Rocket Science

imageEarlier this week one of my friends shared something on Facebook from Mental Floss. Those guys usually post interesting, albeit obscure or forgotten information, but I like weird stuff so I pay attention. This time, it was one of those lists that sound like they’re from some self-appointed authority figure titled: “25 Dumb Phrases That We Hear Way Too Often” (yes, I do write articles like that, but mine are different). They picked lame phrases like “24/7” and “it is what it is” which are definitely tired. I also find “It is what it is” annoying. It reminds me of a guy who said it a lot and he was annoying. “24/7” is only mildly annoying. To be truly annoying you need to add “365.” “24/7/365” is annoying not only because it’s overused, it’s dumb. You could say “24/7/52” or just “24/365” and be less dumb but equally or possibly more annoying. Mental Floss is right though, nobody does anything 24/7. Anyway, getting back to my title, the 9th item on their list made me think of my best friend John.

“It’s not rocket science!”

Part of me was amazed to see this on a list of tired expressions in 2014. This phrase was tired in the early 80’s when John burned it into my memory.

We were working for the (then) Big-8 firm of (then) Peat Marwick Mitchell & Co. I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that ‘Co’ stood for ‘co-partners’ and not ‘company.’ Companies were the things Peat Marwick audited. Peat Marwick ditched Mitchell & Co. a little while after Sears dumped Roebuck. The Big-8 merged into the Big-6 and later, according to John, the Final-4. People have stopped counting how many large accounting firms there are, but back when there were 8, being part of the Big-8 was something special. So special, some companies were scared away.

John was trying to convince a potential client to let our consulting group help them implement a system. We made a lot of money helping people implement systems, because companies often needed extra bodies or specific expertise to keep things moving. The potential client was impressed with Peat Marwick but he wasn’t sure we were a good fit – until he talked to John:

Client: “We need some help, but I’m not sure I can justify paying your rates. I mean, I don’t think we need a rocket scientist here.”

John: “You absolutely need a rocket scientist.”

Client: “Wha…?

John: “People always say that a job doesn’t require a rocket scientist as if every rocket scientist sits around designing rockets. There are lots of different kinds of rocket scientists. You have people who design rockets, you have people who build rockets and you have people who fly rockets. You also have people who paint rockets and you have people who sit around and watch rockets fly. We have all kinds of rocket scientists at Peat Marwick.”

Client: “What’s the going rate for rocket painters?

John: “I could put a rocket painter out here for less than 50 bucks an hour.”

I’m not sure that the audit Staff-B that got assigned to that engagement (that’s what we called our projects), would have been happy being tagged as being a rocket painter, but like most people in the firm, they probably only cared about being chargeable. I used to feel bad for those guys. They had college degrees, most were smart and they worked very hard while being paid much less than that rate per hour. Still, we referred to them like inventory items. “I need a couple of B’s up here” or “toss a couple of B’s on that job.” One time when I was working with John, he told me “we’re going to need some arms and legs…” I stopped him and said

“John, these are intelligent people. I don’t think we should refer to them as arms and legs.”

John looked at me and said:

“actually, I don’t need their legs; I just need them to sit and crunch some numbers.”

I tried to hold onto my ideals but resistance was indeed futile. In 1984, I was managing a very large engagement in Lowell, MA. I called the Boston office and asked for 5 B’s for a week of mindless number crunching. Monday morning, each one reported to me to get the engagement number (first things first, we need to be chargeable). Most of them took a few minutes to introduce themselves, make a little small talk, waste a little time before starting the drudgery. The last guy walked in and said something like: “Hi, 432-55-1989.” The number was his employee ID; the number he would be using to charge my engagement. It would have also been his social security number since we weren’t worried about identity theft back then. I started to say: “look, I like to be a little more familiar with the staff on my jobs…” but I stopped. I looked at him and I realized, “that’s all I really care about” and I said: “thanks, down the hall to the left. You’ll see some tables. Report to Stacy.”

The fact that the firm wore me down, that I acquiesced to the practice of reducing people to arms and legs came as no surprise to John. It had to happen sooner or later. Oh well, It is what it is.

10 thoughts on “Rocket Science

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  1. Picture – That’s the space shuttle Discovery on the pad, ready for liftoff in a few days. Truly the work of rocket scientists, but somebody did have to paint it. The photo was taken by David Pennington while he and I were touring the Kennedy Space Center in 2005. Click on the picture to see more of David’s photos.


  2. I worked with a guy who was a bona fide Rocket Scientist. He was lapsed, in that he was doing management consulting (which doesn’t merit the capitalization), but he had the training and degree to prove he was the real McCoy.

    He used to say “Rocket science? What’s so hard about that? You put stuff in a tube and you blow it up!”

    He didn’t say it 24/7, though.



    1. I would guess that real rocket scientists would feel less compelled to you Earth-based time conventions. I like that definition – “put stuff in a tube and blow it up.” Takes some of the magic out of it. Thanks for the comment Marc.


  3. I seem to remember having one our stupid, fussy conversations when I pointed out thar 24/7/365 was in incorrect progression and that logically, the proper progression was 24/7/52 – way back in the early 2,000s. Oh what wonderful conversations we have had in our tome – grin from the UK.


    1. David, I do think you are responsible for pointing out 24/7/52 but I didn’t want to tag you with being “more annoying than 24/7” but since you have (is this where you would say “so there you have it”?). Thanks for dropping by.


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