The template engine isolates the presentation well and makes manual editing of the templates simple. The blog administration interface is also usable. The interface does not require ‘building’ content if you ever decide to change the presentation. If your not interested in touching CSS/PHP/HTML, you can get a very large number of themes for the WordPress theme engine.

I was disappointed by the fact that some of the themes don’t take advantage of the dynamic capability of the WordPress framework. I had to work on those themes by hand. Of course, the blame squarely lies with the theme developer. Secondly, I could not find a way to gear WordPress to serve a custom-page by default instead of the blog page. Has anyone ever tried this?

If your interested in installing WordPress on your host, I highly recommend you do so. If you would like an invite to join the current group of blogs on WordPress.com, send me an e-mail and I will respond with an invite.

Great Software lets you enjoy your weekend :-).

BBC News: Microsoft’s portable media player

BBC NEWS | Technology | ‘IPod rival’ speculation dampened

Unnamed music industry executives have told the New York Times that they have received briefings about the product.

Who would have thought! If they did build one, I expect that it will be,

  • Able to synchronize with the Windows Media player (of course) and maybe even other media managers.
  • Able to play all types of tunes, this includes mp3’s, ogg’s (would that be wishful thinking?).
  • Robust and survive Jeans and rough handling.

India has a huge appetite for mobile music players.

The aforementioned NYTimes article can be found here [NYTimes, subscription required].

Guide to Business etiquette in Mumbai.

Economist.com cities guide – Mumbai: Business etiquette.

Never thought I needed one until I actually read the article and realised I did.

A handshake is the most common form of greeting, but some women prefer to press their palms together in a traditional namaste greeting. A man should wait for a woman to extend her hand before extending his, particularly if she is wearing traditional Indian clothing.

Bring plenty of business cards; you will be handing them out frequently, and not having enough is considered rude.