Apollo at 50

It’s been 50 years since Apollo 11 launched, and its impact on my life has been profound. The Apollo mission was the most audacious engineering project since the Tower of Babel, and it inspired me in many ways.

The Apollo program is a powerful lesson about bringing together political will, the corresponding budget, and a lot of math and engineering. While the engineering was state-of-the-art for 1969 it is still so amazing that I meet people who think the challenge was so formidable that it was impossible, and was actually just a film set directed by Stanley Kubrick.

The history of designing the Apollo spacecraft is amazing in itself, and there is a beauty in the flow of necessity. The key decision was made to send 3 astronauts, to have 1 in orbit around the moon while the other two descended in the Lunar Module to land on the moon, then to launch and rejoin the orbiting command module. Once you know the mass of the astronauts, their living supplies, the weight of the spacecraft and fuel, the size of the Saturn V was “just math,” calculations that lead to the required velocity and power needed, creating the largest machine every built.

As a software engineer I have a great appreciation for the complexity of building a real-time computer in the 1960s when computers were the size of rooms, and the invention of the transistor was less then twenty years old.

Margaret Hamilton is one of my new-found computer engineering idols, who not only coined the phrase “software engineering” but also showed us by example the difference between computing science and software engineering. Science uses hypothesis and experiment and failure teaches as much or more than success. Engineering is about building things that don’t kill people even when something goes wrong.

Even though the Apollo Guidance Computer was state-of-the-art at the time, it had quite limited capability, something more like a scientific calculator that took input from sensors and a crude user interface called the DSKY. Margaret realized that it was possible for the computer to become overloaded if the sensors send data more often than they should have (an event that actually happened by mistake) and that by creating a computer task whose job it was to self-monitor, could decide to drop low-priority tasks in favour of the critical ones, which included monitoring the landing radar and calculating distance and velocities.

I may have only been 11 years old when the Eagle landed and became Tranquility base, but seeing that people could use science and technology to make a dream come true has been an inspiration for me ever since.

We might feel the same when people set foot on Mars.

metabadge reunion

We convened a metabadge reunion event, shared a toast to our recollections of one of the best teams we each had ever worked with – high expectations, an adaptive process (including estimating, and unit tests!) and an amazing outcome of a voice-based pda at least a decade ahead of its time.

metabadge team at Seasons in the Park. April 23, 2017

The Demo Doctor

Interaction design is about creating experience for users of technology that enhance their lives. The best interaction design, like other design objectives, tend to disappear and get out of the way of the user trying to accomplish their goal. At its very best, it anticipates use cases the user hasn’t discovered or articulated yet, but when they try it, they feel supported and encouraged.

That’s what makes people love the products they use everyday. They’re designed for humans, by other humans, and the care comes through.

For over 20 years, working in areas as diverse as telephone switching systems, voicemail, satellite imaging, 3d computer graphics, and digital prepress, I’ve combined designing much-loved user experiences with a kind of wholistic approach to Agile product management. The result – exceptionally profitable products that users love to use (and their managers happy to pay a premium for!)

As the Demo Doctor I have successfully demo’d and sold millions of dollars of products, by working the features and story down to its wabi-sabi roots. The elevator pitch is so 90’s – now you have to demo your product in that narrow time window in a way that shows both your accomplishments so far, and the promise of upcoming capabilities. I can help you do that.