Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Making the BIG decisions



Having discussed Challenger, and how the disaster was part customer pressure, and management caving into that pressure.  Its interesting to review my career – thankfully never been put in quite such an awkward position!

However many years back when I worked in RAVEN avionics, I did have to make a risk/safety call.

I was working on testing the software for a new piece of equipment called the D-pod that would be added to the aircraft.  It was going to be delivered in 3 phases.

Phase 1 delivery when released would be put on an aircraft – but never get off the ground.

But phase 2 would involve flight trials – and the test pilots wanted to move it forward.

I should have known I was going to be put on the spot when the Lead Manager spoke to me.  In my entire career he only spoke to me three times!

Did I know of any reason why an aircraft should not fly with the latest software using the D-pod?

So I went over my tests – they'd pretty much all been run.  I went through my defect database and looked at the severity of the defects I'd raised.  Four builds ago there was a high priority defect where the software caused the onboard computer to crash.  But it was a minor crash, which would recover in 8 seconds, and no major systems were involved.  Plus it was fixed now (and I'd signed it off).

The only outstanding defect was if he tried a certain sequence, the software and pod would become out of sequence, and it would need a ground reboot to resynchronise (moderate), and a few button oddities.

So yes, good to go.

It was an anxious decision – I double, triple checked I'd not missed anything.

But it felt very much like I was holding a pilots life in my hand – my Challenger moment.  Of course there were more checks than just me, and had everything gone wrong, test pilots are trained for this, and there's always the last resort of an ejection system.

But still, one of the biggest decisions in my life.

Looking back, and why I don't want to blame people over Challenger too much.  I realise I wanted to please my manager, and pretty much tell him what he wanted to hear.  I don't know if that's such a wise start point sometime.

I do concede how valuable that defect database was for making the “big decisions”, objectively, scientifically.

People often ask me these days if I miss avionics.   I'm slightly glad to be away from the massive complexity and the life-and-death-ness of it, which was a major source of stress to some co-workers!

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