23 Jan 2012past-lives

For a brief period some years ago, I worked for an engineering firm that did sonar work for the (UK) navy. Many of the people in the company were ex-submariners, who had served both on the Swiftsure/Trafalgar attack boats and on the Vanguard missile boats. These were all pretty solid people, and I remember one in particular who delighted in telling stories about his time working his way up from a “baby sailor” to naval attaché to the British embassy in Washington, D.C. His most amusing tales included a reenactment (with actions) of the joys of carrying soup tureens around crowded submarines, and the entertaining ability of US spy satellites to dip into the atmosphere to take a closer look at interesting sights, like Soviet mini-subs stuck on their motherships in their pens.

A slightly less amusing story revolved around the hubris of submarine commanders. He sent some of us a photograph showing £20 million of towed sonar array snarled up around a mooring buoy, all because the sub commander couldn’t be bothered to wait for the divers to help reeling the thing in. A sad navy man with a big beard stood gazing at the pile of expensive spaghetti, looking like he might burst into tears at any moment. Not the navy’s finest moment.

One of my main jobs was to work on sonar system performance measures, which were used by the Ministry of Defence to try to ensure that they weren’t being diddled by the main contractor for the sonar system in question. Terrifyingly large amounts of money were involved, and some terrifyingly bad engineering decisions. The contractor decided to “buy British” for microprocessors for the beamforming hardware and designed a system using the Inmos Transputer. Oops. Inmos were assimilated into SGS Thomson, the Transputer shortly thereafter became extinct, and a sharp about-turn was needed to redesign the whole processing chain to use off-the-shelf PC components instead of the custom hardware that they had planned for.

It was an interesting little period for me, though I hadn’t wanted to work on the naval side of things. The company also did a lot of aerospace work, and I had nominally been hired to work on that. The structure of the company meant that I got poached for sonar stuff, got grumpy and left.

This company did have one extremely good thing they did though, one that I’ve not yet seen anywhere else (although it may be a standard approach in some kinds of engineering companies). All of the details of all non-classified projects that the company had going, in all of the fields where it worked, were available for perusal via the company’s accounting and time tracking software. Each engineering employee kept track of the time they spent on whatever projects they were assigned to (no surprises so far), but it was also possible to look through any other projects, see what work remained to be done, to see who was assigned to do the work, to see any open slots where people with particular skills were needed, and if you had spare time, to put yourself down to do that work. It was a very efficient system, and it actively encouraged people to talk and cooperate across project boundaries within the company. I think that was probably one of the biggest lessons I took from my time there. That, and, if you have 1500 m of towed array to reel in, wait for the divers...