Tuesday, November 7, 1995

Dear Congressman,

I live in the country now. I have an aging Doberman pinscher. She whines in the middle of the night to go outside. Every night. Twice a night. Seven days a week.

Once in a while, she runs off. I have to go out and hunt for her.

She went out this morning at 5 am. She ran off this morning at 5 am. I went out and found her. So I am laying in bed awake after having found her. I am reflecting on my tour of duty at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I met many talented people there. I met a few devils.

Now from the time I arrived, to the time I left, JPL never worked very well. I never knew why it didn't work, but it never did. I tried to fix it, but never could. This morning, after my dog ran off, I figured out why JPL doesn't work. It has taken me ten years to figure out what I should have seen the first day.

At JPL if you want to build something, you call one of 500 departments and say, "I want an X and I want it now." That same month you will get a call back from department S code R. S stands for Slow. R stands for Rich. Someone will say with a yawn, "We're sending Fred down".

The reason they yawn, is that they know they will get paid however much they think they should get paid. Every day. Seven days a week.

After the person from department S code R does their thing they don't say, "I would like to be paid the amount I worked." They say something different. They say, "What is your account number?", which if you're an outsider to government means, "Give me your checking account." You might think that is crazy, and you would be right, but that is the way it works. Every day. Seven days a week.

After Fred gets back to department S code R he has a meeting with his management. His management looks around and says, "It is time to tear out this wall. What is the account number of the job you just did?"

For about a microsecond Fred feels bad. Fred knows it took him five minutes to do the job for you. But Fred has your account number. Fred wants to stay employed. So Fred gives your account number to his management and they tear out that wall.

There are now more managers at JPL than engineers. There used to be more engineers than managers. But good engineers are the ones that don't let walls get torn out when they need a bolt. To keep a wall from being torn out when they need a bolt they have to make some phone calls. About 25% of the time they worry about engineering. About 25% of the time they worry about getting their project funded. The remaining 50% of their time is spent finding out who is doing what with the account number they had to give away. So eventually all productive engineers become managers. Every day. Seven days a week.

Now if you have a complicated job, like building a spacecraft, there is a lot to worry about. Like, will this work when it gets to Mars? But after you start building it, you need to spend a lot of time on the phone to make sure that only one wall gets torn out per account number. You have to give out your account number about five times a day if you're really productive. So plan on spending a lot of time on the phone. I went to Goddard one time.  It was the same way there except everyone had turned into a manager.

To be fair, they tried to fix it already. They called it "Total Quality Management". Now the walls are torn out with the utmost of care. Managers have survival instincts, especially the smart ones that used to be engineers. Like, you cannot use an aircraft bolt on a spacecraft. If you did that you could use ordinary tools. And everybody has ordinary tools.  No, you have to use 12 point spacecraft bolts. Like the ones they use in restrooms to keep people from stealing the paper towel rack. Alien vandalism is a growing problem...

My solution would fix JPL in a fortnight. It would also fix Goddard.

My solution is this. Instead of giving Fred your checking account, Fred just gets a check, on the spot for whatever. If Fred does not provide whatever at a reasonable price, you pick up the yellow pages and call around for it. Calling around takes time. But it is usually cheaper than tearing out a wall.

If engineers gave out checks instead of checkbooks, half of the managers would leave JPL, because they live to tear out walls. Half of the managers would turn back into engineers, just like in Cinderella.

If engineers could give out checks instead of checkbooks by email, JPL could be saved in one week, since JPL is completely wired for email. It was wired for email to help the managers tear out walls.

I have a friend, who is a genius, who used to work at JPL. He almost turned into a manager. He used to say to me, "Van, if I was at Microsoft, I could pick up the phone and say, Send me an X" and an X would appear. He would pick up his phone and do this to demonstrate how easy it could be. You might wonder where he works now. You'd be right if you said Microsoft. He invented a way of sending checks instead of checkbooks through email. He doesn't know why he did this, but he knew he had to do it.

(c) 1995 L. Van Warren * All Rights Reserved