• BANG

      I swivel my head from the javascript on my screen to the diesel engine in the back of the boat just in time to see pieces of rubber flying around. Our boatsman quickly shuts down his engine and uses our momentum to get us to the shore of the Irrawaddy river (Myanmar) that we have been sailing on the last few days.

      In this type of boat the power of the motor is, normally, transferred to the drive-shaft using three strips of old car tire that function as a rudimentary damping system. As an engineer I can appreciate it: using locally available materials as a “just good enough” solution to make sure that if the propeller hits some resistance, the motor isn’t instantly destroyed but rather the tires absorb the shock. The tires do wear out over time and for one of the strips “old” just became “too old”.

      On the shore the boatsman quickly manages to find a new strip of old tire. Good! But… He needs a toolkit to make holes in the strip of tire and didn’t bring any. But: he can phone a friend who can be with us in two hours. I look over my shoulder to our GPS drifters that lazily float down the Irrawaddy. Yesterday we already lost trackers because locals fished them out of the water: to not lose any more we need to stay within shouting distance. I get out my Leatherman and offer to help the boatsman. In no time, we have made two holes in the tire that fit the bolts on the motor and on the drive shaft. We add some of my duct tape for good measure and fifteen minutes after the incident, with the floaters still in sight, we are ready to go again.

      A post shared by Rolf Hut (@researchrolf) on

      I return to my screen, where was I? I was debugging the Javascript on my website, using my phone as a mobile hotspot, so all team members of this fieldwork, scattered on different boats, can track the GPS drifters in real time on their phones. GPS drifters that I programmed to call in every 15 minutes to upload their location. Drifters that, after a bigger boat ran over one, I had to scrounge using locally found Styrofoam, rope, bricks, pens and ducttape. Fingers all greasy from the motor, I continue debugging.

      I look from my laptop screen back to the motor and realize that doing fieldwork sounds a lot like working in a startup. It means working with a small team of scientists in isolation, gathering as much data as possible in a short time frame. When something breaks down, someone has to fix it: you can’t go back home to find the top most expert in diesel engine maintenance, someone in the team needs to MacGyver the hell out of that broken engine. So when locals started fishing our sensors out of the water, the team needed to be flexible, agile even: ready to pivot and find another way to gather the data we came for. These are the same type of problems that startups face. When a database breaks down, someone needs to fix it, even if nobody in the team is world class expert on databases.

      That is why startups hire full stack programmers: Full stack means you manage the entire stack: from the zeros and ones in the a computers physical memory, to the code that runs the website. In other words: everything. Of course, as soon as the startup is big enough to expand, specialists can come in. Back in the labs of Delft University of Technology we have world class experts that can help me: from diesel engine optimization to Javascript specialists. But this is fieldwork, and like in a startup, those specialists are not available and someone needs to fix that engine. And that website.

      A post shared by TU Delft (@tudelft) on

      With the motor purring I look from the drifters just downstream of us back to my laptop screen where they suddenly pop-up on the map: precisely in the right location. Yes! I may not be an expert in anything at all but we are going to bring this data home, because:

      I am a full stack engineer!


      PS I am one of three finalist in the Dutch "Engineer of 2017" award! If you think I should win, you can vote for me here: kivi.nl/vote-pfip
      PPS TU Delft TV made the awesome video below, including drone images, of our fieldwork. Thanks to all colleagues and institutes (see credits in video) involved for making this possible.