Luna USA Field Trip: Space Shuttle – a monumental engineering achievement

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In our YOW! 2011 talk we discussed the space shuttle era that began in the late 1970s – an era of USA and Soviet rivalry based foolishly on strategic parity (‘our goal is just to have what they have’). Horrifically, many dot com genius business plans are still based on the futility of strategic parity, in short they read: ‘__________ <insert successful website name> but with ________ <insert tiny variation with no proven customer value>’

The Soviets soon abandoned their own space shuttle, which is bizarrely similar in design to the USA model (clearly, they downloaded the plans from pirate bay), in favour of the Soyuz rockets they developed in the 1960s and still fly today.

With the first American astronauts eschewing their shuttle program in favour of hitching a (much cheaper) lift to the International Space Station aboard a Soyuz this week, it was timely that I had the chance to see the Discovery first hand at the Smithsonian.

Like the SR-71, you have probably underestimated how big the shuttle is from the TV pictures.

The body is at least the size of a 2-3 story Melbourne house (those long, thin 5-6m wide terrace houses). Shiny and glowing on TV, it is a beaten and battered workhorse on the outside. The tile pattern is infinitely complex, the white paintwork burnt and worn. It is hell to photograph without diminishing it in scale somehow.

Locked in to such a monumental design, it is easy to see how you would avoid change at all costs on this piece of technology, and why the cost of ownership was so high, that in the end, it was retired with the same conclusion the Russians had drawn 30 years before – just too much money to run and innovate as a platform.

Sound familiar to anyone?

A Photographic History of the Space Shuttle

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As the last shuttle flight landed a few days ago it seems like a good time to post this magnificent set of photographs via the quirky site www.cracktwo.com – A couple to wet your appetite and a link to the full series is at the bottom.

Columbia lifting off April 12, 1981

On the back of a 747 being transported back to the Kennedy Space Center.

And that’s a long way down, see the rest of the series at Crack Two

Space, Communication and Distraction – Questions from Agile Australia 2011

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One of the great things about presenting a set of ideas at a conference rather than as a blog post is getting interactive questions.  Here as some of the ones I can remember from Agile Aus 2011 from my session on Space, Communication and Distraction.

How do you keep physical and electronic Agile boards in sync ? 

My short answer to this would be that you don’t.  Invariable you end up with one or two people, often a project manager who diligently updates the electronic system to match up with the physical board.  The trouble is most of the time nobody, not even the threatened auditor is ever looking at the electronic system.  There is also something very powerful about the cheap, quick and democratic nature of paper cards.  Anyone from the CEO to an intern can understand, update and engage without needing a login, or remembering to look.  Also even with the largest screens available a physical wall can always be bigger.

What about distributed teams?

Yes, with a distributed team you’re going to have to go electronic, and change your habits to make it work.  Physical or electronic boards can both work, my point I guess is really just pick one – don’t sit on the fence.

Do people need individual desks?

Yes, even in highly collaborative environments, or development teams where much of the work is done at pairing stations it’s important people feel like they have some space which is their own.  Good teams, tend to decorate and customise their space the more they bond as a unit.  The same behaviour is true of individuals – we spend a huge number of our waking hours at work, shouldn’t it be a bit personal ?

Do people need their own computer workstation (in the context of a photo showing lots of pairing stations) ?

Again, I think the answer is yes.  Even if you are working at a pairing station, a small laptop to check emails, lookup reference online or write documents etc is still important.   Often good pairing station setups are reset each night back to a known configuration to create a stable development platform, that’s not very conducive to a personal computer environment.

Where do the testers sit ?

With the developers.

Where do the ops guys sit ? (Ok I’ll admit nobody asked this one, but it’s a good question none the less).

With the developers.

Do you think the lack of personalisation in open plan is a problem ?

Yes.  There is nothing worse than coming to work and feeling like a resource, not a person.

So what IS the ideal environment ?

Individual workspaces around the outside of collaborative workspaces (pairing stations and small meeting / workshop spaces plus a larger collaborative / social meeting space.  I need to get some LEGO men and build a model  of this.

How do you sell changing the environment ?

Happy, efficient teams are productive.  Good environments are a draw card for existing and potential employees.  But really, it’s about making your staff happy.  Happy people want to work hard.

Lessons from a Martian Mission

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NASA has just announced the end of the Spirit Rover mission on Mars after no successful contacts since it’s last communication on the 22nd of March 2010. Not a bad effort for what was planned as a 3 month mission starting in January 2004.  There are some great lessons that come out of these missions.

1) Their goal was simple and easy for everyone to understand – “Wear the rovers out exploring, to leave no unutilized capability on the surface of Mars”

2) Their planning was Agile – As the rovers lasted longer and longer the mission team kept rewriting their play book and planning new experiments – “What we initially conceived as a fairly simple geologic experiment on Mars ultimately turned into humanity’s first real overland expedition across another planet.”

3) Sometimes the greatest discoveries come in the most unexpected ways. After the front right wheel stopped working it started to act as a plow when the rover went into reverse; This unplanned ‘feature’ dug up bright white soil enabling one of the most exciting discoveries of the mission, pure silica deposits just under the surface indicating that previously the conditions required for microbe life existed.

You can read more here about Spirit and Opportunity, perhaps NASAs most successful and cost effective missions ever.

Great Agile Workspaces: Conclusions

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This post is the conclusion to my series on creating Great Agile Workspaces, so if you just landed here, read these posts in order first:

  1. Introduction
  2. Physical Spaces
  3. Communication
  4. Distraction and Multitasking


Agile is a powerful methodology for building great software, but it’s just one part of the system in which we and our teams work.  Space, communication and distraction have a big impact on the net productivity we can generate.

Space: Focus on building a physical environment that feels good, promotes team work and yet gives enough isolation and separation between individuals and teams – the best environments have diversity, including quiet space for problem solving.

Communication: Embrace high value forms of communication and work on your culture to weed out low value, or negative styles.  Be intentional about how and when you communicate.

Distraction: Some distractions are inflicted upon us and some are caused by poor habits. Our capacity to create things once we get in the zone is amazing.   The right space, communication culture and a lack of distractions are essential to enabling the zone.

Sadly the depth of field of a workplace is not controllable like the magic of a camera - all people are susceptible to interruption and distraction.

Essential References and Further Reading

Joel’s Field Guide to Developers – Developers and Workspaces

DeMarco and Listers’s seminal Peopleware – Teams and Productivity

Susan Maushart’s Winter of Our Disconnect – Distraction and Multitasking

Akin’s Laws of Spacecraft Design

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Akins has collected a wonderful set of laws for Spacecraft Design, most of them are equally relevant for other engineering projects.  Just be glad that rule 40 doesn’t apply to your project.

1. Engineering is done with numbers. Analysis without numbers is only an opinion.
2. To design a spacecraft right takes an infinite amount of effort. This is why it’s a good idea to design them to operate when some things are wrong .
3. Design is an iterative process. The necessary number of iterations is one more than the number you have currently done. This is true at any point in time.
4. Your best design efforts will inevitably wind up being useless in the final design. Learn to live with the disappointment.
5. (Miller’s Law) Three points determine a curve.
6. (Mar’s Law) Everything is linear if plotted log-log with a fat magic marker.
7. At the start of any design effort, the person who most wants to be team leader is least likely to be capable of it.
8. In nature, the optimum is almost always in the middle somewhere. Distrust assertions that the optimum is at an extreme point.
9. Not having all the information you need is never a satisfactory excuse for not starting the analysis.
10. When in doubt, estimate. In an emergency, guess. But be sure to go back and clean up the mess when the real numbers come along.
11. Sometimes, the fastest way to get to the end is to throw everything out and start over.
12. There is never a single right solution. There are always multiple wrong ones, though.
13. Design is based on requirements. There’s no justification for designing something one bit “better” than the requirements dictate.
14. (Edison’s Law) “Better” is the enemy of “good”.
15. (Shea’s Law) The ability to improve a design occurs primarily at the interfaces. This is also the prime location for screwing it up.
16. The previous people who did a similar analysis did not have a direct pipeline to the wisdom of the ages. There is therefore no reason to believe their analysis over yours. There is especially no reason to present their analysis as yours.
17. The fact that an analysis appears in print has no relationship to the likelihood of its being correct.
18. Past experience is excellent for providing a reality check. Too much reality can doom an otherwise worthwhile design, though.
19. The odds are greatly against you being immensely smarter than everyone else in the field. If your analysis says your terminal velocity is twice the speed of light, you may have invented warp drive, but the chances are a lot better that you’ve screwed up.
20. A bad design with a good presentation is doomed eventually. A good design with a bad presentation is doomed immediately.
21. (Larrabee’s Law) Half of everything you hear in a classroom is crap. Education is figuring out which half is which.
22. When in doubt, document. (Documentation requirements will reach a maximum shortly after the termination of a program.)
23. The schedule you develop will seem like a complete work of fiction up until the time your customer fires you for not meeting it.
24. It’s called a “Work Breakdown Structure” because the Work remaining will grow until you have a Breakdown, unless you enforce some Structure on it.
25. (Bowden’s Law) Following a testing failure, it’s always possible to refine the analysis to show that you really had negative margins all along.
26. (Montemerlo’s Law) Don’t do nuthin’ dumb.
27. (Varsi’s Law) Schedules only move in one direction.
28. (Ranger’s Law) There ain’t no such thing as a free launch.
29. (von Tiesenhausen’s Law of Program Management) To get an accurate estimate of final program requirements, multiply the initial time estimates by pi, and slide the decimal point on the cost estimates one place to the right.
30. (von Tiesenhausen’s Law of Engineering Design) If you want to have a maximum effect on the design of a new engineering system, learn to draw. Engineers always wind up designing the vehicle to look like the initial artist’s concept.
31. (Mo’s Law of Evolutionary Development) You can’t get to the moon by climbing successively taller trees.
32. (Atkin’s Law of Demonstrations) When the hardware is working perfectly, the really important visitors don’t show up.
33. (Patton’s Law of Program Planning) A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.
34. (Roosevelt’s Law of Task Planning) Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.
35. (de Saint-Exupery’s Law of Design) A designer knows that he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
36. Any run-of-the-mill engineer can design something which is elegant. A good engineer designs systems to be efficient. A great engineer designs them to be effective.
37. (Henshaw’s Law) One key to success in a mission is establishing clear lines of blame.
38. Capabilities drive requirements, regardless of what the systems engineering textbooks say.
39. The three keys to keeping a new manned space program affordable and on schedule:       1)  No new launch vehicles.       2)  No new launch vehicles.       3)  Whatever you do, don’t decide to develop any new launch vehicles.
40. Space is a completely unforgiving environment. If you screw up the engineering, somebody dies (and there’s no partial credit because most of the analysis was right…)
(source – http://spacecraft.ssl.umd.edu/akins_laws.html)

Luna Links – Angry Birds, Radiation Dosage and the Shuttle Discovery

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We love the little curated lists of links on many of the blogs we read, so we wanted to do the same thing here at Luna Tractor.  As a rule they will be relevant to the typical blog themes, but sometimes off topic things are just to interesting not to share.

The Angry Birds Story – I will confess to having played one or two level of Angry Birds myself. This piece from Wired looking at the development of the company and game has two important lessons to pick up from Rovio’s success. 1) Watch people using your products. 2) Distribution is really important.

Radiation Dose Chart – I love data visualisations and am quite addicted to charts like the Billion Dollar Gram from Information is Beautiful.  Randall from XKCD has done a bunch of great ones over the years in his own style. This most recent one compares radiation doses from a very wide range of sources and does an excellent job of putting the Japanese nuclear issue into context.

Shuttle Discovery’s Final Flight – I promise we’ll try not to overdo the space theme here, but these pictures from the Big Picture Blog are too good not to share.  Sit back and marvel at the wonder which is manned space flight.

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