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A Powerful Lesson from a Box of Bolts

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by Larry Pendergrass, Principal

This is the story of the most important lesson I learned in my early career… a lesson taught to me by a wise elderly gentleman and a box of bolts.

nuts and boltsWhile studying physics as an undergraduate in San Diego, I had the great pleasure of working as an intern for 4 years, nearly full time for the Naval Ocean System Center (NOSC, now called SPAWAR: Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command). This was a research lab staffed mainly by civilians, and run by Navy top brass. The projects on which I worked cannot be fully discussed even today. I had a Secret Clearance and worked in one of those vaults like you see in the movies. It was a concrete building with no windows (at least in the lab areas). The only entry was a large bank-like vault door with a grim security guard closely scrutinizing each person as they approached.

Although I cannot give details about the projects on which I worked, I can say they ranged from electronics for smart weapons, to marine surveillance systems, to covert communications. I was given a chance to apply the physics and engineering being taught to me in college, and supplement this with new knowledge and real-world training. The people at NOSC ranged from paternal to crusty, but were generally a joy to be around. I learned about wire-wrapping (yes, it was that long ago) and soldering, reading a schematic and the codes painted on electronic parts (including the colorful Navy-based mnemonics to remember them), operating drill presses, lathes and milling machines, and showing the proper respect to your command chain. I learned about DSP for the analysis of acoustic data, adaptive beam forming for phased arrays, the limits of holography, sonobuoys and triangulation, optical signal processing, and communication using modulated lasers. I became a sought after software programmer using languages few people care about today. As time went on, I was given more and more responsibility to design systems that would make their way into Navy applications. And I credit NOSC and this work for helping me solidify my education and giving me a great start in my career.

But all of this pales in significance to the biggest lesson I learned at NOSC.

It must have been no more that 4 or 5 months into my first year. We had completed a big project, and yet the next project in the queue was not “ready” for us, perhaps not even identified. This lack of certainty didn’t seem to bother the scientists and engineers on my team. Apparently it happened often and they had learned to expect it, perhaps even enjoy the respite. So we just waited and talked, and talked and waited, a half-dozen or so people in a conference room, or someone’s office. We sat and talked for days, then weeks.

Now, sitting and talking to these gentlemen was already a culture shock for me. One person would make a statement or contemplate some question aloud, and then there was a deafening, complete and total silence for what seemed to me an uncomfortable period of time, while the others pondered and considered before giving their carefully constructed response. I had never been with people like this. In my world, everyone talked over everyone else. I was used to a jumble of conversation, clarification, annotation, interpretation, and just general clamor. This was a different world for me: a world of highly intellectual, even brilliant people trading ideas that were sometimes technical, often social and philosophical. It was a more cerebral form of communication than I had experienced. I loved it, but was still getting used to it, and especially in the beginning I preferred small doses.

So, after over a week of this emersion I had had enough. I needed to DO something. And yet the next project was nowhere in sight. I finally broke down talked to a wise and older gentleman acting as my supervisor. I told him that I couldn’t just sit any longer! I was feeling restless, feeling useless. I suppose I was acting like that ill-mannered kid out of school for the summer, obnoxiously crying out “I’m bored! Mom, what should I do?!” My supervisor hardly said a word, but led me back to the lab. My heart was in boundless anticipation as he turned on the radio for me on his work bench (he always listened to a classical music station) and told me to sit down. As I sat, he banged around behind me, rummaging through shelves of various scraps of electronics, unfinished projects and crazy innovations of his. Finally he walked back to the bench carrying with him a 12”x12”x8” box. He opened it slowly. Was he going to take me into his confidence with his most prized side project? What new science would I learn? It felt like I was finally going to learn the secrets of Dr. Frankenstein!

But as he opened the cardboard cover my heart sank. It was a box full of nuts, bolts and washers. He set the box in front of me. And with a wry smile, and a slight wink of his eye, he said “Sort them.” Then he walked out.

So I did. I can’t remember how long it took. It seems the duration extends in my mind every time I think about it. Was it 3 weeks? One month? Two months? It doesn’t really matter. It took a very, very, very long time.

When I ask others what they would learn from such a lesson, I have heard “Never volunteer for anything!” or “Never complain!” And this might have been what my supervisor was trying to tell me. But I don’t think so. I like to think he had something else in mind, because I took another lesson away from this. It has driven me for the rest of my career: “Never expect someone else to tell you what to do. Find out what most needs to be done, even if it scares you, and passionately attack it.” Living this way has opened doors for me, has meant that I have always been challenged, have always been learning, have been always engaged, and have been always in demand. It has turned me from the victim of someone else’s plan (or lack thereof) into a hunter, a hunter for the next interesting and difficult problem on which to work.

I hope you have had occasion to have a proverbial box of bolts set in front of you, and that the task took long enough for you to look at it philosophically, and eventually with gratitude.


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