Wednesday, February 27, 2008

How to run a Skunk Works (and other wisdom from sci fi novels)

I just got done reading Bruce Sterling's post-9/11 cyber espionage thriller, The Zenith Angle.

In one key scene, while struggling with a decision to join a cyber espionage skunk works for the US government, the protagonist seeks advice from his grandfather, a former top jet designer who had worked at the infamous Lockheed Skunk Works.

Grandpa says (pgs 65-67, this is good, emphases mine):

... [H]ow to run a Skunk Works. These are the simple things. They're the principles. ... [L]isten ... It's more important to listen to your own people than it is to tell 'em what to do. Decide ... Make your management decisions whenever they're needed. You can figure out later whether they were right or wrong. ... [B]elieve ... Don't ever try to build a project that you can't believe in. Because otherwise, when they cut your funding - and they will cut it - you won't be able to tell 'em with a straight face why they should go straight to hell.

... You've got to be quick, you've got to be quiet, and you've got to be on time. ... these are the rules. ... [Q]uick ... means small. Small teams, the best people, very restricted. Ten or twenty percent of the people that normal outfits would use. No long reports, ever. Never read a long report, and if a guy writes you one, fire him. No long meetings. You want to keep 'em all working close together, no distractions, focused on the project all the time. Everybody stays hands-on with the tools, everybody stays close to the aircraft. Stick with the machine, never back off. That's how you get results quick. ... [Q]uiet ... means no talking. You don't brag about what you're doing. ... You just do it, and you never demand any credit. If nobody ever knows who you are, then nobody knows what you did. ... [O]n time ... You got to do it when there are stars in their eyes about it! Before they get all bureaucratic, and start counting every nickel and dime! Timing is the hardest part ... you gotta know when good enough will do. You gotta know when to quit. ... Because of the Grease Machine ... A Skunk Works is finished, once the Grease Machine takes over. Once the money beats the engineering, that's the end of it, son. Once the money beats the engineering, it's all just chrome and tail fins ...
Instructive, no?

One more thing. Another money quote, attributed in the novel to Robert A. Heinlein:

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, write a sonnet, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, solve equations, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

Funny thing is I had seen the same quote on right before I got to that section in the book.

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