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Chasing the Wild Goose

Or why the same guys who created the scrap probably aren’t the best ones to fix it.

Fall is upon us and thoughts naturally turn, in the masculine quarters of certain rustic environs, to hunting. In electronics quarters, yearning thoughts turn to purchase orders, government grants, and end-of-fiscal-year spending. Use it or lose it.

Being acquisitive types and cognizant of the changing seasons, our company is about to issue a press release trumpeting our latest service offering: wild goose chases. Enough whining about disagreeable customers. God, in a thoughtless moment, made them that way. They are what they are.

We smell a business opportunity. This is America.

Some history: Eighteen months ago we were approached by a big time aerospace contractor (hereafter referred to as The Prime). Management at The Prime woke up one sunny morning to discover a mountain of nonfunctioning PCBAs (hereafter referred to as The Bonepile) languishing in their various warehouses and depot repair sites. Management being management (They’re really smart. Just ask them: They have Master’s degrees), and recognizing, laser-like, a revenue resurrecting opportunity, launched into a rant, for that is what management does. Said rant went more or less as follows: “Something must be done to rehabilitate this dead revenue.” For after all, and fundamentally, their bonuses, or at least bigger bonuses, depended on it. So Management decreed, “Make it so.” And underlings jumped. For that is what underlings do.

Phones rang. Emails were sent. Urgent inquiries were made. Powerpoints were composed. Meetings were held. Desktops were emphatically slammed. Non-negotiable priorities were set. RFQs and SOWs (Statements of Work) and other acronyms were dispatched. The Prime was like a supertanker: slow to move yet, once in motion, unstoppable, physics being not just a good idea but the law. Stuff was getting done. Gross national product needed producing: Our nation was at stake!

Enter us, the testing guys, recipient of phone calls and emails and SOWs and RFQs, possessors of the skills and experience to actually do this, being exhorted to get stuff done on our nation’s behalf, competitively bid. Always competitively bid. Gotta have two vendors. Always two, like Noah’s Ark. Ensures survival of the species. But fast: Because The Prime’s Management calculates there is five million dollars in realizable revenue contained in The Bonepile, and if some angelic force could be entrusted to realize that revenue, then 2013 would be a good year indeed for Management of The Prime. Time is money. And management is nothing if not obsessed about both.
So in April 2013 we dutifully put together a detailed proposal to enable The Prime’s wishes to come to fulfillment and bonus nirvana to be achieved. We would take in field failures and rehabilitate them, troubleshooting the failures to the component-level root cause, repairing them, then restoring them to service after validation in The Prime’s system test. This is, after all, what test engineers do.
Ours is a small company. Really small when set next to a publicly traded behemoth like The Prime. Our entire workforce would easily fit into one conference room at one of The Prime’s operating divisions. In full recognition of that reality, we approached the quoting and proposal-generating process with a sense of foreboding; namely, that we were too small and insignificant to be treated seriously by a huge company such as The Prime. We resigned ourselves to the probability that once submitted, our proposal would vanish, never to be heard from again, perhaps a victim of death by overanalysis in some conference room gulag.

Imagine our surprise, therefore, when we were informed several weeks later by our point person at The Prime that we were the leading candidate for the business. Further, would we be willing to fly at our earliest convenience to brief Management on the details of our proposal? Time was of the essence. Don’t ever forget what time equates to.

Until it didn’t. Following initial elation at this expression of interest, nothing. The Prime marches to its own metronome. All we were told was that Management was evaluating their options, and not to book tickets for an explanatory visit. A month passed, and nothing could be heard except the mellifluous sound of crickets chirping.

Then, finally, an explanatory dismissal: Management cancelled the project, on the grounds it was superseded by something of a black (secret) nature. Case closed. Thanks for coming.

Hours down the drain. Lucy pulled the football.

Until April 2014. A new SOW unexpectedly and without fanfare arrives in the email. Its essentials faithfully reproduce many of the important points of the previous year’s SOW. Same goals. Same urgency. Four candidates for the business, which continued to grow (Bonepiles do that when not attended to). Regroup. Forget all past trespasses.

This time we do book tickets to present to The Prime. Before quoting. We want to look them in the eye and gauge their seriousness. We’ve come this far. We’ve wasted enough time. We have resource allocation decisions to make if we do this. So this time we’ll evaluate their intentions up-close and in-person whether they want us there or not. We also want to tell them directly that they will need to throw out The Prime Rulebook in managing this business. Stop acting like a government agency. Scare them into recognizing the reality that for this kind of business, the rules of engagement are often made up as you go along.

June 2014. The visit takes place. A 75-slide PowerPoint is delivered, describing our qualifications to do the work and our equipment (hardware and software) to accomplish it. The representatives of The Prime are not stupefied by our presentation (I know I would be). They remain upright. They ask lots of questions. They act like they spend many of their days reading and reacting to large PowerPoint presentations. They make it clear they are concerned about federal regulators because we are not certified to repair boards to the degree that they are. We pledge to get certified as a condition of engagement. This satisfies the room. We fly home exhausted but happily awaiting the next steps.

July 2014. We are told two of the four aspirants to The Prime’s bonepile business have dropped out of the running. Ironically they are contract manufacturers. Two remain: Us and one other aerospace-oriented EMS provider. We are told there will be a build-off between our two companies (It’s World Cup time), with the winner getting the spoils, i.e. the bulk of the bonepile business. The two remaining companies are invited to tour The Prime’s repair center, to get an on-site view of how they manage their repair business today, and how our skills fill in the anticipated gaps.

More plane tickets. Up and back in a day. Stale airline peanuts and pretzels. Navigation in unknown neighborhoods by GPS. We find the place after several wrong turns (GPS PCBA manufacturer was obviously the low-bidder). Facility tour. Lots of bad boards. Really old boards too, ’70s-era through-hole technology. Makes me never want to set foot on an airliner again. Lots of people milling about looking semi-busy, hoping a discerning individual won’t notice they aren’t really busy. Work expanding to fill the time and space available, while accomplishing little. Nobody with a sense of urgency (Government business). Must be nice. Short of committing a felony you have a lifetime job. More questions. More Powerpoints. By implication, more analysis. Reiteration of intent to have a build-off with our immediate competition. But when? Where’s the RFQ? We fly home wondering where things stand. Will our hundreds of research and engineering hours ever be compensated?

August 2014. The RFQ finally comes, listing 11 leading PCBA candidates for bonepile rehabilitation. The Prime wants a quote for each, but assures us again that initially the program will involve one or two part numbers that are representative samples of the larger whole. If we prove ourselves on two boards, then many more boards will follow. This is urgent. We are implored to return our quote by the 15th. A few days later the deadline is extended five days because the other guys need more time. We don’t, so we go ahead and submit. Cue crickets.

One week later, summary judgment and sudden death. A Dear John Letter. Thank you for participating. We value your input, after careful consideration, blah blah blah. The whole outsourcing program is being abandoned (again) in favor of internal resources and a new capitalization initiative, whatever that means. Too expensive, too time-consuming, and too unwieldy to outsource to vendors not set up officially in the ways of The Prime. Too risky. Wouldn’t be prudent. Too much explaining to do to the Feds. Thanks for your input, though. We’ll keep it on file, and keep you in mind (@^$^@@^!@$$!!) for future projects. Oh, and through this process, we learned a lot, for which you have our thanks. Good luck in future endeavors. Have a nice day.

Management has spoken. The case is closed.

Lucy pulled the ball again. Only this time Charlie Brown has a concussion.

Bye-bye, Bonepile. Which, of course, keeps growing.

And that business opportunity?

T-shirts. Emblazoned on them, the following: “Engineering is not free. You still have a problem, and we still have a solution. Ask The Prime.”

Should sell about five million worth of ’em.