TechWatch: Personal Reflections on Technology Deployment

I recently made the decision to retire from Boeing in order to devote more time to IBTE. I will stay involved in technology through an advisory committee for the National Institute for Standards and Technology, as a Board member for the Washington Technology Council, and through consulting. However, after 32 years of being involved in R&D at the Boeing Company (the past 10 leading R&D in Computing and Mathematics) this represents a big change in my life.

Cleaning out files has been one of my more recent assignments, and through this process I have come across some notes about the technology transition process, that of getting technology out of the lab and into productive use. This is one of toughest and most important of all issues facing any R&D lab. I learned lessons on this topic from people I met throughout my Boeing career, some famous and some obscure. All contributed to my perspective on this process, and I am pleased to be able to share them here.

Early in my Boeing career I proposed to Dr. Jim Tocher, a Boeing structural engineer, that we should use the computers and mathematical optimization to design a structure to meet certain objectives, rather than simply analyzing proposed designs. The technology had moved far enough to allow this. His response to me was: “We tried that ten years ago and the computing and algorithms weren’t capable enough. Now we have to wait till all those engineers die before we can try it again.” There is a real danger in over-hyping technology because failed expectations can have a long memory.

In 1972, on my first trip to Europe, I participated in a NATO conference at Cambridge University on Decomposition of Large Scale Problems. Friendships from around the world which began there continue to this day. Over breakfast, I was talking with a Frenchman, Jean François Maurras from Electricité de France, who told me that when I come to France I should speak French. I told him, apologetically, that I could not speak French. He said, “Well, at least speak English with a French accent.”

I’ve reminded myself of this comment often over the years, because it tells me in cross-disciplinary or cross-cultural situations to try to see the issue in the language of the other person. In applying this a decade later while giving a presentation in Japan, I introduced myself in halting, probably terrible Japanese. The smiles and clapping from a rather formal crowd showed it was worth the effort.

In 1978, my wife and I visited a couple we had met in Cambridge, in their home in Eastern Europe,. Their teenage son told me one evening: “In our country, we have freedom of speech. In America you have freedom after speech.” Even in painful circumstances, which technology transition often brings, a humorous perspective can get you through.

In the early 1980s, I was at a scientific computing meeting in Minneapolis, where Seymore Cray, the genius father of the supercomputer was speaking. Later at a small lunch meeting with him I found him to be very shy and reserved. But on this day he had been asked to describe his career. “When I left college, I was working in inverse LaPlace Transform methods. People were very impressed, and I didn’t make much money. Later I started working in refrigeration (key patents on the first Cray supercomputer were in cooling) and people were less impressed but I made more money. Now I am working in plumbing (the Cray 2 computer was submersed in liquid for cooling) and people were even less impressed, but I am making more money.” The principle here? Perhaps it is that to be valued, the detailed scientific work needs a context and is not an end in itself.

In the same time frame I was on a review committee for the Los Alamos National Labs Computing Division and I met Jack Worlton, a Lab Fellow. He suggested “when you speed something up by a factor of two, you do the old thing faster. But when you speed something by a factor of ten you should do something different. A car (60 mph) is not a fast horse (6 mph) and a jet airplane (600 mph) is not a fast car. The horse, the car, and the jet airplane each allow different types of travel.” The obvious application to the information technology revolution is that the factor of ten technology improvements we have been getting every five years enable us to do very different things with computing. We need to be constantly examining our assumptions in the way we are using computing.

In the late 1980s, I was asked to represent Boeing in a meeting with then U.S. Senator Al Gore. He had called together a small group of technology people in the supercomputing field, looking at ways to work together to achieve high performance networked computing across the country. Though not the inventor of the Internet, he did take an early and leading role in trying to popularize it. He had just completed a failed run in the primaries as a Presidential candidate. “My campaign was a gigaflops,” he told us. This term is technospeak for the speed objective (a billion scientific calculations per second) for supercomputers of that era. Creating a pun that only insiders understood was his way of bridging the communication gap, always a useful lesson.

I had lunch in 1990 with John Rollwagon, CEO of Cray Research, and two Boeing executives. One of them, Frank Shrontz, then CEO of Boeing, said he was worried about the cost of computing and wondered if he was spending too much. Rollwagon responded, “you may be spending twice what you need to spend. The problem is, you don’t know which half to cut.” Looking at this statement with Worlton’s above, what might be a good idea in computing this week might be obsolete and a cost drag next year. Complexity makes this a very tough issue.

Not long after this I was in a meeting with the other Boeing executive from the previous account, Art Hitsman, then President of Boeing Computer Services. The subject was software maintenance and its costs. Art was not a computing person himself, but was one of the smartest people I have met. In spite of a gruff exterior that terrorized many, he had a heart of gold and a willingness to ask “silly questions” to expose jargon and cover-up. On this day he asked “What is it with this software maintenance? Do you have to oil the stuff?” Of course, software professionals hide a multitude of tasks under the label of software maintenance, and the resulting conversation did more to expose this than in any other software discussion I have had.

Last year in a meeting with Jack Welch, the CEO of GE, he challenged a group of executives with a decision he had made that fits in this same spirit. He had decided that the Internet would have the most profound influence on business change of anything in recent history, and it was important to understand it. To do this he had picked a 25-year-old computer whiz in his organization to be his mentor. You often have to be confident enough to be able to set your ego aside, exposing your ignorance, in order to learn.

In the mid 1990s I was on a National Science Foundation Panel to look at the state of mathematics research and education in the United States. The international panel included Sir H. Peter F. Swinerton-Dyer, Ltd., a noted mathematician from Cambridge University. We called him “Sir Peter.” His subtle wit showed itself often, but in the middle of one intense conversation someone said that a particular view was rather biased. Without a pause he said, “Even biased views cast light, albeit with rather deep shadows.” Even speakers or authors (or customers) with whom we disagree offer a point of view that we can learn from.

I have many more, but will share just one. At an Internet Conference last year at the University of Washington, I met John Perry Barlow, who describes himself as a “cognitive dissident.” He is a Harvard professor, living on a ranch in Wyoming, who used to work with the Grateful Dead. In talking about the French he said “The French are not arrogant. They have a well-developed national immune system designed to ward off non-Frenchness. And that is often a good thing.”

The immune system of our bodies is a good thing, but it also fights off essential organ transplants. The immune system of a business is a good thing as well. I wouldn’t want to fly on an airplane, purchase a car, or trade at a bank where the company tried every new idea that came along. On the other hand, in this age of rapidly changing technology, companies that are not willing to change, die. Dealing with the immune system of a company in an era of rapid technology change is a challenging thing indeed.

Yogi Berra, whom I have never met, said “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” I have done that. While Yogi said many wise and strange things, I have learned over the years that he did not have a corner on wise statements. Maybe the lessons here go beyond technology transition.


Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990,
and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.