“A man of knowledge lives by acting,
not by thinking about acting.”
By now you know that I think a lot about attitude, and if there are any major secrets to my success, one of them is that at some point I learned that I was smart enough, and aggressive enough, to know when I was right about something. Once I gained confidence in myself, if I was clearly right about something and someone didn’t agree with me, I didn’t hesitate to say, or at least think, “Excuse me, you’re in my way.”
Just a few months out of college, I was assigned to a missile project that had to do with something known as “port covers.” In short, port covers are like little doors on the sides of air-breathing rockets. If you’ve seen a little model rocket, or perhaps a firework that shoots up into the sky, you know that a rocket is basically a tube, like the cardboard tube that’s inside a roll of toilet paper. A normal solid rocket motor like this is filled with solid rocket fuel, which is something like a solid version of gasoline.
With more advanced “air breathing” rocket motors, there are little doors on the sides of these tubes, and they open up after the solid fuel is burned off. On my project, these doors, which are hinged on one end just like a regular door, were called “port covers.” When these doors swing open, air from the outside is forced into the now-empty tube, which becomes a combustion chamber. Liquid fuel is injected into the tube, and the mixture of air and fuel is ignited, much like the combustion process that happens in your car engine.
A cheap cardboard model
I didn’t really know too much about that when the project started, so I was nervous, and worked hard to try to understand what was going on. To help understand this, I had a coworker print off a CAD/CAM diagram that showed what everything looked like. One of the drawings he gave me showed what the system looked like if I could poke my head inside the end of the tube, and look straight down the middle. Looking at the missile from this view, the outside of the tube looked like a simple circle. The diagrams he gave me were scaled down, so the tube happened to have a six inch diameter. In my struggle to understand everything, I got out a pair of scissors and cut this diagram up into different pieces. I pulled the cardboard back off the notebook on my desk, and created little cardboard port covers, pinning them on top of my six inch circle.
To my surprise, the port covers were much thicker than I expected. I said port covers are like doors, but they’re really like curved doors, because on the outside they have to match the curved surface of the rocket. However, the inside of the port covers had to be reinforced to withstand the pressure, and as a result they were something like two inches thick, maybe a little thicker than that. In fact, the backs looked so deep, I went back to the CAD/CAM person to make sure this wasn’t a mistake, but he said they were correct.
At this point, with my cardboard model in hand, it was obvious to me that there was a problem, but since the designer said in such a matter of fact way that everything was correct, I kept my mouth shut and walked away. I didn’t want to look like the foolish young engineer I was.
But as I kept playing with my cardboard model, I could see that the port covers would interfere with each other. Because they were so deep, when one cover opened, it was almost impossible for the second cover to open. If the second cover failed to open, the system wouldn’t get enough air, and the combustion chamber would have way too much fuel for the limited amount of air it was getting. The missile might explode, or otherwise fail to work.
Still uncertain of what I was doing, I showed my model to the person I shared an office with. He said he knew nothing about it, but suggested I talked to a man named Ken, who was on the project, and was known for being both helpful and blunt.
By this time my first “big design meeting” was about to start, and as timing would have it, Ken had gone to the meeting early. Intent to talk to him before the meeting started, I hurried to the conference room, found him there, and began to show him what I was seeing.
As I started to show him what I was seeing, he began to laugh – at me, I thought! I had just ruined my career!
As I showed my model to Ken, several other engineers came into the meeting, saw my cardboard contraption, asked what it was, and as Ken told me to explain it, they also laughed. Several of them asked how much it cost, and with my career in ruins, I told them it was about $1.99 in materials, including the pins I borrowed from our secretary (now trying to poke fun at myself as well).
And then a funny thing happened. All the time I thought they were laughing at me, they were actually laughing at the problem: I was right!
Somehow a large contingent of high-paid engineers had missed the simple fact that the design couldn’t possibly work. They were so busy working on other things, they hadn’t noticed this problem. (I learned that the technical term for my discovery was “impingement.”) The reason they asked about the cost was because they had already spent several hundred thousand dollars on the design, and I spent $1.99 to demonstrate that it wouldn’t work.
A PhD and his office politics
From a “political” standpoint I made one huge mistake here. By the sheer fact that I had just joined this company, straight out of college, and was just assigned to this project, this was my first big meeting. Because the meeting came on so fast, and I was struggling to get a grasp of the design, my cardboard model was created just before the meeting, and I had no time to run my findings past anyone before the meeting. I just wanted to show the model to Ken quietly, but because I was right and he was a no-BS guy, he (and I) shared the finding with everyone else.
The part where my finding becomes a problem is that I destroyed the meeting of a young PhD who was seen as someone climbing the corporate ladder. I was later told he always came to his own meetings late, and as a result of this behavior, everyone on the project knew about this problem before he did. In fact, other engineers were called to this meeting when Ken and I demonstrated my model, so even those people knew about the problem before this PhD did. While all these engineers put away their own pre-planned notes to focus on the logical discussion of, “Where do we go from here?”, this PhD wasn’t even at his own meeting yet.
When he finally came in, Ken demonstrated my device, and while all the engineers had another good laugh, the PhD’s face turned red and he glared at me. I had made him look bad, very bad.
I was oblivious to corporate politics at that time, but my supervisor, who wasn’t at that meeting, later told me that this PhD was a “political animal,” and that although I was right, and had probably saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars, I had committed a breach of etiquette. Because the PhD was intent on climbing the corporate ladder, I had probably just made an enemy of him for a long time to come.
This experience – and several experiences after this – taught me that there are times in life when you just have to say, “Excuse me, you’re in my way.” Or, as one of my sisters likes to say, “Bite me.”
What I mean by this is that you have to be confident enough in your abilities, so that when you know you’re right and someone else is wrong, you can stand your ground, no matter who that other person is. I didn’t do it then, but if the same situation came up now, I’d talk to the PhD after the meeting, explain to him what happened, and help him see that I/we had just saved the project hundreds of thousands of dollars. (It takes a lot of money to build a rocket motor and test it. You’re much better to find problems like this in the design phase.)
Beyond that, I’d probably tell him that in the future I’ll come to him with problems like this, and also remind him that he’s probably much better off that I’m on his team.
Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way back then, and this PhD rarely spoke to me after this meeting. After this experience I learned to say, or at least think, “We’re supposed to be on a team together, and if you’re that worried about how you look instead of building a successful product and making our company successful, excuse me, you’re in my way.”
If you’re concerned about office politics you should be careful about how you handle these situations, but this is where I can appreciate a leader like Steve Jobs, who was open to confrontation.
The best idea wins
Another way to look at this situation is what the famous physicist Richard Feynman once wrote:
“The best idea wins.”
I remember reading this quote in one of his books where he was talking about building the original atomic bomb, and how Neils Bohr and his son would seek out the very young Feynman at that time. Bohr felt that many of the other top scientists were “Yes men” who would only agree with Bohr, while Feynman was young and would just tell Bohr what he thought.
What Feynman meant by this “The best idea wins.” phrase is that you have to be able to have good, hard conversations with people about important topics, and at the end of the day you have to put your ego aside, and the team should go forward with the best idea, no matter where it came from.
Hold your ground
Another example of this attitude is when I bought a car a few years ago. I’ve always owned red cars, and in this case I wanted a red Toyota RAV4. So I went to a Toyota dealer, met a salesperson, and said, “I want to trade in my current car, and I want $6,500 for it, and I want to buy a red RAV4 with these specs, and I’m willing to pay $19,000 for it.”
“We don’t have a red RAV4 in stock, but I have a silver one or black one I can show you, and ...” he started to say.
“No thank you, I want a red RAV4,” I said.
“But we don’t have any of those in stock, it will cost more ...”
“No it won’t,” I said, apparently using a Jedi mind trick, “I’m willing to pay $19,000 for these specs for a red RAV4.”
The whole sale took less than two hours. I was polite but persistent throughout the discussion, and got what I wanted. My red RAV4 was delivered to the dealership two days later.
As we signed the paperwork, the salesperson told me he was stunned at my persistence, and wouldn’t normally order a different car for someone just because they wanted a red one, he’d find a way to sell them one off the lot. I told him it never occurred to me that he wouldn’t do that; I came to buy a red car, and I’d have it no other way.
When people are too nice
One other place where I’ve found that having the same attitude of persistence, determination, and doing the right thing is when the people you’re working with are moving too slow.
I had this happen one time when I was working on a project with a large religious organization. It turns out that the people there were so nice that none of them wanted to contradict each other, or state anything with any certainty. They were too nice, and didn’t want to hurt each other’s feelings, and as a result, nothing ever got done.
It would have been nice to know about this problem going into our project – we would have raised our estimate for the project! But as my team started to see this behavior, we realized that if it didn’t change, we would soon be over budget. So we essentially took the same tact that I’ve mentioned in this chapter and others. We told our project sponsor (the person who hired us) about this problem, and working with him, we quit asking what everyone thought, made decisions for them, and gave them our best advice, as though they were our brothers, sisters, or best friends.
In this example, I had a more pleasant experience of the thought, “Excuse me, you’re in my way.” I wasn’t upset with anyone on the project, they were nice and thoughtful people, but I needed to get the project completed on time and within budget, and this was the only way we could do it.
One important note here: This technique only worked because our project sponsor knew about the problem, and also thought it was important for us to stay on time and within budget. I’ve worked on other projects where I didn’t have this same support from the project sponsor, and that’s a much more difficult situation.
Again, my reasons for these stories are simple; I’m trying to share stories about my attitude. In this case of the red RAV4, if you know what you want, go out and get it, and don’t let anyone change your mind.
In the story of working with the polite religious organization or the earlier port cover story, if someone is in your way, politely say or think, “Excuse me, I’m going somewhere, and you’re in my way.” (Or, as my sister likes to say, “Bite me.”)
In all of these stories, I tried to act like a guided missile, or a football player trying as hard as possible to get the ball in the end zone. I was determined to get that goal, and go through any obstacles that were in my way. Looking at these situations now, I can see that my important attributes were being persistent and determined, while also trying to do the right thing.