Michael Paluszek is an unapologetic fan of the Space Age. The only trouble with it, he says, is that it never came to fruition.
Still, Paluszek can dream, and when he does, he tempers his dreams with the exacting demands of physics and business. A graduate of MIT and an actual rocket scientist who has worked at MIT’s Draper Laboratory and GE AstroSpace in East Windsor, Paluszek founded Princeton Satellite Systems in downtown Princeton in 1992. Two years ago he moved his business to Plainsboro, where he and his crew constantly develop new and better space navigation systems, alternative power hardware, and software programs for the world’s space agencies.
At MIT I took courses in many disciplines. I even took one course in entrepreneurial businesses. One course I didn’t have (and they didn’t teach), was how to manage people and relate to people in business settings. This would include employees, co-workers, customers, government employees, military people, vendors and many other groups.
My dad was an engineer and I remember that he had a book by Dale Carnegie, “How to Make Friends and Influence People.” He must have felt the same need.
When you start work as an engineer the first thing that happens is you that go from an academic atmosphere to a team environment. All engineering projects are done in teams, so immediately you need to deal with co-workers and bosses.
As you gain seniority you begin to supervise other engineers and you begin to meet and interact with a greater range of jobs at your company. You may work with technicians, clerks, assembly line workers and other blue collar workers. You may work with higher levels of management. Eventually, you will meet with customers. If you write papers, you interact with reviewers and with listeners at your talks.
Should you become a small business person you will further expand your interaction with lawyers, bankers, local government officials, landlords, and others. You’ll deal directly with federal officials from many branches of government.
You will also interview and hire employees. You become directly responsible for people’s careers. You promote them, give them tasks and evaluate their work. Their families may very well depend on you.
My course would be “Human Interactions: Feedback Control.” Here you will learn that the main issue with learning to interact with other people is that every interaction constitutes a feedback loop between you and that person. You say something to someone, they respond, and you respond to that. Everything you do affects the other person and their responses affect you. Interactions can become unstable.
The first rule to control-systems design is to know the system. We need a model of all elements of the system. In this context it is understanding the person with whom you are interacting. As mentioned above, it is very hard to know people well enough despite the best efforts of human resources organizations. In many circumstances, like meeting someone for the first time, you don’t know anything. Of course, you must also have a model of yourself. Since you are part of the system you must also make sure that you understand your own personality and motivation. You might think this is easy but self-understanding is not everyone’s strong point.
Feedback is the way controls engineers deal with uncertainty. If you had perfect knowledge of an employee you could tell them what to do and they would execute your directions perfectly because you would tailor your directions to that individual. Unfortunately you don’t have perfect knowledge, so you need feedback.
Feedback allows you to deal with lack of detailed knowledge about individuals. But for feedback to work you must shape your responses, otherwise the system (meaning your interaction with the person) could go unstable. I’m sure most people can cite examples of just this happening.
One simple rule is that if the gain is too high, all systems are unstable. Thus, if you start yelling, the other person is likely to respond in kind and you both are likely to begin acting in an unstable manner.
Another rule is that if you are too “high bandwidth” you will respond to noise. Everyone says things they don’t really mean or does things on impulse. This is noise. If you respond to every little thing someone says or does you will waste a lot of time and energy.
Another thing you learn is that the more measurements you have the more likely it is that your interactions will work well. This means that person-to-person meetings will generally work better than phone conversations — which in turn will work better than E-mail or Twitter exchanges. Person-to-person meetings are the best way to get a model of someone (i.e., get to know someone) quickly because you have more measurements (visual, hearing, etc.) to gauge.
This all works well if the business environment and the people with whom you interact don’t change much. If they do, you must change. This is known as adaptive control. The complication is that you are changing your approach (or control system) in response to measurements of people and the business environment.
Unfortunately, as any controls engineer can tell you, all adaptive control systems are unstable. Thus all adaptive control systems need to have a reset switch. This means that your methods for dealing with a particular individual might need to be reset if it appears that it is not working as your adaptation might lead to instability with dire consequences. Thus, you must always be ready to reset.
Your final grade in this course is 30 percent problems sets, 30 percent the final exam, and 40 percent how well you get along with the teacher. After all, interactions with your professor also constitutes a feedback control system.
#b#Princeton Satellite Systems#/b#, 6 Market Street, Suite 926, Plainsboro 08536; 609-275-9606; fax, 609-275-9609. Michael Paluszek, president. www.psatellite.com.