The Scotty Principle

I was born in 1970, which as it turned out was the perfect time to be born 🙂 I grew up watching Star Trek reruns as far back as I can remember (and the ’73-’74 animated series!) and was of the oh-so-impressionable age of almost 7 when Star Wars was released. At that tender age, the two fictional characters I most wanted to be like were Luke Skywalker and James T. Kirk (an interesting juxtaposition all into itself). Both fit in with the type of hero worship that Joseph Campbell so well outlined in the The Hero with a Thousand Faces – and certainly since Campbell consulted with George Lucas on Star Wars, that part doesn’t really come as much surprise. Kirk was certainly a much more complex and ‘adult’ character in many respects though, and it was he that I truly wanted to grow up to be.

I also admired Spock’s intellect and logic, and found things to like or admire about most of the other characters. However, there was one character that seemed more comic relief than any thing else: Montgomery “Scotty” Scott. I laughed at the brogue and his histrionic explanations to Kirk about how he couldn’t change the laws of physics or that he needed more time. In all truth, as a kid I thought of him more as a piece of the set than a fully-developed character.

Over the years however, my estimation of Scotty has changed. I was reflecting on this the other day and realized that I had become a Scotty. While I do a number of things at my day job, a significant portion of my time is spent managing multiple websites. I am constantly presented with directives from above that someone absolutely needs Content X to be displayed just so on Website Y, and they need it up and working in 5 minutes. Never mind that what they’re asking for is impossible or much more difficult than they know. Never mind that it’s going to take much longer than that 5 minutes and that it will, in fact, require me to spend even more time because I have to re-engineer it to work with whatever crazy thing they asked for yesterday.

So what do I do? I invoke the “Scotty Principle“. I pad my estimate on time/resources required and get it done sooner than estimated. Why? Because, as Scotty knew, if you don’t, you’re just going to be buried by the next crazy thing that’s asked for. As long as there are people who are going to ask for things without understanding the consequences (I mean, we have to be due for a shortage of that, right? Right!?), there will be those of us invoking the Scotty Principle to bring some small measure of sanity to our lives.

I put forward that Montgomery Scott is the parton sci-fi saint of all of us called upon to actually use and understand the technology all around us. It’s one of the funny things about sci-fi/speculative fiction/just-pick-something-to-call-it-already: most of the stories don’t really involve someone, as a major character, who actually fundamentally understands the technology and science highlighted in the story. Or at least if they do, it’s offered thinly – because, let’s face it, people who don’t know what they’re doing in fiction are far more interesting than someone who has all the answers. Sure, Luke is shown cleaning some droids and putzing around with his fake hand, Kirk can re-wire a phaser to explode, and Deckard can zoom in and enhance a photo – but you get the feeling they’re merely “power users” whereas Scotty really is a goddamn engineer.

This is the reason I’ve come to re-evaluate my feelings towards Scotty. He doesn’t just live in a world of advanced science and technology, he is the very embodiment of it. So, if you’re one of those who uses technology without understanding it, that’s fine — not everyone can, but give thanks to all the Scottys that make the world you live in possible. And if you too are a Scotty, go ahead and invoke the Scotty Principle – it’s the most important tool to bridge the world of too many variables (people) with the world we know and love (technology), whether it be bits or bolts.

Cheers to you Scotty!

2 Replies to “The Scotty Principle”

  1. Scotty estimates are not actually good in engineering. Managers tend to catch on to inflated estimates and then start chopping them down. That’s why one of the corner stones to agile software development is transparency. Let the product owner see how estimates shake out sprint after sprint, and let them observe the deliberations of the team as estimates are made, and they’ll soon discover that estimates are just that… estimates. Once that is done, any manager worth working for will quit mucking with the estimates.

    1. For engineering related to development, I would certainly agree. For keeping technology up and running, in the field as it were, I still think Scotty had the right of it. Especially when everything is a “red alert,” it’s easier to increase time estimates by 25%-50% percent, so when things *do* go wrong, you’re still able to get it done within a given timeframe. It’s less about chicanery and more about setting expectations appropriately. 😉

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