My closest connection to the world of design and development is my dad – an electrical engineer who now works designing the chips that go inside pacemakers and heart defibrillators.
Whenever I’m home I’ll ask him about how his latest project is going, if he has any new patents pending, or if I’d recognize any of the stuff he’s working on. The answers are usually “Good,” “Pretty soon,” and “Not really,” respectively.
I didn’t really get what he did, and for the most part I didn’t really ask beyond the basics because I didn’t think it mattered to me. Knowing how these things worked might be interesting, but I didn’t find it applicable to my normal life as a young woman with no real threat of heart issues any time soon and an interest in literature and writing.
At the same time, I’ve always been a big fan of medical dramas – Grey’s Anatomy and House are my current favorites – but until recently I hadn’t really watched them for anything more than some doctor drama and truly absurd medical conditions. One week, the doctors at Seattle Grace treated a kid who had been encased in concrete, which was awesome, in the most over-the-top way.
Over time though, I started to notice medical jargon I recognized from chats with my dad. As Dr. Teddy Altman explained to an elderly patient why a pacemaker was necessary to keep his heart going, I realized I mostly understood how that pacemaker works and what a heart defibrillator does.
Getting all teary-eyed as two old lovers said their last words before surgery, I could see why the devices my dad works on are important, both as technical achievements and as products that can really help improve or save someone’s life. Watching it on tv is fiction, to be sure, but I’d never had the chance to see those things play out in real life.
Since my little Grey’s Anatomy epiphany, I’ve been trying to go through all the things my dad has told me about his work.
I’m now seeing why it’s a big deal when he and his team find a way to make a chip smaller – it helps make the device smaller and less intrusive for a patient. He’s also worked to make devices last longer and work more consistently – helping patients have fewer surgeries and be more confident in the devices they choose. His work is evidence that the tiny details in tiny products can make a big difference.
I’ve tried to bring this lesson to my first couple weeks on the job here at PD&D. At first it was easy to get bogged down by what seems like the minutia of the products we feature (and I still sometimes do). But if I take the time to step back and see the chain, I can see how these tiny products start to make a difference in the products they are a part of or of the products they help to make.
Even products that don’t seem like a big deal can have consequences if they don’t work correctly. Last week, GE had to recall almost 1 million coffee makers sold at Walmart between March 2008 and January 2010 after reports that the product could overheat and cause significant damage or injuries to consumers.
Normally I wouldn’t compare a coffee maker fail to failure of a pacemaker, but both come down to the same issue – when products don’t work as expected, there are consequences, and the failing mechanism can be one of the smallest details.
It took me a long time to see the importance in what my dad does, even if by all accounts his work could be the difference between life and death for millions of patients. Engineers and product developers don’t often look for attention for their work, or maybe even realize what impact it can have. But I suppose that’s where I could come in – being the link between developers and consumers, between the product and the outcome, to show even the smallest details matter.
Have you every had moments when real life and something you see in fiction come together? What other connections are there between what we build and how we see it used in real life? Share your thoughts and comments below, or e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org.