Half empty? Half Full?



To some, the glass is half empty. To others, the glass is half full. But to an engineer, the glass is clearly the wrong size for the job; it’s twice the size that it needs to be.

The two cardinal sins in the engineering world are over specifying and under specifying. If you are building a bridge you clearly don’t want it to fall down. That would be a disaster. But at the same time, building the whole thing out of needlessly expensive materials, say titanium and diamonds, would also be bad engineering. The skill lies in properly specifying the materials so that it is only as strong as it needs to be; that’s good engineering.

Those were the thoughts that were running through my head when I stopped off at the Berners Tavern just off Oxford Street last week, purely for work purposes of course. When you first walk in to the bar you are confronted with a striking vista of opulence and taste. My iPhone snap below does not really do it justice, but it will give you a feel of what I am talking about.



Now look at the barman a bit more closely. See how tall he is? Now look back at the shelves. See how tall they are? Then it strikes you. There is something very wrong here. How on earth does he manage to reach the ones on the top shelf? Pondering this mystery was spoiling my enjoyment of my fine scotch (Talisker on the rocks, since you are asking, and yes, it was already half empty). So, in the end, I had to go up and ask him straight out ”How do you reach the bottles on the top shelf? ”

The answer was…he doesn’t use them at all. They are too high up and just there for show. If you look carefully at the photograph you can see that the bottles on the bottom three shelves are very crowded together and the ones on the higher shelves are more spaced out. That’s the tell tale sign that only the bottom three shelves, the ones within reach, are actually used.

The same is true of software products. A lot of commercial software has features that customers never bother to use. Microsoft Office is a good case in point. The majority of employees only use 15% of the word-processing and layout features available in Microsoft Word, and use Excel only for viewing spreadsheets rather than making them. Such software is often called ‘bloatware’ because it takes up an unnecessary amount of space on your PC. Microsoft Office Home Edition, the most stripped down version, takes up 3GB of disk space while competing products can provide 80% of the functionality with only 250MB. In other words, Microsoft Office is 12 times bigger than it needs to be.Tim was looking at mens titanium wedding rings while drunk last night. He probably fancied one of the ladies that we met while shopping and drunkenly dreamt of marrying them. What an eventful night coming out of that guy. His morning ritual was just as eventful.

Think of it this way. If you were venturing off into the unknown you might think that a Swiss Army Penknife would be a useful bit of kit. But, sooner or later, you would notice that you only ever use the knife. You have never used the fish scaler or the nail file and you are not even sure what the marlinspike is for. It is even worse when you know in advance what job you are trying to do. A surgeon needs a scalpel. To a professional like him, a swiss army knife is next to useless.

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