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The Secret

Hidden Holes in our Engineering Expertise

“…It works the same as assertions in System Verilog,” he said. 

I quickly nodded my head — maybe too quickly.  “Oh, OK, I see,” I replied, almost before he had finished his sentence.

I wanted to give him confidence that the message was received so he would move on in the conversation.  If I looked puzzled, perplexed or confused – if I showed weakness or hesitation, he might linger in the lounge of this idea.  He might hang around here in the vicinity of trouble.  He might catch the scent of fear and decide to dally in the neighborhood of the current line of discussion – the one that was dangerously close – tenuously, terrifyingly, torturously close to the secret.

It was time to move him along.

“So, take me the rest of the way through the verification flow,” I implored.

There was a slight pause before he complied. 

In that moment, my heart raced, my face flushed, my mouth went dry.  Had he felt it?  Was my secret compromised?  Was he merely being merciful in segueing the conversation smoothly to a more comfortable topic?

As technology professionals, every one of us has at least one.  It sits under lock and key in the most fortified sanctuary of our psyche.  It hides within walls of diversion and denial and clever rationalization designed to bend the attention of prying lines of inquest around the danger zone like water around a stone in a stream.  We want laminar flow around our secret weakness – no turbulence to belie its location, no hint of the hole in our training and expertise to make its way to the outside – to be visible to others.

Technology is big – enormously big.  We could spend every waking moment of our lives studying diligently in and around our area of expertise, and we’d still have holes in our knowledge.  Not small, insignificant holes.  No, these are huge glaring gaps.  We protect those gaps with a passion.  We guard them as if they held the very treasure of our professional credibility.  We focus on the locus of those vulnerabilities and reinforce the defenses around them with all of our emotional resources.  If someone discovers our secret, we feel, we will be exposed, shattered, ruined.

It might turn out that it’s more work to worry about the fact that you don’t know anything about System Verilog than it is to actually learn System Verilog.  In fact, if we engineers always acted out of efficiency rather than ego protection, we might never have these problems at all.  Our knowledge would expand like a fractal, starting with the core concepts and working its way in an orderly fashion out to the finest details.  We would never skip over an important concept or skill on our way to the practical details of a less significant one.  We would never pass that point of no return – the point where we feel we should know something already, and so are too embarrassed to go back and learn it. 

But, this is the birth of the hole – the start of the secret – the speck of sand that makes its way into the oyster of our professional ego.  We guard it like a terrible treasure and nurture it as it grows.  We become skilled at subterfuge, adept at avoidance, masters of misdirection. 

Marketing professionals get quite adept at the cover-up.  They have to.  Somebody walks in and hands them a big pile of new technology and says, “Here, make a demo…  and a datasheet…  and a press release…  and an advertising campaign.”  Marketers have to quickly skim enough of the key concepts to put together a convincing story without taking an extra year of schooling for each new product. 

Marketers have to be able to talk to engineering customers as if they were peers.  “When we’re trying to get a clean eye diagram, we can just adjust our transmit pre-emphasis here…”  This ruse, however, is shared by both players in the act.  The engineer knows this marketer has never really designed a high-speed serial connection.  The marketer knows that the engineer knows…  They’re both playing roles.  With a nod and a wink they embrace the secret and play the game.

Engineers are quick to point out that the marketers are big fakers.  They stand back behind the demo station, out of earshot, and quietly whisper about the slight inconsistencies in the marketers’ pitch.  “He just said the virtualization layer handles message passing, but there is really no message passing protocol…”  You’ll see them clustered a few steps away from the struggling marketer, muttering quietly amongst themselves, smiling occasionally, ostensibly waiting to provide “backup” if a difficult question arises.

We engineers like to shine light on the knowledge holes of the marketers because it attracts attention away from our own deficiencies — the ones we’re working so desperately to hide.  After all, faking it is part of the marketers’ job descriptions.  As engineers, we’re supposed to know the truth.  We have to actually build this stuff and make it work.  Our knowledge holes are dangerous.

I once worked with an engineer who was more aggressive in his tactics – some might even say narcissistic.  He could move seamlessly from reciting obscure facts about topics where he was an undisputed expert to completely fabricating information on subjects he knew absolutely nothing about.  He was so confident that his audience would not uncover his deception, so sure that they would be dazzled by the details of his factual facts that he knew without hesitation that they would easily fall prey to his fictional fabrications. 

Only after listening to him for years as he waxed fantastic on a wide array of subjects did I begin to notice the pattern.  A very few times, his creative elaboration endeavors took him into places where I knew for certain he was wrong.  With emphatic enunciation and elaborate embellishment, he painted detailed verbal images that were beautiful, stunning, and absolutely incorrect.  I was flabbergasted.  After several of these incidents, I began to pick up the change of tone – the slight increase of blustery confidence – the more gratuitous use of superlatives – the more intense eye contact as he monitored his audience to be sure they weren’t hip to the man behind the curtain.

Perhaps his was the most elaborate camouflage of all.  Maybe the best defense really is a good offense.  If you can baffle your audience into oblivious awe, perhaps you can prevent them from even considering the possibility that you too – like them – like all of us — have a distinctly human hole in your expertise – a fabulous frailty that simultaneously frightens and defines us — our big Secret.

We are not the movie engineers that hack through the firewall in five seconds over a dial-up connection, defeating 128-bit AES by reversing the letters in Vincent Rijmen’s middle name.  No, we are the real engineers that design real products.  We are the ones that make mistakes and create bugs, then stay up all night finding them and fixing them.  We are the ones that combine creative genius with methodical problem-solving skills to blunder our way into something that somehow actually, eventually works.  We are the ones that smile with knowing pride when we see someone on the street casually flip open a mobile device that we helped create or enable, all the while marveling at the fact that we did so despite the enormous handicap of our secret shortcomings.

And when I say we, of course, I mean you.  Because I’m a poser too – a writer, an editor, one who needs only to gather enough information to whip out a flowery description of the technology, sprinkled with a few well-placed buzzwords and enough verifiable facts to convince you that my conclusions are solid.  Sure, I’ve been an actual engineer and designed real stuff – but seldom anything you’ll see me write about.  Nonetheless, I’m an expert — on everything.  Just ask me.


Reprinted from Embedded Technology Journal, November 2006

2 thoughts on “The Secret”

  1. I still remember how I liked this article when I first read it as a junior engineer. I translated the two chapters starting from “Technology is BIG” into Chinese on my blog to share it with more audience. I decided then not to develop those holes by studying and practicing every aspect of every technology I worked on.
    At that time, the technology world was flat to me, with far away mountains and only shallow holes (because I had not built the walls around them). However, 6 years has passed, I see myself on a higher ground, where I am comfortable. And I can see mountains and those “huge glaring gaps” around my plateau.
    I learned that there are vertical levels and horizontal domains for technology knowledge. I tried to fill in the holes in my level and domain. I know that the only way to make myself feel easier is to fill in the holes that I have covered up. But sometimes I still need to cover them up first (to myself and others), to gain me some time to move to higher grounds.

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