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mistakes, schedules, and balance

Someone in engineers posted asking about the consequences and occurrences of mistakes in the "real world" (aka not college), and it's interesting... I've learned there's a balance. In college, they tell you don't make mistakes, do your best, and you sort of decide for yourself where your line is and how many times you'll go over this paper. It's very individual. In the workforce, it's not.

You can't afford to be obsessive... it means time and money now, and it's not your time and money, it's someone else's. That changes things. I was talking with a coworker a few weeks back about how he felt when he saw an interview candidate with a perfect 4.0 grade point average. "It sounds crazy, but I feel more comfortable with seeing a 3.5-3.8 range," he said. "When I went to school, the 4.0 guys were the ones who'd work an assignment twice as long if they thought it meant they'd get a 99% instead of a 93%. It was worth it to them. They come work here, and want ten people to check their drawing, or call five meetings to get 20 opinions on whether our error message should say FUEL PRESSURE LOW or FUEL LOW PRESSURE, and they're so afraid to tell their boss a date when they'll be done with an assignment they freeze in scheduling meetings. That doesn't work here."

On the other hand, attention to detail is important. In college, you get to the end of the semester and you're done. You turn in that last paper and whatever it got you, it got you. It's different in the real world... you can't take a C on something. It will come back to haunt you. Unhappy customers will call you. The technicians can't skip a line here and there on their verification test. If your coworkers find a lot of mistakes in your work, you look really bad. I was really lucky in college to have taken a good technical editing class that taught me to go over writing with a fine-tooth comb, so to speak. Reviewing your own work is an important skill.

I realize it may sound weird for me to say "there's a balance" because I work in aircraft, and if any industry does perfection to EXTREMES you'd think it'd be us. But honestly, we've been making airplanes fly for 100 years now, it's not as big a deal as you think. The "make sure the airplane is safe" discipline in my industry is actually really boring... pages and pages of numbers and analysis, databases, reliability records.

At any point in the evolution of products we're really only making tiny deviations from previous designs, and 99% of my job isn't crucial things. I plug in boxes. My job is mostly communication, scheduling, paperwork, converting formats, translating. As I told a group of college students once... "I make a lot of block diagrams." Sometimes we do find a drawing with "superseded" spelled wrong, but we can't sweat it if it won't change the way the airplane works, it's not worth taking up everyone's time for a revision.

Good work matters, the schedule also matters. Both matter in totally different ways than they did in college.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 19th, 2011 12:32 pm (UTC)
I struggled with this concept when I was a quality engineer and now that I'm back in design the shoe is on the other foot. A poorly planned and documented project is doomed from the start, and engineers would be crazy to try and reinvent the wheel every time we do a new product: reuse is a necessary part of engineering. Of course integration of new things into an existing system is always hairy. Most of engineering is planning, testing, fixing, more testing...it's about 10% new ideas and 90% elbow grease. Or whatever my equivalent is in electronics...solder paste? Heh.
Jul. 20th, 2011 01:35 am (UTC)
For some reason, the only people who seem to understand this at my company are in the engineering department. Our accounting department will spend 2 hours and get 4 people involved to chase a %10 discrepancy.

I appreciate attention to detail and, yes, it kills me when I get a ECO to review that has words randomly capitalized. But unless there is something else wrong with it, I don't mark it up.
Jul. 20th, 2011 02:23 pm (UTC)
Maybe it's just whether people understand priorities.

In school, your GPA and extracurricular activities define you. It makes good sense to turn every B into an A, and spend extra time with SWE or AIAA, or whatever. At work, calling 5 extra meetings about the wording of a warning message just makes people resent you for wasting their time.

The idea, originally, was that anybody who can figure out how to be a Model Student(tm) ought to also figure out how to complete projects on time and under budget. Smart people tend to also be adaptable people, right?

I guess the problem is that people forget that meetings cost money, and that "FUEL LOW PRESSURE" vs. "LOW FUEL PRESSURE" is not going to make or break your chances for an A grade.... whereas hiring the wrong subcontractor or missing a product delivery date absolutely DOES impact the bottom line.
Jul. 31st, 2011 01:46 am (UTC)
similarly, in nursing school they make it seem like you have to know the right answer every single time. every body system, every side effect to every medication, every sign and symptom of every uncommon disease - or else your patient will die. the tests make it seem like that.

in real life, you have resources. drug books, pharmacists, charge nurses, educators, policy and procedure manuals, other nurses. and if you dont know the answer or you miss something, chances are its not going to actually kill your patient. its part of why nursing school is so stressful, because those ideas don't exist there.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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