What I learned about engineering from the Panama Canal

Panamacanal
Photo by Scott Ableman

I've just finished The Path Between the Seas, the story of the building of the Panama Canal by David McCullough. I was left in awe of the builder's achievements, and the price they paid in lives. It really was a heroic age of engineering and almost every page had something that made me think about my own work. Here's some of my favorites.

"Now, boys, we have got her done, let's start her up and see why she doesn't work"

Release early, release often for the 1900's. Sometimes the only way to find out is to try it and see, and this was a big difference between the French and US attempts at building the canal. The Americans were brought up in a culture that valued improvisation and experimentation at all levels, the French found the flexibility needed to cope with brand-new challenges a lot harder to come by.

"Engineers are sometimes the least practical of men, they may be attracted by difficulties"

Before malaria and yellow-fever were brought under control the death-rate amongst the canal builders was horrendous. Despite that, the challenge was so compelling that the American engineers tasked with evaluating the project's potential were irresistibly drawn to it. I recognize this in my own work- if there's a powerful but hard-to-master solution to a issue (compiling Cassandra anyone?), I'll find myself inventing reasons to use it rather than a more mundane alternative, just because of how interesting the problems would be.

"The diagrams were as simple as illustrations in a childs primer, conveying their message at a glance and easy to remember. They were an inspiration, Hanna saw instantly. The inevitable problem with technical reports, with any arguments based on technical data, was that few would read them"

Communication is the key. Most people have far less time and patience than you imagine, so if you're going to persuade them you need to expend a tremendous amount of time and energy simplifying your story. The managers of the canal project spent years ignoring the overwhelming evidence and scientific consensus that mosquitoes spread malaria and yellow fever, a blindness that cost thousands of lives. Never underestimate how hard someone's established opinions will be to budge.

"You won't get fired if you do something, you will if you don't do anything. Do something if it is wrong, for you can correct that, but there is no way to correct nothing"

I don't know that my bias towards action always leads me to the wisest path (I didn't expect what would happen when I poked Facebook with a stick), but I get incredibly frustrated when I can't make progress. I'd rather screw up, take my knocks and learn a lesson than be stuck in indecision. I love these instructions to a subordinate, it perfectly captures the attitude I look for in the people I work with.

"Suppose after all that should prove to be right, and it all ends in your butterflies and morlocks. That doesn't matter now. The effort's real. It's worth going on with. It's worth it-even then"Teddy Roosevelt in a meeting with HG Wells

I consider myself a cheerful pessimist. I've been through enough that I know how steep the odds of success are, but I've made a choice that even a hopeless fight in a good cause is worthwhile.

"Bishop began publishing weekly excavation statistics for individual steam shovels and dredges, and at once a fierce rivalry resulted, the gain in output becoming apparent almost immediately. 'It wasn't so hard before they began printing the Canal Record' a steam-shovel man explained to a writer for the Saturday Evening Post. "We were going along, doing what we thought was a fair day's work … [but then] away we went like a pack of idiots trying to get records for ourselves"

Statistics are incredibly powerful motivators, we're driven to measure ourselves against others so just exposing a new metric can radically change people's behavior. The tricky thing with our engineering world is that output is much harder to quantify. If you look at lines-of-code per day you'll be rewarding hacky programmers who cut and paste, not the elegant coders able to reduce complexity.

"Even New Englanders grow almost human among their broad-minded fellow-countrymen. Any northerner can say 'nigger' as glibly as a Carolinian, and growl if one of them steps on his shadow"

The white workface was tiny compared to the number of black laborers. They were given an astonishing range of perks from free housing to social clubs while the blacks were left to clear a home in the jungle.

It's worth looking around every now and again and to really see the people who are dealing with the less glamorous side of our work, especially now we're outsourcing so much overseas. Are there potential stars we're overlooking because they're not the people we expect to excel? Are we sharing enough of our success with the people working hard for our company, even when their skills aren't as prestigious?

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