Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Foul Polling

Foul Polling

by John Mayberry

Recently we enjoyed a baseball game with seats near the third base line foul pole. For those of you not particularly enthralled with baseball, there are two tall upright foul poles mounted in professional baseball stadia (one per side) to judge whether a ball hit by the batter is either a home run or a foul ball hit into the stands. Sort of a vertical dividing line.

None of us have likely spent much time pondering foul poles before, but somewhere during the fourth inning it struck me that this was an extraordinarily useful low-tech device, with 100% reliability over its entire operating life cycle involving nearly 40 years. These foul poles have always performed their job to the complete satisfaction of thousands of users, in every imaginable weather condition and often under high stress situations. I suspect the foul pole’s only maintenance has been an occasional repainting. If only the equipment our industry offers could offer similar performance.

A more careful observation of the foul pole revealed a large number of dents in the perforated metal screening attached to the foul pole. Each dent made was clearly the result of an enormously powerful hit. Now some hits were more enormous than others, but there was clearly a higher concentration of dents near the pole bottom. There were a few dents in the middle section, and none towards the top. In over thirty years of use, not one single dent on the top twenty feet of the pole.

This would imply to me that there was not a significant amount of engineering or statistical sampling involved in the design of this particular set of foul poles. Clearly the poles could have been made twenty feet shorter and accomplished all of its original expectations. Yet I doubt anyone has ever complained about the poles being too tall. Some batters may have even felt complimented.

OK Mayberry, what wonderfully insightful parable are you pulling now? My point is that our industry is humbled in many ways by the lowly foul pole. These babies get the job done day in and day out. Even a baseball novice can clearly understand their functionality. They get the job done without any unnecessary aggravation.

The foul pole system never requires revised software, continual rebooting or recompiling. It does not require an operations manual, installation manual, training class, single line diagram, GUIs, user interfaces, detailed labeling, extensive commissioning or detailed reconfiguration. It is a simple and elegant device, devoid of unnecessary complexity and endless software, firmware, and hardware revisions. It is easily understood by all.

Take a moment and stare at your own designs or any piece of hardware on your desk right now. I’m looking at brand new telephone station. Just installed this week, along with dozens of other systems in a new building. I suppose if you write a column on Telecommunications, you should be able to figure out a simple desk phone. I get most of it, but there’s a couple of buttons I’m unsure of, and one that downright frightens me. It’s the one little red button labeled RIS. I had no idea was RIS meant unless I looked at it a second time and realized it was Rls. I’m presuming this means Release, as in drop someone from a conference call. I doubt I’m the only one with this confusion. No manual within miles to be seen. Truly a silly design effort not worthy of the multi-billion dollar telecom supplier from which it came.

Are we doing the same thing to your our clients? Is there a way to simplify your systems to make them a better overall product? Can the end user walk up to the system and intuitively operate it without a momentary panic setting in? Not too many years ago, changing the volume meant turning a knob, not some massive effort involving a pesky PC.

Try to remember the lowly foul pole. Sometimes low-tech can indeed be cool. And it may be entirely possible that an over-designed low tech system may be the right answer for your client’s application, regardless of your need to impress them with your technical prowess or expertise.