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making big things with lots of people

I've been watching the appendices of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. I'd have to say that if I'd watched this during college or whatever, a lot of this "making of" stuff would have seemed distant, but now I relate to it all to well. I mean, when they talked about making the movie, they talked about deadlines, project management, group leads, team leads, teleconferences, years out of everyone's lives, overtime... the same stuff we do to make an airplane. They make it all sound so exciting though :) I saw the similarities too when I watched the commentary on Monsters, Inc.; I remember them talking about how they had a "fur group" in charge of animating fur, just like we have a hydraulics group, a pressurization group, an avionics group (the avionics group is the best, of course).

Before I had a livejournal (egads, how was that?) I had an internship at a company that made powerplants. It was miserable. I hated my life. They had over-hired interns so there wasn't much work for me to do. I felt like a tiny, meaningless cog. A powerplant takes 9-15 years to create and I sort of barely saw three months of it, which I spent looking at drawings and entering the parts called out in excel spreadsheets.

So I decided that the villian here was the timespan. Powerplants were too huge. I needed to go into consumer electronics - a world where an idea goes to production in six months, where there's always something new to keep my attention. I got a job... it wasn't exactly consumer electronics, but it was close. I made sure of that and would have really fought accepting it if it hadn't been. We did aircraft systems integration and there were always new things to integrate because customers ordered anything and everything that the general aviation industry could crank out. I had a deadline every three days. It was great! But looking back, after a year and a half, I'd really done that to satisfaction. It could have gotten cyclical.

I moved to this new position almost exactly one year ago. Yeah, I let myself go to a Big Project, where the deadline wasn't every week, it was huge, and we were chipping away at a glacier to try to make an airplane. I wasn't in a cute little group of five people, I was on a PROJECT with hundreds, and more were being added all the time. I had more managers watching me and I've worked more hours and the scary part is where nowhere near the end; the part where we actually have a flying airplane.

And even the end will drag out... just like you see all these parts of a movie but suddenly someone realizes they should watch the whole thing together, some random person will ask, "Has anyone sat in the back of an airplane? Reading a newspaper, so they make sure the sun stays at the same place on the paper and doesn't oscillate back and forth while the autopilot tries to stay level? With a wine goblet on a table?" All the little things.

So it's scary as hell and it's just where I said I didn't want to be, but there's a big difference, and a reason why I love where I'm at and the people who worked on Lord of the Rings said they'd do it all over again if they had the chance, even knowing about all the pain and long hours: when you have an opportunity to dedicate years of your life to something you love, it really is an experience worth everything. Passion is what makes it. The people I work with love airplanes just as much as the people on this DVD love the special effects of a fantasy film, and there's this special bond and you know The Project will take you over, but it'll all be worth it.

It's not how big the project is. It never was. It's how much you've got to put into it. Oh sure, someone will come here with a "Don't love your job, it will never love you back" but I'll have to beg to differ... the right job gives a lot. The right job is worth it.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 8th, 2005 07:18 am (UTC)
I _like_ big projects, but that's probably because I never get to work on them.

At my previous job, I usually had 1-to-3-month tasks that were just adding functionality to an existing system because we needed to implement Feature X for Customer Y or Market Z. Of course, marketing had already sold it and needs it now, so we only have two weeks to get it done, etc.

Sometimes it became more fun: coding in an obsolete protocol with 20 different signalling variations depending on your location in the world (and designed for old equipment) to a new system, while competing in lab trials against 10 companies (like Nortel, etc.) that had 100 people doing the same job as me. But if we didn't have the feature, then our little company wouldn't be eligible for this $120m contract. Then, despite the apparent importantness of this feature, I was given no design, leadership, or resources for the implementation and testing of it.

Now I mostly just code up bizarre geophysical or marine signal processing systems in Labview with little or no notice, so they suffer from always being user-unfriendly beta versions which then get shipped off with the field crew (which I then become part of, in order to fix the code if something goes wrong).

Let me reiterate: I would like to be part of a long-term project.
Jan. 8th, 2005 02:52 pm (UTC)
Right now I'd love to be on at least a lengthier type of project than I am now. I currently do 3-15 day stints, max. I'd love to go somewhere where a project went for a few months or even a year.

Maybe one day, if I ever get off my ass and do that resume.
Jan. 8th, 2005 04:35 pm (UTC)
i wish i was trained in something as exciting as that, instead of how to draw graphic novels. :-(
Jan. 8th, 2005 04:35 pm (UTC)
also, thanks to michael crichton's novel airframe, i actually got most of what you said :-D

tho i'm sure you probably hate that book or something LOL
Jan. 8th, 2005 05:34 pm (UTC)
never even heard of it! Is it something I should read?
Jan. 8th, 2005 05:54 pm (UTC)
sorry about the earlier comments. the beer is having it's effect on my typing :-P

i meant to say:

really? it's a michael crichton (the guy that wrote jurassic park) novel about a plane that has some kind of incident in the air where it nosedived and climbed over and over and over again, injuring forty passengers and killing three. the central character is the VP of the company that made the plane, who is tasked with finding out what went wrong before the media finds out and blows it out of proportion like they did with the DC-10, and she has to also prove nothing is wrong with their company's aircraft. it's a typically brilliant crichton novel (i mean if you like crichton) and really reveals what an incredible creation a modern aircraft is.

since you know what really goes into making an aircraft, you'll either love this novel or hate it if it's inaccurate LOL. but i love crichton novels personally. yeah, give it a read, i think you'll enjoy it. and if not i'll go play with the electrical outlets in my house as an act of contrition :-P
Jan. 8th, 2005 08:34 pm (UTC)
You know it's funny.

I don't work in anything nearly as exciting as you do...I'm just a lowly assistant manager of a tiny little corner drugstore in a small little town here in Kentucky.... but you know what?? It's fun.

Most of our customers are regulars. They either call or come in every single day. You get to know them on a really personal level. Just last week I held one woman in my arms while we both cried over her mother dying. And it didn't strike me the least bit strange. See, even though the store is small, it's been there since the Fifties. It's survived Wal-mart and Walgreens, Save-More Drugs and Cayce's Pharmacy. It's even survived all the mail order places that are popping up near here. And it's wonderful. I get to work in a place where I get to know the customers well enough that if we don't see one of our regulars for a few days, we will call them at home to make sure they are okay. Our younger customers come to us because their parents shopped there, and their grandparents. It's a really great thing.

Maybe not the same....but the feeling is still there. I get to know that I'm touching some one's life every single day that I work. And I love that feeling. And though the pay isn't the best in the world, I wouldn't give up that feeling for some impersonal job where I never feel like I'm helping anybody for all the money in the world.
Jan. 9th, 2005 07:34 pm (UTC)
Of my dreams for the future: To work on (in a group or otherwise) many small (a few few months to a year) and several huge and/or year long projects. I feel good creating things and getting things done.

I'll hopefully do much of this in the field of literature though.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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