Technical Leadership Lessons from Edison

If Thomas Edison was working at a defense contractor today, he would probably be the world’s most effective principal engineer, teaching us valuable technical leadership lessons. Although he’s most widely known for the invention of the light bulb, Edison holds a total of 1,093 patents in the United States. To date, he is acclaimed as America’s most prolific inventor. That level of productivity simply does not come from a single individual. To put it plainly, Edison’s greatest achievement was his ability to master the art of delegation.

But sometimes the formula for delegation can be harder to solve than anything else in the field of engineering. We don’t claim to have all the answers, but we do have one tool that can get you started on the right path. RF recorders are already well-known as a powerful diagnostic tool, but are often overlooked as an effective means of delegation.

In the past RF recorders have been more of a niche instrument, used sparingly in a few special cases. Advances in storage and processing power today have transformed RF recording into a tool that’s appropriate for daily use. Instead of spending hours in the field waiting for a 5-minute problem to occur, an RF recording allows you to delegate that field work with confidence. 

Most fieldwork consists of logging “pass”/“fail” data. With any luck, more of the data will be “pass” than “fail”. While this seems like good news, it’s not actually a very good use of engineering time. This situation is ripe for delegation. With an RF recorder, you can send your more junior team members or technicians into the field to observe and record for long stretches of time. When there is a fleeting moment of failure, an RF recorder will ensure that it’s captured and flagged for offline review by your senior engineering team. 

Consider this delegation workflow:

  1. Continuous recording with markup. While continuously recording, technicians make note of the time periods where there is a failure/interesting case. 
  2. Share data. Recordings are shared with colleagues across multiple teams. 
  3. Reproduce failures. Playback field recordings in a lab environment to replicate failed conditions. 
  4. Implement design changes. The engineering team becomes engaged to implement corrective design changes. 
  5. Regression test against recordings. Technicians test new design changes against all previously recorded field data.   

One of the most important takeaways from the workflow above is that your senior engineering team is engaged in only one of the five steps. They retain their focus on the most challenging problems, creating solutions without being distracted by the minutiae of the day-to-day field testing. For innovative technical leadership, this is the kind of workflow that’s sustainable. By reproducing an RF recording in the lab, your attention is isolated to specific cases that need resolution.

If Thomas Edison had personally tested every possible filament, he would have become the bottleneck instead of the leader of an invention factory. He figured out the golden formula of delegating work without allowing the important details to slip from his vision.