Quote of the Day
Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.
— Samuel Johnson
The older I get, the more I see the relevance of the classics to modern life. As a boy, I read a children's version of Aesop's fables, which I loved and are still relevant to daily life. Later in school, I read about Greek mythology from a book called Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes by Edith Hamilton. I still have a personal copy of this book that I refer to occasionally. It may seem odd, but the more time I spend in engineering management, the more relevant these myths seem to become. The last two weeks I have mentioned two Greek myths several times – the tales of Cassandra and Sisyphus. They seem particularly appropriate to modern management.
Cassandra (Figure 1) was a princess who was given the power of prophesy by Apollo, but when she spurned his advances, he inflicted a curse upon her where no one would believe her. I frequently have engineers tell me that they had warned someone about some hazard, but their warning went unheeded and the worst occurred. I often refer to these engineers as "Cassandras." All I can tell these frustrated souls is that their obligation is to warn their coworker, but that ultimately their coworker owns their decisions. The most irritating response I have received after warning someone about a risk that was realized is that I should have been more vehement in stopping them. I can only do so much …
The other Greek myth that comes up often is that of Sisyphus (Figure 2), who was a very clever king who was cursed by Zeus for his cleverness by making him endlessly roll a huge boulder up a steep hill. Just as the boulder was to reach the top of the hill, it would somehow find a way to roll all the way down to the bottom of the hill, and Sisyphus would be forced to repeat his labor. Sisyphus has come to be a metaphor for any pointless activity that goes on forever. Unfortunately, many engineering projects have a phase where they seem interminable.
I can illustrate this point by recalling a large program at HP that had the code name "Touchstone," a metaphor for a product that will set a new standard for the industry. After it had gone on for a couple of years, engineers started to call it "Millstone," a reference to a bible verse about a man thrown in the water with a millstone around his neck (Luke 17-2). Another year later, they were calling the program "Tombstone," recalling images of death. This is just how some programs go.