It had been established early on at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that I was generally a troublemaker. All three of the Plant Managers that managed the plant during my tenure can attest to that. One Plant Manager, Ron Kilman, who reads this blog has been learning over the last couple of years, just what troublemaker I really was, as he reads these posts.
I was the “computer guy” at the plant. Though I was an electrician, the IT Support Department in Oklahoma City, 75 miles away deferred daily computer issues to me. The IT Networking Department had me run all their networking cables all over the plant, as I have mentioned before. Anywhere someone wanted a computer installed, I was the only person at the plant that would be assigned the task.
Even though I usually tell you stories about great Power Plant Men and their outstanding achievements, today, I must confessed will be solely about myself. It will illustrate why I never could categorize myself as a “True Power Plant Man” like all the Heroes of Power Plant Fame. Even though there are countless ways I can demonstrate this, I will focus on the Plant Computer network and the role I played.
I was pretty much a self-study when it came to computer networks. A few trips to Hastings Bookstore, and I had enough Networking books to be dangerous. Though I never took a test to be certified, I read the Novell Netware 4 CNA (Certified Netware Administrator) manuals.
I also read books about different ways people hack into networks, such as the book, “Hacking Exposed”.
After pulling the 100 pair telephone cable from the back of the main switchgear to the coal yard by myself for the most part, and crawling through the ceilings in the office area stringing network cable through the rafters and punched down all the wires connecting them to the switches in the telephone room, I sort of felt like I owned the computer network at our plant.
After the server rack was installed, and the Novell Netware was up and running, then suddenly, I realized that the networking people downtown didn’t want some electrician poking his nose into their network. This was different than the mainframe. When we just had the mainframe, I had free reign to reek as much havoc on the system as I wanted…. Of course…. I never wanted to do that, it just happened sometimes. I chocked those times up as learning experiences.
The networking people downtown in Corporate Headquarters at that time had one major weakness…. They couldn’t administer the network remotely (this was 1995 and Windows servers were something new). So, when something needed to be done on the server at our plant, they had two choices.
They could get in a car (or truck) and drive 75 miles to our plant, then spend 10 minutes working on the network at our plant, then drive 75 miles back to Oklahoma City during going home traffic. Or, they could call me and have me connect them to the server using a modem and PC Anywhere (A software that allowed a person to remote into a computer and take control of it). Then from a computer on our network, they could log into the computer and access the server.
Needless to say, about once each week, I would go up to the engineer’s office to a computer that they would dial into. The computer had PC Anywhere installed and I would start up it up and grant them access to take control. While they were doing this, I would be talking to them on the phone. I could watch everything they were doing.
I could see the username they were using to log in, but like today, I couldn’t see the password they were using as it just came across as asterisks. I really wanted to be able to access the network myself. I thought it would help advance my knowledge so that when I did take the Netware CNA tests, I would have some hands on experience. I really wanted to become a Network Administrator. I guess I was sort of a Network Administrator Groupie at the time. I looked up to Network Administrators like they were guru’s with special knowledge.
I talked to the networking people in Oklahoma City to see if a lowly electrician like me could have some kind of limited network administrator account on the network so that I could learn about networking. I told them I was studying to become a System Administrator. They looked into it, but never came back with anything.
I had read about how hackers would capture passwords by capturing keystrokes from the keyboard. I had done something like this, only the other way around when I was writing little DOS prank programs that changed the values on the keyboards so that when you pressed an “A” it would come out as a “B” instead. I had one that would turn your caps lock on and leave the cap lock light off. I would have it on a timer, so that it could randomly make you type everything in CAPS in the middle of your sentence. You know… just fun little things like that. I suppose today, these would be categorized as viruses, if I had made them so that they would propagate across the network.
I knew how to manipulate the keyboard using things called “Interrupts”. So, I just reversed that process and using Debug, I was able to create a small assembly language program that would capture all the keystrokes from the keyboard and log them to a file. I had learned Assembly Language from Peter Norton, the same guy who later created Norton’s Utilities and Norton’s Anti-virus. Here is my book:
So, one day when the network guy from Oklahoma City dialed into the modem I tested the program to see if it would capture keystrokes even though they weren’t coming directly from the keyboard, but from PC Anywhere. To my surprise, when he had finished doing his task, and had logged off, I opened up the log file, and sure enough, all the keystrokes were logged. I could plainly see where he logged onto the server by typing in his username and password.
The password reminded me of a friend of mine from High School, because his e-mail address was Condor… something…. The password was: condor. So, I quickly logged into the server using the username and password and created a new Network Administrator account called something like: “Admin_sa” I gave it “God” access. So, after that I could log into the network and look around to see how the system was configured.
I know this was underhanded, and today would be highly illegal, but back then, all this network stuff was new and I was learning this along with the rest of the IT department downtown. The only difference was that I was an Electrician at a Power Plant many miles away. I only used that new Administrator account a few times to look at configuration settings as I read through the Netware books. I never changed any settings or did anything devious…. at least not when we were on the Novell Netware Network. I think the thrill of capturing a password and setting up my own account was enough.
My philosophy changed later when we moved to a Windows NT Network. That had so many holes in security that it deserved to be played with. It wasn’t too long later that the Netware Network was replaced, which made all my studying for the Netware Administrator useless. I couldn’t understand at the time why we would want to move away from such a secure network to one that had such a bad design that it left itself wide open to hackers.
I could quickly write a Word document that would reformat your hard drive just by opening it up. In fact, Charles Foster one time asked me if I could come up with a way to install AOL on his aunt’s computer in California (or some such place), who knows nothing about computers. So, I created a Word document (since she did have Word on her computer already. and added a macro to it, that installed AOL and other software, and all she had to do was double click on the Word document icon. By the time it opened up to where she could read it, it had installed all the software she needed.
Once we were on the Windows network, the attitude of the IT network people changed. They were more flexible. They could maintain the network from downtown, so they only called me when they needed someone to log directly into the front of the server, which I did for them whenever they needed it. They began to feel more comfortable with me over time, and the support people downtown sort of granted me all the access I needed at the plant.
I think the reason I finally gained the trust of the IT Support team was because I would listen to their personal problems. This was something I had learned as a kid. I used to go around the neighborhood and make friends with all the dogs. That way, when we were playing hide and seek in the middle of the night, I could creep around behind houses, and the dogs wouldn’t bark at me. They would come up to me wagging their tails. It gave me a great advantage. So, by letting the IT Support people tell me about their personal problems, they would trust me. And then when I asked them for favors, they were happy to help out.
At that point (when we were on the Windows Network), I could sit in the Electric Shop and access every computer in the plant. For a few things, I had to actually visit a computer, but for a lot of things, I could just access the computer remotely. I have a few stories that I will tell this year that will give you some insight into how I used this power to better mankind…. well, I suppose it depends on how you look at it.
Later on, when I went to work for Dell in 2001, I put away all my “trouble causing” hacking stuff and decided that now that I am working in IT, I should join the Good Side of the Force. That didn’t mean that I didn’t do some fun stuff. Actually, some of the really good hacking stuff I had learned at the plant became very useful when I was in IT and could create applications on my own using the knowledge I had gained.
There was one time at Dell that I had to hack into database files that had crashed in order to extract the data. I would never have had the confidence to even try that if I hadn’t first learned programming from the ground up at the Power Plant.
I think it was Leslie Hale, a consulting manager from Concur (an expense reporting application) ask me at a Concur conference in 2010 how I hacked all of our credit card account numbers from their database when they were encrypted. He said his team had been trying to figure out how I could have done that so quickly. They normally charged $30,000 to migrate the credit card account numbers from their on-premise system to their hosted application. Of course, they have the encryption keys. I told them, I could do it myself by tomorrow and save the $30,000. They didn’t believe me, until the next day I uploaded a file to them with all the employee and account numbers. Dell was happy they didn’t have to pay the $30,000 for something that should have been part of the migration costs already.
I know I often caused our plant supervisor’s a few mild stomach ulcers. I think they just kept me around because either they felt sorry for me, or they thought that some day I might actually come to something. I finally left the plant in 2001 to pursue a life in IT at Dell. The journey to that end is another story, to be told later. Without all the support I received at the Electric Company, I never would have been able to make that change in my life. It all began one day when the Electric Supervisor told me in 1988 that he wanted me to learn all I could about computers. I guess, that was the moment when I began “expanding my bubble.”
I began writing this blog more than three years ago in order to share some of the stories about the great Power Plant Men and Women that I was privileged to work with for twenty years at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I have put the men and women of this plant on a well-deserved pedestal. Don’t just take my word for it. The rest of the world had their eyes fixed on our plant. Of the 700 Coal-fired Power Plants operating in the United States, there was one that stood out above all the rest. It was no wonder to me.
The Power Plant had been told that in 1995 our plant had the lowest operating and maintenance cost of any fossil fueled Power Plant in the United States. This included the cost for the fuel, which was coal being transported from Wyoming on trains. The second lowest operating Power Plant was our sister plant in Muskogee. After that was a plant in Texas that happened to sit on coal mine, and didn’t have the cost of shipping their coal 1,000 miles before they burned it.
The company was so proud of our achievements that they gave each of us a Jean Jacket with our names embroidered on it. On the upper right it said, “1995 Low Cost Award”.
I don’t do Selfies, that’s why I draped this over a chair.
A couple of years later, we were again awarded as the low cost provider of electricity in the country. This time they gave us Denim shirts. Okies like Denim… I guess you could tell. The cuff on the sleeve says, “1997 Sooner Power Plant Model Of Cost Efficiency”.
In the spring of 1998 (someone can correct me on the year), a plant manager, Mark Draper from England came to our plant to study us. He wanted to see how a group of 124 employees could run a plant the size of a small city as efficiently as we did. Throughout the year he worked on various teams to see how we operated. He wanted to learn our secret. The plant was willing to share everything with Mark.
Mark would spend a month working as a welder, then another month working as an Instrument and Controls Technician, then another in the machine shop. He continued throughout the year bouncing from job to job watching and learning. He spent a lot of time working with the Engineers. I kept waiting for him to work as an electrician.
I had our second biggest secret just waiting to show to Mark, but it seems that it never occurred to Mark that electricians had something to offer to the efficiency of the Power Plant. Because during the twelve months Mark spent at our plant, he never worked as an electrician.
The first biggest secret came in the form of an Engineer named Larry Kuennen. He had studied the way the coal burned in the boiler and had come up with ways to increase the efficiency. I’m sure Mark learned a lot from working with Larry.
I kept itching for the day that Mark Draper ended up working out of the electric shop. I was going to take him on a tour and show him how we were saving a huge amount of electricity at our plant in a way that is totally overlooked by everyone else. Without this secret, there would be no way we would have been the low cost provider of electricity. I think at the time our plant could create electricity at a rate around 1.5 cents per killowatthour (someone at the plant can correct me. It has been a while and I may be confusing this with the percent cost of IT by revenue at Dell).
Before I tell you about the report that Mark Draper gave us at the end of his year of studying the heman habits of Oklahoma Power Plant Men, let me expand on the way the electricians had increased the efficiency of the power plant. It has to do with what a foreman, Mark Fielder would refer to as “My Baby.” The precipitator.
The Precipitator is the piece of equipment that uses more power than just about everything else at the plant combined. It takes the ash out of the exhaust before it goes out of the smoke stack. That is why you don’t see smoke coming out of the smoke stack on a coal-fired Power Plant when it’s running. When a precipitator is running efficiently, it should be able to take out 99.97% of the ash from the exhaust from the boiler.
The amount of ash going out of the smoke stack is measured by opacity. That is, how much does the particles in the exhaust block a ray of light shining across the stack. We tried to keep the opacity below 5%. I think we legally had to keep it below 20%, but anything above 8% didn’t look good when you drove by the plant. You would be able to see the smoke.
The precipitator at our plant used Static electricity to collect the ash. Like I said, it used a lot of electricity. Megawatts of power. The secret is that Static electricity shouldn’t use much power. Practically none. If you calculated the work that actually had to be done, it was miniscule compared to running a conveyor or a big fan or a bowl mill. This meant that 90% or more of the electricity used by an Electrostatic precipitator is wasted energy. It is leaking, and in many cases actually working against collecting the ash. A fine tuned electrostatic precipitator shouldn’t use much electricity.
We had found a number of ways at our plant to manipulate the electric pulse used to charge the plates in the precipitator in order to reduce the wasted electricity. When everything ran correctly, when the unit was at full load (510 Megawatts), the precipitator could have an opacity close to 0% using less than 100 Kilowatts (yes. I said Kilowatts) of power. This was so unheard of that the company that manufactured our controls refused to believe it even when they were standing in the Precipitator Control Room watching it operate.
To put this in perspective. One winter day, while I was tuning the precipitator, the space heaters in the Precipitator control room was using more power to heat the room than the entire precipitator was using to remove the ash at full load. The opacity was almost 0%.
Another side story about this is that at one point, the opacity monitor was measuring a negative 0.2%. Tony Mena, the Instrument and Controls Technician worked on calibrating the monitor. He would take it to the logic room and set it up on some stands there that had the same measurements as the stack. No matter how many times he calibrated the monitor, he was still coming out with -.1 or -.2% when he hooked it up to the smoke stack. The final conclusion was that the precipitator was operating so efficiently that the exhaust going out of the smoke stack was cleaner than the ambient air. — I know… I know… impossible… right?
I’ll admit, it wasn’t just the manipulation of the electric pulse, it was also sensitive to the temperature of the exhaust and the amount of sulfur in the coal. We burned Wyoming coal which has a very low amount of sulfur. This made it more challenging.
I couldn’t wait to show this to Mark Draper, the UK Plant Manager. This was my baby, and I was proud of it. Only, Mark never showed up.
One day I saw a man with a clipboard walking around the precipitator hoppers writing something down as he studied them. So, I walked up to him. I could tell right away that he was someone from England that had come as part of Mark Drapers crew of spectators. I asked him if he was interested in learning how we ran our precipitators.
I thought, maybe this is someone who is finally interested in how we save tons of money in operating cost each year by not wasting it on the precipitator. He was an engineer taking notes on our ash transport system. He wasn’t interested in how we operated the controls. He said in England they just throw the switch and power up the precipitator to full power and let it go at that. — A total waste of power and it’s less efficient. I couldn’t even convince him to take a walk through the control cabinets just to see the voltage and amp meters.
Oh well, I thought… This would just be our plant’s little secret. No one else seems to want to know about it.
At the end of the year during our monthly safety meeting, Mark Draper gave us a report of his findings. He went through a lot of bullet points in a PowerPoint Presentation. — Yeah. We were beginning to get fancy with the computers around that time.
The first thing that Mark brought up was this…. He said that there was no way he was going to be able to go back to England and repeat what he had learned here. The reason was that the Fine Power Plant Men and Women at our plant came to work each day and began working at 8:00. They took close to a 20 minute break in the morning and in the afternoon. They took a 40 minute lunch (Breaks were technically 15 minutes and lunch was 30, but…. you know how it is… you have to stretch them a little). He explained that at our plant, we had about 6 and a half hours each day of productive time. 6-1/2 hours of actually working on something.
In England, this was impossible. When the workers arrived at the plant in England, they took a long time getting ready for work. They took longer breaks and longer lunches, and at the end of the day, they would take a long time to take a shower and clean up. Almost and hour to clean up at the end of the day. In England they were lucky when they were able to get 4 hours of actual work out of their workers. Because of union agreements and such, they were helpless to change this culture.
Mark was impressed at the amount of pride people took doing their jobs. I will paraphrase what Mark told us: He could tell that the Oklahoma Power Plant Men and Women wanted to do a good job. They received satisfaction by applying their skills to their work. In England, the attitude of the worker was more like this was just a job. Their real satisfaction in life was when they left the plant. In Oklahoma, when the Power Plant Men left the plant, they left with more of a feeling of pride over doing a good job.
Mark did offer us some advice on how we could better ourselves. He did give us his honest opinion about some things that he thought we might do better. They sounded more like they were coming from his Plant Manager training than from his experience at our plant.
As Mark never did work with the electricians, I was never able to work with him. Others who did, found Mark to be very friendly. I know that some also kept in touch with him long after he left to go back to England. I missed the opportunity to befriend Mark. I wish I had.
Mark Draper must have had a tremendous amount of character to be able to persuade those in England that he should take off an entire year to go work at a Power Plant in Oklahoma U.S.A.. Just think of the commitment he was making to leave his home for a year to go work alongside skilled labor in another country.
I didn’t know Mark personally like a lot of the other Power Plant Men did, but after I originally posted this post (yesterday), a Control Room Operator, Jim Cave who knew Mark better told these stories to me:
Mark told me that he wanted to live a normal American life while in the states. Bill Green had bought him a gift of an outdoor grill. The first opportunity that he had to use it he told me that he grilled the family some burgers and then they all went and sat in the car and ate them!
He also went and bought some American jeans so he would blend in with the workers. He caught all kinds of grief from the guys when they noticed his jeans didn’t have any back pockets! His wife had to go back to the store and buy him some “guy” pants.
He WAS a very nice and very smart guy. The cultural differences were interesting. He came into the control room one day asking me for “a pair of steps”. We had no idea that he wanted a ladder.
Mark did make sense when he said that what he saw at our plant he would not be able to reproduce in England. The truth was that what Mark saw at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was something that few plants in the United States could reproduce. I have been attempting to make this point each week for the past 3 years.
There was something very special at this Power Plant during the 20 years when I worked there. Something you are not going to find just anywhere. The plant housed a collection of some of the most fantastic minds and personalities on the planet. They had somehow all come together to perform a team that not only produced the “Model of Cost Efficiency” as it said on our shirts, but had also created a group of extraordinary teamwork.
Whenever I sat in a meeting like the Monthly Safety Meeting, where the entire maintenance department was present, as I looked around the room, I honestly could see that for the most part we were more of a family than we were employees. I was lucky to have been invited to be a part of this family. Kudos to you all.
When I first became an electrician at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, my foreman Charles Foster and I would sit each day at lunch and talk about movies we had seen. We would go into detail explaining each scene to each other so that when I actually watched a movie that Charles had described, I felt as if I had seen it already. In the years that followed, after we had described to each other just about every movie we could remember, we moved on to playing games.
Sure, there were those jokes we would play now and then, but I’m not talking about those. This was something different. One of the games that we played was Chess.
I brought a computerized chessboard to work one day that had pieces on a board that you pressed down when you wanted to move a piece, then you moved it and pressed down on the square where you placed the piece in order for the board to keep track where all the pieces were on the board.
This chessboard had 8 levels of difficulty when you played against the computer. Charles, Terry Blevins, Scott Hubbard and I were not really the competitive type. We were more of the team player types. So, when we played, we played against the computer as a team.
We would set the level of difficulty to the highest level, then as a team, we would spend a long time analyzing our moves. Sometimes we would discuss making our next move over several days. Actually, at the highest level, the computer would some times take up to 7 hours to decide what move to make. — This was when computers were still relatively slow.
We figured out that at level 8, the chessboard would think of all the possibilities for the next 8 moves. Once we realized that, then we knew that we had to think 9 moves ahead in order to beat it. So, you could see how together we would try several strategies that would put us ahead after we had basically forced the computer to make 9 moves… It wasn’t easy, but by realizing what we were dealing with, we were able to beat the chess computer on the highest level.
The game where we beat the computer on the highest level took us over 3 months to play and 72 turns. The four of us had teamed up against the computer in order to beat it. I remember that I would wake up in the morning dreaming about that game of chess when we were playing it and I would be anxious to go into the electric shop to try out a move that had popped in my mind when I was in the shower.
Once we were able to beat the chess board we went on to other things.
Diana Brien (my first and only “Bucket Buddy”) and I would buy Crossword puzzle magazines and when we were in a spot where we were waiting for an operator to arrive, or for a pump to finish pumping, etc.
We would pull out the crossword puzzle magazine and start working on them. If we weren’t doing crossword puzzles, we were doing Word Searches, or Cryptograms… more on them in a moment.
This kept our mine sharp, and just as Fat Albert and Cosby Kids used to say, “If you’re not careful, you might learn something before you’re through.”
I had bought some Crossword puzzles that had other types of puzzles in them. Some were pretty straightforward like Cryptograms. That is where you have a phrase where each letter of the alphabet has been changed to another letter of the alphabet, and you have to figure out what it says. So, for instance, an “A” may have been changed to a “D” and a “B” to a “Z” etc. So, you end up with a sentence or two that looks like gibberish, but it actually means something once you solve the puzzle.
The cryptogram magazine I copied for the picture isn’t complete because of the green rectangle is blocking out part of it, but I can see that it says: Everyone wants to “understand” art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird? (Pablo Picasso).
We were becoming expert cryptogram puzzle solvers, when one day we ran into a short cryptogram that didn’t have many words. We tried solving this cryptogram for almost a week. Scott Hubbard was getting frustrated with me, because I would never give up and look at the answer in the back of the book. So, after he became so fed up with me, he finally looked in the back of the book and wrote the answer in the puzzle. The answer was this: “Red breasted Robin, Harbinger of Spring”
Now… how is someone supposed to figure out a puzzle like that? I had figured on the “ing” in Spring and Harbinger but since Harbinger was barely in my vocabulary to begin with, I was never going to solve this one… I’ll have to admit.
Regardless, I was upset with Scott for looking at the answer in the back of the magazine, so I ripped out all the answers from the magazine and threw them in the dumpster so we would never be able to look at them again….. Still…. I would probably be trying to figure out “Red breasted Robin, Harbinger of Spring” to this day if Scott Hubbard hadn’t looked in the back of the book. I just felt like I wasn’t getting my money’s worth if we looked at the answers…. Yeah. all $3.95 worth (pretty cheap entertainment).
So, I have a side story to go along with working Cryptograms….
In my later life I changed jobs and went to work at Dell in Texas. (It just so happened that the Puzzle Books we would buy were usually “Dell” puzzle books…. totally unrelated to the Dell Computer company where I worked). That’s not really the important part of the side story, but I thought I would throw that in for good measure.
Every so often, our department would have an offsite where some team building events were held in order to… well… build teams.
One particular team building event was held in a park in Round Rock Texas where we were assigned to teams and each team was assigned to their own picnic table. When the game began we were each given a poster board with some phrase on it… and guess what? It was a cryptogram!
I was the only person on my team that knew how cryptograms worked, though most had seen them in the newspaper below the crossword puzzle, no one on our team had ever tried solving them. As a team, we were supposed to solve the puzzle. The quote was fairly long, which made it easy for someone who had been obsessed with cryptograms for years…. — Myself.
I took one look at the puzzle and said…. “That word right there is “that” and I wrote in the word “that”. Then I began filling in all the letters that had “T”, “H” and “A”. I quickly found a couple of “The”s which gave me the “E”, then I had one three letter word that began with an “A” and ended with an “E” that could only be the word “Are”. Which gave me the letter “R”. I could see that there were a couple of places that ended in “ing”, so I quickly filled those in, and as quickly as we could write all the letters into the puzzle we were done.
My director, Diane Keating, happened to be on my team. When I first pointed to the word “That” and said, “That is the word ‘that'”, she said, “Wait, how can you tell?” I said, “Trust me. I know Cryptograms.” When we had finished the puzzle within about a minute and a half, we called the person over to check it and she was amazed that we had solved the puzzle so quickly.
That is the end of the side story, except to say that I give credit to the games that Power Plant Men Play for teaching me the fine art of solving Cryptograms. Our team came in first place…. needless to say after solving three cryptograms in a row.
There were other more complicated but equally fun types of anagram/cryptogram combination puzzles that I worked when we had worked all the cryptogram puzzles in the Dell Variety Magazines. Eventually Charles Foster and I were looking for something different. That was when Charles ordered a subscription to a magazine called “GAMES”.
This was a monthly magazine that was full of all sorts of new games. Today, I understand that this magazine is more about the Video Games that are out than puzzle sort of games. Each month we would scour the pages of the Game magazine looking for puzzles to conquer. We worked on those for about a year.
At one point in my days as an electrician, I wrote a Battleship game for my Sharp Calculator that was a two player game. We each had a battleship in a 100 x 100 grid, which you could move around. It was sort of like the Battleship game where on the commercial they would say, “You Sunk My Battleship!” Only, our ships could move and we only had one.
Each turn when you would plug in the coordinates to shoot at the other person’s ship, it would only tell you how much you missed by. Then you could plot it on a graph paper and try to figure out where the other person’s ship was. Even though it could move. If you were close, then it would damage the other ship, and it would slow down so it couldn’t move as fast.
When the next person took their turn, they could see if their ship had been damaged or sunk, or even had become dead in the water….
The person was randomly assigned a home base at the beginning of the game and they could go there to repair their ship and be given more ammo in case they were running low. If they did this more than twice, then the other guy would know because the circles they would draw on their graph paper would keep intersecting at that one point.
Anyway…. that was the calculator game I made that I played with Terry Blevins for a while.
While other Power Plant Men were playing “Rope the Bull” with an Iron rendition of a bull welders had created, some of us in the electric shop were playing different kinds of games. Puzzles.
I think the reason that electricians like puzzles so much is because a lot of what they do from day-to-day is solve puzzles. When something isn’t functioning and the electrician has to figure out why, they usually have to follow through a bunch of steps in order to figure out what exactly went wrong. Solving Circuit problems are a lot like the puzzles we were playing.
Sometimes they are like “Word Searches” where you are looking for needles in the haystacks. Sometimes they are like Cryptograms where a circuit has been wired incorrectly and you have to figure out which wire is supposed to go where. Sometimes you get so frustrated that you just wish you could look in the back of the book at the answer page. In real life, you don’t always have an answer page exactly.
Some of us may think that you can find all you need to know in the Bible, but there are different kinds of “Bibles” for different kinds of jobs. In the Electric Shop we had the National Electric Code. We had the Master Blueprints that showed us how things were supposed to be wired up. Some times we just had to wing it and try putting words in crossword puzzle that we knew might not be the right ones, but they were the best we had at the time.
I’m just glad that I spent that time working puzzles with my friends at the Power Plant. If solving puzzles together helps build a team, then we had the best darn team around!
Because someone asked me about the game we played against the computer… Here is the play by play (for those who know how to read Chess Playing Geek Language):
Many years ago in my earlier days as a Power Plant Electrician while working on Relays at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, Ben Davis, a plant electrician and True Power Man introduced me to one of his favorite Rock and Roll Bands, the “Dire Straits”. One of their hit songs is “Money For Nothing.” About 14 years later, the Power Plant Men learned exactly how to make “Money For Nothing” and other “Money Matters”!
Albert Einstein was once asked what the greatest miracle known to man is, and he replied “Compound Interest”.
One day at the Power Plant our timekeeper Linda Shiever invited a Financial Planner to come to the plant and talk to the Power Plant Men about the importance of planning ahead for your retirement. This may have been the first time many of the Power Plant Men had ever heard of such a thing as “Compound Interest”.
To a Power Plant Man, “Compound Interest” sounds more like “paying close attention when you pound something with a sledge hammer”.
The Financial Planner explained to the Power Plant Men that it is important to begin planning for the future early in your life. He gave us a sheet of paper titled “Put the Magic of compounding to work for you.” It showed how someone 25 years old investing in the stock market (S&P 500 which averages 10% annually over time) by putting $2,000 in something that gives you a 10% return for 8 years, and then stops, while another person waits 8 years until they are 33 and spends the rest of their life putting $2,000 into the same stock market they will never have as much as the person who only put in $2000 for 8 years beginning when they were 25 years old.
Let me explain this a little more: Using compound interest at 10% rate for his example (since that is what you receive in the S&P 500 over time), he showed that the person that invested $16,000 beginning at 25 years old and adding $2000 each year for only 8 years will have a net earnings of over $1,000,000 by the time they are 71 years old. Yet the person that waited 8 years and invested $78,000 by adding $2,000 each year until they are 71 will only have a net earnings of $800,000. The importance was that compound interest works best when you start early.
This is a great lesson to learn. The problem was that the majority of the audience was already well over 40 years old. There may have been one person in the room that was 25 years old, and that was only because they weren’t telling the truth about their age.
On Friday, September 6, 1996 a group of us from the plant were told to show up at a hotel conference room not far from corporate headquarters to attend a meeting that was called “Money Matters”. The other phrase they used to describe the meeting was that it was a “Root Learning” class. The reason it was called Root Learning was because the company that put the class together for the Electric Company was called Root Learning.
When we arrived, we were told which table we were going to sit. Bruce Scambler was the leader of the table where I was appointed to sit. When we were assigned seats, it was in a way that the Power Plant Men were spread out across the tables, so that we were each sitting with people from other departments in the company. I supposed right away that this was so that we could maximize the spread the Power Plant culture to others.
This turned out to be a class about how the company has problems that need to be resolved. When the class began the leader placed a poster in the middle of the table. It showed a picture of a canyon. The workers were on one side and the leaders were on the other with the managers stuck in the middle. It was very similar to this picture:
This was an ingenious representation of the problems the company had with the management structure. The poster we had was customized for our particular company.
We talked for a couple of hours about how we could bridge the gap between management and the workers. What were some of the barriers in the tornado that kept destroying those bridges…. etc.
The following year on September 24, 1997, we attended another meeting in Enid Oklahoma where we learned about Shareholder value. The leader of my table this year was a young man from HR at Corporate Headquarters (I’ll mention this guy in a later post). This topic made more sense as it really did talk about Money this time. This time the maps they showed us had race cars on it which showed the different competing electric companies. Something like this:
Being the main electric company in the state, our truck was on the Regulated track. Some of the electric providers had figured out a way to go the unregulated route. Our company kept looking for ways to get on the unregulated road by offering other services that were not regulated. After looking at the poster that looked similar to the one above for a while and talking about it, we moved on to the next poster:
Even though the chart is the main part of this picture, most of the discussion took place around the “Expense Street” section in the picture. There was an added pie chart that was on a card that was placed on this street which showed how the expenses of the company were broken down.
The main expense for the company was Fuel. I want to say that it was close to 40% of expenses. Taxes was the next largest expense for the company. It made up somewhere around 30% of our total expenses. The rest of the expenses were the other costs to run the company. Employee wages made up around 8% of the total expenses for the company.
It was the job of the leader at the table to explain that the cost for fuel was pretty well fixed, so we can’t do anything about that. We also can’t do anything about how much taxes the company pays. We didn’t have control over the supplies and other costs the company buys. So, the bottom line was that the little sliver of expenses for the company that represented “Employee Wages” was really the only thing we can adjust to increase shareholder value…..
What? Run that one by me again? We were a 3 billion dollar revenue company. We had around 3,000 employees which we had reduced to around 2000 employees when the Corporation Commission cut how much we could charge for electricity, and now you’re saying that the only way to keep the company afloat is to “adjust” employee wages because 92% of everything else it “out-of-bounds”? I think you can see why we spent a lot of time discussing this… This turned into a pretty lively discussion.
Learning about the “Time Value of Money” can be very helpful. I had a financial calculator that I kept at the plant. One day one of the Power Plant Men came to me and asked me to figure out how they could buy a Harley Davidson Motorcycle. Earl Frazier said that he could only afford something like $230 per month and the wanted to buy this motorcycle. How would he do that? The motorcycle cost something like $38,000 or more. I don’t remember the exact details.
Sounds complicated doesn’t it? How does a Power Plant Man buy a Harley Davidson for only $230.00 per month with only a four year loan? Earl had heard that I knew all about the “Time Value of Money” and that if there was a way, I would be able to tell him how to do it. His parameters were that the cost of the motorcycle was $38,000 (I’m just guessing as I don’t remember the exact amounts), and he could only pay $230 each month.
Well. Even with a no interest loan, it would take over 13 years to pay for the motorcycle. So, my only option for solving this problem was to pull out my financial calculator:
This calculator allowed me to find the monthly payment quickly for a loan at a specific interest rate over a specific number of months. So, I worked backward from that point. I told Earl to come back in a couple of hours and I would let him know his options.
When Earl returned, I had his answer…. I told him this…. Each month he needed to begin putting his $230.00 into an annual CD at the bank for 5% (yeah… they had those at that time). In two and a half years, he would stop doing that. And just put his money in his regular checking account. Then 9 months later, he takes the money in his checking account and buys the Harley Davidson. This way he would put 10% down up front (because CDs would have been rolling into his account also).
Then, each month, as his CDs became available, he would roll part of them back into another year, leaving out a certain amount each time to supplement the $230.00 he would still be paying each month for his motorcycle, since his payments would be significantly higher than that. Then exactly after 4 years, he would have used up all of the money in his account just as he would be paying off his motorcycle. This would only work if he could get a loan for the motorcycle that charged 3.7% interest rate or less which was a reasonable rate at the time.
Earl responded by saying, “You mean I will have to wait 3 years before I can buy the motorcycle?!?!” Yeah. That was the bottom line… and by the end of it all, he would have to pay for the motorcycle over a 7 year period when it came down to it. He wasn’t too happy about having to wait, but that was the only way he could do it for $230 monthly payments.
Here is a side story… A few years later when I went to work for Dell, we also had Root Learning classes there as well. Here is one of the posters we used during the class:
In this picture, Dell is the big boat at the top. When I walked into the class I recognized the style of the poster right off the bat. Oh! Root Learning! This will be fun. These types of classes were a fun way to express the realities of the business and the obstacles they have to overcome to achieve their goals.
I still remember the leader at our table 13 years later. His name is Jonah Vaught. I worked with him about 5 years after that class. I acted like I knew him, and I could tell that he was wondering where we had met. So, I finally told him…. “You were the group leader when we were doing that Money Matters class back in 2002.”
End of Side story….
Now when I listen to the Dire Straits’ song “Money For Nothing” (like Paul Harvey’s “Rest of the Story”) you know what goes through my mind… First sitting in the switchgear working on relays with Ben Davis listening to Rock and Roll on the radio (see the post: “Relay Tests and Radio Quizzes with Ben Davis“).
Secondly, I remember the Power Plant Men learning the “Time Value of Money” in a fun way that kept them interested.
Thirdly, I remember Charles Lay finally realizing when he was 63 years old that he was going to have to work the rest of his life because he hadn’t been saving for retirement…. See the post “Pain in the Neck Muskogee Power Plant Relay Testing“). Some times when you learn about the Time Value of Money…. it’s too late to do anything about it because time has already run out.
The first time I saw Ray Eberle was during my first summer as a summer help in 1979. He was standing in the midst of a group of mechanics who sat around him as school children sit around the librarian as a story is being read. Ray was telling a story to a group of mesmerized Power Plant Men.
Many years later I heard that Ray was invited to tell stories to hunters who were hunting elk in Montana around the campfires at night as an occupation. I think he passed on that opportunity. Who would think of leaving the comfort of a Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to go sit around telling stories by campfires in Montana?
For many years I didn’t have the opportunity to work with Ray. He had joined the Safety Task Force that we had created at the plant. He had also become a member of the Confined Space Rescue Team, and was a HAZWOPER Emergency Rescue responder. I was on all of these teams with Ray, but I really had never worked side-by-side with him.
I know that at times, I had disappointed Ray by not living up to his expectations of what a True Power Plant Man should be. When we were on the Safety Task Force, after the reorganization, we had shifted gears to be more of an “Idea” task force instead of one that actually fixed safety issues. I was pushing hard to have the company move to a “Behavior-Based Safety” approach. It was a misunderstood process and if not implemented correctly would have the exact opposite effect (see the post “ABCs of Power Plant Safety“)
I know this bothered Ray. He let me know one day when I received an intra-company envelope with a memo in it. It said that he was resigning from the team:
I hang on to the oddest things. Some things that lift me up and some things that break my heart. I figure that there is a lesson for me in this memo. That is why I have held onto it for the past 20 years. I suppose this enforces my philosophy of trying to make a “Bad First Impression” (See the post: “Power Plant Art of Making a Bad First Impression“).
Ray Eberle told me once that he had always thought that I was a lazy stuck up electrician that didn’t like to get dirty and just sat around in the electric shop all the time. (read the post: “Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“) He said that he saw me as a “higher than thou” type of person that looked down on others. Then one day I said something that totally changed his perception of me. I said, “Don’t get twisted.”
It’s funny to learn sometimes what people actually think of you. Then it’s even funnier to think what makes them change their mind. You see… when Ray Eberle was sharing his thoughts about me, we had become very good friends. He said that he felt that he finally understood me when I uttered those three words “Don’t get twisted.”
I remember the moment I had said that. As members of the Confined Space Rescue Team, we were responsible for inspecting the SCBAs (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) each month. We were standing in the control room and had a couple of the SCBAs sitting out while the instructor was showing us the proper way to inspect them.
Ray had asked a few “what-if” questions (like “What if the pressure is right at the minimum amount?” or “What if we send a tank off to be refilled and we have an emergency?”) and his questions weren’t being answered. He was getting a little hot under the collar, so I said, “Don’t get twisted.”
I remember Ray’s reaction. He turned to me and said, “What did you say?” I looked him straight in the eye with a grin on my face and repeated “Don’t get twisted.”
At that moment I didn’t know if Ray was going to haul off and belt me one, so I was mentally preparing my various responses…. like…. get ready to duck… just try to stand there as if nothing had happened… run and call a therapist because my ego had been shattered (no… wait… that wasn’t then)…. Anyway… instead Ray just smiled at me and said calmly, “I thought that was what you had said.” I could see that he was in deep thought.
It was a couple of years later that I found out that at that moment Ray Eberle’s perception of who I was had done a 180. Isn’t it funny what causes someone to change their mind sometimes? Maybe he saw a spot of dirt on my tee shirt.
One day during the spring of 1998 my foreman, Alan Kramer told me that Jim Arnold wanted me to be assigned to create “Task Lists” in SAP.
Task lists are instructions on how to perform jobs associated with trouble tickets. Jim Arnold (probably to keep me out of trouble) had assigned me to write task lists and Ray Eberle to write Bill of Materials (or BOMs). Thus began our three year journey together working side-by-side entering data into the computer.
Writing task lists didn’t mean that I just sat in front of the computer all day. In order to create them, I had to find out what tools a person would use to fix something, and what procedure they would perform in order to do their job. This meant that a lot of times, I would go up to a crew that was working on something and I would ask them to tell me all the tools they used and how they did their job while standing at the job site.
I will write another post later about how I actually did the task of writing task lists, so I won’t go into any more detail. After a short while, Ray and I figured out that we needed to be in the front office close to the Master Prints and the room where the “X-Files” (or X-drawings) were kept.
X-Files didn’t have to do with “Aliens”. X-Files were files in cabinets that had all the vendor information about every piece of equipment at the plant (just about). They were called X Files because their filing numbers all began with an X. Like X-160183.
About 50% of my time for the next three years was spent creating task lists. The rest of the time, I was still doing my regular electrician job, and going to school. After the first year, I moved into the Master Print Room and Ray and I set up shop working on the computers next to each other.
Ray was a collector of Habanero Sauce bottles.
He would travel the country looking for unique Habanero Sauce bottles. Each day, Ray would bring a bottle of habanero sauce to work and pour some on his lunch.
I ate the same boring lunch every day. It consisted of a ham sandwich with a slice of American cheese. Then I had some kind of fruit, like an apple or an orange. Since I was no longer eating lunch in the electric shop where Charles would give me peppers with my sandwich, when Ray asked me if I would like some hot sauce for my sandwich I was quick to give it a try.
There is something very addictive about habanero sauce. After a few days of having this sauce on my sandwich, I went to the grocery store and bought some of my own bottles of habanero sauce and salsa.
Ok. One side story…
I was sitting at home reading a school book at the dining room table, my 9 year old daughter Elizabeth walked up to the table and took a tortilla chip from my paper plate, dipped it in the (habanero) salsa in the bowl next to it, and began to put it in her mouth. Without looking up from my book, I said, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Thinking that I meant that she shouldn’t be stealing my chips, she went ahead and put it in her mouth. Grinning because she had stolen my chip, she began to walk away. Then she started to squeal a little. Moments later she was hopping all over the kitchen trying to find some way to put out the fire.
I told her the best remedy is to eat more chips. Don’t drink water. It makes it worse. Eat chips without salsa.
End of side story…
I mentioned above that Ray Eberle is a very good storyteller. He told me a series of stories that I call the “Walt Oswalt Stories”. These were real life stories about a Power Plant Man at our plant. They were so funny that I would go home and share them with my wife and she would fold over laughing at them. She said that Ray needs to write a book about Walt Oswalt.
I have shared some of these stories with various people in my later career and the reaction is always the same. These stories belong in a book. Later this year, I will share some of the Walt Oswalt stories in a post or two then you will see what I’m talking about.
One time in 2007 when I worked for Dell, I was meeting with the CEO of the world’s leading timekeeping company called Kronos. His name is Aron Ain.
My director, Chris Enslin was with us in Massachusetts.
Aron had taken us out to eat dinner, and Chris asked me to tell Aron some Walt Oswalt stories, so I shared a couple.
Then a couple of years later in 2009, Chris told me that he was at a meeting with CEOs from companies all over the United States, and there was Aron standing in the middle of a group of CEOs telling them a Walt Oswalt story.
Here is a picture of Ray Eberle sitting next to me at our computers in the master print room at the power plant:
Each day at lunch, after we had eaten our sandwiches, Ray would reach into his lunch box and pull out a worn black book and begin reading it. He would spend about 10 to 15 minutes reading. Sometimes he would stop and tell me something interesting about something he had just read. When he was done, the book went back into his lunch box and we continued working.
I remember some of the interesting conversations we used to have about that worn black book in his lunch box. One time we talked about a story in the book about how a hand just appeared out of nowhere and began writing on a wall when this guy named Belshazzar was having a party. Then this guy named Daniel came and told him what it meant, and that night Belshazzar was killed. Ray said, “…. God sent the hand that wrote the inscription.” What do you think about that? My response was…. “Yeah. God sure has class. He could have just struck the guy down right there and then. Instead he has a hand appear and write something on the wall. That way we can now have the saying: The writing on the wall’.”
I always thought if you were going to pick a good friend to have, if you pick one that reads their Bible every day during lunch, they are bound to be trustworthy. I could tell that I could trust Ray with anything. So, I spent the three years with Ray telling him everything I knew about myself while Ray shared a good deal of his life story with me. Of course… being nine and a half years older than I was, he had lived a lot more life than I had.
When I left the Power Plant in 2001 to work for Dell, one of the things I missed the most was sitting next to Ray talking about our lives, eating our lunch with Habanero Sauce, and listening to Ray’s stories about Prominent Power Plant Men! I have considered Ray a very dear friend for many years and I am honored to have him take me into his confidence. I only hope that I could be as much of a friend to Ray as he has been to me.
I always loved playing with numbers, and thanks to the Birthday Phantom at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I knew everyone’s birthdays. so in 1996 I decided that I would chart them all on a graph. When I compiled them all, I found that the Power Plant was in for one heck of a train wreck. The entire basis that enabled the plant the size of a small city to run with a total of 121 employees was going to start crumbling within the next 13 years.
The original chart I made was in pencil. Here is a simple column chart of the employee ages from Excel:
Now study this chart for a minute…. The youngest person in the plant was 31. There was one. The oldest were four who were 56. If you take everyone from age 40 to 49, you have 70 employees, or 58% of the entire Power Plant population. So, in a 10 year period, the plant was going to lose a majority of their employees due to retirement. 35% were going to be retired within a 5 year period.
How did this happen? How is it that the youngest Power Plant Man was 31 years old and the age between the oldest and the youngest was only 26 years? This happened because of two situations.
The first one is that people rarely ever left the Power Plant, so new hires were rare. The second situation was that we had a downsizing in 1988 when the employees 55 and older were early retired. Then in 1994, we had another downsizing where everyone over 50 years old were early retired. So, we kept lopping off the older employees, without a need to hire anyone new.
There were three entry level jobs when I first hired on as a full time employee. I went through all of them. Summer Help, Janitor and Laborer. None of these jobs existed at the plant anymore. This had given new employees an introduction into Power Plant Life. It also gave the foremen an opportunity to pick those employees that had the natural “Power Plant Man” quality that was needed to work in this particular environment.
I brought my chart to the team and showed them how a train wreck was just down the road. Someone at Corporate Headquarters must have figured this out, so a couple of things were done to try and combat this situation. I’m sure the same problem must have existed at all of the power plants.
The first thing that was done was that the retirement policy was changed. Instead of having to wait until you were 60 to retire with full benefits, you could retire with full benefits when your age and your years of service added up to 80 or more. A couple of years after that policy went into effect, we calculated that Jim Arnold had 100 points when you added his age and his years of service.
As a side note:
When we added up Gene Day’s years of Service and his age it added up to 80. That’s because, even though he was 80 years old, no one could remember whether he ever did any service…. That’s why I didn’t include him in the chart above.
Sure. Gene had been hanging around at the Power Plants since they discovered electricity, but it never occurred to him to retire. He just walked around with his orange stapler (an Oklahoma State University fan). Anyway… I digress… Somehow, whenever I talk about being old, Gene Day always seems to pop up in my mind. I can see him waving his finger at me now (In case you’re wondering… read this post: “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day“, or “Psychological Profile of a Power Plant Control Room Operator“).
Back to the story:
The idea was that we should have people begin to leave the plant now instead of all waiting until they were the regular retirement age, so they could be replaced with younger souls. There was only one catch and the reason why a Power Plant this size could be run with only 121 employees…. well… it had grown to 122 by this time since Brent Kautzman had been hired in the Instrument and Controls department. He was 31 years old when he was hired. I remember his birthday since it was the same date as my parent’s anniversary.
The reason that the Power Plant could operate with so few employees was because the majority of the employees at the plant had many years of experience. The majority of the employees had over 20 years or more with the company. In fact, I had another chart that I had made at the time that showed how many years of experience we would lose each year that we had a large number of people retiring. In just one year we would have lost over 220 years of experience if something hadn’t been done soon.
The company decided to hire young inexperienced employees fresh out of vo-tech and begin training them to work at a power plant. They opened a new position at each of the plants to lead the training efforts. Someone that had some computer skills and could work with employees to help teach them in the ways of Power Plant Maintenance. A training program to head off an impending train wreck.
I won’t go into too much detail about how this worked but it consisted of building a training room where new hires would take computer courses then would work part time in the plant learning how things worked. Then they would take tests and if they passed them, they could move forward with the next part of their training. All they needed were people willing to give it a try with the understanding that if they didn’t pass their tests, they would lose their jobs by a certain time period.
Training Supervisor…. I think that was the name of the job opening that came out in October, 1997. I was ready for this one. I had a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola University in New Orleans, with an emphasis on Adult Education. I was the computer whiz at the plant. I could even write the entire training software from scratch with the help and knowledge of the Power Plant Men and Women.
The only problem with this job was that it was understood that at first the new training supervisor was going to have to be spending a lot of time going between the different plants with the training supervisors at each of the plants. I had just started going back to school at Oklahoma State University to work toward a Computer Science degree. If I had to travel a lot right away, my studies were going to have to be put on hold.
Even though I was looking forward to earning a Computer Science degree in the next four years, I thought that the Training Supervisor job would be a dream job for me, so I applied for it. My education could wait. I interviewed for it with Bill Green, the plant manager, who was the reporting manager for the job.
I explained to him that 50% of the work that I did when studying for my Masters in Religious Education (MRE) was learning techniques on how to teach adults. I had already shown my ability to do this using the computer when I taught the Switchman Training (see the post: “Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with ‘Boring’“). I had also taught almost the entire plant how to use Windows when it first came out.
I had created my own little Windows Manual that stepped people through opening up Microsoft Applications and how to maneuver around.
The Windows Icon was actually the Window Wingding character used for the Flying Windows Screensaver. I just added the colors to it.
Most of the people at the plant thought that I was a shoe-in for this job. I was custom designed for it. When the job was given to someone else, I was a little disappointed, but I was also relieved. This meant that I could go on with my work toward my degree. The job was given to Stanley Robbins. Stanley was a coal yard operator, and a very nice person.
One thing I had learned a long time ago with Scott Hubbard was that when someone is given a job that you really want, it isn’t the person who receives the job that should upset you. They were chosen by someone else. Through no fault of their own. This was a terrific opportunity for Stanley.
So, the day that Stanley began his new job, Bill Green was seen showing him around the plant, since he had spent most of his 18 year career up the hill at the coal yard. Stanley and Bill entered the electric shop and Bill asked where we kept the Electric Shop copy of the electrical blueprints. I showed him the cabinets where they were kept. Then they left.
About an hour later, Bill and Stanley returned to the shop and Bill came up to me and said that he had talked to Jerry McCurry in the training department in Oklahoma City (that is Corporate Headquarters), and he was looking for an audio book by Tom Peters, but Jerry said that I had checked it out. He wanted Stanley to read it. I told him that I had returned that audio book a couple of months ago, and now had a different audio book checked out at the time.
I took Bill and Stanley into the Electric Shop office and showed them a copy of a Tom Peters audio book that was my own personal copy “In Search of Excellence”, and gave it to Stanley and told him he was free to borrow it, as well as any of the other “motivational” business books I had, including a textbook on Organizational Behavior that I kept on the top of the filing cabinet to read during lunch when we couldn’t think of a fitting lunch time topic. I had another Tom Peters book on the bookshelf Stanley was free to read, “Thriving on Chaos”:
And a book left over from our “Quality Process” days that I had rushed out to buy the day I first heard about it from our Quality instructor:
Bill Green, our Plant Manager, who had never spent much time in the electric shop quickly learned a lot about me in those few minutes that he never knew. What he learned was that I was an avid student of just about anything I could learn. I had read every book in the Electric Company library and was now going through their list of Audio Books. I showed him the library catalog and explained to Stanley how to check out books. — Everything was still done through Intra-Company mail in 1997.
Even though I was intent on being as helpful as I could to Stanley (and I think Stanley would back me up on that. I always supported Stanley any way I could), at the same time I wanted to impress upon Bill Green that if he was really serious about making the Training Supervisor job a real success, he didn’t really pick the most qualified candidate.
With that said, I think Stanley became a great Training Supervisor. He was forever grateful for the opportunity for this position. He stated that to me over and over. I was glad for Stanley.
I was also relieved for myself, because my dream of becoming a “real” programmer was still a possibility. I continued with my school and was able to graduate in 2001. That is another story for a later time.
Six months after the training team had been chosen, and the trainers had settled into their positions, we heard that the company had purchased a specialized “Training Package” for about $400,000. With additional cost for each module that was added. Ray Eberle can tell me the price for each module, but it ran somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 for each one.
The training modules included one for each type of equipment in the plant. So, for instance, there was a module for a large vertical pump, and there was one for a large horizontal pump, and one for a small one, etc. Ray knew the prices because he was evaluating the course material for them to see if they were correct.
Ray came up to me one day and said he was embarrassed for the company who was creating the modules, because between a set of modules, they were nothing more than copying and pasting the same incorrect material in each one of them. The set of modules he was reviewing added up to $120,000, and they were all wrong.
I had looked at the application that we had bought and I could easily see that I could have written a much better program with the help of people like Ray and the other Power Plant Men to give me information. We were going to be spending over $750,000 for a computer training program that we could have created ourselves and then the company could have marketed it to other electric companies who were looking for a training program.
After I received my Computer Science degree I spent years working for Dell creating computer applications that performed any sort of feat that was required.
The train wreck finally hit the plant a few years ago, as a mass exodus of retirees left the plant. I wasn’t there to see it, so I don’t know if the plant ended up with a larger group of employees or not. I know that Stanley has retired, but I still picture him at the plant training new hires to become Power Plant Men.
Whenever I walked into the Control Room at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma and saw Jim Cave manning the helm, I couldn’t help but smile. I would do the same thing when Gene Day was standing there, but for a different reason. Jim just seemed to make everyone feel at ease. There is something special about his personality that rubs everyone the right way.
Jim worked for the company the first summer in 1979 when I was working as a summer help in the maintenance shop. I really didn’t know him until he became a control room operator and I was in the electric shop. He was always one of the brighter bulbs in the box.
When I first met Jim Cave, the first thing that came to mind was that he reminds me of a News reporter. He looks like someone that you would think would be telling you the daily news on TV. He has that likeable face that you would trust to tell you the news each day. Everyone wanted to have their picture taken with Jim because he automatically brightened up the photograph. Thanks to Jim’s Facebook page, I have some pictures to show you.
Actually, I think all of the pictures of operators that I have used in my posts over the years have come from Jim Cave’s Facebook photos. You can see from the picture above that Jim Cave seems to stand out as someone who might be a reporter on the nightly news.
Before I tell you about how Jim Cave has his own story pertaining to the Life of Pi, let me show you a couple of more photos of Operators who couldn’t resist posing with Jim Cave:
You can see that no matter the situation, Jim is always smiling. I can’t think of any time that I saw Jim that he wasn’t smiling a genuine smile.
Now that I have embarrassed Gene Day by showing him wearing short shorts (which was the full intent of this post. The rest about Jim Cave is just to put it in some sort of context), I will begin the actual story…
A new computer was installed one day that was called a VAX system. Instead of being a large mainframe computer in cabinets, this one sat out in the middle of the floor.
This allowed the control room to monitor readings from most of the power plant systems right there on a computer monitor. This was a new thing at the time. A few years after it was installed, a new program was installed on a computer on the counter behind the Control Room operator’s desk. The software was called PI.
As a side note: This software was being used by Koch Industry to control oil pipelines across the country. I’ll tell you how I know below.
When a program like this is first installed, it isn’t of much use. The reason is that in order to monitor everything, the screens have to be setup. You can see by the screenshots above that each graph, icon and connecting line has to be defined and setup in order to show you a full picture of what is happening.
If a lot of effort is put into building the screens, then this application not only becomes a great benefit to the control room operators, it also benefits the entire operation of the plant.
We had the same situation with SAP. We had installed SAP in 1997 at the Electric Company, but the real benefit comes when an effort is made up front to put in all the expert data to make it useful. While Ray Eberle and I were working to put the expert data into SAP, this new PI system was installed in the Control Room. In order to make it useful, screens needed to be built.
Notice the alarm panels are still there in the picture in 2005.
Some operators weren’t too keen on the computer since they had been staring at these alarm panels all their adult life, and they were just in tune with the power plant as they could be. Paper recorders, gauges that you might have to tap every now and then to take an accurate reading… colored red, yellow, blue and red lights. Red Level gauges, Counters, Knobs to turn, Switches to toggle. Buttons to push. All of these things gave the operator a physical connection to the power plant system. Who needs a computer?
Jim Cave saw the benefit right away. He took the Pi Manual out and began reading it. He learned how to create new screens and add components. Then he began the work of giving “Life to Pi”.
Each time Jim added a new system to Pi, the operators saw the benefit of using this tool more and more (like Allen Moore).
In 2000, Jim Cave had built a complete set of screens, releasing the Power of PI upon the Control Room Operators making their jobs easier and giving them much more insight into the operation of the plant that they never would have dreamed 5 years earlier. (except for Bill Rivers who had predicted this day 17 years earlier when no one would believe him).
Jim Cave’s Shift Supervisor, Gary Wright wanted to recognize Jim Cave for the tremendous effort he put forth to build the PI system into every Power Plant Operator’s dream. So, he went to Bill Green the Plant Manager and told him that he would like to do something special for Jim to recognize all the effort he put into the Pi system.
Bill replied to Gary by asking if Jim did this while he was on the job, or did he come in during his own time to work on it. Gary replied that Jim had done this while still performing his job of Control Room operator through his own initiative. It wasn’t part of his regular job. Bill clarified, “But this work was done while Jim was on the clock?” “Yes”, Gary answered. “Then Jim was just doing his job”, Bill replied.
At this same time, I was having a conflict of my own that I was trying to work through. I will go into more detail in a later post, but here it is in a nutshell….
I had been going to the university to get a degree called “Management Information Systems” or MIS from the business college at Oklahoma State University. I had been applying for jobs in the IT department in our company, but for reasons I will discuss later, I was not allowed to move to the IT department, even when I had only one semester left before graduating with the degree.
My problem was that I was being offered jobs from various companies when I graduated in May. Boeing in Wichita even gave me a job offer and wanted me to leave school and to work for them on the spot for having a computer and an electrical background to work on military jets, (which sounded real cool). The electric company had been paying all of my tuition and fees and 75% of the cost of the books. So, my education had been paid by the company. I told Boeing that above all, I wanted to finish my degree before I began my career in IT.
I felt as if I owed the electric company my allegiance and that I would stay with them, and that is why I kept applying for jobs within the company. I felt that way until the day I heard this story about Gary Wright trying to recognize Jim Cave for his extra effort.
When I heard Bill’s response was, “He was just doing his job…”, it suddenly hit me…. The company paying for my tuition was one of my benefits. I didn’t owe the company anything in return for that. I had already given them what was due. I had been their employee and had done my job. I no longer felt the need to “pay back” the company by staying. I had already paid them with my service. I actually remember saying that out loud to Ray Eberle. “The company paying for my education is my benefit.”
This was a turning point in my job search. I felt perfectly free after that to accept a job from another company. Bill’s response to Gary Wright had opened my eyes. I felt perfectly at ease accepting the job offer from Dell the following month. It’s too bad that it took snubbing Jim Cave’s extraordinary effort by the plant manager to put my understanding of my situation in the proper light.
During that time, I had a job offer that I had turned down from Koch Industry in Wichita because they didn’t offer me as much pay as some of the other job offers I had received. A month later they called me back and asked me to go for another interview in a different department.
When I showed up for the interview, it was with the SCADA department. SCADA stands for Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition. That is what the electric company called the system that opens and closes breakers remotely. Koch Industries uses the same type of system to control the pipelines across the country from their one location in Wichita.
After the interview, they showed me around the office. When we walked into the lab, one person showed me the computer system they were using to control all the pipelines, and lo and behold…. it was the PI system. The same one that Jim Cave had learned in the control room at our Power Plant. They offered me a job in that department as well for a little more.
I thought to myself that if I accepted the job with Koch, then I would ask Jim to teach me what he had learned about the Pi software. This would come in real handy. It turned out that the offer from Dell was even better than Koch, which was my second choice if I hadn’t accepted the job at Dell.
Things have changed at the plant since the picture in 2005. I believe it was in 2006 that the alarm panels were removed from the control room and everything was put on the computers. The control room operators no longer have to stand in front of panels of lights and gauges and knobs and buttons and switches. It is all viewed on computer screens.
Here is a picture of Jim sitting in front of some of those computer screens…
I see eleven computer monitors on the counter behind the old control panel and we can’t even see the other half of the counter. It looks like Jim built so many screens they just kept having to add more and more monitors to show them all. — Oh. I know that Jim didn’t create all these screens, but he did help acclimate the Control Room operators to using computers so that when the evolution to a completely computerized system did arrive, they were ready for it.
Great work Jim Cave! Thank you for all you have done for the Electric Company in Oklahoma. You have made a lasting difference that will carry forward to the next generation of Control Room Operators. I don’t just mean by giving Life to PI. Your positive attitude in times of stress to the times of boredom have blessed everyone that ever knew you.
I for one am grateful to have met and worked with a True Power Plant Man such as yourself.
August 16, 2001 was my final day at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I had stepped onto the plant grounds May 4, 1979, 22 years earlier. Now I was leaving to change careers and moving to Round Rock, Texas to work for Dell Computers. During my final day, a going away party was held in my honor by the Power Plant Men and Women that I had the privilege to work alongside during the past 22 years.
A few minutes before the party began, I slipped into the office bathroom/locker room and changed into a navy blue suit and tie. Combed my hair. Put on black socks with my shiny black shoe. Grabbed my briefcase and headed for the break room. When I walked in the room, it was packed full of Power Plant Men and Women all waiting to say goodbye to one of their family.
Many wondered who it was that had joined their party of one of their own. Who was this person in the suit and tie? Ed Shiever told me later that he didn’t even recognize me. It wasn’t until I reached out and shook his hand that he realized that his was Kevin Breazile. The same person he had known since he was a temp employee working in the tool room.
When the Power Plant Men finally realized that I was the person they had been waiting for, they broke out in applause as I walked around shaking their hands. I would have broke out in tears if I hadn’t been thinking about what a great person each of them had been over the many years we had known each other.
I made my way to the front of the room where I had set up a computer and hooked it to the big screen TV. I had a special surprise waiting for them. One that would temporarily change the plant policy on going away parties after I was gone. I had prepared a special PowerPoint presentation for them.
I set my briefcase next to the computer on the end of the table acting as if the computer had nothing to do with the party. Then I stood there as the “going away” part of the party began.
It was typical for people to stand up and tell a story or two about the person leaving, so Jim Arnold (the Supervisor of Maintenance and part time nemesis) was first. He explained how I had been working on SAP for the past three years creating tasks lists that are used to describe each possible job in the plant.
He turned to me and asked me how many task lists I had created in the last 3 years. I replied, “About 17,800”. Jim said that this boggled his mind. It was three times more than the entire rest of the company put together.
Jim made a comment about how he wasn’t sure he would want a job where you have to dress up in a suit and tie.
Andy Tubbs stood up and presented me with my 20 year safety sticker and a leather backpack for working 20 years without an accident, which was completed on August 11, just 5 days before. I had worked four summers as a summer help, which counted as one year of service, then I had completed 19 years as a full time employee that very same week.
I like being roasted, but that didn’t really happen. A few other people told some stories about me, that I can’t recall because I was busy thinking about the PowerPoint presentation. I had memorized my entire script, and the presentation was pretty much automatic and timed, and I had to keep to my script or pause the presentation.
Then Jim Arnold asked me (Bill Green, the Plant Manager was gone that day visiting the Muskogee Plant) if I had anything I would like to say before I left…. That was the cue I had been waiting for. I replied, “Actually, I have a PowerPoint presentation right here, and I hit a key, and the TV lit up….
I will present each of the 26 slides below with the comments I made during each one. Since many of the slides are animated, I will try to describe how that worked as I made my presentation… so, hang on… this is going to be a lot of slides…. I broke it down into about 45 pictures. The Script is what I said for each slide:
Remember when Mark Draper came here for a year and when he was getting ready to leave he gave a presentation about where he thought we were doing well, and how we could improve ourselves?
I thought that since I have spent 20 years with you guys I might be able to come up with a few comments. Especially as opinionated as I am.
In 1979, I came to work here as a summer help. The plant was still being built and I was really impressed with the special quality of people I met and looked up to.
Script continues as these three pictures slide in:
Like for instance there was Sonny Karcher and another was Jerry Mitchell. It has been a while since I have seen these two guys, and I know that Jerry has passed on, but this is the way I remember them.
And of course Larry Riley was there.
Larry was the one I worked with back then that seemed to know what was going on. I will always consider him a good friend.
When I was on Labor Crew I would call him “Dad”. He would never own up to it. He said I was never the same after I fell on my head when I was a kid.
I used to get real dirty when I worked in the coal yard right alongside Jerry Mitchell. He would stay perfectly clean. He told me that I knew I was good when I could keep myself clean. —
Well. I have found a better way to do that. And once again I would like to thank OG&E for paying for my education.
I encourage all the new guys to seriously consider taking advantage of the free education benefit.
Then of course there was our Plant Manager and Assistant Manager back then.
This is how I remember them.
After hiring on permanently as a janitor in ’82, and getting on Labor crew in the spring of ’83. I was able to get into the electric shop in November 1983.
I vividly remember my first day as an electrician. The first thing I worked on, I shorted it to ground.
Script continues as Charles Foster’s picture slides in:
With no prior experience as an electrician I was allowed to join the electric shop. Charles Foster was instrumental in getting me into the shop, and I am grateful. As everyone knows, Charles is a long time friend of mine.
For years and years Charles would tell the story about how he fought tooth and nail for me against the evil Plant Manager and His diabolic Assistant who wanted me to be banished to the Labor Crew for eternity.
Not too long ago I told Charles that if he hadn’t pushed so hard to get me into the electric shop, I probably would have left OG&E and went back to school years ago ( like my mom wanted me to do), and made something of myself long before now.
These are the electricians that were there when I first joined the electric shop. These are the only ones left. I think we started out with 16.
The electricians were always a tight knit group. It amazed me to see a electricians who couldn’t stand each other sit down and play dominos three times a day, every day, year after year.
Jimmie Moore joined the shop some time later.
And of course. Bill Bennett was around back then.
When I arrived in the electric shop I was 23 years old and I replaced Diana Brien as the youngest electrician in the shop. As I leave, I am almost 41 years old, and I am still the youngest electrician. As I leave, I relinquish the title back to Diana Brien who once again will be the youngest electrician.
As a side note…. I don’t know why I forgot about Ben Davis. He reminded me after the presentation… I don’t know how… Here is a picture of Ben:
I suppose you all remember what happened on February 15th, 1985. The day we refer to as “Black Friday”. The day that the “Drug and Theft” ring was busted at Sooner Station. That was the day that a very dear friend of mine, Pat Braden, whom everyone knew as a kind easy going person turned out to be some evil leader of a theft ring.
Note: As I was saying the above statement, This mummy walked across the slide…
Note: Then Barney slide across in the other direction…
Well. I know better than that. I will always remember Pat Braden with a smile on his face. Mickey Postman, I know you would agree with me about Pat and just about everyone else who knew him well.
It has been 16 years since this took place and the company has gone through a lot of changes, but don’t ever think something like this couldn’t happen again.
Note… The hammers come in and stomp the images off the slide….
Then there was the first Reorganization. The old people retired on October 1st. That was the end of the Moler and Waugh regime.
At first we thought we were all on vacation. Our new plant manager came in the first meeting with us and told a joke.
We all looked at each other and wondered, “Can plant managers even do that?”
I’m sure you guys remember Ron Kilman. Bless his heart.
The second part of the first reorganization allowed people without jobs to find a position in the company over a 8 month period.
Note: Pictures of Scott Hubbard fly in along with the words: “Hubbard Here!” then each one disappears leaving this:
That is when Scott Hubbard joined the electric shop.
Scott and I drove to work together for a long time and we became good friends.
I’ll miss Scott when I leave. I’ll remember that “Hubbard is Here”, while I’ll be down there – in Texas.
Do you remember the Quality Process? They said it was a process and not a program because when a program is over it goes away, and a process is something that will always be here. — Yeah right.
Note: While I was saying this, the screen all of the sudden went dark as I kept talking… I could tell that people wondered if I realized that the presentation had suddenly disappeared….
This is all we have left of the Quality Process.
When I said the line “This is all we have left of the Quality Process” pointing my thumb over my shoulder with a look of disappointment on my face, the room suddenly burst out into cheers and applause as they realized that the blank screen represented the current state of the Quality process at the plant.
The first reorganization was done in a somewhat orderly manner.
They retired the old guys out first and brought in the new management, then they informed those that didn’t have positions and gave them time to find a job before they let them go.
Note: The sounds of gun shots were barely heard from the computer speaker, as splats occurred on the slide until it looked like this:
The second reorganization. Well. It was a massacre.
It was a very lousy way to do this, and very humiliating.
Jim Arnold at this point was about to jump out of his chair and stop the show, so I was quick to go to the next slide…
With the redesign came another Plant Manager. One of the first things I remember about Bill Green was that one morning I was stopped at the front gate and given a 9 volt battery for my smoke detector.
I took the battery home and put it in my smoke detector, and – guess what? – The battery was dead. And I thought, “Oh well. These things happen.”
Well a couple of years later, there was Bill Green handing out smoke detector batteries again.
I checked it out and sure enough, it was dead also.
Note: As I was talking during this slide, the marbles dropped in and bounced around then at the end the hat and moustache landed on Bill Green.
I am just wondering. I want to test out a theory I have. How many of you was given a dead battery?
— OK, I see. Just the trouble makers. I understand. It all makes sense to me now.
Second Note: Bill Green had a jar full of marbles and each color represented a type of injury someone has when they do something unsafe. Most of the marbles were blue and meant that nothing happened, the other colors represented increasingly worse injuries. Two marbles in the jar signified fatalities.
The numbers went like this:
Out of 575 incidents where someone does something unsafe, here are the consequences:
390 Blue Marbles: Nothing happens
113 Green Marbles: A First Aid injury
57 White Marbles: A Recordable Accident
8 Pink Marbles: Up to 30 days lost work day injury occurs
5 Red Marbles: 60 or more lost workdays injury occurs
2 Yellow Marbles: A Fatality occurs
The Maintenance workers are the best people I know. Everyone one of them has treated me with respect, and I consider each of you a friend.
You are the people I will miss. Not the coal dust, not the fly ash. — Just the people.
Note: Over the next set of slides, I showed the Power Plant Men I worked with… I will show you a couple of pictures of some slides to show you the animation that I had slide in and I’ll explain them.. I didn’t say much during the following slides. They flashed by fairly quickly:
Note: The circle with the slash over Bob Blubaugh represented him being recently fired… The story around this is on some of the last slides… and was a tragedy. The military cap landed on Randy Daily (in the lower right) because he was an Army Medic and was always in charge when it came to safety.
The donut flew up to Danny Cain because if there was ever free food somewhere, Danny would find it… Especially if they were donuts.
The words “Huh, Huh?” flew to Jody Morse, because he had the habit of saying something and ending his sentence with “Huh, Huh?”
Note: That was the end of the pictures of the Maintenance Power Plant Men…. I didn’t have pictures of the Operators, and they weren’t at the party…
Without these two, you wouldn’t get paid, and you wouldn’t get parts.
I agree with what Jerry Osborn said about Linda Shiever. There isn’t anyone out here that can do the job Linda does every day.
The maintenance foremen have treated me with respect and I would like to thank all of you for that.
Note: Then Jim Arnold flew in:
I realize that you have to do certain things some times because there is someone looking over your shoulders directing every move you make.
Note: At this point, Jim leaned forward in his chair to get a better look… wondering if that was his face on this picture of God…
Yes, Jim Arnold does take care of us, and we know that he doesn’t want to retire and leave us to fend for ourselves.
Note: There was a policy where you could retire once your age and years of service added up to 80 years. Jim Arnold’s added up to 100, but wouldn’t retire.
Note: Still talking about Jim Arnold:
Therefore he has devised a plan in case of an untimely death.
So don’t be smilin’ too big!!
Note: Still talking about Jim Arnold….
He will be able to direct the plant operations from his heavenly throne.
So don’t worry. He is NOT going away.
Second Note: At this point the PowerPoint presentation locked up on the computer… I had to shut down the presentation and restart it, and quickly go back to the next slide… I remembered the Alt-F4 closes the active application, so I was able to do this within about 15 seconds.
Do you remember when Bill Moler decided that you had to wear a hardhat to go fishin’ in the discharge?
He said it was because he wanted everyone to be safe.
As you can see, this made Johnny Keys rather upset.
Note: As I was speaking, Hardhats dropped onto the people:
Some bird might fly overhead and drop something on you.
Everyone knew the real reason. He didn’t want anyone fishing out there so he was making it more difficult to do that.
He used “Safety” as an excuse. Because of this, he lost credibility when it came to safety issues.
Note: The Hard hats disappeared and Cell phones and pagers dropped down as I said the following:
When you start making policies that use safety as an excuse, but it isn’t the real reason, you lose your credibility.
Second Note: At this point, Jim Arnold was jumping up from his seat… You see, Jim Arnold had fired Bob Blubaugh a few months earlier because Bob carried a cell phone with him when while he was working. Jim told him he couldn’t use his cell phone during the day. When Bob refused to stop carrying a cell phone Jim Arnold fired him for insubordination.
Today that seems crazy as everyone carries cell phones. Jim’s excuse was that carrying a cell phone was not safe, though he couldn’t exactly explain why.
That’s why Jim jumped out of his chair… I thought it was over, and I had two more slides to go…. So, I quickly clicked to the next slide… and Jim sat back down…. whew….
I would like to say goodbye to Doug Black. I have been blessed to have been able to spend time with you the past three years.
Then Doug slid off the slide leaving a picture of Toby:
I would like to say goodbye to Toby, you have been a good friend, and I’ll stay in touch.
Note: Then Toby slid off and Ray Eberle’s picture was left:
Ray, I had to hide this picture from you, because you sat next to me as I created this presentation. I just want to say that the last three years we have spent working on SAP have meant a lot to me and you will always be one of my best friends. Thank you.
With that I will say “Good bye” to all of you. Thank you!
Note: This is a picture of Jim Arnold and Louise Kalicki stepping off of Air Force One. I super-imposed their faces over Bill and Hillary Clinton.
This is the end of the presentation…. With that I was ready to leave the plant and begin the next stage of my life. I will explain more in the post next week.
After I had left, I heard that when the next person had a going away party, Bill Green announced that PowerPoint Presentations are no longer allowed during going away parties!
I was considered the one that “got away”. Power Plant Men don’t normally leave the Power Plant to go work somewhere else unless they are retiring, being laid off, or for some other compelling reason. I freely walked away of my own accord August 16, 2001. I left a job where I could have worked until the day I retired to step out into the unknown. But… that was the way I had arrived on May 7, 1979, 22 years earlier.
Just as I had driven onto the plant grounds those many years ago, unsure what I was going to encounter, I was now leaving the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to change my career and become an IT programmer for Dell Computers in Round Rock Texas. When I arrived my first day at the plant, I had no idea what I was stepping into… The day I left I was in the exact same boat.
So far, I have gone through my life accepting whatever happens as something that happens for a reason. With that in mind, I have the belief that whatever the future holds, I just need to hang in there and everything will work out for the best, even though it may not seem like it at the time. Let me tell you about this experience….
I had accepted the job offer from Dell early in January. My start date had been set for June 4, 2001. They were giving me $3,000 for moving expenses to move down to Round Rock when I finished college in May. I was being hired as an undergraduate college hire. I would be starting at a slightly smaller salary than my base salary as an electrician.
I was taking a considerable cut in salary when you consider the overtime that an Power Plant electrician racked up in a year. I figured I was starting at the bottom of the ladder in my new job, where I was pretty well topped out at the plant with no opportunity to advance in sight. Maybe in a few years my salary would catch up and surpass what I made as an electrician.
For about 10 weeks, we drove down to the Austin area and look for a house on the weekends. It became apparent soon after our house hunting began that the cost of houses was somewhat higher than they were in Stillwater Oklahoma. We finally had a contract on a house in Round Rock, just 10 minutes away from the main Dell campus.
While we were looking for a house in the Round Rock area, we kept hearing on the radio that Dell was laying off thousands of employees. The Internet bubble had burst and the drop in sales of computers was taking a toll on the company. Every time I called the recruiter, I would find that they had been laid off and I had been assigned a different recruiter. This was disheartening to say the least.
Here I was in a perfectly secure job as an electrician at the Power Plant and I was leaving it to go work for a company that was in the middle of laying off employees. My wife Kelly and I had been saying one Novena after the other that we make the correct decision about what we should do, and we had chosen Dell Computer. It just seemed like the right place to go. So, we decided to just go along with it.
We prayed the Infant Of Prague Novena every day that we made the right choice.
I gave the plant a 3 month notice that I would be leaving in June. We had timed the purchase of the house in Round Rock for Friday, June 1. I would start work the following Monday. Dell was going to send me my moving expenses on May 4th, one month before my job would begin.
On the morning of Thursday, May 3rd, our realtor in Stillwater called and said she had a contract to sell our home in Stillwater and was going to head out to our house for us to sign. I had stayed home that morning for that reason. We were expecting her to arrive at 9:00 am.
At 8:30 I received a call from Dell computers that went something like this….. “Kevin, I am calling to inform you that your offer for employment has changed. Your first day will no longer be June 4, but will be August 20 (2-1/2 months later). The good news is that you still have a job with Dell, it just doesn’t start until August.”
Since I was expecting the moving expenses the following day on May 4, I asked the recruiter about that. He said that since my start date was moved to August, I wouldn’t receive the moving expenses until July. I told him that I was in the middle of buying a house in Round Rock and that I was counting on that money. He said he would see what he could do about that.
I hung up the phone and looked at Kelly who was standing there watching my face go from a normal tan to a red glow, then an ashen color all in the matter of 20 seconds. I explained to her that Dell said I still had a job, but it wouldn’t start until August.
The Realtor was going to be arriving in about 20 minutes for us to sign to sell our house. Everything was in motion. It took Kelly and I about 5 minutes to discuss our options before we decided that since we had been praying to make the right choice, we were going to go with this new development.
I called Louise Kalicki, our HR supervisor at the plant and told her that Dell had moved my start date from June 4 to August 20, and I wondered if I could stay on the extra two and a half months. I was surprised that she had an answer for me so quickly, but here is what she said, “We can keep you on until August 17, but after that date, we will no longer have a job for you.” I thanked her, and hung up the phone.
Our realtor arrived with the contract for us to sign to sell our house with five acres. When she walked in the kitchen, I told her what had just happened 1/2 hour earlier. I could see the sick look on her face after she had worked so hard for so many months to find a buyer for our house. Here I was telling her that Dell was postponing my hire date.
When I came to the part about where we decided to go ahead with our plans and sell the house and move to Round Rock, I could see all the tension that had been building up behind her ever increasing bulging eyes suddenly ease off. We signed the papers and our house was set to be sold on June 29. I had to swing a loan for the month where I bought the house in Round Rock and I sold my house in Stillwater (and hoped that the house was actually sold on time).
A few hours later I received a call from the Dell recruiter saying that he had pulled a few strings and I was going to receive my moving expenses the following day. The following week after that, the recruiter that had helped me had been laid off as well.
When my final day had arrived on August 16 (I was working 4 -10s, and my last work day that week was Thursday), I was given a going away party (see the post “Power Plant Final Presentation“). The party was over around 1:30 and I was free to leave.
I said my goodbye’s to my friends in the office area and went down to the electric shop to gather up the rest of my things and leave. Scott Hubbard asked me if he could trade his Multimeter with me since I had a fancy True RMS Multimeter and he was still using an older version. So, I traded him, and picked up my tool bucket and headed for the parking lot.
As I approached my car, I could see that Diana Brien was out there waiting for me to leave. She gave me a Chocolate Chip Cookie the size of a pizza and said she wanted to say goodbye to me and tell me that she had enjoyed being my bucket buddy all those years. I told her I was going to miss her and everyone else in the shop.
With that I climbed in my car and drove away.
When I was selling my house outside Stillwater, I thought that the thing I was going to miss the most was the wide open spaces where we lived. Our house was on a hill in the country overlooking the city of Stillwater. We had an Atrium in the living room where you could sit and look at the city lights at night and watch thunderstorms as they blasted transformers around the town.
I was moving into a neighborhood where the house next to ours was no more than 15 feet away. I thought I’m really going to miss this house…. I thought that until the moment I drove out of the parking lot at the Power Plant.
Then it suddenly hit me…. What about my family? What about all those people I have just left behind? When am I ever going to see them? The thought of missing my house never entered my mind from that moment on. It was replaced by the great pain one feels when they pack up and walk away from their family not knowing if you will ever see them again.
My heart was still back there with the Power Plant Men and Women I left behind.
The seven hour drive from the plant to Round Rock Texas was a blur. I knew that I had just closed one door and stepped into an entirely new world. I didn’t even know if I would like being a programmer when it came down to it. I had always just been a hacker and I knew I had a lot of holes in my knowledge. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be any good at my job.
To make that long story short, I have never regretted my move to Round Rock Texas. I have just gone with the flow knowing that whatever happens, it happens for a reason. After 12 1/2 years working at Dell, I changed jobs again to work for General Motors in their IT department where I am currently working with the Onstar team.
My friends at Dell asked me the past few years… “Are you going to write about us like you do with the Power Plant Men?” My reply to that question was “I don’t know… Maybe I will. I haven’t thought about it.”
That was the same thing I told Sonny Karcher the first day I arrived at the Power Plant and he asked me what I wanted to do when I graduated college. I told him. “I don’t know. I was thinking about becoming a writer.” His next question was, “Are you going to write about us?” I replied, “Maybe I will. I haven’t thought about it.”