Arnold Jorgensen is probably the finest human being and is certainly the greatest teacher I’ve ever known. I designed computer circuits in his engineering group early in my career. Decades later he chose to work at Pro-Log. It was from him that I learned how to become a true engineering craftsman instead of merely being a creative smart-ass with a brace of patents. I also learned valuable lessons about how to manage headstrong adults, critics, and my own ego. He didn’t sermonize or lecture, he taught by example.
Arnold grew up in Norway and spent his teenage years under the German occupation during which he risked his life in the Norwegian underground. However, his descriptions of German soldiers were not out of propaganda manuals. They were portrayals of individuals; some who were decent people doing their jobs and others who were sadistic. After WWII, Arnold graduated from college in Norway, married Inger, started his family and immigrated to Chicago where their two-year-old daughter died tragically; a wound that would have embittered lesser people. They moved to Pasadena, California where he went to work at Burroughs ElectroData running an engineering group that designed solid-state computers using newfangled germanium transistors instead of vacuum tubes. I was fortunate enough to be assigned to Arnold’s group as its most junior engineer.
There were two things immediately evident about Arnold: he genuinely liked people and he was an avid skier who particularly enjoyed powder skiing. He told me that, when he first arrived in Pasadena, he was excited when he saw the nearby mountains, because he mistakenly thought that their wide firebreaks, which plunged vertically downwards from summits-to-bases, were ski-runs.
I eventually discovered that Arnold was a great engineer, the best teacher and as good a manager as I would ever know. He was plenty smart. However, his intelligence and knowledge were enhanced by other qualities: he was systematic; he was open-minded; he was eternally optimistic about people; he had a great sense of humor, and he was humble. He was also a bit gullible, which encouraged many a prank.
He always tackled a problem by laying out the fundamentals, discussing them with us and making sure that he and we understood our objectives and any significant factors. Then he took clear, systematic, logical steps toward solutions. He led us through this dynamic, interactive process using his blackboard. He taught us how to do worst-case analysis, and then how to use it prudently to produce realistically reliable system.
However, I learned the most important lesson from Arnold after he came into my office with this request: “I’ve completed designing this circuit, and I’d like you to review it, find any mistakes, and suggest improvements.” I was thrilled. I tackled the job with gusto and discovered several mistakes. At first, I felt quite clever. Then I wondered how Arnold could have made those mistakes. Finally, I worried about how Arnold would handle my criticisms and suggestions. With mounting apprehension, but with ego-driven enthusiasm, I entered his office and began to tear apart his design. As I did so, he smiled. This confused me. When I finished, his smile was even broader, and he said something I’ve never forgotten: “Thanks! You just saved me from making several mistakes. Remember, in engineering it’s ‘what’s right’ that counts, not ‘who’s right.’ ”
From that day on I eagerly shared my designs with other engineers (including Arnold) and asked them to find errors and make suggestions. In fact, everyone in Arnold’s group did this, not because we were instructed to do so, there never was a directive, but because of Arnold’s personal example and because it produced outstanding results for all of us.
The upshot came a year later. Another engineering group was struggling with the design of a computer peripheral (a magnetic-tape drive) and the project was in technical trouble, over-budget, and behind schedule. We had the reputation of producing reliable circuits, so someone in upper management asked Arnold’s boss what it was that made our group so much better. He described Arnold’s methods, including the peer reviews. What was lost in translation was the voluntary nature of those reviews, because the next thing we knew we were ordered to review their designs.
Arnold didn’t want to do it. He explained to management that it wouldn’t work, but he was overruled. We went to work, found numerous fatal flaws, documented alternatives, etc. Then the day came for presenting our conclusions to the other team in a formal meeting. Most of the guys on that team were other engineers like ourselves, and before this review process many of us had friendly relations, went to lunch together and bowled together. However, as we walked into the conference room with our data, the air was chilly.
When their group leader entered the conference room fashionably late, he was beside-himself with anger. He stood behind Arnold, who was seated at the table, ranted and used the terms “Nazi” and “Gestapo” to describe both Arnold and our group. Arnold winced, but maintained a professional attitude and a pleasant demeanor. Arnold started the meeting by saying that he hadn’t asked to do this and didn’t think it was a good idea, but had been ordered to do it and so felt compelled to give them our best inputs. What they did with the information was up to them. Then, we reluctantly presented our conclusions and suggestions, handed them our documentation and the two groups parted. None of our results were used by the other team, several of its members resigned in the weeks that followed, and their project went down in flames.