As a young novice Power Plant Summer Help, I had watched seasoned Power Plant Men measure the distance between two points by walking between them and multiplying the number of steps by two. At first I wondered how they could be sure that their strides were all exactly two feet apart. Because the end result of these actions usually came out pretty close to their estimate, over time I began to think that the length of the stride of any respectable Power Plant Man must naturally be two feet.
So, one day when I was working on going to pull a cable from one manhole to the next, I decided I wanted to know the distance before I pulled a lot of cable off of the cable reel. So, I remember that I grabbed the tape measure out of my tool bucket and began walking at as normal of a gait as I could.
I thought if I measured the first step, or even the last step I took that it would somehow be a different size because I wasn’t moving at my normal speed. So. I figured I would surprise myself by just stopping at some random step as I walked between the two manholes.
I don’t know if anyone was watching me as I stood out in the field just north of the two smokestacks, if they were watching me, then they would have saw me pause and stand still for a moment looking down. Start messing around with my feet. Then take a few more steps. Pause once more and do the same thing.
What I was doing was stopping in the middle of my stride when I had just put a foot down, before I lifted the other foot and with my Stanley metal tape measure, I was measuring the distance from the back of one heel to the back of the other heel.
I can’t say that I was too disappointed to find that my stride was not exactly two feet. I hadn’t figured I was completely Power Plant Man material anyway. It turned out to be exactly 18 inches. Or a foot and a half. So, I realized I was about 3/4 Power Plant measured by my stride.
I found that I could easily walk between two points and measure the distance with great accuracy by multiplying the number of steps by one and a half feet. With great knowledge comes great responsibility…. or…um… something like that. Hence the story about how enough was not quite enough.
During the spring of 1992 I was tasked with running telephone cable to various points around the plant. We were going to begin installing a new computer network known as the “Ethernet”. When I first heard the name, I thought they were referring to something in space, where it used to be the belief that there was an area called the “Ether”. But as it turned out, it was the regular network that is still in use today.
Dennis Dunkelgod from Oklahoma City had come to the plant with a bunch of drawing much like they did a few years earlier when they wanted me to install the Dumb Terminals all over the place. (See Post “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“). This time the diagrams included places where PCs were going to be placed. And where the network server was going to be setup. This required much better quality wiring than the dumb terminals.
So, Dennis saw to it that I had 1/2 mile of 100 pair telephone cable to run from the main plant up to the coalyard. Along with the cable came a box of 25-pair punchdown blocks. I’m sure you’ve seen punchdown blocks in movies when someone is tapping into a phone line, so they go up to these punchdown blocks and hook their handset up to the wires and listen in.
One of the places where I needed to place a number of computers was in the warehouse and the warehouse office. There were no good phone lines running to this building. There were barely enough to take care of the phones that were in the office at the time. So, I needed to figure out how to run the telephone cable to the warehouse which was the southern-most building in the main plant grounds.
Across the drive from the warehouse was the garage. When I looked at the phone panel in the garage, this looked like a good place to tap into the phone system. There were two 25 pair blocks in this building for only one phone. Enough for all the computers in the garage and the warehouse.
All I needed to do now was figure out how to pull a 50 pair telephone cable from the garage over to the warehouse. After looking for the conduit that brought the existing cable into the garage, I was able to determine how it went over to a hand hole at the north corner of the building and then over to a manhole not far away.
A hand hole was a shallow hole in the ground that has buried conduit coming into it. Our handholes had a large piece of concrete covering it.
When I looked at the handhole I suddenly remembered that in during the week of March 21, 1981 I had visited the Power Plant to pick up my application to apply for working as a summer help for my 3rd summer. I was wearing a beard that day when I arrived. While I was in college, I usually wore a beard in the winter to keep my face warm because I rode my bike a lot, and it helped keep my face warm.
I had my friend Tim Flowers with me that day because he was going to apply to be a pre-novice Power Plant Man and work as a summer help also that summer. It was snowing that day and it was almost 4:30pm. Quittin’ Time by the time I had said hello to the many Power Plant Men that I hadn’t seen since the previous summer.
We were heading back out to the parking lot when I heard someone hollering at me. I looked over toward the garage and there was Jim Heflin sitting on a backhoe digging a ditch. He had turned off the backhoe so that I could hear him yelling at me.
The Backhoe that Jim was on didn’t have a cab on it. He was all bundled up tying to keep warm. I believe when he pulled down his face warmer, he too was wearing a beard. He said that before he could go home that day he had to finish this rush job to dig a ditch all around the back and side of the garage.
When I returned the next summer Jim asked me if I remembered him digging the ditch in the snow that day in March. I told him I did. Then he said, “Come here.” We walked around the side of the garage, and sure enough. There was the ditch still open leading around the side and back of the garage. He said, “It was such a rush job I had to stay out in the snow digging this ditch before I could go home, and it has been left untouched since then.
The reason I bring this up, was because the ditch he had been digging was for the conduit that went from the handhole around the back of the garage and over to the warehouse. Later that summer the Construction crew from downtown came out to the plant and laid the conduit in the ditch and covered it back up. So, I knew how the cable needed to run from handhole to handhole over to the warehouse. Oh. Before I forget. Here is a picture of Jim Heflin with a beard:
So, back to figuring out how to get the cable to that warehouse. I measured how far it was from the punch down blocks to where it went down into the ground. From there I walked with my normal gait (which I knew was exactly 18 inches – remember?) counting my steps.
I measured how many steps it was to each handhole and over to the warehouse. where the conduit came up out of the ground and went into the warehouse. In this manner I calculated that I needed 775 feet exactly.
I figured I didn’t want to use the 100 pair cable. That was a lot more cable than we would ever need for this job, so I went up to Bill Bennett’s office and told him that I needed 775 feet of 50-pair telephone cable to go from the garage to the warehouse. He said that he would order some.
I don’t remember what time it was when I woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night thinking that the length of cable was just going to reach the telephone junction box, and not enough to comfortably reach the punch down blocks halfway up the junction box. So, when I arrived at work in the morning I went straight to Bill’s office and told him that I should have ordered at least 800 feet of cable instead of 775, just to be safe. Bill told me that he had already placed the order for 775 feet. It was too late to change it.
I thought to myself… surely when you order 775 feet of cable they will send some reasonable amount, like 1000 feet. Would they really cut it off at 775 feet exactly. So, I told myself it would be all right.
Sure enough. a couple of days later a reel of 50 pair telephone cable showed up in the electric shop. In big numbers written on the side of the real in red marker were the numbers “775 ft.” Oh geez.
Ok. Somehow I was going to have to make this work. Cross my fingers that maybe my stride was only 17 and a half inches now instead of 18 inches and I had measured it longer than it really was.
So, I pulled the cable from the garage, through the manholes over to the warehouse. In order to pull it from the last handhole into the junction box in the warehouse I had strapped some mule tape to it that I had strung earlier through the conduit using a fish tape. I remember going inside and beginning to pull the last bit of the cable to the junction box hoping to see the end of the cable come up out the conduit.
As I was pulling the cable, I could feel the cable beginning to bind up as it was tightening up in the last handhole. I was still only holding mule tape when I couldn’t pull anymore. Meaning that I didn’t have any cable yet.
So, I went back to the garage and pushed as much cable into the conduit that I could and still punch down the wires on the punchdown block. I even lowered the punchdown block in the junction box hoping that the extra foot would help. Then I went to each handhole and pulled the cable from the garage in the direction of the warehouse until it was as tight around the corners as it would go.
I had managed to pull an extra 2 feet or so into the last handhole. Now all I had left was to go into the warehouse and pull the mule tape to see if the cable would reach the junction box. — Suspense. Yeah. I know.
When I pulled the last 2 feet of cable from the handhole into the junction box, the end of the cable came out. But only about 1 foot of cable was in the junction box. A punchdown block is about 1 foot long.
So, in order to be able to punch the telephone cable down on the punch down block, I had put the punchdown block at the bottom of the junction box, right where the cable came out of the conduit. On both ends of the cable, I never had to cut one inch of cable from either end. After making sure I had every inch of cable pulled tight through every handhole, I punched down both ends using the handy dandy Telephone wire punchdown tool.
I told myself that from now on, I was always going to throw in a couple hundred extra feet whenever someone asks me how much cable I need. That was too close! You would have thought I learned my lesson.
Now, 22 years later, I still have the same problem as a business analyst at Dell. Part of my job is estimating how long it is going to take to complete various parts of a project. I always make the same mistake and try to over-analyze it so that I can give a really accurate value. The problem is, that I don’t take into account that things take longer than you would think because of factors out of our control.
My project managers know me well enough to take the number that I give them and add a decent amount of time to my estimates. I even tell them that they should because I always underestimate the time. I always estimate how long it would take me to do it personally and I’m not usually the person that is actually writing the code.
Through the last 12 and a half years while working at Dell, I have never missed a go-live date. Oh. Just like this story, we finish on time, but with little or no time to spare. We are always up to the wire. Beginning right when I said we would and ending on the date we planned. Believe me. Just as I pulled every inch of slack out of that cable that day, we end up doing the same with the progress of our projects.
So, I guess I still haven’t learned to properly pad my estimates to reduce the risk of falling short. I think it has something to do with my personality and the way everything has to be mathematically calculated in my head.