4 min read

Facts or feelings

When is caring about feelings a suboptimization?
Facts or feelings

Show Notes

You know, there's something that blows my mind every time I see it, the Golden Gate Bridge. Every day about 112,000 vehicles cross over the bridge which connects San Francisco and Marin County. The main span of the bridge is about 1300 meters which is just short of a mile, and it's about 227 meters high which is about as high a 70 story building. Now, the Golden Gate Bridge is a suspension bridge, which means that the part you drive on is actually dangling in the air suspended by massive cables. The physics of a suspension bridge is absolutely fascinating. Most suspension bridges need to withstand very high winds, so the roadway on a suspension bridge needs to be very thin and flexible. The design of the system actually reduces overall stress because flex in the road is transmitted to the supports via the cables. In other words, a suspension bridge is actually designed to flex. If you make the thing too rigid, it will just collapse. But there can't be too much flex. With too much flex, the bridge could suffer from aerostatic flutter. Aerostatic flutter happens when harmonic motion causes the bridge to oscillate by itself. Think about playing a harmonic on a guitar string. Now imagine that happening to a suspension bridge. Aerostatic flutter is what caused the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to collapse in a very big windstorm. Pretty scary.

Now, the story of how the Golden Gate Bridge came to be is actually pretty amazing. Visitors to the bridge are presented with a huge plaque that gives credit for the bridge's design and construction to a guy named Joseph Strauss. Now Strauss was a businessman who had built about 400 inland dry bridges, primarily railroad trestles. So he had no real experience building suspension bridges. It comes as no surprise that the proposal he presented to San Francisco's city engineer was kind of a disaster. Strauss's design was a hideous combination of cantilever and suspension that would have blown apart in a high wind, no doubt about that. Despite the inadequacy of his design, Strauss actually won the bid eventually. But he had to make a very important concession. San Francisco would only give Strauss the project if he agreed to bring in outside consultants with specific expertise in bridge design. Now, by all accounts, Strauss was kind of offended, his feelings were hurt, but in the end, he had to concede. Otherwise he would lose the business.

Now, here's where it gets really fascinating. Straus brought in a consultant by the name of Leon Moisseeff, He was the engineer who designed the Manhattan Bridge. Now, Moisseeff produced a much more aesthetically pleasing design. Everyone loved it. He also hired a principal engineer named Charles Alton Ellis. Ellis was a mathematician who did much of the project's intellectual heavy lifting. Without his engineering chops, there would be no Golden Gate Bridge.

Now, despite Ellis's contribution to the products, Strauss managed to get Ellis fired from the project before its completion, and then he refused to give Ellis credit or acknowledgment. So lame. As a matter of fact, Ellis didn't receive formal credit for his contribution to the bridge until 2007 when the Golden Gate Bridge district formally recognized Ellis's contributions.

The story of the Golden Gate Bridge amuses me because it is the exact same psychodrama that plays out every single day in every tech company on the face of the planet. Building stuff always involves a tension between facts and feelings. Tech is no different. In the case of the Golden Gate Bridge, Strauss had to squash his hurt feelings in order to progress. But what if facts hadn't won the day? What if Strauss had been able to hold the bridge project hostage to his titanic ego?

Interesting. Let's take a step back and look at the problem from another frame. Here's a fun thought experiment. This thought experiment comes in two parts. Imagine that you live on an island. It doesn't matter where. But what matters is that if you want to get to the mainland, you can take one of two bridges. Whichever bridge you choose, you will get where you're going in the exact same amount of time. Both bridges look the same. The view is the same. The traffic is the same. Everything is the same. Well, almost everything. Despite the superficial similarities, the bridges were actually designed by different companies. The first bridge was built by a company called Acme engineering. And when you walk into the Acme offices, their corporate values are displayed on a gigantic banner. The banner reads like this. Healthy workplace culture is our top priority. Therefore, we value everyone's opinions, we honor all viewpoints, we treat everyone with respect. Awesome.

The second bridge was built by a company called Zenith engineering. When you walk into these Zenith offices, you find that they also have their corporate values displayed on the banner. But this value statement consists of a single word, just one word, math. Now, here is the thought experiment. Every day you have to drive to the mainland to drop your spouse off at work and your kids off at school. That means you have to drive over one of the bridges with your entire family. Which bridge do you choose? Do you choose the Acme bridge or Zenith bridge? Now, I know which bridge I would choose.

Let's get to the second part of the thought experiment. Part One was a curveball, here comes a slider. Let's imagine you are on the job market. You must be pretty great because, after a little bit of searching, you end up with two job offers. And now you have to choose which offer are you going to accept. In outward respects, the jobs are exactly the same. Same title, same salary, same benefits, same prospects. They're practically interchangeable. Except one offer is from Acme engineering. The other offer is from Zenith engineering. So the question is, where would you rather work? The company that honors all viewpoints, or the company that honors math. And on that unsatisfying note, I'm gonna peace out. Remember to hit me up on Twitter. My handle is Teddy Kim. And if you get something out of this podcast, I would love it if you shared it with a friend. Until next time.

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