Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 11, 2010

Clients in Space

The fulfillment of a dream I had many years ago — only a pipe dream at the time — is now with reach.

It was 1986 or so. I was probably having a particularly bad week with engineers. Engineers are always the problem when one is a writer. You see, they get those engineering degrees and gain advancement in their field by being precise. Precision is their mantra, their watchword, their religion. They honestly believe that a better world will come to us all if we would just-be-more-precise!

Engineers typically mature in an “iterative” environment in which one continuously improves the product and the process by which one creates the product. A dozen iterations; a thousand iterations; it’s all worth it if by tiny, incremental steps, one introduces infinitesimal improvements and refinements that produce a superior result. This is how they’re trained. You knew them right away in high school. They were the ones who did not mind multiple reworkings of their proofs in geometry class. To them, the process of improvement was concomitant to producing a superior result.  On the other hand, if you’re like me, you wanted to get it right in the fewest possible tries. To hell with process; let’s get it done and move on!

The engineering mindset is fine, on two conditions. First, one must be dealing with finite and concretely provable facts, like the solution to a logarithmic equation or of determining the trajectory of a body of X mass accelerating under Y power through a field of g gravitation. Second, one must have time: time to solve the problem. If time is not flexible, then there are going to have to be some compromises in terms of more resources, more production cycles, and so forth. At this point, let us think about what must have been going on in some little set of cubicles in the NASA offices when President Kennedy declared in 1960 that the U.S. would put a man on the moon before the decade ended. Immediately ten or a hundred engineers whipped out their slide rules (slung low, gunslinger style)  and started calculating how many man-hours of effort would be required to accomplish this unimaginable feat. Time, in that case, was not fungible. They started calculating instead number of cycles of testing, manufacturing, component development, resource investment, etc.

It’s that time thing that’s the problem. If the President of the United States declares that you will do something by a certain date, you calculate what’s needed to accomplish it, assign the resources, and have at it. One assumes that Congress will provide the money.

There are astronomically complex methodologies by which one can do such calculations. Spend a couple of weeks working through one of these methodologies, and you can assure the President that you can put a man on the moon, if you can have access to X dollars, Y number of people and n number of manufacturing facilities on an unlimited basis. The U.S. did something like this to develop the atomic bomb in the 1940s, for example.

I’ve had the privilege, blessing and curse to spend the several decades of my writing career in technology companies. That means that the people I’ve worked for are, for the most part, engineers. As a result, I work with people who have mastered these methodological systems. I stand in awe of their ability to deal with complexity. But the solution of one single complexity still eludes them: language.

Here’s the problem: no matter how many iterations of a presentation I generate; no matter how many synonyms I find for the terms you wish to define, language — particularly the English language — is always going to be a bit squishy. “Squishy” is a technical term denoting the fact that there are always shades of meaning and implication inherent in lingual systems of expression. This drives engineers crazy.

I’ve always wanted to advise the engineers who have driven me to the 13th revision of a particular text that they should have decided to conduct their careers in German. They should, in fact, have gotten their degrees in Göttingen or Leipzig. German is far more precise than English. Take the word “knowledge” as one example. There are something like a dozen different words in German for the concept, “knowledge,” depending on whether the subject in question is something one knows innately, or about which one is informed by study or by reason or by persuasion. English is a wonderful language for con men, for poets and for dreamers, because it relies upon a vague set of inferential values that may or may not have any real value. It is a lousy language for engineers.

Back there in ’86, I had probably been watching the film version of Waugh’s “The Loved One.” There’s Jonathan Winters giving us his line about “An orbit of eternal grace.” At the same time, I was being driven crazy by some engineer in charge of a mammoth new product we were about to introduce, who kept revising and refining the words we used to describe this yet-to-reach-existence product. Eventually, one gets weary of learning that the people on your project had pioneered the first gumball machine, the first credit card authorization system and, oh yes, helped put a human on the moon. I concluded that these individuals did not want to be working on point-of-sale systems for retail stores: they wanted to fly! And I introduced the “Clients in Space” program. The idea was that one would nominate those clients most worthy of being lifted off this globe of ours into an orbit of eternal grace.

In this program, clients are nominated through a rigorous process to be evaluated and chosen for propulsion into space on the next available flight. I thought this was pretty cute back in ’86, but, by god, the dream has come true. The state government of New Mexico has built the first commercial spaceport down near the White Sands Missile Range, east of Truth or Consequences, and they are getting ready to fire people off into space.

If ever there was a vindication of the notion that all good ideas have their time, as well as the fact that no bad deed goes unrewarded, this is the perfect conjunction of all good things.

If you have a client who deserves to be shot into orbit, please let me know, and I’ll be glad to work with you to nominate them for the next round of the Clients in Space recognition.


  1. Can think of plenty of clients who deserved to be shot off into space. But just how safe is this program? I mean, taking the point of view that getting back from space may or may not be what I have in mind for them, this may be huge, what you have hit on here.


  2. I’ve been a fan of Clients in Space since I first heard of the program and this week I’ve encountered some particularly good candidates. The one-way ticket is perfect, and no writing implements allowed on board.


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