The Myth of the Engineering Trade-off


There is a well understood concept in engineering and project management called a trade-off. Because people work with limited resources, it is assumed that their capabilities are limited. This is true to a point. People can do so much with what they are given, and nothing more. The inevitability of a trade-off is a damaging lie, however.

What makes it untrue is the simple equation:

People ≠ People

There is no such thing as two identical people. When it comes to the activities, like engineering, where this trade-off concept is commonly touted, even the same people aren’t the same people. Bob, the engineer, is going to perform differently than Bob, the engineer, depending on a multitude of factors. So when you limit your thinking to the paradigm of the trade-off, you close yourself off to the aspiration of “And”.

The power of “And” is limitless and is only possible when people are concerned. I am sure you could find dozens of physicists and aeronautical engineers who could have proven on paper and in computer simulations that it was impossible to safely, and with no casualties manually land an Airbus A320 on a river. Before January 15th, 2009.

On that date, Captain Chesley Sullenberger wasn’t thinking about saving as many people as he could. He was focused on saving all of them. Trade-offs were all around him and dominated his reasoning, I’m sure. But he wasn’t going to accept a less than optimal solution.

I saw a photograph of the “GOOD – CHEAP – FAST” sign illustrated above and considered how it sums up an experience I am having at this stage of my business venture. Middleware (the software that moves data between applications) is often confused with software and is often mistaken as being subject to engineering trade-offs. Its Key Process Indicators (KPIs) are the same as most software and even parallels the service industry as reflected in the above sign.

This is to be expected, because middleware is data logistics. And since it is quite similar to material logistics, it is a service, not an application. Middleware’s KPIs are:

  • Speed
  • Reliability
  • Security
  • Cost

These attributes are commonly regarded as trade-offs. You can have cheap, but it won’t be secure. You can have fast, but it won’t be reliable. All this pragmatic thinking gives people an excuse to accept less than optimal solutions to their data logistics problems.

When I first retired from Caterpillar, I set about to discover some middleware that I could learn to use and build a consulting firm around. I decided to develop my own middleware platform because I am averse to trade-offs. I believe that the middleware that is Fast AND Reliable AND Secure AND Affordable has not been built yet.

I am currently seeking people who believe as I do to join me in building the optimal solution, because I am sick of accepting trade-offs.