Integration hard!

Just before Covid kicked-off I presented a one-day session at Saïd Business School at Oxford University on ‘Systems Integration’ .. I.e., joining all of the bits (software, electronics, mechanics) together and making them work as a system. I’m not sure that I managed to convey just how difficult that step in bringing a system to life can be. For one thing, it is the place where all of the hidden assumptions and ‘minor’ errors reveal themselves. Practically, in ‘big systems’ work it typically means a dedicated laboratory or workshop. It means multi-skilled people on hand who can systematically build early versions of the equipment and diagnose the issues and problems. Even with the advantages of a dedicated, co-located facility it can be a time of frustration and tension.

So it is ironic that I now find myself focussed on Systems Integration at the sharp end. And more problematically – our team does not have a co-located, shared facility to bring all of the skills and brain-power together. For me this has meant working far outside of my comfort zone. As a software and systems engineer, it has been a long time since I actually fettled electronics .. and I can’t claim to have ever been that good at it when I did!

Consider the practical difficulties. Firstly, supply-lines are slow at the moment. Then there is the huge frustration of ordering components on eBay that advertise as being “shipped from the UK within 2-3 days” .. only to discover that they are actually coming from China and will actually take 15-20 days to arrive. I’m sending out a big ‘Thank you’ for that.

Secondly, there is the issue of co-location. To do early integration tests I, as a software engineer, need some test hardware to run the software on. But I don’t have it. And the people in the team who are good at building it are at the other end of the country. So, I have had to dust off skills from 30 years ago and build my own.

Then I ship a prototype box to the experts in mechanics who doing the final build. They, have also received some more electronics from the people who know about connecting things together electrically. But what if the software needs to be modified or calibrated? That means teleconferencing and remote working to solve problems that are hard-enough if you are all in the same room.

Now I am not complaining about this. Actually, this project is one of the most demanding, engaging, interesting and exciting ones I have ever worked on. Under happier, less urgent circumstances it would be a delight to work with such a dedicated, hard-working and collaborative team. I, for one, am learning something every day.

But the clock ticking and the calendar turning over does raise the stakes and the anxiety levels. When we hear of other teams making good progress we rejoice – and just think how different that is from a normal, commercial engineering project!

We know that we are close to our “fast build” release going into full-scale testing. Team members have released other vital components on the way. We are also in a great position to continue with our more advanced “Systems Engineered” product. But I also know that for next year’s course at Saïd Business School I will have more to say about just how difficult this integration step is.


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