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Robert's Rules

3 min read


Once upon a time, there were rules. They gave order to my career from the first day of my first electrical engineering course. It was then that I was introduced to Ohm's Law. For a whole year, I dealt with the many possible manifestations of this one great rule that defines the relationships among voltage, current, and resistance. There were countless problems involving such long-forgotten concepts as current loops and Thevenin's theorem.

The rest of my engineering education was similar. In these engineering courses, there were relatively simple rules underlying all behavior. Educational life was reduced to endless repetition: given a particular problem, apply the appropriate rules, derive a solution, and so on.

When I started in industry as an engineer in the Bell System, there was a similar rule-driven paradigm for business behavior. No one who ever worked in that company will forget something called the "GEI"—the giant loose-leaf binder containing the General Executive Instructions. These were the rules of employment.

In that thick binder was a rule for any situation that might be encountered in the business environment. Need to have a paper cleared? What about outside employment or when it would be proper to receive an honorarium? How should you handle an employee with a drinking problem? Every conceivable event had its own page with the relevant rules.

Those were the quaint days when there were twice-daily deliveries of paper mail. On each of these deliveries, my mail would contain new inserts for the GEI. In addition to these new pages, there would be instructions that certain pages should now be removed. The rules kept changing, but mostly they just grew. It seemed as if my secretary was kept busy just making sure my GEI binder was up to date.

I used to wonder where these rules originated. Who was making them up? I imagined that it was the mail department writing them secretly at night in order to fill up their mail baskets and promote job security.

The omnipresence of the rules was so palpable that the absence of a rule in a particular situation was a disturbing event in itself. These disturbing events would usually herald new pages for the GEI. The greatest exception was the lack of clear-cut rules for how employees would be evaluated in the annual performance review. Time and again, one of my subordinates would complain about this. "How am I to be judged?" he or she would plead. "There must be rules." The implication was that without written rules, management could not be trusted and would undoubtedly be rendered incompetent.

After several decades of this, one day the rules seemed to disappear. I don't know when it was, and perhaps it happened so gradually that I didn't notice until much later—like now. I surely don't recall hearing any proclamation like "Henceforth, there will be no rules." Nevertheless, the inserts for the GEI became less regular, and then sporadic. The Bell System itself was torn apart, and perhaps whatever group was responsible for creating the rules was shipped to some doomed offshoot.

My theory is that life was growing so complicated that the number of rules was increasing without bounds. Before long, every employee of the company would have been occupied with the task of writing and distributing rules, and no one would have been left to do the actual work. Rules were becoming both too expensive and too constraining. Someone must have recognized this and decided that life would have to proceed without rules and would become—well, fuzzy.

I think much the same thing happened to all my cherished rules of engineering. Somewhere, I am sure, Ohm's Law still applies, but I'm no longer confident about just where. As the size of circuits shrinks, the life of the electron becomes complex and fuzzy. In the presence of electromigration, parasitic effects, quantum tunneling, and other phenomena of the small, the electron may not realize that it has to obey Ohm's Law. For every rule I used to know, I have to stop and ask myself: what were the assumptions behind this rule? Do they still apply? Worse yet, there is no Ohm's Law for software. In the face of its enormous complexity, it can't be depended upon to behave as if it knew any rules.

Living without rules gives us an uneasy freedom. We make up things as we go along amidst an increasing uncertainty and unpredictability. Life in the business world, and in technology, is fuzzy.

Robert W. Lucky (F), now retired, was vice president for applied research at Telcordia Technology in Red Bank, N.J. ( ).

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