SURVEYOR'S NOTEBOOK

Build a Little, Test a Little and Learn a Lot; A Waterpomptang story

By Rik van Hemmen

 

Note: The Waterpomptang family is fictitious and occasionally a Waterpomptang story appears on the M&O website. Some say their adventures resemble real events, but that is just a coincidence.

 

It was early morning at Watt & Fulton’s office above the BuyLo Packy in Red Bank. After the VC investors had overcome their initial uncertainty and discomfort with the rugged surroundings, and met more of the Watt & Fulton personnel, they started to warm up. They all took a seat in the creaky white oak surplus Liberty ship chairs in Willem’s office and eagerly started discussing the proposal which they had asked Willem and his staff to evaluate with regard to technical and financial risks. It was a novel and technically interesting maritime project, but Willem immediately had some reservations. The VC’s wondered how they could repackage the program and Willem suggested they should focus on “build a little, test a little and learn a lot”. They refined the project and developed a plan that everybody felt was more suitable and less risky. It was almost lunch, and Willem suggested they would get something to eat at the Molly Pitcher. Marina who had come in late after returning from American Samoa really early that morning, also joined them.

Soon everybody was comfortably seated in the expansive dining room at a round table near the window and Willem’s guests commented on the beauty of the wintery Navesink River.

Drinks and lunch were ordered. Soon the drinks arrived and the party toasted to the success of the venture. Marina and the youngest VC were having a sidebar conversation.

Marina turned to Willem: “Dad, you have used that “Build a little, test a little, learn a lot” line before, but where does it come from?”

Willem answered: “Do you want the long version or the short version?”

“Please; the short version” Marina said right away.

One of the older VC’s pitched in: “At my age it might take me longer to understand, how about the medium version?”

Marina groaned; Willem ignored her.

“Well”, Willem said:

The medium version would start with Wim, my father who had not yet retired, getting a call from an attorney in DC about 15 years ago. The attorney asked him if he could help with a fraud and bribery case. It turned out that an Asiatic country had asked a large European military contractor to build a number of frigates for their navy. The RFP explicitly stated that no bribing could take place in securing the contract. Once the contract was placed, it was discovered that bribes to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars had been exchanged and people were getting killed to make the trail run cold. The Asiatic country had engaged the DC attorney to sue the builder and to recover the cost of the bribes from the contract. That required experts to figure out how much the vessels would have cost to build without bribes, and Wim was asked to provide an opinion. Bolle, that what friends generally call my father, knows a lot about maritime construction costs but very little about combat system costs, and after Bolle was hired, the attorney also engaged a retired admiral.

The project starts and after a few weeks Bolle walks into my office and says: “Willem, I really would like you to meet this Admiral I have been working with. I really enjoy working with him and he is a very interesting person.”

I had been part of the military industrial complex in my early career, and one thing I did not warm to easily was retired Admirals. There actually is such a thing as the Peter Principle. Often Admirals typify the concept and, when retired, are particularly useless as consultants, since they have forgotten how to get a job done on their own. I sort of blew my father off and made no effort to meet the Admiral.

A few weeks later I came back from a job and the Admiral was in the office. As a matter of fact, he was sitting in the same chair one of you sat in this morning because my office used to be Bolle’s office.

My father called me over and said: “Willem I would like you to meet the Admiral.” I shake hands with the man and exchange a few pleasantries. He was certainly a nice man and had a very unadmiral like demeanor. As a matter of fact he could easily have been a brother of Bolle, both in demeanor and appearance. He was an engineer.

Over the next few months Bolle occasionally updates me a little about the case and how he and the Admiral were in Asia investigating issues and in Europe investigating issues and how much he enjoyed working with the Admiral. I was glad Bolle was having a good time. Also glad that, so far, he had not been killed in the general intrigues surrounding this matter, and maybe this Admiral did not fit my stereotype after all.

Next Bolle tells me the Admiral has invited Truus and him to a ship christening in Bath, Maine. I say, “Oh, a destroyer I suppose. I suppose it is an Arleigh Burke, what is the name of the ship?

Bolle answers: “Wayne Meyer.”

I say: “yes, I know Admiral Wayne Meyer invited you, but what is the name of the ship”

And Bolle says: “Rotzooi Willem, the ship is named Wayne Meyer!”

A US Navy ship named after a living naval officer is rarer than underbudget naval construction. I knew there was a submarine named after Admiral Rickover and he might have still been alive when it was launched, but that was about it.  I ran to my computer and searched Admiral Wayne Meyer on the internet and that stopped me in my tracks. Wayne Meyer was the father of the Aegis combat system! I can sing his praises for the next few hours, but, in the simplest terms, he was the man who solved a really tough problem; how to prevent combat system technology from being obsolete the moment it was commissioned. He took a modular approach and decided the way to get ahead was to build a little, test a little, and learn a lot. He solved an almost impossible problem by doing, but not overdoing, and the Aegis combat system continues to be the gold standard of naval combat systems and continues to be improved as we sit here. It is so successful that the Aegis system solved the Star Wars problem after billions had been blown on other approaches.

The food arrived and Marina commended Willem for his brevity and his unusually appropriate timing.

Willem raised his glass: “I never saw Wayne Meyer again, he passed away before his destroyer was commissioned. I never got to enjoy a chat with one of the greatest naval engineers of all times, but I raise my glass to his wisdom. Learn from your elders, it will keep you from making the same mistake twice.”

Characters:

Wim (Willem Fokko) Waterpomptang, originally a blacksmith, but became a Chief Engineer in the Dutch Merchant Marine (this would be Hoofdscheepswerktuigkundige Waterpomptang) and mostly sailed to the Great Lakes and the Mediterranean. No fan of the English, but loved the Scots. Referred to as Oudopa by his descendents. Passed away in 1992.

Wim Waterpomptang, President Emeritus, Watt & Fulton, Ship Surveyors and Engineers

Started as a sailing engineer at Holland America Line and then started to work for an American Ship surveying company in Rotterdam.

Transferred to the United States with his family just before the Bicentennial.

Joined Watt & Fulton in 1980 and bought the company with his son, Willem, in 1993.

Owns a 28 foot Olson Sea Skiff named “Froetjers” and drives a 1993 Dodge K car. Hates cars. Keeps his boat at the Molly Pitcher.

Nicknamed “Bolle” by his old friends (Means “round one”). Called Pa by his kids and Opa by his grandchildren.

Any stranger he meets he calls “My Friend”. Anytime somebody says something that makes no sense he says: Rotzooi! (A not too rude word for mess, mix-up or confusion)

Loves his wife Truus and bacon, hates to travel. Drinks Lairds and cold beer. Is distrustful of people that eat porridge and oatmeal for breakfast. Hates melted cheese.

Willem (Willem Fokko) Waterpomptang President Watt & Fulton, Wim’s son

Sails and iceboats. Aerospace and Ocean engineer and Professional Engineer. Is somewhat autistic and sometimes has trouble figuring out what people mean. Helped by his partners and office staff in maintaining human contact.  Nicknamed “Dutch Uncle” due to his inability to behave tactfully. Married to Anne Gardiner, fortunately of Scottish descent.

Marina (Marina Gretchen) Waterpomptang. Economist and Environmental Scientist with a Masters degree in System Engineering from Columbia.

Daughter of Willem. Works for the company as an independent consultant. Travels the world and does weird things, sometimes for W&F.

Will (Willem James) Waterpomptang

Son of Willem. Mysterious Character. Also an engineer but now works as a lawyer in mysterious acquisitions and deals. Married to Shruti a big data engineer from India.

Polara (Polara Ruth) Waterpomptang

Daughter of Willem, marine biologist, artist and environmental activist.

Watt & Fulton, an ancient ship surveying and engineering company, founded by descendants of James Watt and Robert Fulton and world renown for dealing with the thornier maritime issues.

The company used to be based in New York City, but moved to Red Bank, NJ after the Whitehall Club closed.

­­Today W&F is located across the railroad station above a packy store in the Mexican section of town.