Tag Archives: risk

Episode 106 — Flight Test

SuperStallionAerospace engineer Eric Becker explains the duties of a flight test engineer, and offers a few insights on dealing with operational risk, in this episode of The Engineering Commons.

  • Like most engineers, Carmen occasionally worries whether he’s made the proper decision at work.
  • To avoid making mistakes, Carmen suggests napping under one’s desk, like George Costanza in the TV series Seinfeld.
  • Our guest for this episode is aerospace engineer Eric Becker, a flight test engineer for the Naval Air Warfare Center in Patuxent River, Maryland.
  • We refer once more to cartoon character Dilbert having “The Knack.”
  • Eric’s first helicopter ride was on a Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion.
  • Carmen offers the helpful insight that spaghetti bridges work best when the pasta remains uncooked.
  • One of our guest’s early engineering classes was a course in descriptive geometry.
  • According to Eric, a flight test engineer does “anything and everything to get data showing the aircraft is meeting is requirements.”
  • A flight card is used to specify each aircraft maneuver and its associated setup conditions.
  • Brian and Eric discuss the misery of writing software to meet the DO-178B standard.
  • Eric mentions a prior episode, Career Planning, in which we with talked with Patrick Riordan about working with Designated Engineering Representatives (DERs).
  • Our guest worked an an operations engineer on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).
  • A brief discussion breaks out concerning the differences between scientists and engineers.
  • Risks are future events with an occurrence probability and a potential for loss.
  • A risk matrix can be useful in evaluating potential operational problems.
  • Humans tend to be poor estimators of actual risk.
  • Eric mentions listening to Dr. Dean Edell on the radio while working in the Bay Area. (YouTube interview)
  • Risk acceptance has to be carefully distinguished from differing assessments of outcome probability or consequence.
  • A recent best-selling book, The Checklist Manifesto, is referenced by Eric.
  • Our guest’s advice to individuals not following the typical engineering career path is “if you want it, just do it.”
  • Eric can be reached via email: eric -=+ at +=- internal dot org.
  • Also, feel free to follow Eric on Twitter as @ericnbecker.
  • Carmen finishes up with an obscure reference to the movie Glengarry Glen Ross.

Thanks to DVIDSHUB for use of the photo titled “Helicopter Air Refueling Mission.” Opening music by John Trimble, and concluding theme by Paul Stevenson.

Episode 47 — Project Management

PERT_chartAdam leads the group on a discussion of project management in this episode of The Engineering Commons.

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  • Brian feels any technically interesting project is probably of sufficient complexity to require a project manager.
  • Since Adam has a certificate in Project Management, he serves as our guide for this conversation.
  • Adam refers to a book put out by the Project Management Institute (PMI), titled A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK).
  • A project is defined by the PMI as “a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result.”
  • Jeff wonders whether the company NeXT Computer would therefore have qualified as a project.
  • Project that do something for the very first time can become “science projects,” placing unlimited demands on time and money. (With apologies to scientists, who find ways to live within their time and cost constraints ;^)
  • Brian notes that engineers, when constructing complicated systems, rely heavily on solutions and technologies provided by vendors.
  • Adam and Brian feel that the skills set needed to be a strong technical expert are fairly independent of those needed to be a good project manager.
  • Carmen likes “take charge” project managers who quickly get down to business in meetings.
  • Jeff mentions President Kennedy’s 1961 proclamation that the United States would send a man to the moon as an example of a leader who didn’t necessarily have strong technical skills, but Brian notes that Wernher von Braun’s engineering expertise was needed to make the project a success.
  • A “strong matrix” organization allows project managers to easily pull resources from functional groups, while a “weak matrix” organization gives functional supervisors the authority to deny resources to project managers.
  • Project managers have to balance the constraints of time, money, scope, and quality, as represented by the Project Management Triangle.
  • A work breakdown structure decomposes a project into smaller tasks that can be carried out to ensure that the project is completed.
  • Jeff notes the need to break personal tasks into smaller sub-tasks, such as a “next action,” when working with the Getting Things Done (GTD) method of time management.
  • A lot of engineers first get introduced to working with a Gantt chart via the Microsoft Project software program.
  • The “critical path” defines the series of events that have to occur on schedule for the project to be completed on time.
  • With due credit to Donald Rumsfeld, Adam breaks risk into four categories: known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns.
  • Risk management methods include acceptance, mitigation, avoidance, and transference.
  • Projects typically involve the five stages of initiation, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing.
  • Jeff mentions the “not-invented-here” syndrome, which is an urge to repeatedly “reinvent the wheel.”
  • A sturdy wooden gavel is handy for keeping meetings on task, says Carmen.
  • According to the PMBOK, the common elements of project management systems are:
    1. Integration Management
    2. Scope Management
    3. Time Management
    4. Cost Management
    5. Quality Management
    6. Human Resource Management
    7. Communications Management
    8. Risk Management
    9. Procurement Management
    10. Stakeholders Management

Thanks to Wikipedia for the chart titled “Pert_chart_colored.” Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson.

Episode 44 — Ambiguity

ambiguityIn this episode, we consider how engineers deal with ambiguity, uncertainty, and risk.

  • Carmen would be willing to take a 50/50 shot at $1001 tomorrow over a certain $500 today. Most people are risk-averse when dealing with gains, and would take the sure money.
  • According to the article “The Five Neglects: Risks Gone Amiss,” (Berger, Brown, Kousky, and Zeckhauser, 2009) rational decision-making is a difficult process. It requires accurate estimations of probability, correct valuation of potential benefits, proper use of statistics, consideration of all available alternatives, and evaluation of external effects.
  • If you are interested in being a guest on The Engineering Commons podcast, please drop us a note; the email address is admin -=at=- theengineeringcommons.com.
  • Despite Jeff’s offhand mention of seven seconds, there is no “safe” minimum on the unlicensed use of copyrighted music.
  • Adam was a bit confused when he first encountered the term “CatEx,” which is short for “Categorical Exclusion.”
  • It is noted by Carmen that ambiguity in problem definition is sometimes a good thing, as it allows him flexibility in investigating possible solutions.
  • In a discussion of confusing terminology, we stumble into the long and glorious history of the Turbo-Encabulator. Several videos about the turbo-encabulator have been produced over the years, including a “Rockwell” version mentioned by Carmen.
  • Techno babble is sometimes used in TV shows to make dialogue sound impressive.
  • Jeff mentions that he had not come across the term “bodge” wire until he heard it from Chris Gammell.
  • Brian mentions the faster-than-light neutrino anomoly as an example of data not squaring with well-established models.
  • The notions of digital power outlets and multimedia FAX machines come from Dogbert’s Top Secret Management Handbook, written by Scott Adams.
  • In a prior epsiode on critical thinking, we talked about respecting the reasonableness and goodwill of those with whom we disagree.
  • Brian mentions that engineering problem-solving is never as clean and neat as the analyses seen in TV crime dramas.
  • The role of sustaining engineers is described by Carmen.
  • A 1993 article titled “Choice over Uncertainty and Ambiguity in Technical Problem Solving” (pdf) considers how engineers might change their problem-solving approach based on the relative levels of risk, uncertainty, and ambiguity.
  • In the previous episode titled “Value,” guest James Travelyan talked about engineers not feeling like they were being productive unless they were carrying out computations, or making design decisions.
  • A discussion ensues about reality shows involving engineering skills, such as The Big Brain Theory and Junkyard Wars.
  • Awkward pauses have become a regular feature on Craig Ferguson’s late night show.
  • As an added bonus for show note readers, consider the following mind-bending explanation of a missile guidance system: The Missile Knows Where It Is.

Thanks to Yogesh Mhatre for the photo titled “Ambiguity.” Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson