Thursday, August 18, 2005

Slaves to PowerPoint?

Colby Cosh has been sifting through the debriefing from the space shuttle's Return To Flight, and highlights a serious problem (Cosh's emphasis):
...many of the engineering packages brought before formal control boards were documented only in PowerPoint presentations. In some instances, requirements are defined in presentations, approved with a cover letter, and never transferred to formal documentation. Similarly, in many instances when data was requested by the Task Group, a PowerPoint presentation would be delivered without supporting engineering documentation. It appears that many young engineers do not understand the need for, or know how to prepare, formal engineering documents such as reports, white papers, or analyses.

(Final Report of the Return to Flight Task Force, p.190 (.pdf))

I have no reason to disbelieve this, nor do I wish to defend the work of engineering schools. However, Cosh characterizes the problem incorrectly here:
...the minority report comes awfully close, in my eyes, to concluding that the problem is inherently incorrigible within the limits of professional training for American engineers.

It's certainly possible that in the nine years since I graduated, engineering schools have replaced the technical writing course with a PowerPoint course, although this is clearly not incorrigible, inherently or otherwise. Also, I'm only 32, but I and most of my peers graduated without using any Windows-based software at all, so most working engineers were never taught that PowerPoint was a critical, let alone exclusive, tool for technical communication.

More to the point, though, the excessive and inappropriate use of PowerPoint is an issue of NASA organizational behaviour, not of the training of engineers. To believe otherwise, you have to believe that NASA has somehow overhauled their previously rigorous internal technical controls to suit the reduced competency of their newly-graduated engineers.

Much more plausible, I think, is that PP presentations are what is demanded by NASA senior management, presumably to ease communications with their non-scientific (i.e. political) masters.

Engineers, and everyone else save for maybe doctors, graduate from school having accumulated certain knowledge and skills. They then get a job, and 80% of this knowledge and these skills are basically useless in perpetuity. Maybe 5% is immediately and directly applicable to their job description, and 15% forms a rudimentary base for further learning and skills refinement. To put it another way, new graduates starting their first job don't know anything, regardless of whether they were a great student, or well-taught, or whatever.

Perhaps, as Cosh suggests, there is simply not enough engineers with both strong technical chops and the ability to communicate it soundly on paper. If so, the only sane way to deal with this is to scrap the space program entirely: if you can't learn to be a competent aerospace engineer working for NASA, there is no school in the world that can help you.


At 5:02 p.m., Anonymous Ginna said...

I agree that the main problem is with NASA management. I didn't work in aerospace, but in rail transit. Transit operators demand documents. System Functional Descriptions, Fault Tree Analyses, Hazard Analyses, Failure Modes Effects and Criticality Analyses... Seriously, to build one tiny component in a complex train demanded that entire forests give their lives. (If it was safety-critical, the burden increased exponentially.) And the kicker was that the client had people qualified who pored over each and every page.

But we wouldn't have done all that if the client hadn't demanded it in their spec. (Which was usually ~1000 pages!) Presumably, NASA management kept saying things like "just give us the summary", and eventually, that's all there was.

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