It's Thanksgiving — Hug an Engineer

This being the week of Thanksgiving, it seems timely to give a few column inches of thanks to the broadband engineering community.

That said, being true to the title of this column means translating something, not wasting space with gushy gratitude. To stitch the two together, this week's translation intends to show, by example, the countable blessings about our engineering community.

Stereotypically, engineers get tagged as being introverted, geeky and aloof. But stereotypes, as a general rule, tend to huddle people into clumps of nonconstructive attributes, which is bad for forward progress. Engineers don't like to be labeled "dweebs" any more than marketers like being labeled "wiffleheads."

Humorous — really

Those of us who study the language and work of this industry's technologists know them to possess lots of constructive attributes. We know them as problem-solvers. Innovators. Seekers of truth.

And, in so many instances, engineers are wickedly comical. Consider a Western Show session three years ago, when Leo Hindery (then Tele-Communications Inc.'s top banana) began describing a triangle of benefits aimed at cable customers. He raved that the triangle was about to start spinning, faster and faster — all the while drawing tight circles in the air with his index finger.

Cable's customers, Hindery said, were about to go through the spinning triangle into a magical world.

A certain unnamed engineer, sitting next to me, drew an exaggerated drag on an imaginary non-tobacco cigarette, emitted a few suppressed coughs, and mimed handing it down the row of attendees.

Engineers are funny.

Yet, there's the language of the technical community — so inscrutable, sometimes.

How? It depends

Not long ago, a friend overheard me describing tech people as "reliable providers of straight answers." She harrumphed. "If 'it depends' is what you consider a 'straight answer,' " she grumbled.

True, conditional answers can make you crazy. "It depends" is a perennial classic. Or — on the vendor side — a shrug, followed by, "It worked in the lab."

Translation: "It worked in the lab" is very often a euphemism for "Calm down, I can't focus when you're spazzing," or "I need more information before I can help fix it."

The "it depends" translation is a little more tricky, because most times, it really does
depend. Pat, one-line answers are exceedingly rare.

Plus, "it depends" buys a little neurotransmitter time to run the query through the labyrinth of possible answers.

Maybe it depends on whether you're talking about the Des Moines or the Jefferson City system, which might use completely different equipment — or whether you're talking about a deployment on Motorola Inc. or Scientific-Atlanta Inc. plant, which work differently.

And so on.

That's a long way of saying that engineers aren't trying to drive you batty with "it depends," any more than you're trying to drive them batty with your informational needs.

Problems: Solved

As for innovation and problem solving: Consider the evolution of the contemporary cable system. Just over the last 10 to 15 years, it is cable's engineers who innovated with fiber optics to create more bandwidth and decrease outages.

It was cable's engineers who turned digital video compression into digital cable service; ditto for the two-way plant necessary for broadband Internet service.

And then there's the whole world of Internet-protocol communications, underpinning both broadband Internet and voice services — and who knows what else to come.

Just think of what you had to work with 15 years ago, versus now, and the value of the engineer should start to come into focus.

If not, or if you're dealing with a particularly stereotypical engineer, ask a few questions. "Whaddaya working on these days?" is a good start. Listen to the answer. If something starts dinging on your internal "What the hell is that?" meter, ask for clarification.

Don't allow yourself to glaze over. Go as far as you can go (which usually is directly linked to how much time you have) in understanding that person's work.

Pros and cons

(Forgive this statement from the Department of the Obvious, but it's probably not a good idea to initiate this conversation when your engineers are donning gaffs on a windy winter day, or resolving a network outage. These are break-room discussions.)

Find opportunities to ask about trade-offs. Technologists are always, always, always weighing trade-offs. Storage in the house, or in the network? Gigabit Ethernet, or not? OpenCable Applications Platform in all boxes, or just the high-end boxes?

Knowing the pros and cons on both sides of an engineering discussion is very often synonymous with knowing business strategy.

Engineers are likable people. It's Thanksgiving. Take a moment to thank yours this week.

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