August 2008

Last month I ranted on the evils of the Hummer H2. I received some feedback on that, implying that a professional and scientific web site like Microwaves101 is no place for such nonprofessional discussions. Two things we need to declare before we move on to this month's topic…

1. This is not a "professional and scientific web site", it is a product of ethanol-related injuries, microwave engineering, and good mojo and bad mojo.
2. If General Motors was in anyway influenced by this infinitesimally relevant web site, and decides to consider scrapping the Hummer brand as a result, we can all live with that. We sold our GenMot stock a long long time ago, when it went from "Body by Fisher" where my Uncle proudly fed his family by chroming mirror brackets to "Body by Fishbrain". Hal used to drive truckloads of bodies back from the front lines of WWII, he never would have had a use for such a poseur vehicle. Let's break it down for you in two images:

Purpose-built vehicle

Poseur-built vehicle

Now on to this month's topic: irrelevancy. As you become "more senior" at work, some people embrace it, others live in fear of it. What are the warning signs, and how do you avoid it?

Marge: Grandpa, did you sit on the pie?
Grandpa: I sure hope so, otherwise….

At work, we hear all of the time about how the aging baby boomer's retirement will be devastating to the engineering industry, that all of the knowledge the boomers acquired will leave the companies and get lost forever on cruise boats and golf courses.

There's a problem with this picture (as with any picture that uses "all" and "forever"). Some engineers will be missed when they retire, some have already come to the point where their leaving will be celebrated (putting them in the same category with managers). But a large percentage of engineers won't be either missed or unmissed. They've become just plain irrelevant, not hurting anything but not contributing all that much either.

Abraham "Grandpa" Simpson serves as the poster boy of irrelevancy. He used to live with Homer and Marge but he got so cantankerous they had to put him in Springfield's assisted living care facility, the Retirement Castle. This could happen to you, if you let it, both literally and figuratively.

If Grandpa Simpson is the poster boy of irrelevancy, Ralph Nader must be the godfather. According to Ralph, Barack Obama "talks white" in order to get your vote this fall. What you talking about, Willis? Is the rumor true that Obama fathered two black kids? Say, isn't Nader an Arab name?

What are the parameters that define irrelevancy? How can you help ensure that it doesn't happen to you? Here's some warning signs…

  • You hand off all of your analysis work to younger engineers, because you never bothered to learn how to use the latest software tools such as electromagnetic analysis. They laugh at you behind your back in case you didn't know.
  • You volunteer to head up the latest company-wide initiatives, such as implementation of ISO 900X. Or you decide to add "Six Sigma Expert" to your business card. That's really sad.
  • You're the guy that schedules the most meetings in your building, you hog the conference room, and you look forward to picking out the lunch order. If your belt buckle is in a horizontal position when you are standing up, you need more help that we can give you here.
  • You're the go-to guy for just one design parameter, for example, you own the phase noise setup in the lab, perform all measurements yourself and don't let anyone else touch it. Guess what? Even if you have a singular skill that no one else has had a chance to acquire, as the poem below says, there is no indispensable man. This is a poem I'm familiar with because in fourth grade Miss Bernstein made me copy it multiple times onto a chalkboard for crimes I won't describe here. Ms. Kessinger's message has not been lost on me since:

Indispensable Man

©1959 by Saxon White Kessinger, used by permission of the author


Sometime when you’re feeling important;
Sometime when your ego’s in bloom
Sometime when you take it for granted
You’re the best qualified in the room,

Sometime when you feel that your going
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions
And see how they humble your soul;

Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining
Is a measure of how you’ll be missed.

You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop and you’ll find that in no time
It looks quite the same as before.

The moral of this quaint example
Is do just the best that you can,
Be proud of yourself but remember,
There’s no indispensable man.

  • You come to work because you've done that all of your adult life, and you fear what retirement will be like without the fat paycheck. Maybe you just need to get out of the house for a variety of reasons...
  • When you're introduced at company pow-wows you have one of your underlings read a 10 minute resume that describes everything you did all the way back to third grade. Guess what, cowboy? As the Khmer Rouge used to say, this is year zero. (with thanks to Lou for correcting the math here!) Nothing you did 20 years ago matters. Someone younger is going to show up and show you a new way to do what you've been doing wrong all these years, like Cinderella, the "pig in boots",


  • Now that you're the "boss", behind your back your direct reports are quoting Soupy Sales. My boss does the work of three men, Moe, Larry and Curley! Thanks to Jack for that!
    Soupy and Pookie in "The Curse of King Tut"
  • You say things that amount to "that's the way we've always done it". We tried that at Texas Instruments in the 1970s and it didn't work... listen to yourself, you're not helping anyone with that line of crap, you're just making us all late for the door.

Pretty bleak picture, huh? What can you do to prevent irrelevancy, before it's too late? There are only two things to remember. Keep learning, and keep contributing.

Learning doesn't just mean becoming more skilled in computer-aided design. As you might have noticed from the popularity of this web site, there's a whole lot of fundamentals of engineering that were pioneered long ago. Keep up with what others have done before to save time and headaches by allowing you to judge design tradeoffs quickly and accurately without resorting to finite element analysis. Branch out and learn about other applications, implementation, and what your competitors are up to.

Learning doesn't mean "just microwaves". If this is all you know, you've got to be the most boring guy at a party. Take an interest in real life - for example, follow your kids to college (added bonus, you'll embarrass the heck out them), or take a class in an unrelated area, like Spanish or archeology or building boats. Dust off the piano or guitar and line up some lessons.

Contributing means using what you know in a way that benefits someone other than yourself. This might be at work - speak up at meetings, participate in fine forums like our own message boards. Or you can contribute in that "real life" we were just talking about - teach a course, you'll have to relearn all of the stuff you forgot. Invent a product, patent it and start a company. Volunteer for a cause you believe in. Help out with local kids, clean up your environment, shut up about yourself and your wonderful two or three buddies that know everything.

Get off your butt and you'll never have to worry about accidentally sitting in a pie, or worse.


Check out the Unknown Editor's amazing archives when you are looking for a way to screw off for a couple of hours or more!