Brian’s Laws of Instrument Engineering


Engineers and product designers know that after working on a collection of projects over several years, you see trends and correlations in how projects unfold. Sometimes it’s approaches and behaviors that work well and correlate with success, other times its decisions or symptoms that portend failure.

This is a collection of “natural laws” I’ve seen in a variety of instrument engineering and design projects. Some of these are rules-of-thumb or sayings I’ve used or learned from mentors and co-workers, other are quotes or insights I’ve come across that made me realize I’ve seen the same thing in my daily work.

As I encounter new insights that are particularly incisive, I will continue to append them to this list.

Brian’s Laws of Instrument Engineering:

  1. If you can’t afford to do something right, make sure you can afford to do it wrong. This applies to both budget and schedule.
  2. There is nothing more permanent than a temporary solution.
  3. That factor of 2 (or 10) will get you every time.
  4. Engineering is done with numbers. Analysis without numbers is only an opinion.*
  5. (Edison’s Law) “Better” is the enemy of “good”.*
  6. A bad design with a good presentation is doomed eventually. A good design with a bad presentation is doomed immediately.*
  7. (Patton’s Law of Program Planning) A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.*
  8. (Nyquist Rate for project timelines) In an organization with project evaluation period T:
    1. Projects which complete within 0.5*T will deliver per original plan (no product aliasing)
    2. Projects with delivery schedules approaching or greater than T will face budget/scope/resource modifications, creating the potential for product aliasing
  9. (de Saint-Exupery’s Law of Design) A designer knows that he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.*
  10. To work on improving a design, you have to first make it work.
  11. (Helmuth von Moltke’s law of project planning) Even a perfect project plan won’t survive first contact with the customer.
  12. (Steve Jobs’ law of project performance) Customers don’t measure you based on how hard you tried. They measure you based on what you deliver.
  13. The first step towards change is often the most challenging.
  14. (Woody Allen’s law of success) 80% of success is showing up.

* Special shout out to Akin’s Laws of Spacecraft Design which inspired me to create this list.  Many of his laws are applicable to more than just spacecraft, and I find inspiration in his list every time I browse through it.

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