Printing Impossible Power Plant Fast News Post

Originally posted: July 12, 2014:

Tom Gibson, the Electric Supervisor at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma didn’t have a clue the large can of worms he opened the day in 1988 when he told me to find out all I could about the company computer in Corporate Headquarters…. The one that ran all the important financial systems for the company. I remember going straight down to the Electric Shop office and sending a request for a username on the Honeywell Mainframe to the IT department, with Tom’s approval.

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

This story is a continuation of two previous stories…. Last week I wrote a post called: “Power Plant Customer Service Team Gone Wild“. This is the next shoe that dropped in that story…. Earlier this year I wrote a post called: “Toby O’Brien and Doing the Impossible“. Well, this is the second story in the list of “Impossible Things” Power Plant Electricians were able to accomplish when others said it couldn’t be done.

As a reminder… and in case you didn’t read last week’s post…. as a summary….. let me just say that I had printed out a form on every printer in the company as part of a “Quality Idea” our team was investigating. In doing so, I sent commands to the printers to change their quality settings, as well as the Font Size and a few other settings. When I ran the little known command that sent the document to every printer listed on the mainframe, I didn’t realize that this included all the billing, paycheck and work order printers that all had their special kinds of paper and setting for those particular jobs to run.

This was probably the biggest “Faux Pas” (pronounced “Foe Paw” — yeah…. French… which literally means: “False Step”) of my 18 years as an Electrician. Before I tell you about how the second shoe dropped… Let me explain that a few weeks before I had hit enter on the keyboard sending the disastrous command to the Mainframe, In June, 1993, I had found an interesting program on the Honeywell mainframe called “Magna 8”.

It had to do with creating reports from the main database. This was the entire database that ran the Electric Company Business! I thought this would be a great program to learn in order to create all kinds of reports for our plant that would help us understand where our efforts were being spent. I thought I might actually be able to tie our Maintenance Orders to the time the employees spent on them to their wages, and to the cost of the parts used…. Nothing like that existed at the time, and the little I was able to read from the Magna 8 User Manual on the mainframe, this seemed like just the ticket..

We had never heard of SAP, or other ERP systems at the time. — Oh… sorry… ERP stands for “Enterprise Resource Planning”. It does just that. It combines all the company’s business together in one application so that you can account for all the costs down to each machine, person, and part. If I could learn more about Magna 8, maybe I could start piecing these pieces together from the database. I was having one problem…. When I would page down in the user manual, it kept skipping the bottom half of every page….

I couldn’t figure out how to stop it from scrolling past the second half of each page. So, I called in a favor from the IT guys downtown and asked them if they could send me a printed copy of the Magna 8 User’s Manual. They said they could be glad to send me a copy. About a week later, I received the User Manual through company mail. It was about 4 inches thick.

There were different sections. One was called: “The Update Module”. Yeah…. That’s right…. It was used to enter data into the database…. I thought about that module for about 2 seconds and decided I best stay away from that one. Then there was the “Reporting Module”.

That was the one I was looking for. — on a side note…. I know “for” is a preposition, and I know you aren’t supposed to end a sentence in a preposition, however, who doesn’t say, “That’s what I was looking for”? In these circumstances, I figure that I better approach it from a whole different angle…. like…. “That’s the section I really wanted.” — End side note.

A couple of weeks after I received the copy of the Magna 8 User Guide, I sent the infamous form to all the printers in the company, and that’s when I was sort of had all my “atta boys” taken away with that one “Uh Oh”. I was all prepared to watch my step while on the mainframe. About a week after the episode in Tom’s office when he told me not to send anything outside the plant without Ron Kilman’s permission, my foreman, Andy Tubbs came in the office and told me that in two days, I was supposed to go to some training in Oklahoma City.

“Oh. Training!” One of my favorite things! I always liked to learn new things. I asked Andy what the training was for (Oh geez… did I really say that? “For” at the end of the sentence again! — how about “I asked Andy what kind of training would I be taking” — yeah…. that’s what I said…). Andy replied, “Something called ‘Magna 8′”.

Oh No! I hadn’t asked for training! I had just asked for the user guide! Now I was scheduled to go to training in Oklahoma City and I knew that no one at the plant had “okay-ed” it. Now what was I supposed to do? I did the only thing I could think of at the time…. I asked Andy where I was supposed to go at Corporate Headquarters for the class.

Since I knew that this class hadn’t been approved by Tom Gibson or even our A Foreman Bill Bennett, I decided that I was going to go on my own dime…. that is, I wasn’t going to expense anything. I would pay for my own mileage and lunch, etc. Hopefully, no one would notice that I was gone that day. — Anyway, I could always fall back on the fact that my own Foreman Andy had told me to go….

So, when the day came, I drove to Oklahoma City and entered Corporate Headquarters dressed in my cleanest steel-toed work boots and my cleanest tee-shirt!

I chose this picture because they look like my boots, only I never wore the toes out so that you could see the steel toes.

I chose this picture because they look like my boots, only I never wore the toes out so that you could see the steel toes.

Yeah.  Just like this

Yeah. Just like this — not not really

When I introduced myself to the instructor, Scott Overmeyer, I told him I was surprised that I had been scheduled for this class. He told me that since I had requested the User Guide that he figured that I should attend this course so that I would know how to use Magna 8 to create reports. — Well, that explained it.

The classroom was short on computers so we had to share one computer between two people. I sat in the back row on the right side if you are facing the instructor. A young lady sat next to me. Her name was something like Laura Burgert. We didn’t introduce ourselves right off the bat. We spent the morning learning about how our database was structured.

Our database was not what is referred to as a “relational database”. I’m not even sure if that term was being used at the time…. anyway, we had what is called a “Hierarchical Database”. The relationships are more like a family tree. If you needed to connect the data, you had to go up the tree to where you could go back down another branch… sort of like if you were into Genealogy and you were looking for your 3rd cousin twice removed. This was all new to me.

I found this diagram of a simple Hierarchical Database model on Wikipedia

I found this diagram of a simple Hierarchical Database model on Wikipedia

Anyway, this isn’t an important part of this story, so don’t strain your brain trying to figure it out.

When noon came around and we were just breaking for lunch, Laura Burgert said to me, “You’re Kevin Breazile! You’re the guy that printed out that form on everyone’s printers!” I replied, “Yeah, that’s me. I sure was in trouble for that one.”

She replied that they had been trying to do something like that for a long time. Then she explained… “I work in the Communication Department and we create the Fast News Bulletins that are sent out to the printers….”

You see… this was what you had to do before e-mail was available…. When there was some news about the company that they wanted to disseminate to all the employees quickly, they would send out a Fast News bulletin to the printers and we would post it on the bulletin board in our area.

She continued to explain….. We have asked IT to give us a list of printers that we should send the Fast New Bulletins, because we know that our list is old and we are sending some to printers that messes up billing jobs and other things…. I said, “Yeah. I know all about those.”

She continued to explain some more…. IT told us there isn’t any way to tell which printers are good printers and which ones we shouldn’t be sending Fast News Bulletins. I replied, “Well…. I know which ones are good and which ones are not. I have all the forms that were sent to me. You can tell right away by the paper they are printed on, and if that’s not enough to give you a hint, just read the ‘colorful’ notes they wrote to me trying to convince me not to print on their printers anymore…”

Laura said it would be a great help if I could send those forms to her. I said I would do it as soon as I was back at the plant.

When I arrived at the plant the next morning, and Andy Tubbs told me that Tom Gibson was upset when he found that I had gone to Oklahoma City for training when Bill Bennett had mentioned it to him the day before. He had been all hot because he hadn’t approved any training and here I was going off on my own to Oklahoma City. I told Andy…. Well…. You did tell me to go….

Anyway, after that I gathered up the stack of around 500 forms and carried them up to the mail room where Denise Anson helped me put them in a small box to mail them to Laura Burghart.

A few weeks went by and Laura called me on the phone. She asked me how I had created the header on the forms. You see, I had created a header with the name of the company and part of the name was normally smaller and had one word over the top of another so….. well…… let me just show you…..

An example of the Company Memo Header on our Dot Matrix Printer

An example of the Company Memo Header on our Dot Matrix Printer – without the “Quality” turned on

Notice the “GAS/AND” in the middle of the name of the company…. — This doesn’t look like anything to you today, because we now have laser printers and Publishers and all sorts of Word Art at our fingertips. But back then, printing this from a mainframe document took some work…. let me explain, just to give you an idea.

First, I had to space all the way out to where the word GAS starts, then I had to turn on the underline and decrease the font size to the size of the small letters and print out the word GAS then I had to turn off the underline and backspace the three characters, change the font back to the large size, then backspace all the way back to the beginning of the line, then print out the word Oklahoma and a space, then change the font back to small and print out the word AND then change the font back to the large size, and continue with the rest of the line. Yeah… I had to send backspace commands to the printer…. I was pretty proud of my header.

You can see by the Memo above that I had been using it for almost a year. The picture above isn’t even using the “Quality” setting on the printer which even made it look a lot sharper.

Anyway, on with the story…… The Fast News Bulletin’s header had a simple design. The “F” in Fast was created using a bunch of F’s. The A using a bunch of A’s. Like this:

Fast-old-news

Yeah… pretty embarass… um… I mean exciting huh? Laura was looking for a way to add some Quality to the Fast News Bulletin. I told her that I could create large block letters using the graphic commands on the printer I asked her what her printer ID was and I quickly created a Fast News Bulletin for her with a real header: Fast-News-Header Laura was excited and said that she may be getting back to me soon…. which she did a few weeks later. She asked if I could attend the first meeting of a new Task Force they had created to enhance the Fast News. I said I would be glad to attend, but I would first have to have permission from my Electric Supervisor before I could go.

She said she would take care of it…. and she did.

Ben Brandt, our Assistant Plant Manager wanted to know why I was being asked to show up to a Corporate Communication Task Force! — “Uh… I don’t know.” I replied. Knowing that everything I did outside the plant grounds was being questioned after my previous “misstep”.

Memo Ben Brandt Received

Memo Ben Brandt Received

So, one day I showed up at Corporate Headquarters again. Laura Burgert was there to greet me. She told me where to sit along a big long table in a meeting room. I was to sit about halfway down the table, while she sat on one end of the table.

When others came in, the IT person that was on the committee… I believe his name was Mike Russell sat on the far end from Laura. Laura opened the meeting by explaining the reason for the task force and when she finished she said, “For starters we were thinking that instead of using the ugly Fast News header we have been using, we would like to have a header like this…. And she passed a copy of the Fast News Bulletin I had printed out on her printer that day when she called me.

When Mike Russell saw it, he replied, “Our Printers can’t print a header like this.” Laura looked over at me, as if she wanted me to reply to Mike’s remark. So, I said, “This was printed out on the standard IBM network printer.”

Mike replied by saying, “No. Our printers can’t print like this. It’s impossible.” I repeated that this Fast News was printed out on Laura’s IBM printer from the mainframe just like the regular Fast News is printed out. I even told him that I could send him a copy of the header so that he could print it out and see for himself.

He said, “There’s no need to do that. Our printers can’t print this out.” — Though he held a bulletin in his hands that was printed out on our Standard IBM printer.

At then end of the meeting Laura thanked me for coming. She said, “See? This is what we have been dealing with. They probably weren’t going to be able to go anywhere with this.” I just nodded…. I thanked her for inviting me and I returned to the plant 75 miles north.

I guess it didn’t matter too much. A few months later and we were all being introduced to E-Mail, as I had been running telephone cable all over the plant so that we could set up a new NT Server network using Netware 4.0. Which used Novell’s GroupWise for e-mail. Fast News then just showed up in our Inbox.

It’s funny how things work out. What are the odds? I wreak havoc by sending a “rogue” form to printers that should be left alone, only to have those forms become useful to another department after I was “accidentally” enrolled in a training course where I happened to sit next to the one person in the company that could benefit from that printing blunder. Which then led her to look at ways to improve the Fast News Bulletin that she was responsible for creating….

Then the IT department refused to listen, but it didn’t matter anyway because new Technology quickly came along which began the process of weaning us off of the mainframe and onto a new state of the art network that later allowed us to use SAP a real ERP system that made the Magna 8 application that I went to learn in the first place obsolete.

I guess the Fast News Bulletin for the day is that Technology Moves Fast…. If you aren’t on for the ride, then you will be making statements like “That’s Impossible” and having a student in the 8th grade proving you wrong. It reminded me of what my dad always said when I was growing up… “Don’t ever say you can’t. — There’s always a way.”

Comments from the original post:

  1. Ron Kilman July 12, 2014

    Great story! I still applaud your initiative, enthusiasm, and risk-taking tenacity.

    1. Plant Electrician July 12, 2014

      Thanks Ron.
      I am still amazed by how many times I am told that something is impossible when I’m already doing it.

  2. Dave Tarvee July 12, 2014

    How they ever let you get out of there is incredible, I guess you were just real popular all over the company LOL and proved things were not impossible to many times, what a group of talent at Sooner in one place unreal

    1. Plant Electrician July 12, 2014

      That’s true Dave. It may sound like I was some lone wolf out there doing the impossible, but the truth is that we were surrounded by great Power Plant Men doing the impossible every day.

  3. Citizen Tom July 14, 2014

    Great story! I have been working with IT equipment since the early 80’s. The changes have been amazing, but I will never forget listening to a print job that made a printer sing (literally). The new printers are amazing, but the experts could make those first ones do the strangest things.

    The problem with the early computers, as you found out the hard way, is that almost any change involved programming. And since that early equipment was so costly, much of the testing had to be done on production equipment…….

    Anyway, it seems your management made the sensible decision to chalk up your mistake as part of the costs of training and testing.

  4. miller davidge iii August 9, 2014

    Couple of things…My wife is an IT person and I sent the link to this to her. She loved it.

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3 responses

  1. I had a vaguely similar experience working in a chemicals plant for the summer. My father was in charge of an in-house newsletter, and he knew I had learned to use PageMaker on the student newspaper. He tried to get one of the other guys to let me in during work hours to typeset the newsletter, but the other guy would have none of it.

    So, I took the files and did it on the student newspaper, and threw in every graphic design trick I had found in a year or so of studying the stuff. So every page of what had been your classic two-column typewriter sprawl instead looked … well, fancy. Or as fancy as you can get with just text and rules to play with. The other guy was sorry he hadn’t let me work in his office and see what magic I did on PageMaker.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great story Joseph!

      Like

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