Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Three Weeks in Purgatory

Not much to say with respect to the Alaskapade this week, although the trip is constantly in the back of my mind.  I think about it constantly. I dream about it at night.  I Tivo every DirecTV broadcast that has Alaska in the title.  However,I drew the line at watching Sarah Pailin's daughter on that dancing show.  This week, I'm working in a north central Ohio steel mill where the indoor temperature hovers around 20 degrees.  That isn't terribly cold, really; at least not to the locals.  It's the constant overcast gray skies outside with the absolute lack of shadows that really gets to me.

The world outside the plant can be downright depressing. You can tell any local economy is in the toilet when the largest employers are the public school system and the local hospital.  This mill is located in an economically depressed part of Ohio, which is actually most of the state. I'm told it was once the second largest employer in the city, employing roughly with 1,500 workers.  GM was the largest employer, but they recently closed their plant.  This mill manufactures stainless steel which will ultimately be used in automobile mufflers. Now, there are much fewer employees, most of whom work their asses off in the harshest of environments while constantly looking over their shoulders watching for the human resources ax. It makes me wonder what the state of this mill will be if sales of hybrid or electric vehicles ever gains traction.

This project started way back in April of 2010 with a phone call to ascertain the client requirements and the state of their existing network.  After learning that the existing network at this location was the technological equivalent of a gerbil spinning an exercise wheel connected to an abacus, my recommendation to the sales guy pushing the deal was to send them to Fry’s or Best Buy.  I pretty much blew it off then, figuring the worst that could happen was a few trips to Ohio where the temperatures are pretty mild during the summer.  The client acted in a manner which was as timely as their network was modern and I found myself in Ohio in the not-so-mild winter months of December and January.

My role here is that of an objective third party consultant observing the performance of two wireless LAN equipment manufacturers’ gear in the mill. I get to wear my consultant hat, my architect hat, and my engineer hat. I left my sales hat at home.

Some of the equipment here was manufactured in the 1930's, but its control mechanisms have been updated over the years. There are wireless control options available now that just a few years ago were never dreamed of.  Someone here got the nutty idea that a competitive bake-off between two vendors would yield the most promising wireless solution at the most competitive price.  Even nuttier is the fact that two vendors actually signed up to the challenge.

The implementation phase commenced the first week with one vendor arriving in the morning and selecting the most suitable locations for their radios based on anticipated performance and client requirements. Also considered were radio mounting restrictions due to overhead cranes and areas of intense heat.  When the second vendor arrived that afternoon and saw the first vendor’s placement markings, they miraculously selected the same locations. It was a classic case of “let’s do that they do in case they thought of something we didn’t.”  I must have thought of things neither of them did because I wouldn’t have picked any of the locations they did.  Nevertheless, after a few weeks, the gear was installed by the client with each of the vendors’ radios in very close proximity to the other.  It’s like going to The Home Depot.  Stand in the parking lot and look around and you will most likely see a Lowes within walking distance.

These are the most safety conscious (if not safety obsessed) people I've ever seen.  Granted, this is a potentially hazardous environment, but the company goes way overboard. If there's a hand rail, you must have one hand on it - even if there are no stairs. If there is a crack in the cement, you must stop, look at it, and then point at it for anyone following you before crossing it. Those following you repeat the same exercise.  I suppose with the litigious nature of employees these days and labor union influence, these steps are necessary.

Yum! Kevlar Sleeves!!
I would love to be the sales guy who has the safety equipment account for this place.  They buy everything and then force their employees to wear it while trying to do their jobs. They even have vending machines in the break rooms with reflective vests, safety goggles, ear plugs, and a plethora of other gadgets. To enter the plant, you have to wear a pair of ultra-thick coveralls, safety goggles, a construction helmet complete with a flashing red light, a breathing mask, articulating steel toe and heel boots, ear plugs, and these ridiculous Kevlar-infused cloth sleeves that clip to the coverall shoulders and completely cover the arms and hands. The reason behind the sleeves was to prevent cuts to the fingers and thumbs.  Ironically, the sleeves cover neither the fingers nor the thumbs.  The outfit reminds me of brand new motorcycle riders who buy a Gold Wing and wear the brightest day glow yellow/green coveralls available with reflective stripes sewn into every seam. I was that way with my Honda XL-100 that I rode when I was 15 years old. Despite the nuclear day glow outfit, I still got plowed by a clueless cager one day on my way home from high school - and there were no cell phones or texting to distract the driver. The most high tech equipment in a car back then was a cassette deck.  So much for being ultra visible.  This driver, a woman, was cited for DWA - Driving While Asian.  But I digress.

Monkey Suit Mirror Man
So we dress up in gear that rivals an astronaut's extravehicular activity space suit and attempt to perform work that requires a significant amount of dexterity in an extremely noisy environment with particulate matter so thick that the breathing mask turns black within minutes. If all this wasn't enough, the temperature inside the mill can swing from 20 to 120 degrees in a matter of seconds.  It's freezing cold between steel processing runs and then when the steel flows, you're sweating profusely.  I almost felt sorry for myself for having to be here until I realized some of these workers have been here over 30 years.  It makes my three weeks here seem like a vacation in purgatory by comparison.

This is my third week here wrapping up the competitive performance tests.  Next week, I will chew on the data and score each vendor’s performance using a predetermined set of criteria. Then, I’ll write up a fabulous report complete with RF coverage maps, data throughput readings, and some really cool photos and diagrams that make me look like a genius. I will be careful to be objective and in my best Officer Bill Gannon persona, will report just the facts, ma’am as I present the findings to my client’s executive team. Afterward, said client will likely ignore all of the technical data and the efforts exhausted to collect and report it, fold the report into paper airplanes,  and just select the vendor with the lowest price.

As frustrating as this process has been, the reality is that working among the people here reminds me of just how fortunate I am to have the job I do.  My sentence in Purgatory was only for three weeks.  These people are here for eternity.