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Every Engineer's Solemn Duty

Michael David Crawford, Consulting Software Engineer
Solving The Software Problem
mdcrawford@gmail.com

November 1, 2005

Copyright © 2005 Michael David Crawford

My father Charles Russell Crawford was an engineer too, an electrical engineer. Once a carpenter, he was inspired to enlist in the Navy one snowy evening while roofing a house, when he struck his thumb real hard with a hammer. The Navy sensed my father's potential for leadership and sent him to study at the University of Idaho, where he met my mother Patricia Ann Speelmon. My sister was born while they were still students. After graduation, he went on to Officer Candidate School and was given his commission. The telegram with news of my birth took two weeks to reach him: he was deep in the Phillipine jungle getting trained in survival, as the Vietnam War was just then heating up: the year was 1964. My father's engineering specialty was antiaircraft missile electronics: guidance and control systems.

The lesson my father taught me, a lesson I only now, as I speak, realize for the first time I was ever taught, is to Do My Duty. You already know my father did his for his country. I want you to know that he did his duty to his family as a husband, father and provider, and he did it well. He did his duty as a teacher too: I learned science and engineering at my father's knee, as we worked on projects together. Once we had a contest to see who could make a working telephone from stuff found lying around the house.

Engineers have other Masters who demand duty of us: our profession, our conscience, those who invest in, purchase or use what we design, our coworkers, and the public.

Listen to me carefully, and never forget what I'm about to say. I want all of you to spend some time thinking it over deeply, then I want you to discuss it among yourselves:

There may come a time in your career as an engineer when you will be called to take a stand against your employer's disastrous course of action. When that time comes, your duty is not to your employer, but to your profession, your conscience, your coworkers, your company's investors, its customers, and the public. When your coworkers, investors or customers could be bankrupted, or the public's safety could be placed at risk, it is your solemn duty to take a stand.

Your stand could be an ultimatum: you might lose your job, as I did. You could blow the whistle as I still might. You must accept the consequences: unemployment, poverty, getting blacklisted, sued or even imprisoned. Such may be the cost of doing the right thing.

But when the chips are down, it is your solemn duty to do it.

My father knew from engineering quality: After getting his Master's degree at the U of I after the war ended, he went back to work for the Navy as a civilian. His last job before he retired was overseeing the repair and testing of nuclear submarine reactor control systems at Mare Island Naval Shipyard. Now I ask you: if the Navy decided to send a sub out to sea before my father felt its reactor control system was ready, would he have spoken up about it? Even if he lost his job by doing so? And was thereby unable to feed his hungry children?

I know my father, he would have done the right thing.

Because an engineer named Roger Boisjoly didn't trust his conscience, seven brave and innocent people died. No, he followed standard procedure, by reporting a safety risk to his superiors, then trusted them to do the right thing, despite the fact that they obviously didn't heed his warning:

It got real cold one night when the Space Shuttle Challenger was being readied for launch. The Shuttle's two solid fuel rocket boosters had been manufactured by Morton Thiokol in several sections. Rubber O-rings were used to seal the joints between each section, and covered with high-temperature putty to protect the rubber from the flames. But the rubber the O-rings was made of became brittle if it ever got cold. It wouldn't flex as the sides of the joint vibrated in and out, so that the flames inside the rockets might shoot out through a crack, and make the liquid fuel tank explode.

Realizing the risk, Mr. Boisjoly filed a safety report with his superiors, yet despite the fact that they overruled his advice for fear of losing Morton Thiokol's fat government contract, he did his duty to his company and kept quiet.

But he didn't do the right thing when he realized the Challenger was going to launch to its doom. Why didn't he ring someone up at NASA? We didn't he go to the press? Why didn't he crash his way into Mission Control, arms flailing and screaming "IT'S GOING TO FUCKING EXPLODE!"?

Because he might have lost his job? He probably would have, but I don't think that's why. Gotten arrested? No. I don't know for sure, but I'll hazard a guess: either because he trusted his company to do the right thing or he didn't want to get blacklisted. And because he didn't trust his conscience, and go against orders - no, not even that - against standard procedure, he has these people to answer to, and their loved ones:

Challenger Crew

Front row, left to right:

Michael John Smith (1945-86), Pilot
Francis R. (Dick) Scobee (1939-86), Commander
Ronald Erwin McNair (1950-86), Mission Specialist Three

Back row:

Ellison S. Onizuka (1946-86), Mission Specialist One
S.Christa McAuliffe (1948-86), Payload Specialist One
Gregory Bruce Jarvis (1944-86), Payload Specialist Two
Judith Arlene Resnik (1949-86), Mission Specialist Two

Someday you might be faced with such an awful decision. Most engineers don't ever consider the possibility. I'm asking you to consider it now, ahead of time, so if the time ever comes, your mind will already be made up.

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