Engineering school (summary of Rick Catell talk)
part of Writings
Feb 11 2002


This is a summary of Rick Catell’s talk.
Rick is a Distinguished Engineer at Sun with years of experience. In this talk he shares his experience. My comments are in italic.

What does Rick wish he learned in Engineering School

Focus. Don’t try to do everything yourself. Example: Xerox PARC tried to build everything from ground up: hardware, OS, software. Same with SGI.
1% of leaders are responsible for most success. Good leaders need to have:
A simple math tells us that a number of people that have all those skills developed above average is very small. Lesson: pick your leaders wisely.
Suboptimal decision is better than no decision.
Trust in an organization is inversely proportional to distance. That e.g. explains why everyone went to develop their own versions of Unix (Irix, AIX, Solaris, HP-UX etc.) even though it was in their best interest to cooperate - the couldn’t get to trust each other that co-operatively developed version would fill their needs.
Engineers follow the leader. An example of a project where everyone was moved except the leader - soon all the engineers resigned from the project.
Organizations are self-preserving. The book “Survival is not enough” talks more about this. Successfull organizations resist change because they have a winning strategy. The danger is that they are likely to miss the next winning strategy.
You needs more pigs than chickens (committed people vs. just participants). The analogy comes from ham & eggs breakfast: pig is committed, chicken just participates.
Most research and startups won’t succeed.
Innovation will happen elsewhere - no matter how big you are, you can’t hire all the smart people in the industry.
You have to sell your ideas.
Don’t base a risky project on another risky one.
Know your customer, eat your own dogfood.
Being first is more important than being best (from the book “The 22 immutable laws of marketing”.) Some people think different. Allan Cooper and Jakob Nielsen say that it’s more important to have a good product later than bad product right now and debunk the “first mover” advantage. Maybe it’s about finding the proper balance?
Catch the wave of new markets and technology. If you catch the wave you might end up very well off even if you make tons of mistake (Internet Bubble, anyone?). But a new wave doesn’t happen often.
Physics overcome fine print. Natural tendencies will take over the relationship regardless of the arrangements you might make.
Beware success-blindness - don’t just stay fat & happy. Mainframe makers missed the micro-compter revolution.
Focus on the achievable, not impossible or inevitable.
Carrier advice: prioritize tasks every day, week year. Also:
Figure out what you want and how to get there. Make plans but allow them to change.
Don’t get too good at things you don’t like to do. From the book “Your money or your life”: most people said that they wouldn’t be doing what they do if they didn’t have to worry about money.
Figure out ways to be more productive. If you do something often - take time to figure out ways to do it faster e.g. learn touch-typing if you have to type a lot.
Learn writing, speaking, negotiation and business skills.
Do the right thing, not the corporate thing.
Books he recommends:

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