Design Balls

A friend once told me about one of his introductory computer science classes, wherein a fellow student would occasionally stop the professor to ask “Yeah, but, how do we know what computers can do?!?”. The professor didn’t really have a great answer for him, and after a while the student gave up asking and dropped the class.

It’s easy to think that this person just did not have it, whatever it takes to be in computer science. Naturally, he should leave because he had no business in the class in the first place. And in a sense, yeah, that’s precisely right, he didn’t have It, and It is quite necessary. But I wonder whether what It was is something that could be gifted by the professor or another student, or if he could have continued with the lectures and exercises for a while before It began to dawn on him, and things would start to crystallize.

I also wonder whether It was, to quote a phrase that popped up unbidden in my head just a while ago, “design balls”. Because I remember a time when I didn’t have my computer program design balls, when I was basically bluffing it, and now I really have It, and I’m not bluffing. I’ll have to do some serious introspection to determine when the magic transition happened, though I can say that luckily it happened well before I was taking formal courses in computer science, so I didn’t have the great difficulty outlined above.

You can build a textbook definition of the design process by stringing together various phrases:

  • define need
  • derive system outline
  • calculate component parameters
  • analyze expected system response
  • simulate or prototype system
  • verify conformance to the specification
  • ship design artifacts to manufacturer for implementation

blah blah blah, you know what I mean. Those phrases even make sense to someone who is already past a certain point in their design education. But there’s an unspoken, ummm, let’s say, glue, that holds the pieces of the process together. I don’t know if it’s unspoken because it’s impossible to speak of, as my lame analogy suggests, or whether it’s just that sort of silence that develops around certain conceptual vortexes in a field, for whatever reasons.

And for now, I’m going to give up on speaking about this. Not forever, because now that I’m pondering it, I feel like it’s a really important thing, and perhaps there is hope and help for those who want to have It but don’t yet have It, and maybe It is teachable. Hmmmm.

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