R - E - S - P - E - C - T
I had been at Boeing about five years before I really came to understand what the company's culture of collaboration and respect was all about. I was in an engineering meeting one hot summer day on the P-3 Update IV program when two engineers from different disciplines started shouting at each other. They had a horribly difficult problem on their hands. Their respective teams had to fit both of their requirements into one small box of electronics and each wanted the other to do something that each of them felt was a non-starter and totally incompatible with their own program requirements. One would have thought that these two folks really hated each other.
Half an hour later, I happened to see them out in the parking lot going to lunch together. They were laughing about something together as though they were best friends. When I asked someone about it, I was told that indeed they were good friends and spent a lot of time together off hours.
Later that day I learned that they had found a solution and were thinking about doing a joint patent disclosure on what they had come up with. What I would later learn is that these sort of exchanges, although infrequent, were considered to be a normal and even necessary part of the engineering process. These two engineers had a very deep respect for each other and the work they each contributed. What they were doing together was incredibly difficult, and thus quite stressful. Their success was a work of art.
We'll get a little deeper into this in the section on engagement. For now, suffice it to say that there is something almost athletic involved in the creation of a new air vehicle. The participants end up, as a coach might say, leaving everything they have on the field of play. In order for this to work, a couple other attributes accompany the deep respect that the engineering teammates have for each other. One is a truly deep sense of humility. Another is total immersion in continuous learning.
In many ways, engineering shares some key attributes with the scientific method. In the method there are three key attributes. One is the gathering of all known seemingly relevant data and corralling it into a single framework, which is also called a model or a theory. Then experiments are run to see if yet unknown things that seem to be implied by the model turn out to be what the model predicts. These test include trying to prove the model wrong. Finally, even once a seemingly rock solid model is in hand, it is treated with a great deal of skepticism, because it will usually be the case that some more data will come along that doesn't quite fit, or that while the model may work very well within one relevant range, at a very different scale, such as a microscopic, cosmic, or relativistic one, the model may breakdown completely. That's science.
Well the work of engineering is also constantly running into the reality of unexpected data that feels at first like it is just making a mess of otherwise perfectly good design work. Reality is messy. To get a feel for just how complicated the air vehicle engineering process can be, and the many disciplines which must come together and integrate their work, consider the wing of a plane.
What exactly is a wing? The answer is far more complicated than one might at first suspect. It is the part of the plane that provides the major lift. It is one of the main fuel tanks. It is a structure from which an engine is hung. It is part of the structural system onto which the main landing gear is mounted. It is a passage way for a lot of hydraulic tubing, and yet more tubing in which wiring bundles are contained. Those control the engine and the lights, and provide heating to keep ice off the wings. It is a support for the complexity of the movable leading edge and its controls. It is the support for the complexity of the flaps and flaperons on its rear edge or rear main spar. It is the support for the spoilers which pop up to dampen the effects of turbulence in flight and kill lift as a part of the landing process. It is part of an incredibly sophisticated lightning and static electricity management system. It is a conduit for engine bleed air. It is the substrate for the livery (paint job) that both protects the materials of which it is made and identifies the operator. This is but a partial list. There are expert engineering teams with deep knowledge for every one of these things. Several of these things break down into yet more multiple converging disciplines. And yet, somehow all of their work has to come together in a single design package that makes weight and takes the needed shape.
In the process of bringing all of these engineering disciplines together, a great deal of respect, humility, and continuous learning on the part of everyone involved is absolutely required. It also takes a commitment to a level of engagement that can be a whole different type of challenge, especially for the younger engineers.