(My alternate title was: Do you Know Where Your Next Meal is Coming From?)
I spent the majority of last week in sunny Arizona at COFES (the Congress on the Future of Engineering Software). For those who have never heard of COFES, much less attended, it is a fairly unusual format. Yes, there are the usual keynotes, presentations and such. However, the majority of the time is spent in roundtable discussions about key technologies, trends and issues facing those who make and use engineering software.
Lots of Questions
Despite having been invited for the last three years, this was the first year I was able to attend. What struck me first was the number of extremely smart people and very cool ideas they can cram into 3 days. What struck me second about many of the sessions was how many questions, and how few concrete answers, were tabled by the groups. This is the point of a roundtable, and these are very complex topics, so perhaps this is no surprise. As an example moving CAD and PLM software to the cloud was a topic that surfaced in many different ways. We discussed security in the cloud, how users adapt to new licensing models in the cloud, how software vendors should sell and compensate sales people in the cloud, how the cloud affects customization or configuration of software platforms etc… etc… Almost without exception those in the discussions didn’t yet have clear answers to some of these questions. Perhaps that is not surprising as it is a big topic and “the cloud” is a loosely defined subject anyway. Except… there are CAD and PLM solutions in the cloud already.
The Questions I was Left With
In the end there is no question that COFES is worth attending and a must for those trying to push manage the evolution (or revolution) of engineering software. In particular, COFES is better at the thing that I think events of this type are really valuable for: it made me think. I took a number of ideas away from COFES, and am more dazzled than ever by the bright shiny future of computing, materials, and design technology. The question I was left with however has little to do with the topics that were discussed and more to do with how I connected one of them to the current thinking in the shipbuilding industry.
On Day 1, the keynote speaker was an author and futurist (actually one that I am a fan of) by the name of David Brin. He was talking about the correlation between our level of fear and our horizon of worry. When we don’t know where our next meal is coming from, we only worry about those things close to home. As we begin to feel more secure we have the emotional energy to begin to worry about broader things, like our community. Only once that fear is greatly reduced do we ever begin to think about the big multi-generation issues, like the health of our planet, the future of our species and so on.
A Question for the Industry
So what does that have to do with shipbuilding? Well, in my opinion the way most of the shipbuilding industry operates ensures that the level of fear in a shipyard is always fairly high. Milestone payments upon cutting of steel and block by block, major payment milestones on vessel delivery, huge penalties for late delivery and much more all add up to a very short term horizon of worry for our industry. We worry about only what is required to get to that next milestone as quickly as possible.
For what it’s worth, I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be that way, or that it could be any other way. It’s possible that shipbuilding is what it is. If so, I am saying that we should be aware of it, and push our horizon of worry out as far as we can to overcome our natural inclinations. A shipyard that doesn’t have work to do closes its doors. If it has work to do it doesn’t take the time to look beyond the next ‘meal’. Do you see the problem?
Over on Waveform, our CTO talked about this very phenomenon as a major reason organizations don’t take training very often. That’s just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended) as this impacts many other areas including process improvement and software and infrastructure upgrades.
I’ll close this with a challenge to everyone. Think about what you fear and what you worry about. If you’re not worried about anything further than 6 months from now, make an effort to push that out to at least a year or two. What are you doing today that will improve delivery of the next project? If the answer is “nothing”, consider whether that is the right answer.