Holes and Drill Bits

So much of communication is about context.  So much of listening is about knowing where the speaker is coming from.

One of the single most important aspects of engineering practice is the acquisition and translation of requirements, irrespective of the technology or the development process.  This is because errors at this stage affect everything and the parties involved often share a rather thin contextual overlap (e.g., a technologist vs. a business sponsor).  As a technologist, it is especially important to listen actively and get inside the heads of the requirement sources.

My Kingdom for a Drill Bit

Here is an abridged version of a parable I sometimes use during interviews for positions like Architects and Principal Engineers; people who will be faced routinely with the translation of requirements.  The roles:

  • Customer:  Bob, Manufacturing Manager
  • Problem Solving Super Hero:  You

While setting up his manufacturing line, Bob runs into an issue.  Among the various parts that need to be prepped for assembly is a portion of a steel chassis.  It is essentially a steel plate and one of the specifications calls for a 1mm hole in a certain location.  The problem is that steel being steel and given its thickness relative to the diameter of the hole, Bob’s drill bits keep snapping.

Now Bob is a busy guy and doesn’t have time to hunt for harder drill bits; this is but one of many issues on his plate (no pun intended).  He’s sure they exist, but simply has not run into this problem prior and thus has not shopped around.

So Bob comes to you.  He tells you his tale and sends you off to research the latest technology in drill bits while he tends to other tasks.  Because you’re a mechanical engineering aficionado and innate problem solver, you get excited about this challenge.  It’s like a holy grail quest to find the latest thing in drill bits – high tempered, diamond coated, beer flavored, marvels of rotational genius.

After a vein search to find anything substantially better than what Bob already had, you stop and think.  What is Bob requirement; his true need?  Is it really better bits?  No, the man needs a hole.

Thanks for the Hole

There are a number of ways to solve Bob’s problem without drill bits, but that’s not really the point.  Bob clearly has a need; a reliable and repeatable method of putting a 1mm hole into his steel chasses.  However, what Bob communicated was not his requirement, but rather his perceived solution.  Based on what Bob actually said, how could you know the difference?  Understanding where he’s coming from, it’s pretty simple.

As technologists, it’s easy for us to latch onto the technical problem as stated.  Through 4 – 8 years of college, we are handed endless problems to solve, as is.  During our formative professional years, we typically interface with more senior technologists who presumably have already translated the issues from Bob-speak.  But there comes a point in our careers when we need to move beyond the system’s what, when, and how and understand why things work.  We need to get to know Bob and solve problems that are human as well as technical.

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