What Did You think Was Going to Happen?

Adam Bahret
Adam Bahret

“It was a two-meter wide thermal exhaust port leading to the core reactor, what did you think would happen?” – Adam Bahret (heard saying at social gatherings on more than one occasion)

There are two types of people in this world: Those who know what I am referencing and those who can’t quote every line from the greatest movie ever made.
I’m talking about Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). This is the line from the movie.

“The target area is only two meters wide. It’s a small thermal exhaust port, right below the main port. The shaft leads directly to the reactor system.”

The Death Star, the greatest weapon the galaxy has ever seen, was destroyed by a single X-wing fighter blast into a two-meter-wide thermal exhaust port that, for whatever reason, led directly into the core reactor. Even when I was a child, I couldn’t get the flawed thinking behind this setup out of my head, “What were they thinking, why would they create the most powerful, indestructible weapon in the galaxy with such a fundamental and glaring flaw?” I finally got my answer in 2016. To some degree, I had forgotten about this ridiculous plot flaw but was reminded of it when the answer was thrown up in front of me on a 30-ft. tall screen. I was watching the Star Wars film Rogue One for the first time upon its release and let out an audible “Aha!” when the explanation for this ridiculous design feature was presented. This fatal flaw had been intentionally designed by an architect, Galen Erso, who did not want the empire (creators of the Death Star) to continue their rule.
Ok, but why the Bantha Fodder am I talking about this with you? I am rambling about a Sci-fi movie from like five decades ago in what should be an insightful post about reliability engineering.
It’s because of the reliability mindset. In my decades of working with reliability engineers, both late in their career and those new to the discipline, I have seen some traits that are common across all of them. In summary, I am sure they all had the same reaction I did to that little piece of information in Rogue One. Firstly, of course, because they are all engineers first and foremost, people who think of technical solutions to problems that change lives or sometimes to problems no one even asked to have solved. However, what makes them reliability engineers is that they also can’t let go of any observations that lead to questions like, “why doesn’t this work?” or “ok it works now but what could make it stop working?”
Evidence of this mindset can be traced back through the lives of engineers as far as the age of three, they have all taken apart everything they have ever got their hands on. People of this disposition don’t just want to create, they want to, no need to know how things around them work at their most fundamental level, which includes knowing what makes them stop working.

In addition to sharing this trait, I’m sure they all share having parents who lived in a chronic state of frustration. That was due to having a house full of things constantly taken apart that weren’t broken (but now may very well be) and consequently, and often, a child with injuries to boot (because kids aren’t necessarily OSHA compliant in their work). My parents, like many, still have a candy dish full of screws that no one knows the origins of and I have many scars.
So, here is an important distinction between a reliability engineer and a design engineer, and why you need both on your team. A design engineer thinks about how to solve a problem and how to make a concept work. They put laser focus into making it execute its function, they invent. This is, however, not the same as advancing a design to a state where it will continue to work even under tremendous stress and unexpected variabilities in their environment.
These two mindsets share the same vision of making technology into products that have big impacts on the world. But the key element to the success of this duo is how opposite they are. Creation (design) can be constrained by feelings of wanting to take care of your baby and making sure it succeeds, such as a loving parent. Robustness is an approach to growth based on taking something to its limits and seeing what can be done to advance even its most advanced level. This is not a parent; this role is more akin to a sports coach or even a drill sergeant. The loving parent and tough love coach working in combination is what creates the greatest designs that have shaped our lives, similar to how we get highly successful people. The right balance between nurture and challenge is key.
As you bring your amazing technology into the world as impactful products, stop and think about who is shaping this new creation. Do you have both the nurturer and the “tough love” disciplinarian in the picture?
Make sure your team can chase their curiosities and pursue those instinctive burning questions. The result will always be the advancement of great technology into amazing products.
So, Galen Erso, sorry about bad-mouthing your engineering ability for like 40 years, and thank the Lord they made Rogue One so I could get that splinter out of my head.
I’m not going to say it… Ok yes, I am: “May the Force be With You.”
-Adam

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