Friday, March 25, 2011

Spacesuit: How Playtex Engineered An Iconic Piece of Space Technology

I was listening to NPR's Science Friday during lunch today and they had a great segment on the history of the Spacesuit used for the Apollo missions. It turns out that the suit was made by Playtex, the same company noted for their bras.

The discussion talks about the process of engineering the suit and the amazing technical aspects of the suit. But perhaps equally or more interesting, is the story of the designs that weren't used and how Playtex was not really who the engineers at NASA wanted to work with. Monchaux talks about how NASA engineers wanted to work with engineers, not people who made underwear, to craft this one-person spacecraft. And yet, Playtex's innovation and expertise in designing for humans won out. This looks like a great story about design and engineering.

Here's a link to the Science Friday segment pod cast. For fun, I've also embedded a video that they put together that features many of the suits that were considered but weren't used. Enjoy!

Here's from Amazon's description of the book:
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the lunar surface in July of 1969, they wore spacesuits made by Playtex: twenty-one layers of fabric, each with a distinct yet interrelated function, custom-sewn for them by seamstresses whose usual work was fashioning bras and girdles. This book is the story of those spacesuits. It is a story of the Playtex Corporation’s triumph over the military-industrial complex—a victory of elegant softness over engineered hardness, of adaptation over cybernetics.

Playtex’s spacesuit went up against hard armor-like spacesuits designed by military contractors and favored by NASA’s engineers. It was only when those suits failed—when traditional engineering firms could not integrate the body into mission requirements—that Playtex, with its intimate expertise, got the job. In Spacesuit, Nicholas de Monchaux tells the story of the twenty-one-layer spacesuit in twenty-one chapters addressing twenty-one topics relevant to the suit, the body, and the technology of the twentieth century. He touches, among other things, on eighteenth-century androids, Christian Dior’s New Look, Atlas missiles, cybernetics and cyborgs, latex, JFK's carefully cultivated image, the CBS lunar broadcast soundstage, NASA’s Mission Control, and the applications of Apollo-style engineering to city planning. The twenty-one-layer spacesuit, de Monchaux argues, offers an object lesson. It tells us about redundancy and interdependence and about the distinctions between natural and man-made complexity; it teaches us to know the virtues of adaptation and to see the future as a set of possibilities rather than a scripted scenario.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Another Link Worth Checking Out

Here's a post from earlier today on Techcrunch. Jack Dorsey & The Golden Gate Bridge (Exclusive Video) features a video that touches on a theme that I've been crafting a blog post around for some time now. Mine isn't ready to publish, but this really does highlight the importance of design.

Check it out.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Whom you should hire at a Start-up: A Repost and An Obeservation

Earlier this week, there was an interesting post on Techcrunch. I always like these types of posts when I come across them. Whom Should You Hire at a Startup? (Attitude over Aptitude) by Mark Suster is another post from a VC and former entrepreneur on how to look at the problem of building a strong team in a start-up. It's a short, easy read and I recommend going through it before you move through the rest of this post.

The area that I wanted to explore is one that is touched on in his second and fifth recommendations:
2. Find people to “punch above their weight class”
5. Attitude over Aptitude
If you add up some of his statements like
It means that many management teams I know feel the need to hire people who have “done it before” and frankly many VCs encourage this. It’s a mistake. When you hire somebody too early who has already “done it” you often find somebody that is less motivated in tough times, less willing to be scrappy (as many startups need to be), more “needy” and less mentally flexible / willing to change their way of thinking...
You said, “Eff experience. I want to know whether you can deliver. If you can, you’re golden. You’ll go a long way. If you can’t – you’re toast. Are you up for it?” It’s Tristan Walker of FourSquare. They hired him when he was an MBA. He had no right asking for a senior biz dev role at one of the hottest companies in the US. But he was ready to punch above his weight class. And he pushed for it.
You might wind up with the take-away of, "don't hire tired experienced people, hire hungry inexperienced people." If that was your take-away, I recommend that you read his other post from his blog, Who Should you Hire at a Startup? This post presents a more comprehensive look at the role of talent, capability and experience, and provides some additional insights.

The Reality of Experiences That Make You Tired
While it's easy to see students coming out of school with a hunger and a naive sense of excitement, most of us that have struggled in difficult employment environments understand that there are a lot of pressures that can wear you down, weigh on your sense of enthusiasm, and make you a bit cynical. After all, if everything at work was exciting, challenging growth, you probably wouldn't be motivated to do something different. And when you interview, this is one of the challenges you often face in positioning yourself -- you don't want to seem like a grumpy curmudgeon that simply can't get along with the people you work with, but you need to position some clear reasons why you're considering this change. But regardless of how you present it, people want smiles in interviews and you're carrying frustrations.

So here you have the "Attitude / aptitude" issue wrapped up in a microcosm of perception. Perhaps the driver for your frustrations are the bureaucracies of your current employer or tired of being told that you don't know how to do your job because the organization doesn't follow your recommendations. Perhaps it's all driven by your frustrated desires to have a more senior role or more control of the process. It's even possible that you've tried to do more, only to be shot down as 'not getting it', too inexperienced, or not the right fit. In one sense, this might put you in the "punch above your weight class" group, but it also depends on the individual.

People react to adversity in different ways. As a long-distance cyclist, I've seen very tired people face hills near the end of a ride and get angry. I've seen them give up. I've also seen people who dig deep and continue to work, continue to push to get to their goal. In the case of people that you're considering for a start-up, while the environment that you're hiring them from may suck, I think that what you're looking for are the people capable of continuing to turn the pedals when the going gets tough. That doesn't mean someone who is happy to continue turning the pedals in a bureaucracy, but that's really back to the attitude question.

So What Do You Think?
Can somebody who is coming from an environment where they have been beaten down, told that they don't know what their doing or that they are doing it wrong be successful in a start-up? Can they succeed in an interview? Perhaps more to the point, if you're looking for a position where you can "punch outside of your weight class", do you really believe that a company will consider an "underqualified" candidate in today's job market? In other words, are you targeting a market where you have a realistic opportunity?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Disaster in Japan Reminder: The Importance of Crisis Communications

Our thoughts reach out to our friends, families and colleagues in Japan. In difficult times, we all want to try to reach out help. In business, it can sometimes be difficult for organizations to determine when to draw the line between business responsibilities and our human responsibilities. That's one reason why, beyond help and outreach, organizations should use this event as a reminder as to the importance of planning for crisis communications.

Crisis communications is a multi-dimensional organizational challenge. While crisis communications is often viewed through a PR lens with books devoted to PR communications strategy, crisis communications can be more broadly applied to all of the communications that take place during a crisis. Here's an example of some key things to consider from the FEMA web site.
  • Employees: Be prepared to provide employees with information on when, if and how to report to work following an emergency.
    • Set up a telephone call tree, password-protected page on the company website, an email alert or a call-in voice recording to communicate with employees in an emergency.
    • Be clear on how their jobs may be affected.
  • Management: Provide top company executives with all relevant information needed for the protection of employees, customers, vendors and nearby facilities.
  • Public: It may be important to update the general public with calm assurance that all resources are being used to protect workers and the community. Being able to communicate that plans are in place for recovery may be especially important.
  • Customers: Update your customers on whether and when products will be received and services rendered.
  • Government: Tell officials what your company is prepared to do to help in the recovery effort. Also communicate with local, state and federal authorities what emergency assistance is needed for you to continue essential business activity.
  • Other Businesses/Immediate Neighbors: You should be prepared to give competing and neighboring companies a prompt briefing on the nature of the emergency so they may be able to assess their own threat levels.
What this list helps to underscore is that crisis communications includes internal communications, external communications, and so much more. Not only does that mean your PR and communication tools, it could also depend on your customer records from CRM, your social media network, and more. It's also important to keep in mind that, depending on the scope of the disaster that you are trying to address, your access to some or all of these resources might be limited or non-existent.

Did this spark your thoughts? Ideas? Please share your thoughts -- that's a big part of planning.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

They're Shutting Off Twitter, Facebook and The Internet In Wisconsin and Ohio

During the recent political transformation in Egypt, I was struck by the government's shutdown of Twitter, Facebook and the Internet. While we often see stories about the media, communications monitoring, Internet openness and free speech, I can't recall a more blatant example of attempting to stifle dissent using control of communication channels. Technically, we're all familiar with firewalls and blocked services and how many countries run all their communications through a single pipe, but I think most of us were surprised to see all Internet shut down in Egypt.

But beyond the affront to our free speech and freedom of information sensibilities, the Egyptian government's attempt to shut down the Internet seemed to speak to a larger issue. For one thing, it seemed to underscore the disconnect between the Mubarak government and the masses. It was also emblematic of a leadership mindset that believes in control through management and restriction of information -- the idea seemingly being, "if we just keep this information from them, then the won't be upset, won't be active. They are my sheep and if I can just hide the distractions of the outside world, they will remain docile."

Information is a powerful element, potentially more valuable than gold, more explosive than gunpowder, or potentially as irrelevant as the daily updates we receive on certain celebrities. There are many aspects to information, but a couple of key elements are time and relevance. If your presented with information at a time when it isn't useful -- perhaps you get invited to an event on the day after it has taken place -- then the information loses it's value. It's not uncommon for the military to attempt to disrupt communications in battle because, if you can disrupt the element of timeliness, you can disrupt coordination.

Marketing and Information Manipulation
There is an essence of marketing that involves shaping information and how it's presented. Yet, for most of us, there is also sort of an ironic sense of system shock that we experience when we're exposed to situations where information and communication is suppressed. While not talking about a bug in the software or crappy battery life might be one form of information suppression, it's usually more than applying make-up to cover bad skin on a supermodel. But what most of us realize is that, sooner or later, the truth will come out and that if you aren't in line with the truth, very bad things can happen.

The further that you move into the suppression and disinformation end of the spectrum, the further you move into the dark side of marketing. Many products like weight-loss and erectile dysfunction cures that they pitch on television don't work; instead, they depend on a desire and a suspension of disbelief in the customer -- and they only need to get the customer to purchase once. Hollywood has opened really bad movies globally with the idea to maximize attendees before they have a chance to tell everyone how bad the movie is. Good products survive trolls and bad comments, but bad products can't escape the truth.

The Freedom to Communicate Openly
One lesson that we can take away from Egypt is that people in power who have control of communication platforms will attempt to suppress information if they perceive that it is against their interests. This is an inherent danger that looms without Net Neutrality. One of the greatest benefits of Gutenberg's printing press was that it took communications outside of the control of the church and democratized it.

While the title of my post may seem a bit incendiary, I suspect that any reaction you experience might also fueled by a sense of belief that it can't happen here. And yet, if someone had told me we would see the legislative acrobatics and the political craziness that we have seen in Wisconsin taking place in the United States, I would have thought that they were joking. Fortunately, even as the established propaganda groups continue to crank out disinformation and attempt to hide the truth, we still have an infrastructure that provides some level of open communication and dissent. With that, the truth will emerge.