Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Advice for well-read technocrats; Putt's Law and the Successful Technocrat, by Archibald Putt. Illustrated by Dennis Driscoll. Smithtown, N.Y.: Exposition Press (325 Kings Highway, 11787).

By Peter Grier is a Monitor correspondent based in Washington. / August 5, 1981



It was bound to happen. Out there off the beltways of America, in labs so dust-free they make Nancy Reagan look messy, the acolytes of high technology are shaping our future. And now, for those scientists and engineers who brought us smart credit cards and video mud-wrestling, comes the inevitable: a book written by one of their own.

Skip to next paragraph

"Putt's Law" will be quite funny to those who understand the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It will be even funnier to all the software analysts who know their boss needs help to turn on a light switch. Its amusement quotient for those who did not get past geometry, however, is less clear.

In essence, the book is a "Peter Principle" for the world of scientific research and development. Did you think all that exotic technology was managed by men who knew what they were doing? Not so fast. Putt's Law states that "every technical hierarchy, in time, develops a competence inversion." In other words, all the people who can actually understand vector analysis remain on the bottom. The man who can't balance his checkbook will become president of the semiconductor company. Now you know whose idea it was to produce video mud-wrestling in the first place.

Archibald Putt is a pseudonym. The book jacket claims he is a well-known scientist, with scads of degrees, who has worked his way around many technical hierarchies. The prose is remarkably sinewy, considering the subject matter, except for one marvelous bollix of a sentence: "At the present rate of increse, fifty years from now, the stack of published papers printed annually would be high enough to reach all the way around the earth at the equator." Perhaps he slipped it in on purpose, as an example of how trendy technocrats are abusing their metaphors these days.

Putt's book contains valuable advice for ambitious technocrats, most of it derived from the smoke-and-mirrors school of management. As Putt says, "The troubled technocrat must convince his management that the failure is actually a success. General guidelines for accomplishing this do not exist, so there is considerable opportunity for innovation."

As a scientist, Putt can even spin out impressive mathematical formulas proving such aphorisms as "the maximum rate of promotion is achieved at a level of crisis only slightly less than that which results in dismissal." A logical corollary of this is: "If you must fail, fail big; or, failure to fail fully is a fool's folly."

The basic theme of the book, for students of literature, is man vs. committee. It reinforces our secret belief that no one above us in the hierarchy knows what he is doing. However, at face value "Putt's Law" implies that no one in the scientific world above the level of project manager can administer a dinner for two. This may be a surprise to the folks at companies like Intel, where htey learn six new things to do with semiconductors every day, before breakfast. It rings truer if you apply it to Chrysler R&D.

Quick, what does CPU stand for? If you know, you'll probably enjoy Putt's Law. If you don't, perhaps you'd be better off with the "Peter Principle" itself, or a book of Doonesbury cartoon s.