In Pursuit of Production Minimalism
While working at Lockheed during the cold war, Kelly Johnson was reported to have coined KISS (“keep it simple, stupid”); a principle that suggests glibly that systems should be designed to be as simple as possible.
While complexity is never a conscious design goal of any project, it arises inherently as new features are pursued or new components are introduced. KISS encourages designers to actively counteract this force by making simplicity an objective in itself, and thus produce products that are more maintainable, more reliable, and more flexible. In the case of jet fighters, that might mean a plane that can be repaired in the field with few tools and under the stressful conditions of combat.
During his tenure, Lockheed’s Skunk Works would produce planes like the U-2 and SR-71; so notable for their engineering excellence that they’ve left a legacy that we reflect on even today.
The famous SR-71, one of the flag ships of Lockheed's Skunk Works. Very fast even if not particularly simple.
Minimalism in technology
Many of us pursue work in the engineering field because we’re intellectually curious. Technology is cool, and new technology is even better. We want to be using what everyone’s talking about.
Our news sources, meetups, conferences, and even conversations bias towards shiny new tech that’s either under active development or being energetically promoted. Older components that sit quietly and do their job well disappear into the background.
Over time, technologies are added, but are rarely removed. Left unchecked, production stacks that have been around long enough become sprawling patchworks combining everything under the sun.
This effect is dangerous:
- More parts means more cognitive complexity. If a system becomes too difficult to understand then the risk of bugs or operational mishaps increases as developers make changes without understanding all the intertwined concerns.
- Nothing operates flawlessly once it hits production. Every component in the stack is a candidate for failure, and with sufficient scale, something will be failing all the time.
Owning pretty much every aviation speed record e.g straight line: 2193.167 mph, the SR-71 is an amazing machine. Considering it was designed and first flown in the early 1960's is almost incredible
The pilots were pretty confident and apparently smart asses as well. Here's the headline story, first seen here in 2016:
SR-71 Blackbird Trolls Arrogant Navy Fighter Pilot
This may be the single greatest aviation story ever told, it’s about the iconic SR-71 Blackbird.
The story, from the now out-of-print book Sled Driver by former SR-71 jockey Brian Shul (available used on Amazon for just $700).
Here’s the ultimate aviation troll:
There were a lot of things we couldn’t do in an SR-71, but we were the fastest guys on the block and loved reminding our fellow aviators of this fact. People often asked us if, because of this fact, it was fun to fly the jet. Fun would not be the first word I would use to describe flying this plane. Intense, maybe. Even cerebral. But there was one day in our Sled experience when we would have to say that it was pure fun to be the fastest guys out there, at least for a moment....
...Just to get a sense of what Walt had to contend with, I pulled the radio toggle switches and monitored the frequencies along with him. The predominant radio chatter was from Los Angeles Center, far below us, controlling daily traffic in their sector. While they had us on their scope (albeit briefly), we were in uncontrolled airspace and normally would not talk to them unless we needed to descend into their airspace.
We listened as the shaky voice of a lone Cessna pilot asked Center for a readout of his ground speed. Center replied: “November Charlie 175, I’m showing you at ninety knots on the ground.”
Now the thing to understand about Center controllers, was that whether they were talking to a rookie pilot in a Cessna, or to Air Force One, they always spoke in the exact same, calm, deep, professional, tone that made one feel important. I referred to it as the ” Houston Center voice.” I have always felt that after years of seeing documentaries on this country’s space program and listening to the calm and distinct voice of the Houston controllers, that all other controllers since then wanted to sound like that, and that they basically did. And it didn’t matter what sector of the country we would be flying in, it always seemed like the same guy was talking. Over the years that tone of voice had become somewhat of a comforting sound to pilots everywhere. Conversely, over the years, pilots always wanted to ensure that, when transmitting, they sounded like Chuck Yeager, or at least like John Wayne. Better to die than sound bad on the radios.
Just moments after the Cessna’s inquiry, a Twin Beech piped up on frequency, in a rather superior tone, asking for his ground speed. “I have you at one hundred and twenty-five knots of ground speed.” Boy, I thought, the Beechcraft really must think he is dazzling his Cessna brethren. Then out of the blue, a navy F-18 pilot out of NAS Lemoore came up on frequency. You knew right away it was a Navy jock because he sounded very cool on the radios. “Center, Dusty 52 ground speed check”. Before Center could reply, I’m thinking to myself, hey, Dusty 52 has a ground speed indicator in that million-dollar cockpit, so why is he asking Center for a readout? Then I got it, ol’ Dusty here is making sure that every bug smasher from Mount Whitney to the Mojave knows what true speed is. He’s the fastest dude in the valley today, and he just wants everyone to know how much fun he is having in his new Hornet. And the reply, always with that same, calm, voice, with more distinct alliteration than emotion: “Dusty 52, Center, we have you at 620 on the ground.”
And I thought to myself, is this a ripe situation, or what? As my hand instinctively reached for the mic button, I had to remind myself that Walt was in control of the radios. Still, I thought, it must be done – in mere seconds we’ll be out of the sector and the opportunity will be lost. That Hornet must die, and die now. I thought about all of our Sim training and how important it was that we developed well as a crew and knew that to jump in on the radios now would destroy the integrity of all that we had worked toward becoming. I was torn.
Somewhere, 13 miles above Arizona, there was a pilot screaming inside his space helmet. Then, I heard it. The click of the mic button from the back seat. That was the very moment that I knew Walter and I had become a crew. Very professionally, and with no emotion, Walter spoke: “Los Angeles Center, Aspen 20, can you give us a ground speed check?” There was no hesitation, and the replay came as if was an everyday request. “Aspen 20, I show you at one thousand eight hundred and forty-two knots, across the ground.”
I think it was the forty-two knots that I liked the best, so accurate and proud was Center to deliver that information without hesitation, and you just knew he was smiling. But the precise point at which I knew that Walt and I were going to be really good friends for a long time was when he keyed the mic once again to say, in his most fighter-pilot-like voice: “Ah, Center, much thanks, we’re showing closer to nineteen hundred on the money.”...MORE