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Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas, United States
10 - 15 June 2018
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The Human Side of Astronomical Instrument Development

John Booth presents "How To Talk To Engineer"

John Booth presents at SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation 2018

One of Monday's most popular presentations proved to be John Booth's "How to Talk So Your Engineer Will Listen, How to Listen So Your Scientist Will Talk: The Human Side of Astronomical Instrument Development."

The lines to access the room extended beyond the door and, once inside, attendees responded enthusiastically to the McDonald Observatory research engineer and assistant director as he discussed the finer aspects of the need to improve instrument development, as well as the parallel need to enhance cross-team communications between the engineers and scientists in order to do so.

While Booth acknowledged the palpable cultural clash that often characterizes the engineer-astronomer relationship, he injected a lot of optimism and actionable suggestions into his overview as well.

"As things get more complicated," he pointed out regarding the exponential growth in complexity of telescopes, "teams become more diverse." As our technology develops, he noted, our communication and training must grow as well to incorporate and embrace that diversity.

While it's always imperative to implement robust processes with any project, he reminded the audience that "good processes alone do not make good projects. You can do all the project management right and still fail." Failure in itself is no bad thing, he noted, as long as you learn from your failures and pivot into new directions. "Failure," he said, "is an option," particularly if it's used as a stepping stone forward.

The best way to move forward as a diverse team means involving your colleagues in your work, Booth says, by incorporating an engaging approach; in other words, minimize the need to communicate your world by immersing the other tribe in it:

Take your engineer to the telescope: train them to operate the telescope, take data, suffer altitude, weather, sleeplessness, and balky instrument controls

Take your astronomer into the design world: train them how to manipulate a 3D model, create constraints. Show them what you do.

By sharing their perspectives and knowledge with each other in an immersive fashion, Booth predicts, scientists and engineers will improve not just their communication abilities, but their instrumentation-building skills as well.