More about My Mentor, Larry

Larry knew this job was my first real shot at a career since my divorce. He had a lot of patience for my situation. There were times when I had to take off from work due to a sick child. Day care tends to infect children multiple times a month. At one point he advised me to get some kind of outside care so that I could come into work. That ticked me off.

I pedaled as fast as I could, still stressed adjusting to my new role as head of household, calming the kids when I dropped them off at day care, and struggling with an ex-husband who wouldn’t let us live our new lives. I had no extra money to afford care on demand and family lived hours away. I finally found some balance and illnesses subsided. And Larry quit bugging me.

It was strange to me and very foreign for I had worked in commercial ventures that had little tolerance for change. Government contracting work seemed to create environments for which efficiency was a four-letter word.

Once Larry and I landed in Systems Engineering, we stayed there for quite a long time. Working verification requirements, which define how a system will be tested or analyzed to ensure compliance with customer expectations and contract, the source data for the verification resided in the specification documents containing requirements for functionality and fit. We were working the Laboratory module and had opportunities to review the specification document for it. I say “opportunities” because that document was rewritten more times than any doctoral candidate ever thought of rewriting a thesis.

Larry taught me how to redline a document. I thought I already knew how to edit. Larry took it to a whole new level. It started with the Laboratory specification. In the early 1990’s, still computer-less except for word processing, we actually used red pens on white paper. Larry handed out copies of the document to the group to review. After we did our individual review, we met with Larry to consolidate markups.

I thought I had done a fairly good job of marking up the volumes of paper. A spelling or grammatical error here and there, I felt good at catching these items and saving the Laboratory from certain failure. Larry’s copy was mostly red with a white border on each page. After about fifty pages, he would write across the page “I give up!” The quality was so poor and he stopped short of rewriting the document by letting the author know he had had it.

After Larry pointed out the items I had missed in my review, within a couple of versions, I was giving Larry a run for his money in the amount of red pens used in a month. The author of the Laboratory specification never returned to us to ask questions about the markings and the next version had the same poor quality, nothing had changed. After a few rounds of redlining and being ignored, Larry told the lead of the Laboratory group that we were no longer wasting our time on their document.

The Classic System Engineering 'V' Model

Larry led an effort to perform a functional analysis of the Space Station. Systems Engineering processes define this analysis as a part of requirements definition and decomposition and is typically executed early on. The program was well into its fifth year, but with the changing NASA budgets and requirements, the attempt was made. Larry had the foresight to realize that not all of the engineering groups had a handle on how this program would complete.

Defining Goes Into and Goes Outs - Functional Analysis

The functional analysis was a huge effort. System engineers, design engineers, test engineers, and subcontractors worked for a good month defining functions for their area of expertise, developing a flowchart defining how this space station would gel to completion.

We worked offsite in a large room. Post-it notes clung to the walls in an order that started to make sense. Engineers reviewed the notes and made multiple changes. Understanding came about; many didn’t realize the hand-offs that would be needed for them to complete their tasks. They also didn’t realize the next group in line that awaited their tasks to be complete.

A lot of goodness came from that endeavor. We published multiple volumes of the flows; each volume over four inches thick. Larry presented the results to upper management, cautioning them to maintain the flowcharts as customer direction changed. The books were never touched after that. This was 1992. The International Space Station finally launched in 1998. I like to think that our efforts were not futile, that the engineers remaining on the program used the knowledge gained during that exercise to improve the design.

Larry asked me to work with our NASA counterparts on some assignment. As I was about to leave to travel the five or so miles to the NASA offices, I asked him if he had any last minute directions. There were several people gathered in his cubical. He told me not to make any commitments and then as an afterthought said, “I’ve always had a hard time spelling commitment.” To which I replied, “Most men do.” I left in a hurry.

Larry transferred back to his home in Colorado a month or so before I transferred to Oklahoma in 1993. He heard the rumblings of a layoff on its way and advised several of us to start finding a new position. A friend of mine saw to it that I had the job in Oklahoma. Larry and I stayed in touch for quite awhile. I can safely say that I use something I learned from Larry every day of my professional life. A good mentor leaves lasting impressions like that.

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About stemzandroses

I'm an engineer and writer with a built-in need to share my nearly 40 years of experience working in a male-dominated field with the rest of the world.
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