Michelangelo: Customer-Focused Engineer
“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”
After racking up over one million travel miles worldwide, I finally made it to Rome. I took, of course, a mandatory tour of the Vatican to experience the genius of Michelangelo, where his bold strokes cover the ceiling and far wall of the Sistine Chapel, and his exquisite marble Pieta ushers us into St. Peter’s Basilica. Listening to the tour guide, I realized that Michelangelo’s genius was in fact a synthesis of two things, God-given artistic talent, and an engineer’s practical approach to problems focused on customer satisfaction. While most of us don’t possess Michelangelo’s brilliance, we can all learn from his common practices and apply them to our task of building and operating telecommunications networks. And when you combine this with our everyday talents, it can make all the difference.
- Extend yourself
Michelangelo trained as an artist and a sculptor, but his passion was for the latter. When Pope Julius II asked Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he resisted strongly, even fleeing Rome. Yet, when the Pope insisted (and assigned guards to make sure he stayed put in Rome), Michelangelo threw all his energy and creativity into the task. The result was art rendered as sculptor, alive in a heroic, fluid, and muscular way, that affects and delights us at many levels, both overtly and subconsciously. We should aim to delight our customers in the same way.
- Plan for mistakes and adjust
The chapel ceiling features nine panels - three dealing with creation, three with Adam and Eve, and three with Noah and the flood. Michelangelo decided to paint them in reverse order, to build up his technique before he tackled lofty representations of God. After painting the first three panels, Michelangelo removed the scaffolding and for the first time was able to see his work clearly from the floor, 21 meters below. He was aghast. He had painted with too much detail, which went unnoticed from the floor level. Michelangelo adjusted in the next six panels, going for far less information in large majestic figures. No one talks about the Noah panels. We all know about the finger of God. The lesson here is to put ourselves in the mind of the end-user when designing our products and services, so that they are easy and intuitive to use. This should also be a permanent warning not to put too much information on a single slide.
- When faced with constraints, innovate
Michelangelo was under intense pressure by the aging Julius II to complete the ceiling, so that he could preside over its dedication. Conventional fresco techniques used an arduous process to transfer drawing outlines to the wet stucco before being painted. Michelangelo developed a method to speed up this process, and in fact, defying convention, often painted freehand. The ceiling was dedicated in November 1512, four years after the project’s start and three months before Pope Julius II’s death. No one argued that the result was inferior. The quote that comes to mind is that necessity is the mother of invention. When faced with adversity and pressure in our own work we should not look for excuses, but for a better way.
- Quality starts before the project starts
Beyond its translucent beauty, what adds to the perfection of Michelangelo’s Pieta, is something one may not notice because it is absent. It displays none of the the cracks and flaws found in the almost all contemporary sculptures. It is a continuous smooth flowing surface of flesh and cloth rendered in sublime white-grey-blue Carrara marble. This quality is present for a reason. Michelangelo personally went to the Carrara quarry to select a single block of pure marble with almost no flaws or cracks. The result is a masterpiece that has withstood the test of time. While we may not be designing for posterity, the lesson is that we must be totally immersed in the quality of our products and services, throughout their design, development, and deployment lifecycle.