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Lessons from Skunk Works


Recently, a good friend convinced me to dive into a book I initially approached with scepticism. However, after delving into its pages, I can confidently say it has secured its place among my top favourites. "Skunk Works" is the pseudonym behind Lockheed Martin's Advanced Development Programs (ADP), written by Ben Rich, offering profound insights into their operational dynamics and monumental achievements.

The book was truly remarkable in numerous aspects. It shed light on their groundbreaking technologies, how they operate and handle classified information within their workforce, their effective strategies for navigating political obstacles, their innovative approaches, how the CIA operated, and how they reused technology from previous projects.

One thing that I can highlight: the engineers were forced to be in the shop, touching what they designed so that they could understand it. The workforce in the workshop followed the Japanese way, and they owned the quality assurance.

It was fascinating how they iterated over prototypes, and how they built the SR-71; they were a "Lean startup" in the fifties!

Personally, I found immense value not only in the technical intricacies laid out but also in the invaluable soft skills lessons. The final chapter should be mandatory in the school curriculum; it's a masterpiece to achieve simplicity!

Here are my favourite quotes:

“Ben, why don’t we make the stealth fighter automated from takeoff to
attack and return? We can plan the entire mission on computers, transfer it
onto a cassette that the pilot loads into his onboard computers, that will
route him to the target and back and leave all the driving to us.” To my
amazement they actually developed this automated program in only 120 days
and at a cost of only $2.5 million. It was so advanced over any other
program that the Air Force bought it for use in all their attack airplanes."
“I enjoyed the goodwill of my colleagues because most of us had worked
together intimately under tremendous pressures for more than a quarter
century. Working isolated, under rules of tight security, instilled a
camaraderie probably unique in the American workplace.”
"To buck smothering bureaucratic controls inside or outside government takes
unusual pluck and courage. Smallness, modest budgets, and limiting
objectives to modest numbers of prototypes are not very rewarding goals in
an era of huge multinational conglomerates with billion-dollar cash flows.
There are very few strong-willed individualists in the top echelons of big
business—executives willing or able to decree the start of a new product
line by sheer force of personal conviction, or willing to risk investment in
unproven technologies. As salaries climb into the realm of eight-figure
annual paychecks for CEOs, and company presidents enjoy stock options worth
tens of millions, there is simply too much at stake for any executive turtle
to stick his neck out of the shell. Very, very few in aerospace or any other
industry are concerned about the future beyond the next quarterly
stockholders’ report."


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