Archive for March, 2020


When the Challenger lifted off on that fateful day in January of 1986, it was never to complete its mission, thanks to management taking over the place of engineering as prime decision-maker about something that was consummately technical. Those O-rings weren’t designed to function at the temperature predicted for that liftoff. Engineering provided the factual imperative to scrub the mission. Management ignored their input. The rest is a history that should inform, but too often doesn’t.

Donald Trump, sporting his “Keep America Great” hat, held forth during his tour of The Centers for Disease Control, and remarking on his “unusual aptitude for understanding the intricacies of Corona Virus prevention and mitigation” is comedic. Perhaps tragedic is a better term. This is particularly off-putting to my understanding since I lived through a similar catastrophe in 1970, working for Varo Engineering. Varo’s Static Power Division in Sherman, Texas was solely dedicated to making high voltage power supplies for night vision devices. It was a uniquely specialized product, historically successful under the leadership of Ernie Reich, a savvy electrical engineer.

Things went very well until a change of plant manager upset everything. Tom Robinson came in with much fanfare and put himself forward as Mr. Know-it-all. He decided to make a change to the basic design that could not work—ever. Even I, as a mere manufacturing engineer, understood that what he was planning was impossible. That was when I decided to save poor Mr. Robinson from himself. I went to his office, sat down, and explained why what he was planning would not be advisable. Somehow, he failed to understand that I was doing him the best of favors. The next thing I knew my supervisor was giving me an exit interview. No, all those excellent performance reviews didn’t matter. Tom Robinson wanted me out.

I was out, but soon found work down the road at Texas Instruments where they remembered all those good years spent at Richardson TI’s Apparatus Division. No sooner had I gotten settled down that I learned what happened back at Varo. Robinson made his star-crossed design change to high voltage multipliers. Reich quit and started his own company in his garage, Reich Associates. The military pulled Varo’s contract, awarding it instead to Ernie Reich. Varo’s Static Power Division went belly up, and I did some moonlighting mold design for Ernie for a while just to rub it in.

Don’t be consoled with the idea that Trump’s shenanigans may yield any such benevolent outcome, though even the most cosmic definition of God won’t allow for evil to prevail in the end. When even Democrats can cooperate to mount a siege, as in four presidential candidates withdrawing to make sure someone who can beat Trump is nominated, something momentous is surely afoot.

I haven’t failed to grasp, however, the significance of my own piece of hubris as I marched into a new plant manager’s office to tell him how best to do his job. It is so easy to become convinced in the perfection of an opinion that wisdom fails. That’s when disaster puts on his “Keep America Great” hat and chaos runs amok. But if you wash your hands every twenty minutes, you won’t have time to get into trouble, and if Corona virus gets the last laugh, they won’t blame you.

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