Skunk (still) Works…

Source: Wired

My thesis adviser in Engineering school was a fanatic about lean:  lean six sigma (before it got cool, from when Deming and Taguchi were talking about it), lean manufacturing and lean engineering design teams.  He also taught me about the intrinsic value of knowledge.  The thesis detailed structuring engineering design teams based on the Lockheed Martin Skunks works (the old one, when they did shit hot cool work).

  1. Form smallest possible, focused engineering teams
  2. Teams have more than engineers, everything from science to prototype, manufacturing and operations would be in the team
  3. Give them a focused task
  4. Leave them the fuck alone
  5. The fewer the metrics and management reports and KPI’s the better.  The only metric that matters is make it work within budget and time.

Plus ca change… according to Wired magazine’s excellent article on the Predator drone weaponisation.  Seems the USAF took Kelly Johnson‘s principles to heart in setting up their Big Safari program at Wright-Patterson AFB.

The Predator program, only one of the most significant changes in military aviation, was a bit of an orphan,

…. most military planners at the time regarded the Predator as pretty much a technological dead end.

No big surprise then that the project only happened because of a small team of nut jobs who had the good fortune to end up working

…almost entirely free from the scrutiny of Pentagon acquisitions officers. In a series of breakthrough hacks, they hot-wired together the lethal, remotely piloted Predator over the course of just a few months in 2000 and 2001, in a mad dash to meet the heinous design challenges of a single job: to kill Osama bin Laden …

In what must be a great stroke of luck (or misfortune, depending on your viewpoint),  the project was handed to Big Safari [emphasis mine].

…Like at a tech startup, Big Safari’s teams were small and horizontal. Expediency, agility, and thrift were essential. “The most important thing was to get something useful to the war fighter quickly,”

…Ordinarily, before a modified military aircraft is dispatched into combat, it has to pass through a lengthy vetting process that can take years. But Big Safari liked to deploy its creations before they were fully polished. The team referred to this as “the 80 percent solution” (because sometimes the last 20 percent of a job takes the longest). It was like releasing the beta version of a piece of software, says Brian Raduenz, then the commander of Big Safari’s Predator detachment. “We would need to get it out there, get it into the hands of the guys doing the job, and then pay close attention to what they had to say about how it was working.”…

The “whipper-snappers” at Wired (and their buddies at Silicon Valley) would call this “hacking,” we used to call it Proper Engineering.  Still do.  My advisor and Eugene Kleiner would probably agree.


Eugene Kleiner’s legacy

Eugene Kleiner

When the first techs were essentially creating the myth of Silicon Valley from whole cloth, there wasn’t even established science let alone the whiff of markets. The Economist‘s obituary of Eugene Kleiner gives an idea how these guys got into this [emphasis added]:

HAD you visited the Valley of Heart’s Delight, south of San Francisco, in the 1930s, you would have found a pretty place of plum and walnut orchards. …Seventy years later, the valley contained 7,000-odd companies working in electronics, biotech and their offshoots, with 11 more springing up every week. Yet this most recent industrial revolution, like earlier ones, depended on the chance combination of three elements: the scientist with his invention, an entrepreneur to market it, and an investor willing to risk his money.
Chance and genius collided to create something so much bigger than the sum of their parts.  Because, after succeeding in creating Fairchild Semiconductor (refugees from which later formed Intel), Kleiner got into the business of creating more technology companies.  The Economist again:

By 1972, Mr Kleiner had plenty of cash. He also wanted to become a venture capitalist himself. The breed was still rare, and even rarer in the guise Mr Kleiner had in mind: a “technologist” who was involved and got his hands dirty, as well as simply writing cheques. He was never interested in enterprises that did not relish this approach. But in partnership with Thomas Perkins, and later in the firm of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, he gave the starting push to more than 350 companies.

Eugene Kleiner is now long gone but the company, KPCB lives on, counting twitter, google, amazon, uber, etc. in its portfolio.  But I wonder how Kliener might assess what he would see now.  Bob O’Donnell says
Many technology companies, and the tech industry as a whole, have gotten incredibly arrogant.
… Everywhere you turn, there are people in tech describing how they are completely reinventing businesses or business models or ways of doing business.
…only when tech folks have brought their particular form of magic to other industries, such as transportation and logistics, are they deemed worthy of thinking, talking, or writing about. (Uber, anyone?)
The common assumption behind these, and many other, examples seems to be that only people in tech can really figure these things out.
While tech has become arrogant, the investors have thrown away Eugene Kleiner’s probity & technical expertise, fully upending the koolaid jar into their maw.
“Somebody posted too many party fliers.” says Mark Suster,
The uninvited crowds have all turned up. The people here don’t respect your parents’ furniture, are throwing beer cans in your back yard and there’s a dude passed out face down in your sister’s bedroom. About an hour ago he thought he was invincible. That he defied the laws of gravity. He turned up for the fun but went too hard, too early.
Mark blames unicorns and the
entire bullshit culture of swashbuckling startups who define themselves by hitting some magical $1 billion valuation number and the financiers who back them irrespective of metrics that justify it.
 What he is decrying is what I myself find distasteful and quite terrifying.  I have met and have been told of many a “successful entrepreneur” whose only measure of spectacular success has been that he has raised a shitload of money from a boatload of VC investors.  The products themselves are not much more than a GUI and an “app.”
Silicon valley is now Silicon ValleySilicon_valley_title the TV series:  life become art become parody.  Everyone I know in technology from investor to inventor winces in some version of PTSD whenever the series is mentioned.  I wonder what Eugene Kleiner would make of it all.

Energy like the stars…


Germany fired up the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator for the first time on December 10.

What on God’s good earth is a Stellarator you say?  Well, if you don’t know what a Tokamak is, then don’t bother.

Oh Google it for fuck’s sake.

Fine, I’ll do it…

tokamak (Russianтокамак) is a device using a magnetic field to confine a plasma in the shape of a torus.

…The tokamak is one of several types of magnetic confinement devices, and is one of the most-researched candidates for producing controlled thermo nuclear fusion power. Magnetic fields are used for confinement since no solid material could withstand the extremely high temperature of the plasma. An alternative to the tokamak is the stellarator.

Anyway, back to the stellarator:

The €1 billion machine, known as Wendelstein 7-X (W7-X), appears now as a 16-meter-wide ring of gleaming metal bristling with devices of all shapes and sizes, innumerable cables trailing off to unknown destinations, and technicians tinkering with it here and there. It looks a bit like Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon, towed in for repairs after a run-in with the Imperial fleet. Inside are 50 6-tonne magnet coils, strangely twisted as if trampled by an angry giant.

Ooooh, the geek in me is in full flight.  But seriously…

If W7-X matches or beats the performance of a similarly sized tokamak, fusion researchers may have to reassess the future course of their field. “Tokamak people are waiting to see what happens. There’s an excitement around the world about W7-X,” says engineer David Anderson of the University of Wisconsin (UW), Madison.