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Tag Archives: engineering

I realise that Una Mulally’s piece in the Irish Times on Saturday (*) last was essentially about the lifestyles of young workers in successful, fashionable companies located in Dublin’s docklands but there is something odd about it which prompted me to return to doubts I have about the basis on which rests the view that Ireland needs to increase the numbers graduating in science and engineering.

While I fear that the level of general knowledge and basic expertise in maths, science and engineering is well short of what a competent citizen requires to participate fully today, I can’t seem to find data which compels support for the view that the third level educational system should increase significantly the number of specialist graduates. The conventional media view, fuelled by those who teach maths, science and engineering – especially I.T – is that students are foolish if they do not clamour for entry to these courses which more or less guarantee employment. This is at odds with anecdotal evidence which suggests at least some level of unemployment. The key to this puzzle may lie in the term “tech sector”.

Here’s what Una Mulally reports, “Apparently some kind of economic crisis is going on, but in Dublin’s tech sector, where Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, eBay, PayPal and Microsoft reign, the only way is up.” She then goes on to talk about skill shortages in Ireland which result in the immigration of bright young people from across Europe. However, here’s the interesting aspect: the only specific skill mentioned is languages and the only formal degree mentioned is a PhD in politics held by a young Italian woman who works in Dublin for PayPal.

With the possible exception of risk management (**) none of the jobs mentioned suggest that a degree in science or technology is a requirement; these people are working in marketing, customer support, business development and recruitment. However, they see themselves as working in the “tech sector”. It seems plausible to suggest that when journalists talk about career opportunities in the “tech sector”, they are not talking exclusively about technical jobs but about jobs traditionally filled by humanities and business graduates who now need a range of skills – well short of graduate level expertise – such as to make them employable not in a technological role but in office-type industries created by or fundamentally changed by I.T. generally and the net in particular. (***)

The almost cavalier use of the term “tech sector” may be contributing to woolly thinking about third level education in two distinct ways. (****) Firstly, there is risk that the requirement for science and engineering graduates becomes overstated. Secondly, there is a risk that the degree to which the office workplace has changed is not recognised and – language skills aside – this may be why the companies mentioned in the article need to search far and wide when recruiting graduates.
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* http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2013/0209/1224329821083.html

** The article doesn’t mention it but it is posibble that maths graduates are involved here.

*** I’ve written before about the changes wrought by technology and the skills which are now essentially a precondition for the employment of humanities graduates: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/increased-emphasis-on-vocational-education-is-a-pretty-bad-idea-now/

**** The two are discussed here:https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/the-smart-economy-and-technologys-democratic-vector/

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The recent death (August 25th) of Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, prompted quite a bit of discussion. Now it’s prompted this short piece which makes the point that the Apollo project has a lesson for Ireland at this time, i.e. just before the Irish state at last gets access to some limited investment capital.

Back in the day there were arguments against Apollo, that the money would be better spent in other ways. However, Apollo was a big, big project which asked new questions, pushed research, came up with answers and materials, and left an engineering legacy scattered across the U.S.

From a political perspective there is a tendency to see Apollo as a cold war project trying to give America a lead in the great technology race of the time or as an attempt to wave an American flag in everyone’s face. All of this can be true but still hide a more useful truth. What is usually forgotten is that Apollo was a state objective, that it was state funded and state managed. If it is viewed as an economic and development success, it is telling us something. It is telling us that despite protestations to the contrary, the US can adopt socialist approaches and that they are effective.

Ireland will have limited capital. What seems to be about to happen is that entrepreneurs, innovators and ideas will compete for a slice of the money. This is a depressingly familiar approach. Most people know that it will result in waste but it’s hard to argue with nonsense when it’s expressed in the only terms that receive attention but terms that have been drained of all useful meaning. Only in some mad, neo-liberal fantasy does a bag of money of itself call forth enterprise, innovation and ideas. That wasn’t the Apollo way and it shouldn’t be the Irish way.

In the real world of projects success is tied to effective management. That means breaking the big job down into its constituent manageable parts, then delegating, contracting and controlling finance until bit by precious bit the parts come together. On anything remotely of a national scale research, innovation and enterprise will start with a major project – a huge idea – and a considerable budget. Realisation of the big idea requires that same disciplined project management but writ large and it relies on defining the building blocks, costing and financial controls. The building blocks are projects in themselves necessary to the big idea. They can be to do with manufacturing or building but in the early stages they will mostly be to do with research and development, trying to solve a problem, to find a way of doing something that hasn’t been done before or in a way that hasn’t been tried before. Each building block for the big idea is put out there for innovative companies to see. Then they compete to convince the management of the big idea that for a price they can solve the problem and deliver. The successful companies then get finance and are expected to deliver; over the course of their work they will be regularly progress chased. This is the Apollo way. It’s the sane, business-like way, the complete antithesis of scattering money among entrepreneurs and hoping for some undefined good outcome.

In a nutshell the idea is to deliver on some enormous but useful mission and in doing so, fund and drive a plethora of development projects that will leave a legacy of expertise that will survive long after the realisation of the big idea.

Here’s the fundamental problem: Ireland doesn’t have a big idea. There’s no Irish equivalent of “going to the moon”, no obvious Apollo. Ireland too seems to be particularly cursed with just one view of capitalism and enterprise: that of feeding SMEs as if they were all the same. However, a talk with any small manufacturer or developer reveals a keen awareness of thriving by serving a larger operator which generates projects requiring answers.

What is needed is a fresh look at state enterprise (That will mean abandoning the tired orthodoxy which limits public discussion today.) and a search for one or a small number of national projects. Defining a national project means looking at what Ireland wants to achieve with limited capital. The conventional approach would be to build or install labour intensive things. However, Irish commentators witter on about research, development, knowledge economy, hubs, expertise etc. Clearly building and installation – while they might deliver useful infrastructure – are not enough. What is needed is a huge project which keeps installation of imported technology to a minimum, which will generate many, many new/original technical problems – the sort of problems that can be addressed locally so as to create and leave a coherent pool of expertise and active companies. Ireland needs to be the site of expertise in an emerging industry or the site of expertise in a new approach to an older industry and one way to do that is the Apollo approach to a national project.

When discussion goes down this road, it can be hi-jacked by yet another piece of tired conventional Irish wisdom: that because we live on a green, windswept island surrounded by choppy seas the simple answer is renewables. There might be a big idea left there on which a new industry could be built but clearly development of wind and wave technology now has limited scope and the bulk of technology will be imported.[i]

Taking the argument beyond this point and giving examples risks the ridicule of conservatives and cynics. It also risks diverting the discussion away from the proposed method and into a limited discussion of the respective merits of big ideas. Suggestions are for a later debate. For now the debate involves two very different approaches: the familiar neo-liberal approach of scattering investment money versus a much greater degree of care with scarce capital.


[i] While nothing like the Severn potential exists in Ireland, there may be possibilities in becoming expert in small scale tidal energy but that’s for discussion if and when the argument presented here can be carried.

http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2012/0628/1224318887148.html

A complex computer system has spectacularly crashed with spectacular consequences. I’m sure that there are IT failures of this type very regularly. This one has received public attention for obvious reasons.

Reaction to it, however, has at times seemed crazy, especially the demands and deadlines for it to be fixed. There seems little appreciation of engineering reality. There is moreover the likelihood that senior managers share this blinkered perspective and have taken decisions based on “best practice” in financial and administrative terms.

It is completely daft to demand that it be fixed, to try to impose deadlines for its being fixed or to enquire into in isolation. This is a breakdown, a failure, no one knows exactly what caused it and no one knows exactly when it will be fixed.

Here’s a reasonable news article setting out the difficulties: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/jun/25/how-natwest-it-meltdown?fb=optOut

In detail it is complex. And, we find ourselves a long way down the road in terms of dependence on these systems. The fundamental issues are however simple. Over the years basic mistakes have been made by senior managers who did not realise what they were doing and were under pressure from competitors. The public was uninvolved because the issue was thought to be too complex for public discussion. That’s how elites take control and that’s often ok when those taking control really do know what they are doing.

Take this from the Guardian article linked above:  “This was not inevitable – you can always avoid problems like this if you test sufficiently,” said David Silverstone, delivery and solutions manager for NMQA, which provides automated testing software to a number of banks, though not RBS/NatWest. “But unless you keep an army of people who know exactly how the system works, there may be problems maintaining it.”

Here’s something worth bearing in mind. Despite stunning improvements in testing, anything beyond the most basic software CANNOT be fully tested before it is put into service because the number of variables is too great.  That’s why David Silverstone said “sufficiently” and not “fully”. The user runs with it and hopes for the best. “Software maintenance” has always been a risible concept. What it means is that the customer runs the tests as day to day usage and pays the developer to patch whatever is discovered. It’s not a scam; there’s no other way.

The problem now is compounded in that complex programmes are being run in parallel with and on top of older applications. The last couple of decades saw a problematic coincidence.  At a time when the overall systems became more complex and more ambitious there was a management fashion to offload not IT operators but real software developers and to buy in “turn-key” applications which may have been modified to give the appearance of bespoke systems. It’s a recipe for profound crashes, and everyone in engineering generally and anyone who has given serious thought to complex systems has been watching it develop over the years.

In most large organisations there are problems such as this waiting to happen. There’s no easy fix at this stage; we are too far gone. Fundamentally wrong management decisions have been made and cannot be undone quickly or perhaps at all.