Monthly Archive: February 2017

Early Adoption – A Bad Idea For Business

The Apple Newton, great technology before its time.

We all know someone that has the latest of everything, and many of us engineers are guilty of that.  In marketing class this type of person was called an “early adopter”.  An early adopter would have had the first iPhone, and then maybe jumped over to the Android phone when it came out.  Maybe she had the first iPod.  Most early adopters that I’ve known, which includes me and most of the members of my paternal side of my family (most of us are engineers by profession).  As a group, we like gadgets.  My father purchased “Pong” (one of the earliest video games), and the Timex Sinclair computer, which was a very early, but useless computer. It’s OK on a personal level, but horrible for a business to be that way.  The reason is you need technology to mature before it is useful, and I’ll give a bit of a history lesson.

Way back in 1981 IBM produced its first PC.  It had 16K of memory and ran on the Intel 8088 processor that ran at 5 Mhz.  For comparison, the computer I am writing on now has a 4.5 GHz processor, which is a thousand times more cycles, and it has 4 cores in the processor.  So, we can say it processes four thousand times faster.  Except it’s faster than that.  The 8088 was an 8 bit processor, and this processor is a 64 bit.  I’m not really sure what that means, but it does mean it’s faster.  It also has 4 cores, so it is in effect 4 processors vs. the one processor in the early IBM PC. This computer has 32 MBytes of memory, so that’s two thousand times as much memory, not counting the memory that is on the video card, the hard drive and the processor itself.

Ok, the technology has advanced. The big question was, what could you do with the technology in 1981?  It turns out not so much.  You could use Visicalc (the first spreadsheet – an earlier version of this post was in error, it became available in 1979) and one word processor.  So, if you bought a PC for yourself, you could write some letters, do some budgets on the wordprocessor, and play with the BASIC computer language that came with it, and that was about it for a while.  If you were a dedicated hobbyist, that was probably OK.  You could play with BASIC and write various useless programs (like I did).  For a business, a PC would be a pretty expensive investment for the few functions it provided initially.  By the mid-eighties a lot of businesses had them though – I remember they would decorate the offices of senior executives and never get turned on.

Software did follow rapidly, but it was horribly expensive and often hard to use.  In 1984 when I bought my own PC there were I don’t know how many different word processors out there, there were “flat file” databases and “relational” databases.  VisiCalc had been the spreadsheet program, but it fell to Lotus 1-2-3.  There were also “integrated” software packages that included a word processor, spreadsheet and database.  I bought FrameWork from Ashton Tate, which was good, but in the Government we had the Perfect Software from some company that went out of business early on, and the package which was next to useless.  Then the Federal Government went big on Enable, which was a little better than useless.  Basically, in an office environment we all flopped around trying to figure what was best while a dizzying array of various software packages came and went.

The only things that consistently worked well were the boring stuff.  Word processors, databases, and spreadsheets.  Even those sometimes weren’t so good.  The word processor in Enable was horrible, it was almost easier to type on a manual typewriter.  The other software that came out in the first few years of PC’s added more work than they took away.  Then there were the CAD programs.  In 1981 there were a handful of companies that produced CAD systems that were based on minicomputers.  The systems ran hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Other than mapping, utility uses, or mega projects like nuclear power plants, I can’t see how that type of cost could be justified, you could never make that money back on the investment.  As I remember the first CAD users were organizations like the Army Corps of Engineers, companies like Bechtel, and utilities – which makes sense.

In the late 80’s I worked for a very short while for a large architectural and engineering firm that was exceedingly proud of its CAD system that they bought some years back.  It was an Intergraph system, which was really good at the time and technologically advanced.  The management never would tell me how much it cost, but they said it was in the mid six figures.  They were desperately trying to make it work by having the system operating 7 days a week 24 hours a day.  There is only so much you can charge for creating drawings, and to make that money back you have to run your system.  However, a drawing created by a CAD operator at 2AM when the design engineer is at home in her bed and not available to look over the CAD operator’s shoulder is usually one that needs to be reworked a few times.  So, the system was time consuming and could run your cost on a project to two or three times more than hand drafting.

Because the company had put so much cost in the system, they refused to even consider a PC based solution like AutoCAD, which had started to mature nicely.  An AutoCAD workstation at the time would cost you about $2,000 for the PC, $2,500 for the software, and $5,000 for the plotter.  With about a $10,000 price for a workstation, you could put in 20 or more workstations for one Intergraph machine.  The system wasn’t as advanced as Intergraph, but so what?  This would have made a serious difference for the office I worked for, because at that kind of cost we could have given a CAD computer to every engineer and draftsperson, but they had already put a lot of cost in the older system and were suckering for the Sunk Cost Fallacy.  That is when you pursue something down the rabbit hole because you put so much mone into it, and it never pays back.

Going forward, there were other things that came out that made little sense for a company to buy.  The Palm is a good one.  This was a Personal Digital Assistant that did things that later were added to cell phones and became smart phones.  It had a schedule, it could synchronize e-mail to your computer, and it could hold an address book.  It had a word processor too.  OK, I had an appointment book that kept my schedule just as well.  The synchronizing e-mail was silly, why connect a little Palm to your PC to download email when you could just check it on your PC?  Also, were you really going to type a document on a screen about 3×4 inches with a little stylus?  Yet loads of people bought them.  They were fun toys, but would it be worth it to spend money to outfit your employees with them?

Today the technology has matured into smart phones, which are more like handheld PC’s.  They are exceedingly useful with GPS, e-mail, texting, weather reports, web access, ability to read books…  If you resisted the urge to be an early adopter for your business and got the devices when they started to mature, the investment would be justified.

A less extreme example are the tablets – like the iPad and Android tablets.  I had an Android tablet, which I carried with me when I traveled to read books and watch TV and movies on the Internet.  It was not so good for business though, actually useless with the exception of the Kindle app, which I could use to reference various texts wherever I was.  Then the Microsoft Surface Pro came out, which can use a keyboard and all the Microsoft Office Applications along with doing what a tablet can do.  We got one for all the engineers, the technology had matured.

So, where are we at today?  In more recent years in engineering there has been a move to 3d type design software.  The costs at first were outlandish, and there still are a lot of different packages out there.  In recent years the price has started to come down and companies are drifting to a few different packages.  We’ve gone with Autodesk Revit for buildings and Inventor for other uses.  If we’d gone to these packages a few years ago the cost would not have justified the expense, we could not make money back on the investment.

I haven’t even touched on the things that led to a dead end.  There were PCs with the CPM operating system, the Apple Lisa that cost almost $5,000 in the mid-eighties, the Commodore Amiga.  Imagine if your office bought a bunch of Apple’s Lisa computers and then the system was discontinued?  What if you bought a bunch of Next PC’s?  My cousin, Bob, got the Apple Newton, which I thought was really great.  Apparently not too many other people did though, the product was discontinued.  Does anyone remember the OS/2 operating system that was to replace DOS?  All of these got rave reviews by the media when they came out, but the technology ran into a dead end.

The Apple Lisa - it cost about $4,700 in the mid-eighties, which is about $10,700 in 2017 dollars.

The Apple Lisa – it cost about $4,700 in the mid-eighties, which is about $10,700 in 2017 dollars.

There are few things I can predict with certainty, but I can predict that newer disruptive technology will appear.  Maybe it will be a quantum computer that can calculate at a dizzying speed.  Maybe some form of holographic technology.  Whatever it is, from a business side you need to be careful before you invest in it.  History has shown that it is best to wait until technology matures a bit before you jump into it.

 

Education Late in Life

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Just this week I was awarded a Master of Science in Civil Engineering from Columbia University at the tender age of 60.  The most common question I get is, “why did you do it?”  I own my business, so it won’t get me promoted.  There will be no increase in pay.  I just wanted to learn.  That never satisfies the people that ask me why I did it, because if you ask that question you won’t understand the reason.  Education is not about diplomas, certificates, or pay raises.  It is about gaining knowledge.  The certificate or diploma is something that is tangible that shows you worked to get the knowledge.

To be fair, I originally didn’t want the MS.  I wanted to take a course at a local university in structural analysis.  I went to Admissions to see if I could take the course, most schools will let you take a couple of courses without formal admission if you already have a degree.  I was told I could if I could get Department approval. So, I went to the Civil Engineering Department and sought approval. I met with the Dean of Something or the Other, and he told me Admissions was wrong, I would need to be admitted. I went back to Admissions, and they told me HE was wrong, and showed the policy to me in writing in the catalog.  I went back to Civil Engineering, and the Dean of whatever told me both the catalog and Admissions were wrong.

It got worse.  I suggested I could apply for Admission.  He told me “you need a 3.0 GPA.” I told him I although my undergrad GPA was 2.3, I had a 3.3 GPA in the MBA program I was in.  He told me “graduate school GPAs don’t count, only undergraduate.  Besides, this course you want is too hard for you. You should just take continuing education courses.”  It went on this way for a while.  It became the most important thing in the world for this guy to keep me out of school ever again. He even called me later on my cell phone to continue telling me why I couldn’t get into his university.  I told him I was busy and hung up on him.

Obviously, I was pretty sore about being treated in such a way.  I was visiting family, and I told my nephew about it. He had just graduated from Columbia University with a degree in Software Engineering.  He told me they had a pretty good online program, maybe I could take a course there.  Sure enough, Columbia does have an online program, and you can take some courses without being admitted.  I signed up for the structural analysis course that I was told was too hard for me by the dean of something at the local university.  It was a nightmare since I hadn’t done this type of course work for 30 years, but I passed.  Then I saw that Columbia was offering a course on Wind and Earthquake Design online. Well, I needed that, so I took it.  Then I saw a course in Forensic Engineering, which is what I already do – well, obviously that would be helpful. I took it too.

In the meantime I discovered I was eligible for Veteran’s Benefits under the 9/11 GI Bill because of all the time I had spent being activated by the Reserves. Well, I didn’t want to let those benefits go to waste, so I ended up applying for admission to Columbia, and was accepted.  In what seemed like an instant, I was finished. Now I have a Master’s degree from an Ivy League school because a dean of something at a local university was such a jerk towards me.

Now, going to school later in life in a technical subject is no picnic, and even harder if you do it online. With Columbia’s program, you watch the lectures of the course online, have the same assignments as the rest of the class, and take the same exams as the rest of the class. It’s just like being a student on campus but twice as hard. You can call or e-mail the professor or teaching assistants any questions that you have, which honestly doesn’t work at all.  Not only that, watching a college lecture on a computer is a truly agonizing experience.  You can’t ask questions, and lectures just don’t work well watching them on a 2d screen.  If you a have trouble with an assignment, there really is no way to go see a teaching assistant or the professor unless you travel to New York City, which I did a couple times.  I also went up to New York just to sit in on the classes.

The very worst experience was in a math course I took – Introduction to Dynamical Systems.  This course seemed like it would be interesting, but it is past Differential Equations, which I took over 30 years ago and never used since.  It was an absolute nightmare.  The best experience was my course in Advanced Structural Steel design.  We covered stuff I had already done, but I learned the theory behind the equations in the standards. In the midterm, the class average was a 60, I got a 90.  I was That Guy that blows the class average and screws up the curve for everyone else. My saddest course was in Linear Algebra. I was holding a strong “A”, but I went blank on the final and got a “B”.  I did that repeatedly as an undergraduate by the way.

After that experience, I found out my blanking out on the final was pretty common.  There are all kinds of ways recommended to deal with it – hum to yourself, or somehow provide a distraction.  Well, I got that on another exam.  I was totally blanked out, and was terrified I’d have to send in a blank test.  Then I got an emergency call about a job that something went terribly wrong.  My terror of the exam was superseded by my terror of what was wrong on the project.  As it worked out, about 15 minutes on the phone solved the issue on the project, I went back to the exam, and everything was easy.  I got a good grade, but I’d rather not use that way again to get over the exam terror.

One more story – my very last class I took was a repeat of the analysis course, which was my first course I took.  I wasn’t happy with my grasp of the subject matter, and another course I had signed up for was canceled.  The analysis course is titled “Elastic and Inelastic Analysis”. The first time I took it was under Dr. Christian Meyers, who was probably a couple years older than me.  The professor this time was Dr. Shiho Kawashima.  Doctor Kawashima was named in 2015 as one of Forbes 30 Under 30 List in the science category.  She was an excellent professor, and is the youngest professor I have ever had (I’m not counting part time adjunct professors).  She told me that she believes I am the oldest student she has ever taught, which is pretty cool.

What is it like going to school so late in life? Well, it gives you understanding of the stuff you have experienced.  I found myself totally enthralled with items that I believe went totally over my fellow students’ heads.  The different equations in Advanced Steel Design, the proper format of reports and the way to present evidence in Forensic Engineering, the use of stiffness matrices in Elastic and Inelastic Analysis…  All of these things had real world meaningful applications to me, where to my fellow young students these seemed to be stuff just to be mastered to pass the tests.  On the professional side, extremely complex articles in professional journals and difficult texts are like first grade readers to me now. You can’t put a price on that, and you can’t explain it to people that put a price on education.

The Oscar – Phoenix Arizona

The Oscar Under Construciton

The Oscar is a apartment complex in Phoenix, AZ that is built from 24 shipping containers.  It’s three stories high, and is a hybrid structure with CMU structures between the containers enclosing the bathrooms.  This allows easier installation of the plumbing.  We had to use helical piers in one portion of the foundation because of nearby buried tanks.  The Architect and Contractor was StarkJames in Phoenix, AZ.

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