Raúl Curbelo Remembrance

Last night, the New England Society of Applied Spectroscopy had an evening of remembrances for Raúl Curbelo. Raúl was a pioneer in the development of spectroscopic instrumentation. I worked for Raúl  at Digilab from 1978-1982. I spoke last night. Here is an excerpt of my comments:

I can’t speak to the breakthroughs Raúl developed in FT-IR or to his patents. I can speak to his management skill and his humanity.

My favorite image of Raúl is when he would sit back in his chair, shake his head, and say, “You guys give me such a headache.” All the while, his leg pounded up and down. Then we would work on the problem at hand.

Raúl taught me a lot about project management. Once, I was trying to explain a project to him. It was my first hardware-software combination project. He jumped up, went to the blackboard and started drawing boxes on the blackboard. He explained this was a PERT chart and it was a reasonable way to approach a project. Now, he wanted to know, what did I need to do first?

We played with the boxes—where they went, how long they were—until we were both covered in chalk. Finally, we had a schedule we could both live with. Starting a project like this meant you couldn’t hide. We had transparency and reasonable schedule until the next time we met. We met weekly until the project was over. You might say this was my first agile project, because the entire team had deliverables each week.

Raúl didn’t just teach me about managing projects. He also taught me the value of an engineering notebook. He explained I should take notes at meetings, take notes about my code, take notes about anything that confused me, to use my notebook to know what to do and learn about my work. Later I learned this was called journaling.

I kept an engineering notebook. I learned many things from my notebook. I learned that I was capable of writing an infinite loop in a minimum of 7 ways. And, when our marketing colleagues committed to action items, I had that in my notebook too.

When I encountered trouble porting a database from one format to another—a project both Raúl and I had expected would take no more than 2 weeks, I used my notebook to note how dirty the data was. I built a table in my notebook of all the exceptions so he could see what I was doing.

Raúl was my first manager to suggest writing down the fixed parameters and the variable parameters in my engineering notebook and seeing if we couldn’t change the fixed parameters if changing the variable parameters didn’t work.

My notebook discipline came in handy later.

Several years after Digilab, I was a software engineer at a machine vision company. We were trying to develop printed circuit board inspection systems, specifically for the pads on the boards. I was working with a couple of PhDs in optics, to develop algorithms so we could win some contracts.

We ran into trouble. Using standard factory floor lighting, there was too much reflection on the board to be able to rapidly and consistently acquire an image. We played around with the light location and camera location, and nothing worked.

I suggested different colored lights—after all, if white lights didn’t work, maybe something else would. My more-knowledgeable colleagues scoffed at me: “That can’t possibly work.”

I asked if they had better ideas. Nope, but mine couldn’t work. Ok, time to change some fixed variables and see if I could make it work.

Armed with a credit card, I went to Wolfer’s Lighting and bought several different fluorescent bulbs: warm white, red, pink, blue, and green. Using my engineering notebook and the test algorithm I’d developed, I could prove that the warm white and the green bulbs provided the best results, and that the green provided far superior results to anything else. Until cameras had higher resolution and were faster to acquire images, the organization used green bulbs.

At the time, I could hear Raúl saying, “Write down your experiments. Write down your findings. Organize them so you can explain them. Use your engineering notebook to guide you.”

Raúl was my manager, teacher, and friend. He extended me technical trust. He’s probably rolling over, saying, “You guys give me such a headache.” Thank you, Raúl.

May his memory be a blessing.

When I think of great management, I think of Raúl. How are you being a great manager today?

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