Greek Mythology is Relevant to Engineering Management

Quote of the Day

Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.

— Samuel Johnson

Figure 1: Artist's Imaging of Cassandra.

Figure 1: Artist's Imagining of Cassandra. (Source)

The older I get, the more I see the relevance of the classics to modern life. As a boy, I read a children's version of Aesop's fables, which I loved and are still relevant to daily life. Later in school, I read about Greek mythology from a book called Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes by Edith Hamilton. I still have a personal copy of this book that I refer to occasionally. It may seem odd, but the more time I spend in engineering management, the more relevant these myths seem to become.  The last two weeks I have mentioned two Greek myths several times – the tales of  Cassandra and Sisyphus. They seem particularly appropriate to modern management.

Cassandra (Figure 1)  was a princess who was given the power of prophesy by Apollo, but when she spurned his advances, he inflicted a curse upon her where no one would believe her. I frequently have engineers tell me that they had warned someone about some hazard, but their warning went unheeded and the worst occurred. I often refer to these engineers as "Cassandras." All I can tell these frustrated souls is that their obligation is to warn their coworker, but that ultimately the coworker owns their decisions. The most irritating response I have received after warning someone about a risk that was realized is that I should have been more vehement in stopping them. I can only do so much …

Figure 2: Artist's Imaging of Sisyphus.

Figure 2: Artist's Imagining of Sisyphus. (Source)

The other Greek myth that comes up often is that of Sisyphus (Figure 2), who was a very clever king who was cursed by Zeus for his cleverness by making him endlessly roll a huge boulder up a steep hill. Just as the boulder was to reach the top of the hill, it would somehow find a way to roll all the way down to the bottom of the hill, and Sisyphus would be forced to repeat his labor. Sisyphus has come to be a metaphor for any pointless activity that goes on forever. Unfortunately, many engineering projects have a phase where they seem interminable.

I can illustrate this point by recalling a large program at HP that had the code name "Touchstone," a metaphor for a product that will set a new standard for the industry. After it had gone on for a couple of years, engineers started to call it "Millstone," a reference to a bible verse about a man thrown in the water with a millstone around his neck (Luke 17-2). Another year later, they were calling the program "Tombstone," recalling images of death. This is just how some programs go.

This entry was posted in Management. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Greek Mythology is Relevant to Engineering Management

  1. mark tucker says:

    Enjoyed this one. The image of Tantalus comes to mind many days but I have an even better Classical example to offer from my work.

    My company designs wireless devices that use the FCC's unlicensed Part 15 rules. Those regulations are fairly well defined but in 20+ years of doing this we always manage to find subtle points of confusion in the interpretation of those rules.

    We use an FCC service called the KDB - Knowledge Data Base - to send rules queries directly to the FCC for perusal and subsequent opinion. Their responses are always cryptic at best and always remind me of (getting to your point) the incredibly ambiguous answers always provided by the Oracle at Delphi.

    It turns out that clear writing skills are not a requirement at OET (the FCC office that handles our cases). Between the poor grammar, very poor sentence construction and general squishy nature of their replies, it usually takes three or four of us pouring over their response to extract a vague answer. Our advantage over the poor supplicants to the Oracle is that we can at least ask the question multiple times to get a (hopefully) clearer answer.

    I've never received anything back as interesting as "Also the dragon (serpent), earthborn, in craftiness coming behind thee... (the Oracle's admonition to Lysander of Sparta)" but I have fond hopes of doing so.

    • mathscinotes says:

      Both Tantalus and the Oracle at Delphi have many engineering analogs. Great comment.


Comments are closed.