Tag Archives: Engineering

101 Things I Learned in Engineering School by John Kuprenas, Matthew Frederick


  1. Some major takeaways from the field of engineering

Key Takeaways

  1. Civil engineering is the grandparent of all engineering
  2. Engineering suceeds and fails because of the black box – it conceptually contains the knowledge and processes of an engineering specialty 
  3. You are a vector – a force is expressed graphically by a vector. Any single vector can be replaced by more than one component vectors, and vice versa, as long as they yield an equivalent net result
  4. When overwhlemed by a complex problem, identify those aspects of it that can be grasped with familiar principles and tools
  5. An object receives a force, experiences a stress (force / area), and exhibits strain (measurable deformation)
  6. 4 material characteristics – stiffness/elasticity (resistance to change in length/ability to return to original size and shape), strength (ability to accept a load), ductility/brittleness (extent a material deforms or elongates before fracturing), toughness (overall measure of ability to absorb energy before fracture)
  7. A battery works because of corrosion – electrons moving to the cathode from the anode
  8. Soldiers shouldn’t march across a bridge – when a force acts repeatedly on a structural member, and at a rate that matches its natural frequency, the member’s response is enhanced with every cycle
  9. Roundabouts are teh safest, most efficient intersection
  10. Maximum friction is found right at the start of motion and declines immediately when motion starts
  11. Accuracy is the absence of error, precision is the level of detail – effective problem solving requires always being accurate, but being only as precise as is helpful at a given stage of problem solving. Early in the problem solving process, accurate but imprecise methods, rather than very exact methods, will facilitate design explorations while minimizing the tracking of needlessly detailed data
  12. Good design is not maximization of every response, or even compromise among them; it’s optimization among alternatives
  13. Quantification is exact not unto reality, but unto itself, it is approximation of reality
  14. You don’t fully understand something until you quantify it. But you understand nothing at all if all you do is quantify
  15. Safety margins are constantly used by engineers, overestimating loads, rounding calculations, selecting for structures larger or thicker than calculations call for
  16. The complexity of a truss is a product of simplicity – allowing long distance bridges to be built using a fraction of the material used by an ordinary beam
  17. Structures are built from the bottom up, but designed from the top down
  18. Earthquake design: let it move a lot or not at all
  19. Figuring out how to make a system work is as important as figuring out how to make it not work in undesirable ways
  20. A masonry arch (keystone) gets stronger as it does more work
  21. Early decisions have the greatest impact on design, feasibility, and cost
  22. Perfect reliability isn’t always desirable – some aircraft parts are meant to be replaced frequently in order to save time, weight, 
  23. Few customers will pay for a perfectly engineered part – trade off between cost and value
  24. Design a part to fail – electrical systems are protected by fuses or circuit breakers that trip before a power surge can ruin expensive components or damage ahrd to access wires
  25. Turbulent flow is when particle paths are irregular and laminar flow occurs when particles move in straight lines (low flow velocities and small pathways)
  26. Think systematically – apply your thinking consistently and thoroughly to all other aspects of the problem at all possible scales, from concept to detail and back again
  27. Think systemically – thinking about systems and connections – the web of relationships within a system, the relationship of the system to other systems, and the larger system that contains all the systems
  28. A successful system won’t necessarily work at a different scale
    1. See JBS Haldane On Being the Right Size
  29. Seek negative feedback – a system responds in the opposite direction of the stimulus, bringing overall stability or equilibrium (positive feedback decreases equilibrium further and further)
  30. Center of gravity – the center of gravity of an object is the average position of the particles that comprise it – the point on which it will balance
  31. Articulate the why, not just the what – by articulating your intent, you help others understand and preserve the most critical goals while giving them room to investigate possibilities that did not occur to you
  32. All engineers calculate. Good engineers communicate
  33. There are 3 kinds of people – language people, people people, object people
  34. When struggling to analyze a complex problem, shift your point of view from that of outside observer to that of the thing you are analyzing. If you were that thing, what forces would you feel? What internal stresses would you experience? How would you have to react to remain stable and not twist, turn, deform, be pushed over, or be caused to accelerate?
  35. Satisfaction = reward / input. When people feel fairly rewarded – when their ratio is at least as high as a peer’s ratio – they are more likely to be motivated, under-rewarded leads to feeligns of distinterest and resentment, and over-rewarded may lead to feelings of guilt
  36. There’s design behind the design – a well-designed product isn’t well-designed if the process needed to manufacture it is unrealistic or uneconomical 
  37. Engineering solutions must demonstrate objectively measurable improvement against a benchmark – bias is the difference between a predicted and actual value, variance the average distance between a set of data points and their mean value
  38. The most important thing is to keep the most important thing the most important thing – Donald Coduto. You must solve what you set out to do but don’t become so focused on that one thing that you don’t do as much as you can
  39. Sometimes the fix for an apparent engineering problem might not be an engineering fix – i.e., 66% of airplane accidents is caused by flight crew errors
  40. Engineering usually isn’t inventing the wheel; it’s improving the wheel
  41. The great continuum – engineering is undertaken within a continuum that connects profound human questions to ordinary activities. Engineers who work without awareness of the continuum will be inclined toward performing rote procedures. Those working in awareness of it will be better positioned to adapt to changing times, unexpected challenges, and unfamiliar circumstances. Those working across the continuum may be most apt to contribute something new. 

What I got out of it

  1. Even if you’re not an engineer, or should I say, especially if you’re not an engineer, these principles and ways to think will be valuable to understand and apply. They hold true in business and in relationships

An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management


  1. This book starts with organizational design – it gets the right people in the right places, empowers them to make decisions, and then holds them accountable for their results. Next are some tools of management – from systems thinking to vision documents, metrics, reorgs, and career narratives. Approaches touches on how you might need to adjust how you manage as the organization scales. Culture is covered next and touches on how to nurture an inclusive team. Last is a focus on careers – interviewing hiring, and performance management

Key Takeaways


  1. When I want to solve a problem quickly and cheaply, I think about process design. If process is too weak a force, culture too slow, and there isn’t much time, then organizational design is a good option
  2. One of the fundamental challenges of organizational design is sizing teams
  3. Managers should support 6-8 engineers and managers-of-managers should support 4-6 managers
  4. A team is at least 4 people as this diversity helps attack and solve complex problems in a more efficient manner
  5. Keep innovation and maintenance together as this leads to higher morale and will avoid creating a two-tiered class system of innovators and maintainers
  6. 4 states of a team and the general solution. Teams want to climb from falling behind to innovating, while entropy drags them backward. Each
    1. Falling behind – add people
    2. Treading water – reduce WIP
    3. Repaying debt – add time
    4. Innovating – add slack
  7. Consolidate your efforts as a leader. Don’t “peanut butter” the situation by trying to evenly spread yourself out. Spend the most time on the teams that need the most help. Adding new individuals to teams disrupts that team’s gelling process, so have rapid growth periods followed by consolidation/gelling periods
  8. Do not separate high-performing teams. They can tackle new problems but should stay together. Shifting scope works better than moving people because it avoids re-gelling costs, and it preserves system behavior. You can also try rotating individuals for a fixed period into an area that needs help
    1. Campbell – Teams > Individuals > Problems
  9. You obviously don’t want to stop growth, but you can concentrate that growth such that your teams alternate between periods of gelling and consolidation
  10. Counterintuitively, you can slow a team down by shifting resources to it, because doing so creates new upstream constraints. Slack is a beautiful thing. It gives people and teams time to improve areas and do it with minimal coordination costs
  11. The real system killer is not system rewrites but the migrations that follow those rewrites
  12. You only get values from projects you finish. To make progress, above all else, you must ensure that some of your projects finish
  13. Funnel interruptions into an increasingly small area, and then automate that area as much as possible. Ask people to file tickets, create chatbots that automate filing tickets, create a service cookbook, and so on.
  14. Projects and tasks must have owners – “Who owns X?”
  15. Block out large chunks of time each week to focus. Telecommute, block out 8-11 each morning, experiment until you find something that works for you. The best solution is a culture of documentation – read documents, and a documentation reach that actually works. Try to get off the “critical path” – don’t be a gatekeeper. This is a significant implementation bug rather than a stability feature to be emulated (except for very important legal/financial/other matters that should have a gatekeeper.)
  16. Organizational debt – the sibling of technical debt and represents things like biased interview processes and inequitable compensation mechanisms, systemic problems which prevents your organization from reaching its potential. Responding to this is central to being an effective leader. A great way to attack this is to focus on a few areas you want to improve and if you’re making progress, feel good about it. You can slack off on the other areas (for now). You can’t do it all at once
  17. Succession planning is thinking through how the organization would function without you, documenting those gaps, and starting to fill them in. This is often overlooked but is vital for the long-term success of your team and organization. First step is to figure out what you do – write down what meetings you attend, what your role is in those meetings, recurring processes, individuals you support, emails you send, requests coming in, to-do lists, external relationships. Taking 2-3-week vacations is actually a beautiful thing – you can see what slips through the cracks and these items can be the start of next year’s list.


  1. Change is the catalyst of complexity and these tools are meant to help lead efficient change – systems thinking, metrics, and vision
  2. Creating an arena for quickly testing hypotheses about how things work, without having to do the underlying work beforehand, is the aspect of systems thinking that I appreciate most
  3. Problem discovery – problem selection – solution validation – execution – problem discovery…
  4. For problem discovery look at – users’ pain, users’ purpose, benchmark, cohorts, competitive advantages/moats
  5. Must align on strategy and vision in order to scale effectively. Strategies are grounded documents which explain the trade-offs and actions that twill be taken to address a specific challenge. Visions are aspirational documents that enable individuals who don’t work closely together to make decisions that fit together cleanly
  6. No extent of artistry can solve a problem that you’re unwilling to admit
  7. Vision – vision statement, value proposition, capabilities, solve constraints, future constraints, reference materials, narrative
  8. Define goals through a target, baseline, trend, time frame
    1. See John Doerr on OKRs
  9. Since value is gained when a project is completed, you must celebrate completions, no matter how small
  10. Rolling out the change can be difficult/awkward but here are 3 steps to help
    1. Explanation of reasoning driving the reorganization (particularly those who are heavily impacted)
    2. Documentation of how each person and team will be impacted
    3. Availability and empathy to help bleed off frustration from impacted individuals
  11. The 3 rules for speaking with the media
    1. Answer the question you’re being asked – reframe difficult questions
    2. Stay positive
    3. Speak in threes – three concise points, make them your refrain, and continue to refer back to your three speaking points
  12. Failure modes – domineering personalities, bottlenecks, status-oriented groups, inert groups
  13. Presenting to senior management
    1. Communication is company-specific
    1. Start with the conclusion
    2. Frame why the topic matters
    3. Everyone loves a narrative
    4. Prepare for detours
    5. Answer directly
    6. Dive deep into the data
    7. Derive actions from principles
    8. Discuss the details
    9. Prepare a lot, practice a little
    10. Make a clear ask
  14. Communicating with teams/peers
    1. Be a facilitator, not a lecturer
    2. Brief presentations, long discussions
    3. Small breakout groups
    4. Bring learnings to the full group
    5. Choose topics that people already know about
    6. Encourage tenured folks to attend
    7. Optional pre-reads
    8. Checking-in – your name, your team, one sentence about what’s on your mind
    9. Every quarter I spend a few hours categorizing my calendar from the past 3 months to figure out how I’ve invested my time. This is useful for me to reflect on the major projects I’ve done, and also to get a sense of my general allocation of time. I then use this analysis to shuffle my goal time allocation for the next quarter


  1. Work the policy, not the exceptions – consistency is a precondition of fairness so cultures which allow frequent exceptions are not only susceptible to bias, but also inefficient
  2. Collect every escalation as a test case for reconsidering your constraints. This approach is powerful because it creates a release valve for folks who are frustrated with edge cases in your current policies – they’re still welcome to escalate – while also ensuring that everyone is operating in a consistent, fair environment; escalations will only be used as inputs for updated policy, not handled in a one-off fashion. The approach also maintains working on policy as a leveraged operation for leadership, avoiding the onerous robes of an exceptional judge
  3. Velocity – when folks want you to commit to more work than you believe you can deliver; your goal is to provide a compelling explanation for how your team finishes work. Finishes is particularly important, as opposed to does, because partial work has no value, and your team’s defining constraints are often in the finishing stages.
  4. Management, at its core, is an ethical profession. To see ourselves, we don’t look at the mirror, but rather at how we treat a member of the team who is not succeeding. Not at the mirror, but at our compensation policy. Not at the mirror, but at how we pitch the roles to candidates
  5. Strong relationships > any problem. Start debugging problems from the relationship angle before anything else. With the right people, any process works, and with the wrong people, no process works
  6. Instead of avoiding the hardest parts, double down on them
  7. Do the right thing for the company, the right thing for the team, and the right thing for yourself, in that order
  8. The best management philosophy never stands still, but – in the model of the Hegelian dialectic – continues to evolve as it comes into contact with reality. The worst theory of management is to not have one at all, but the second worst is one that doesn’t change.
  9. Long bones have growth plates at their ends, which is where the growth happens, and the middle doesn’t grow. This is a pretty apt metaphor for rapidly growing companies, and a useful mental model to understand why your behaviors might not be resonating in a new role. Execution is the primary currency in the growth plates because you typically have a surplus of fairly obvious ideas to try and there is constrained bandwidth for evaluating those ideas. What folks in the growth plates need is help reducing and executing the existing backlog of ideas, not adding more ideas that must be evaluated. Teams in these scenarios are missing the concrete resources necessary to execute, and supplying those resources is the only way to help. Giving more ideas feels helpful, but it isn’t. Away from the growth plates you’re mostly working on problems with known solutions. Known solutions are amenable to iterative improvement, so it would make sense for execution to be highly valued, but I find that, in practice, ideas – especially ideas that are new within your company – are most highly prized.
  10. Leadership is matching appropriate action to your current context
  11. As managers looking to grow ourselves, we should really be pursuing scope: not enumerating people but taking responsibility for the success of increasingly important and complex factors of the organization and company. This is where advancing a career can veer away from a zero-sum competition to have the largest team and evolve into a virtuous cycle of empowering the organization and taking on more responsibility. There is a lot less competition for hard work. Aim to grow scope through broad, complex projects
  12. You need to learn how to set your own direction – talk to peers and see what they’re thinking about, read technical papers, cast the widest net possible so that you understand the problem space
  13. For every problem that comes your way – close out, solve, or delegate


  1. An inclusive organization is one in which individuals have access to opportunity and membership
  2. Useful metrics – retention, usage rate, level distribution, time at level
  3. Useful programs – recurring weekly events, employee resource groups, team offsites, coffee chats, team lunches,
  4. Ingredients for a great ream – awareness of each other’s work, evolution from character to person, refereeing defection, avoiding zero-sum culture
  5. The best learning doesn’t always come from your manager – create a community of learning with your peers
  6. Humans are prone to interpreting events as causal, but it may be more appropriate to see problems in terms of a series of stockpiles that grow and shrink based on incoming and outgoing flows


  1. Interviewing tips
    1. Be kind to the candidate
    2. Ensure that all interviewers agree on the role’s requirements
    3. Understand the signal your interview is checking for
    4. Come to your interview prepared to interview
    5. Deliberately express interest in candidates
    6. Create feedback loops for interviewers and the loop’s designer
    7. Instrument and optimize as you would any conversion funnel
  2. If you like an interviewee and will extend an offer, have everyone who interviewed them send them an email or letter saying how much they enjoyed meeting them
  3. Have interviewers write up their feedback on candidates individually
  4. The most sacred responsibilities of management are selecting your company’s role model, identifying who to promote, and deciding who needs to leave
  5. If hiring from within, some necessary ingredients are: an executive sponsor, a recruiting partner, self-sustaining mission, a clear career ladder, role models, dedicated calibrations (performance reviews)


  1. Teams have a limited appetite for new processes: try to roll out one change at a time and don’t roll out the next change until the previous change has enthusiastic compliance
  2. Process needs to be adapted to its environment, and success comes from blending it with your particular context

What I got out of it

  1. Some great tools, ideas, perspective on how to manage a quickly scaling organization

The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn by Richard Hamming

“After more thought I decided that since I was trying to teach “style” of thinking in science and engineering, and “style” is an art, I should therefore copy the methods of teaching used for the other arts – once the fundamentals have been learned. How to be a great painters cannot be taught in words; one learns by trying many different approaches that seem to surround the subject. Art teachers usually let the advanced student paint, and then make suggestions on how they would have done it, or what might also be tried, more or less as the points arise in the student’s head – which is where the learning is supposed to occur! In this series of lectures, I try to communicate to students what cannot be said in words – the essence of style in science and engineering. I have adopted a loose organization with some repetition since this often occurs in the lectures. There are, therefore, digressions and stories – with some told in two different places – all in the somewhat rambling, informal style typical of lectures. I have used the “story” approach, often emphasizing the initial part of the discovery, because I firmly believe in Pasteur’s remark, “Luck favors the prepared mind.” In this way I can illustrate how the individual’s preparation before encountering the problem can often lead to recognition, formulation, and solution. Great results in science and engineering are “bunched” in the same person too often for success to be a matter of random luck. Teachers should prepare the student for the student’s future, not for the teacher’s past…Therefore, style of thinking is the center of this course. The subtitle of the book, Learning to Learn, is the main solution I offer to help students cope with the rapid changes they will have to endure in their fields. The course centers around how to look at and think about knowledge, and it supplies some historical perspective that might be useful. This course is mainly personal experiences I have had and digested, at least to some extent. Naturally one tends to remember one’s successes and forget lesser events, but I recount a number of my spectacular failures as clear examples of what to avoid. I have found that the personal story is far, far more effective than the impersonal one; hence there is necessarily an aura of “bragging” in the book that is unavoidable. Let me repeat what I earlier indicated. Apparently an “art” – which almost by definition cannot be put into words – is probably best communicated by approaching it from many sides and doing so repeatedly, hoping thereby students will finally mater enough of the art, or if you wish, style, to significantly increase their future contributions to society. A totally different description of the course is: it covers all kinds of things that could not find their proper place in the standard curriculum.”

PS – The book is expensive and hard to find but here is a PDF copy of the book and if you’re more of an auditory learner, here are Hamming’s “Learning to Learn” lectures

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman


  1. This is the starter kit for good design. It will turn people into observers of the absurd, of the good, of the poor design which we encounter every day

If you’d prefer to listen to this article, use the player below.

You can also find more of my articles in audio version at Listle

Key Takeaways

  1. Design is concerned with how things work, how they are controlled, and the nature of the interaction between people and technology
  2. Key Design Terms
    1. Discoverability – is it possible to even figure out what actions are possible and where and how to perform them? Discoverability results from appropriate application of five fundamental psychological concepts
      1. Affordances – relationship between a physical object and a person, the relationship between the properties of an object and the capabilities of the agent that determines just how the object could possibly be used. An affordance is a relationship
      2. Signifiers – signifiers communicate where the action should take place. Good communication of the purpose, structure, and operation of the device to the people who use it
      3. Constraints – providing physical, logical, semantic, and cultural constraints guides actions and eases interpretation
      4. Mapping – the relationship between the elements of two sets of things
        1. Best mapping – controls are mounted directly on the item to be controlled
        2. Second best – controls are as close as possible to the object to be controlled
        3. Third best – controls are arranged in the same spatial configuration of as the objects to be controlled
      5. Feedback – communicating the results of an action. Must be immediate and poor feedback can be worse than no feedback at all. Feedback is essential but not when it gets in the way of others things, including a calm and relaxing environment
    2. Understanding – what does it all mean? How is the product supposed to be used? What do all the different controls and settings mean
    3. Conceptual Models – an explanation, usually highly simplified, of how something works. It doesn’t have to be complete or even accurate as long as its useful
    4. Forcing Function – failure at one stage prevents the next stage from happening. Many errors stem from interruption
      1. Interlocks – forces operations to take place in proper sequence
      2. Lock-In – Keeps an operation active, preventing someone from prematurely stopping it. (happens with ERP for example, confusion comes in when trying to switch which leads to lock-in for the current system)
      3. Lockouts – prevents someone from entering a space that is dangerous, or prevents an event from occurring.
  3. Human Centered Design
    1. An approach that puts human needs, capabilities, and behaviors first, then designs to accommodate those needs, capabilities, and ways of behaving. The process of ensuring that people’s needs are met, that the resulting product is understandable and usable, that it accomplishes the desired tasks, and that the experience of use is positive and enjoyable. Solving the right problem, and doing so in a way that meets human needs and capabilities
    2. Good design starts with an understanding of psychology and technology. Good design requires good communication, especially from machine to person, indicating what actions are possible,w hat is happening, and what is about to happen. Communication is especially important when things go wrong. Designers need to focus their attention on the cases where things go wrong, not just on when things work as planned
    3. The understanding comes about primarily through observation, for people themselves are often unaware of their true needs, even unaware of the difficulties they are encountering. Getting the specification of the thing to be defined is one of the most difficult parts of the design, so much so that the HCD principle is to avoid specifying the problem as long as possible but instead to iterate upon repeated approximations. This is best done through rapid test of ideas, and after each test modifying the approach and the problem definition. This has become known as the Double-Diamond Model of Design. It describes two phases of design: finding the right problem (discover) and fulfilling human needs (design): observation, idea generation, prototyping, testing
      1. Testing: five people studied individually is a great starting point. Then, study the results, refine them, and do another iteration, testing five different people. Five is usually enough to give major findings. And if you really want to test many more people, it is far more effective to do one test of five, use the results to improve the system, and then keep iterating the test-design cycle until you have tested the desired number of people. This gives multiple iterations of improvement, rather than just one.
  4. 7 Stages of Action
    1. Goal (form the goal) – what do I want to accomplish?
    2. Plan (the action) – What are the alternative action sequences?
    3. Specify (an action sequence) – What action can I do now?
    4. Perform (the action sequence) – How do I do it?
    5. Perceive (the state of the world) – What happened?
    6. Interpret (the perception) – What does it mean?
    7. Compare (the outcome with the goal) – Is this okay? Have I accomplished my goal?
    8. The insights from the 7 stages of action lead us to 7 fundamental principles of design
      1. Discoverability
      2. Feedback
      3. Conceptual Model
      4. Affordances
      5. Signifiers
      6. Mappings
      7. Constraints
  5. 3 Levels of Processing
    1. Visceral (lizard brain)
    2. Behavioral (learned but subconscious skills)
    3. Reflecetive (conscious cognition)
    4. Design must take place at all 3 levels – do not blame people when they fail to use your products correctly, take people’s difficulties as signifiers as to how to improve, eliminate all error messages and replace with help and guidance messages, make it possible to correct problems directly from help and guidance messages, assume that what people have done is partially correct, think positively
  6. Bad Design
    1. Physical limitations are well understood but mental limitations are greatly misunderstood
    2. When an error happens, we should determine why, then redesign the product or the procedures being followed so that it will never occur again or, if it does, so that it will have minimal impact
    3. Root cause Analysis – investigate the accident until the single, underlying cause is found.
    4. 5 Why’s – when searching for the reason, even after you have found one, do not stop: ask why that was the case. And then ask why again. Keep asking until you have uncovered the true underlying cause
    5. When people err, change the system so that type of error will be reduced or eliminated. When complete elimination is not possible, redesign to reduce the impact
    6. Two types of errors
      1. Slips – person intends to do one action and ends up doing something else. Slips frequently occur when the conscious mind is distracted so, one way to reduce slips is to ensure that people always pay close attention to the acts being done. Provide perceptible feedback about the nature of the action being performed, then very perceptible feedback describing the new resulting state, coupled with a mechanism that allows the error to be undone
        1. Action-based – wrong action is performed
        2. Memory-lapse – intended action is not done or its results not evaluated
        3. Mode-Error – when a device has different states in which the same controls have different meanings
      2. Mistakes – when the wrong goal is established or the wrong plan is formed
    7. To understand human error, it is essential to understand social pressure (time, psychological, and economic forces)
    8. The trickiest and most important part is to design for when things go wrong
      1. Understand the causes of error and design to minimize those causes
      2. Do sensibility checks. Does the action pass the “common sense’ test?
      3. Make it possible to reverse the actions – to “undo” them – or make it harder to do what cannot be reversed
      4. Make it easier for people to discover the errors that do occur, and make them easier to correct
      5. Don’t treat the action as an error; rather, try to help the person complete the action properly. Think of the action as an approximation to what is desired
    9. Add constraints to block errors
    10. Perhaps the most powerful tool to minimize the impact of errors is the Undo command in modern electronic systems
    11. Confirmation and error messages
    12. Sensibility checks
  7. Other
    1. Focus on interplay of technology and people to ensure that the products fulfill human needs while being understandable and usable. Ideally delightful and enjoyable too
    2. Why flaws? Much of design is done by engineers who are experts in technology but not of people. Have to accept the way humans behave and not how we wish it to be
    3. The best solution to the problem of designing for everyone is flexibility: flexibility is the size of the images on computer screens, in the sizes, heights, and angles of tables and chairs. Allow people to adjust their own seats, tables, and working devices
    4. Cognition and emotion are highly intertwined – must keep both in mind at all times
    5. Good design requires consideration of the entire system to ensure that the requirements, intentions, and desires at each stage are faithfully understood and respected at all other stages.
    6. Precise behavior can emerge from imprecise knowledge for  reasons
      1. Knowledge is both in the head and in the world
      2. Great precision is not required
      3. Natural constraints exist in the world
      4. Knowledge of cultural constraints and conventions exist in the head
    7. Simplified models are the key to successful application
    8. Make something too secure and it becomes insecure (people use post its to remind them of passwords they have to change all the time)
    9. Solve problems by interpreting, find natural mappings. Make memory unnecessary by putting the required information in the world. Appropriate constraints and forcing functions, natural good mapping, and all the tools of feedback and feedforward. The most effective way of helping people remember is to make it unnecessary. The unaided mind is surprisingly limited. It is things that make us smart. Take advantage of them. Pilots:
      1. Write down critical information
      2. Enter it into their equipment as its told to them, so minimal memory is required
      3. They remember some of it as meaningful phrases
    10. Counter-intuitive bike model – to turn left, you first have to turn right. This is counter-steering and is necessary to get your balance and lean right before turning
    11. Reminders – must have a signal and the message
    12. A major obstacle is that often the purchaser is not the user
    13. The choice of metaphor dictates the proper design for interaction. The design difficulties occur when there is a switch in metaphor
    14. Consistency in design is virtuous. It means that lessons learned with one system transfer readily to others. On the whole, consistency is to be followed. If a new way of doing things is only slightly better than the old, it is better to be consistent. But if there is to be a change, everybody has to change. Mixed systems are confusing to everyone.
    15. Standardization is the fundamental principle of desperation: when no other solution appears possible, simply design everything the way way, so people only have to learn once. The standards should reflect the psychological conceptual models, not the physical mechanics.
      1. Skeumorphic – incorporating old, familiar ideas into new technologies, even though they no longer play a functional role. One way of overcoming the fear of the new is to make it look like the old
      2. One type of cultural constraint, provides a major breakthrough in usability
    16. Usage of sound as a signifier is important but tricky because you don’t want to disturb people too much
    17. Checklists are important and is way better to have two people do checklists together as a team: one to read the instruction, the other to execute it. If, instead, a single person executes the checklist and then, later a second person checks the items, the results are not as robust. The person following the checklist, feeling confident that any errors would be caught, might do the steps too quickly. But the same bias affects the checker. Confident in the ability of the first person, the checker often does a quick, less than thorough job. One paradox of groups is that, quite often, adding more people to check a task makes it less likely that it will be done right. A collaboratively followed checklist is an effective way to counteract these natural human tendencies.
    18. Swiss-Cheese Model
      1. Accidents usually have multiple causes, whereby had any single one of those causes not happened, the accident would not have occurred. Like slices of Swiss cheese, unless the holes all line up perfectly, there will be no accident.
      2. Two lessons: do not try to find “the” cause of an accident. Second, we can decrease accidents and make systems more resilient by designing them to have extra precautions against errors
      3. Well-designed systems are resilient against failure. Design redundancy and layers of defense
      4. Can prevent errors by adding more “slices of cheese”, reduce the number of holes (or make the holes smaller), alert the human operators when several holes have lined up.
    19. Resilience engineering – goal is to design systems, procedures, management, and the training of people so that they are able to respond to problems as they arise. It strives to ensure that the design of all these things – the equipment, procedure, and communication both among workers and also externally to management and the public – are continually being assessed, tested, and improved.
    20. Norman’s Law of Product Development – the day a product development process starts, it is behind schedule and above budget
      1. The way to handle the time crunch that eliminates the ability to do good up-front design research is to separate that process from the product team: have design researchers always out in the field, always studying potential products and customers. Then, when the product team is launched, the designers can say, “We already examined this case, so here are our recommendations.” The same argument applies to market researchers.
    21. Complexity is essential, confusion is undesirable
    22. Some things should be deliberately difficult to use – hide critical components, use unnatural mappings, make the actions physically difficult to do, require precise timing and physical manipulation, do not give any feedback
    23. Beware “featuritis” – creeping add of features. Don’t follow blindly, focus on your strengths and not weaknesses
    24. Invention and adoption cycle – fast to be invented, slow to be accepted, even slower to fade away
    25. 2 forms of innovation: radical, incremental
      1. Incremental – can also be thought of as hill-climbing. You take one step, assess if it is in the right direction, and keep doing this until you have reached a point where all steps would be downhill; then you are the the top of a hill, or at least at a local peak
      2. Radical – often driven by new technologies that make possible new capabilities. A second factor is the reconsideration of the meaning of technology
    26. Most successful teams are a combination of human experts and computers. Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, to a strong human + machine + inferior process
    27. Rise of the small – good design and technology empowers individuals. Today, anyone can create, design, and manufacture, opening doors that were closed in the past. Our technologies may change, but the fundamental principles of interaction are permanent.

What I got out of it

  1. Outstanding book to better understand some of the key terms and ideas behind good and bad design – affordances, signifiers, mapping, constraints, feedback, feedforward…

Boyd: The Figher Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram

  1. “Boyd has had a bigger impact on fighter tactics, aircraft design, and theory of air force combat than any man in history but he was also court marshaled and investigated dozens of times for leaks to the public, stealing computer time to work on his theories, and more. He was cantankerous, loud, and offensive and made a lot of enemies but it was all in the pursuit of his theories which positively impacted how the US military trained and fought.”
Key Takeaways
  1. Boyd was a rare combination of skills and talents and became known as 40 second Boyd because of his ability to beat anyone in air to air combat simulation.
  2. He was the first to codify air to air combat. He was only a junior in the army when he changed how the Army and Navy at large trained fighter pilots. Much of Boyd’s work is classified so his contributions were almost unknown to the outside world during his lifetime. Even then, except for the Marine Corps, most divisions of the military didn’t give Boyd proper credit for his contributions because of how much of a ruckus he caused
  3. He was in search of truth and a pure man but he was also larger than life, rude, cared little for his appearance
  4. Boyd was born in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1927 and his father died when he was only three years old. His mother worked very hard to keep the family afloat and she taught her kids the principles of frugality and hard work that would stay with Boyd forever. The mother severed ties with religion, friends, and family if she thought it would hurt her children. Also, Boyd’s sister contracted polio and the family became a sort of pariah because at the time people didn’t know what caused polio. Although John was somewhat socially awkward, his mom instilled in him that if you work hard and had integrity, you would win in the end
  5. As a child, Boyd had incredible focus and was a championship swimmer in Pennsylvania
  6. Boyd questioned the limit of everything and often found that it was always greater than what people told him
  7. Boyd had little tolerance or patience for those who didn’t understand what he was working towards but for those who did, he would go into great detail to make sure they understood
  8. After Boyd graduated from flight school, he was asked to stay on as an instructor which is one of the most prestigious job requests that a pilot can get
  9. After several years at Flight Weapons School, Boyd wanted to get his undergraduate engineering degree and got it from Georgia Tech. It was here that he was able to intertwine thermodynamics with his aerial studies. It was the trade off between potential and kinetic energy that tied them together and the beauty and simplicity of the idea made his hair stand on end when it clicked for him. Like entropy, a plane could have energy that was unavailable for work because of his position, speed, or strength of opponent. This was his excess power theory, which eventually became known as the Energy Maneuverability Theory. At its most basic, this determines the specific energy rate of an aircraft – how fast can you speed up or slow down compared to your opponent. Using specific energy makes this ratio universal across planes because, simply put, it is energy divided by weight of aircraft
  10. Boyd’s EM did 4 things for aviation
    1. It allowed for a quantitative basis for teaching aerial tactics
    2. It forever changed the way aircraft are flown in combat
    3. It provided a scientific basis for how the maneuverability of an aircraft could be evaluated. It allowed for a comparison of aircrafts and how to negate or minimize the advantages when flying against a superior jet
    4. It became a fundamental tool when designing fighter aircraft
  11. Boyd was able to see a page of numbers and visualize how they would affect his airplane, flight, tactics, and more. He had the hologram in the head
  12. Boyd hated optimization. Instead, he iterated on his thoughts and processes, letting them grow in a very Darwinian, organic way rather than trying to have a set plan or perfect solution to work towards
  13. By getting his engineering degree and deeply understanding thermodynamics, Boyd was able to see and understand the pros and cons of fighter jets’ designs, often better than the designers themselves
  14. To say he was a perfectionist is an understatement of epic proportion
  15. When Boyd determined that somebody had an “obstruction” (didn’t agree with him or didn’t give him the respect he felt he deserved), he took it upon himself to show them why he was thought of as one of the best fighter pilots, instructors, and most knowledgeable person on jets
  16. Boyd’s temperament and harsh way of dealing with people came back to bite him as he was continually passed over for promotions
  17. Trade-offs are the heart and soul of jet fighter design. Discipline and understanding the mission at hand are key too
  18. Boyd’s incredible intensity and passion for his work of course hurt his family situation and many of his kids ended up distanced from him. He neglected and ignored his family to the point that sometimes they didn’t talk for years
  19. Ambiguity, although difficult for people to deal with, tends to reflect reality better than black and white thinking and allows for new thoughts and spontaneity to arise and help evolve an idea or situation
  20. Another of Boyd’s great contributions was Patterns of Conflict. This piece studies the emotional, moral, and behavioral aspects of people during war and is helpful to compare different strategies, technologies, and techniques to one another
  21. The OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) was another big contribution but what most people don’t understand or what they oversimplify is the fact that you always have to have one foot in reality in order to update your ideas and understanding of the situation. Otherwise, you’re orienting and acting with outdated and wrong information
  22. General Mattis developed a reputation as a genius simply by not saying much
  23. The Pentagon is not set up to protect America, it is set up to buy weapons
  24. Boyd cared far more for his ideas being spread, adopted, and practiced than for getting any credit or payment for them
  25. Boyd’s theories were all over the Gulf War and had a meaningful impact on how quickly and dramatically America overcame the local opposition
  26. Boyd experienced some severe health scares and later developed an all consuming depression. He wasn’t sure what he was afraid of but it was real and it deeply frightened him. Boyd later developed aggressive cancer which was the cause of his death
  27. if you’re fighting for the right thing there’s always a way to win
What I got out of it
  1. A great biography on a man I didn’t know anything about. He had a deep desire to learn and search for truth but his rude, in your face manner earned him many enemies and opposition to his ideas. Energy Maneuverability, Patterns of Conflict, OODA Loop were his main contributions

To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design by Henry Petroski

  1. An introduction to engineering and what engineers do for the non-technical
Key Takeaways
  1. The colossal disasters that do occur are ultimately failures of design but the lessons learned from those disasters can do more to advance engineering knowledge than all the successful machines and structures in the world. Indeed, failures appear to be inevitable in the wake of prolonged success, which encourages lower margins of safety. Failures in turn lead to greater margins of safety and, hence, new periods of success. To understand what engineering is and what engineers do is to understand how failures can happen and how they can contribute more than successes to advance technology
  2. Engineering has as its principal objective not the given world but the world that engineers themselves create, one which is ever changing. Like our art, we like our structures to be fashionable and since our tastes change, so do our structures
  3. It is the process of design, in which diverse parts of the given world of the scientist and the made world of the engineer are reformed and assembled into something the likes of which Naturr has not dreamed, that divorces engineering from science and marries it to art
  4. We may wonder if human evolution may not be the greatest engineering feat of all time
  5. If ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, if all that has come to be human races before the fetus floating in its own prehistory, then the child playing relives the evolution of structural engineering in its blocks
  6. One of the most important calculations of the modern engineer is the one that predicts how long it will take before cracks or the simple degradation of its materials threaten the structure’s life
  7. Structural engineers must often deal in probabilities and combinations of probabilities. A safe structure will be one whose weakest link is never overloaded by the greatest force to which the structure is subjected
  8. A scientific hypothesis is tested by comparing its conclusions with the reality of the world as it is
  9. The fundamental feature of all angineering hypotheses is that they state, implicitly if not explicitly, that a designed structure will not fail if it is used as intended
  10. Success is foreseeing failure. Nobody wants to learn by mistakes but we cannot learn enough from successes to go beyond the state of the art. The object of engineering design is to anticipate failure and to design against it. This is done by understanding how much load a structure can carry without letting go or breaking
  11. Designing a bridge or any other large structure is not unlike planning a trip. The end may be clear and simple: to go from here to there. But the means may be limited only by our imaginations. It is this aspect of the writer to engineer analogy that is most helpful in understanding how the celebrated writers and engineers alike learn more from the errors of their predecessors and contemporaries than they do from all the successes in the world. There is the greatest practical benefit in making a few mistakes early in life
  12. Engineering, like poetry, is an attempt to approach perfection. And, engineers, like poets, are seldom completely satisfied with their creations
  13. One of the most comforting means, employed in virtually all engineering designs, hs been the factor of safety. Also known as the factor of ignorance, it is used to provide a margin of error that allows for a considerable number of corollaries to Murphy’s Law to compound without threatening the success of an engineering endeavor. factors of safety are intended to allow for the bridge built of the weakest imaginable batch of steel to stand up under the hackers imaginable truck going over the largest imaginable pothole and bouncing across the roadway in a storm. The factor of safety is calculated by dividing the load require to cause failure by the maximum load expected to act on a structure. The essential idea behind a factor of safety is that a means of failure must be made explicit, and tr load to cause that failure must be calculable or determinable by experiment. This clearly indicates that it ks a failure that the engineer is trying to avoid in his design, and that is why failures of real structures are so interesting to engineers.
  14. Each new structural hypothesis is open to disproof by counterexample, and the rational designer will respond immediately to th credible failure brought to his attention
  15. 50-90% of all structural failures are believed to be the result of crack growth. The cracks often grow slowly and only when they reach intolerable proportions for the structure and still go undetected that catastrophic can occur – classic sign of fatigue. Fatigue can theoretically be avoided but overdesigning structures do that peak stresses never exceed the threshold level is not practical
  16. Quality control is supposed to eliminate unacceptably large flaws by minimizing deviations from an acceptable norm and by rejecting inferior workmanship. But, unfortunately, the techniques for the detection of predicting cracks in fabricated structures are wanting. Not only are instruments relatively insensitive, but also their use and interpretation are often more art than science
  17. A second basic design philosophy to obviate structural failure is called the safe-life criterion. Safe-life design, which allows for the inevitability of failure well beyond the service life of the structure, is not so simple to realize. Nuclear reactors have very conservative designs and have proven to have sufficient factors of safety built into the system, and the leak-before-break criterion appears to be a sound concept. A system is only as strong as its weakest link
  18. In engineering, as in nature, bigger is not necessarily even better nor even a good idea
  19. Because Paxton was not steeped in the traditions of either engineering or architecture, he approached design problems without any academically ingrained propensity for a particular structural or aesthetic style. He often solved problems unconventionally in both construction and architectural style
  20. The paradox of engineering design is that successful structural concepts devolve into failures, while the colossal failure contribute to the evolution of innovative and inspiring structures
  21. Computer aided design (CAD) is helpful for making many decisions but one instance it lacks is understanding how a structure might fail. Many worry that we are becoming too dependent on these modeling softwares and that future failures may stem from us not truly understanding what we are doing
  22. The most dramatic failures have occurred in a climate of overconfidence and carelessness, and the least we can learn from those incidents is to be more vigilant
  23. Causes of failure
    1. Ignorance
      1. Incompetent men in charge of design, construction or inspection
      2. Supervision and maintenance by men without necessary intelligence
      3. Assumption of vital responsibility by men without necessary intelligence
      4. Competition without supervision
      5. Lack of precedent
      6. Lack of sufficient preliminary information
    2. Economy
      1. In first cost
      2. In maintenance
    3. Lapses, or carelessness
      1. An engineer or architect, otherwise careful and competent, shows negligence in some certain part of the work
      2. A contractor or superintendent takes a chance, knowing he is taking it
      3. Lack of proper coordination in production of plans
    4. Unusual occurrences – earthquakes, extreme storms, fires and the like
    5. Limit states
      1. Overload – geophysical, dead, wind
      2. Understrength – structure, materials instability
      3. Movement – foundation settlement, creep, shrinkage
      4. Deterioration – cracking, fatigue, corrosion, erosion
  24. Good judgment is usually the result of experience. And experience is frequently the result of bad judgment. But to learn from the experience of others requires those who have the experience to share the knowledge with those who follow
What I got out of it
  1. A good overview on the basics of engineering