Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Post of the Week Created with Sketch. Nine Months as a Shingle Maker

 

I can’t resist @jameslileks‘s request for me to expand on my stint as a shingle maker.

Six years ago I was graduating college with a business degree and a seven-month pregnant wife. I had worked full-time at a local farm and home store throughout college but it wasn’t going to pay the bills once the little one showed up. Every day I’d check the job postings, applying for everything that would pay well enough and provide some sense of career opportunity. Numerous interviews and a few other offers but nothing quite like what I was needing or wanting.

Then one day I got a call from a prominent local shingle manufacturer about an entry-level production position. I had already interviewed with them several months prior for a corporate job but was turned down. The production position was going to pay over twice what I was making not counting overtime, benefits, etc. The company is one of the largest privately owned roofing manufacturers in the United States with its headquarters in southwest Missouri and several other plants across the country. While it wasn’t quite the type of job I thought I’d be landing, I figured there’d be a lot of room for opportunity considering my education.

I was wrong. Maybe I was an impatient millennial. I don’t think so though.

I was placed on the original line, the line that started it all back in 1945 out of a converted streetcar house. Today the line produces laminate shingles, the company’s most popular shingle. There are essentially two types of shingles: three-tab and laminate (or architectural). Three-tabs are simply cut out of an asphalt sheet. Laminates are cut in a pattern then glued (laminated) back together to form not only a better-looking shingle but a better shingle overall. Most shingles today are laminated.

The process started with fiberglass mat. The fiberglass plant across town produced big 4’x6′ rolls of mat which were trucked to plant. It was nasty, itchy stuff. The mat was unrolled and ran through the coater which applied a layer of asphalt and granules (the granules not only give the shingle color but are also what protects the shingle from the sun’s UV rays). It’s then cooled with water so it can be cut, laminated, and stacked into bundles. The individual bundles are wrapped, then robotically stacked onto pallets, and shipped out the door. One “square” of shingles equals 100 square feet. Three bundles make one square. Four guys worked on each shift and if the line was running well, we could produce over 300 square an hour. Bare mat to pallet, it was a single, continuous process. It was hot, dirty, fast-paced work.

I started as a forklift driver. Most days (or nights, the line ran almost 24/7 the entire time I worked there) forklift driving never stopped and you were always behind. After a few months of that, I was trained to be an inspector. Drivers took over at the robot, made sure shingles were moving out the door, waste dumpsters were dumped, and assisted with line breaks. Inspectors inspected the finished product, made sure the wrapper was working, and took care of the cutting, laminating, and stacking portion of the line. The other two positions were coater and floater. The coater took care of the mat and asphalt coater. The floater bounced around for breaks and helped out anywhere it was needed.

I was making really good money but was miserable. I worked five different shifts in nine months, all swing shift bouncing from days then nights each turn. I quickly saw there’d be little opportunity out of the plant, even for a business degree holder. Upper management/corporate operations were all either ex-military or engineers or both. A fellow employee on the line had a bachelor’s in math and was actively trying to get in the Navy’s nuclear program. He failed and instead joined the Marines. Another employee was a certified meteorologist.

I told myself to give it one year and start looking elsewhere. Nine months in, I got a call from a friend about an opportunity with his utility and, five years later, here I am.

It was a long, hard time but valuable experience looking back. I think I’ll keep it back there though.

Interesting note, the owner of the company is a major Republican donor and is infamous in Missouri for being anti-union and pro-business. Very Kochesque albeit on a much smaller scale.

This was not the company I worked for but here’s a good video on how shingles are made. Our machines looked just like that:

.

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  1. kedavis Member

    I’m not positive, but I suspect James would prefer you describe the whole process in great detail, with human interaction, rather than just post a video. :-)

    • #1
    • October 29, 2020, at 12:42 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  2. Preston Storm Coolidge
    Preston Storm

    kedavis (View Comment):

    I’m not positive, but I suspect James would prefer you describe the whole process in great detail, with human interaction, rather than just post a video. :-)

    What’s hard to explain is the sheer number of shingles that were made in one factory and how it was only a fraction of what’s being made across the country.

    • #2
    • October 29, 2020, at 12:47 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  3. The Reticulator Member

    I wonder if making them is as much fun as hauling bundles of 3-tab shingles on your shoulder, up a ladder to the roof. (Most construction outfits don’t do it that way, and I hope my days of doing anything like that are over.) 

    • #3
    • October 29, 2020, at 12:51 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  4. Preston Storm Coolidge
    Preston Storm

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    I wonder if making them is as much fun as hauling bundles of 3-tab shingles on your shoulder, up a ladder to the roof. (Most construction outfits don’t do it that way, and I hope my days of doing anything like that are over.)

    I’ve been on both ends and I’m not sure “fun” and “shingles” belong in the same sentence. 

    • #4
    • October 29, 2020, at 12:54 PM PDT
    • 21 likes
  5. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVeyJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    A fine post! I’m a fan of “how it’s made” explanations, and this is a good one. 

    • #5
    • October 29, 2020, at 1:32 PM PDT
    • 14 likes
  6. Preston Storm Coolidge
    Preston Storm

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    A fine post! I’m a fan of “how it’s made” explanations, and this is a good one.

    Thank you.

    • #6
    • October 29, 2020, at 1:38 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  7. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor

    Thanks for this post. I’m always interested to see inside a part of this world that I haven’t even considered before.

    Preston Storm: I started as a forklift driver. Most days (or nights, the line ran almost 24/7 the entire time I worked there) forklift driving never stopped and you were always behind.

    There’s something wrong with a place where you can never catch up. I think I can express that in Industrial Engineering terms, but I’d want to talk it over with a friend that’s a pro at it first.

    • #7
    • October 29, 2020, at 1:46 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  8. kedavis Member

    Hank Rhody, Freelance Philosop… (View Comment):

    Thanks for this post. I’m always interested to see inside a part of this world that I haven’t even considered before.

    Preston Storm: I started as a forklift driver. Most days (or nights, the line ran almost 24/7 the entire time I worked there) forklift driving never stopped and you were always behind.

    There’s something wrong with a place where you can never catch up. I think I can express that in Industrial Engineering terms, but I’d want to talk it over with a friend that’s a pro at it first.

    Maybe it’s just more profitable than hiring enough people to be caught up?

    • #8
    • October 29, 2020, at 2:09 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  9. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Hank Rhody, Freelance Philosop… (View Comment):

    Thanks for this post. I’m always interested to see inside a part of this world that I haven’t even considered before.

    Preston Storm: I started as a forklift driver. Most days (or nights, the line ran almost 24/7 the entire time I worked there) forklift driving never stopped and you were always behind.

    There’s something wrong with a place where you can never catch up. I think I can express that in Industrial Engineering terms, but I’d want to talk it over with a friend that’s a pro at it first.

    Maybe it’s just more profitable than hiring enough people to be caught up?

    Depending on how you count the costs. People are going to have a higher upkeep cost than most machines, particularly things that were installed in 1945 and are still doing the job. From that perspective it makes sense to bottleneck your process with labor; you’re minimizing production costs. 

    On the other hand you wear out your workers. Take this Preston fellow; bet you a nickel he’s hard working, conscientious, and one of the better employees at his current workplace. You want to drive that guy off after nine months through swinging shifts and relentless pressure? You lose tribal knowledge, you lose out on innovations from people on the floor (people in a rush don’t have time to think). Your employees never develop the skill to truly make the most of their tools. (Robots are cool and all, but division of labor still applies. You spend enough time with a robot you get real good at enabling it.) None of those things show up easily in accounting. You’re incurring costs, but do they outweigh the gains?

    Really though, I’m guessing this based on philosophical priors. I have the intuition that treating people well gets you the best result, and a residual horror of places that never have time to slow down.

    • #9
    • October 29, 2020, at 2:29 PM PDT
    • 20 likes
  10. PHCheese Member

    When my father built his dream home in 1950 he didn’t want to ever deal with the roof again. Instead of asphalt shingles he used ceramic tiles. He died in 1974 so chances are he could have needed to replace asphalt shingles. I didn’t know what the initial cost difference is but that roof today after 70 years looks perfect. I know he had to use bigger lumber for the framing to handle the extra weight of the tiles. Great post.

    • #10
    • October 29, 2020, at 2:36 PM PDT
    • 14 likes
  11. Preston Storm Coolidge
    Preston Storm

    Hank Rhody, Freelance Philosop… (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Hank Rhody, Freelance Philosop… (View Comment):

    Thanks for this post. I’m always interested to see inside a part of this world that I haven’t even considered before.

    Preston Storm: I started as a forklift driver. Most days (or nights, the line ran almost 24/7 the entire time I worked there) forklift driving never stopped and you were always behind.

    There’s something wrong with a place where you can never catch up. I think I can express that in Industrial Engineering terms, but I’d want to talk it over with a friend that’s a pro at it first.

    Maybe it’s just more profitable than hiring enough people to be caught up?

    Depending on how you count the costs. People are going to have a higher upkeep cost than most machines, particularly things that were installed in 1945 and are still doing the job. From that perspective it makes sense to bottleneck your process with labor; you’re minimizing production costs.

    On the other hand you wear out your workers. Take this Preston fellow; bet you a nickel he’s hard working, conscientious, and one of the better employees at his current workplace. You want to drive that guy off after nine months through swinging shifts and relentless pressure? You lose tribal knowledge, you lose out on innovations from people on the floor (people in a rush don’t have time to think). Your employees never develop the skill to truly make the most of their tools. (Robots are cool and all, but division of labor still applies. You spend enough time with a robot you get real good at enabling it.) None of those things show up easily in accounting. You’re incurring costs, but do they outweigh the gains?

    Really though, I’m guessing this based on philosophical priors. I have the intuition that treating people well gets you the best result, and a residual horror of places that never have time to slow down.

    @kedavis Six-Sigma and Lean Manufacturing was the religion at this place. Any and everything to reduce waste, expense, and inefficiency.

    At one time the goal was to automate the line down to 2 employees/shift. I don’t know how.

    The biggest reason you’d be behind was because our storage for shingles was usually the farthest away. The three-tab line was double our size so when they ran they could flat spit them out so they got the closer warehouse space.

    If we got lucky and got some prime storage real estate, one driver could keep up ok.

    There were several old timers there but it paid well enough for the area that it would be easy to get trapped in. There are some types out there that love factory work like that though.

    • #11
    • October 29, 2020, at 2:40 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  12. kedavis Member

    Hank Rhody, Freelance Philosop… (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Hank Rhody, Freelance Philosop… (View Comment):

    Thanks for this post. I’m always interested to see inside a part of this world that I haven’t even considered before.

    Preston Storm: I started as a forklift driver. Most days (or nights, the line ran almost 24/7 the entire time I worked there) forklift driving never stopped and you were always behind.

    There’s something wrong with a place where you can never catch up. I think I can express that in Industrial Engineering terms, but I’d want to talk it over with a friend that’s a pro at it first.

    Maybe it’s just more profitable than hiring enough people to be caught up?

    Depending on how you count the costs. People are going to have a higher upkeep cost than most machines, particularly things that were installed in 1945 and are still doing the job. From that perspective it makes sense to bottleneck your process with labor; you’re minimizing production costs.

    On the other hand you wear out your workers. Take this Preston fellow; bet you a nickel he’s hard working, conscientious, and one of the better employees at his current workplace. You want to drive that guy off after nine months through swinging shifts and relentless pressure? You lose tribal knowledge, you lose out on innovations from people on the floor (people in a rush don’t have time to think). Your employees never develop the skill to truly make the most of their tools. (Robots are cool and all, but division of labor still applies. You spend enough time with a robot you get real good at enabling it.) None of those things show up easily in accounting. You’re incurring costs, but do they outweigh the gains?

    Really though, I’m guessing this based on philosophical priors. I have the intuition that treating people well gets you the best result, and a residual horror of places that never have time to slow down.

    I didn’t get the impression that there was much line-worker innovation possible, or desired.

    • #12
    • October 29, 2020, at 2:50 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  13. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor

    Preston Storm (View Comment):
    Six-Sigma and Lean Manufacturing was the religion at this place.

    Preston Storm (View Comment):
    The biggest reason you’d be behind was because our storage for shingles was usually the farthest away.

    You don’t say. Realistically though they probably had more constraints than you’ve told us, or that you know about. At HTI we had the whole process in Bay 4, with a bit in bay 3. Then we had one stainless steel etch line way over on the other end of bay two. Why? So the plumbing in the basement could adjoin the stainless steel etch plumbing from the bay two operations (which make a complementary part. Different process.)

    Bay four was designed to minimize travel times from one machine to the next. Then they had too many machines and had to cram ’em in willy nilly without regard for travel efficiency. By and large though it wasn’t that bad. Except for the poor guy who had to trundle rolls back and forth from bay 2. 

    • #13
    • October 29, 2020, at 3:05 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  14. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor

    kedavis (View Comment):
    I didn’t get the impression that there was much line-worker innovation possible, or desired.

    Probably the case. Doesn’t mean that’s a good idea though.

    • #14
    • October 29, 2020, at 3:05 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  15. OldDanRhody's speakeasy Member

    Preston Storm (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    I wonder if making them is as much fun as hauling bundles of 3-tab shingles on your shoulder, up a ladder to the roof. (Most construction outfits don’t do it that way, and I hope my days of doing anything like that are over.)

    I’ve been on both ends and I’m not sure “fun” and “shingles” belong in the same sentence.

    On one job (a huge mink food storage freezer) we used to have races carrying bundles up the ladder. This is probably one of the reasons why one of my shoulders is lower than the other today.

    • #15
    • October 29, 2020, at 4:14 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  16. The Reticulator Member

    OldDanRhody's speakeasy (View Comment):

    Preston Storm (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    I wonder if making them is as much fun as hauling bundles of 3-tab shingles on your shoulder, up a ladder to the roof. (Most construction outfits don’t do it that way, and I hope my days of doing anything like that are over.)

    I’ve been on both ends and I’m not sure “fun” and “shingles” belong in the same sentence.

    On one job (a huge mink food storage freezer) we used to have races carrying bundles up the ladder. This is probably one of the reasons why one of my shoulders is lower than the other today.

    Maybe also why your avatar is trying to push his back into place again. 

    • #16
    • October 29, 2020, at 4:20 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  17. OldDanRhody's speakeasy Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    OldDanRhody’s speakeasy (View Comment):

    Preston Storm (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    I wonder if making them is as much fun as hauling bundles of 3-tab shingles on your shoulder, up a ladder to the roof. (Most construction outfits don’t do it that way, and I hope my days of doing anything like that are over.)

    I’ve been on both ends and I’m not sure “fun” and “shingles” belong in the same sentence.

    On one job (a huge mink food storage freezer) we used to have races carrying bundles up the ladder. This is probably one of the reasons why one of my shoulders is lower than the other today.

    Maybe also why your avatar is trying to push his back into place again.

    No, he (not really me) is just trying to counterbalance that huge gut. Though I’ve had my moments, happily my back is good.

    • #17
    • October 29, 2020, at 4:24 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  18. Giulietta Coolidge

    Preston Storm: I quickly saw there’d be little opportunity out of the plant, even for a business degree holder. Upper management/corporate operations were all either ex-military or engineers or both. A fellow employee on the line had a bachelor’s in math and was actively trying to get in the Navy’s nuclear program. He failed and instead joined the Marines. Another employee was a certified meteorologist.

    Great post- I’m with @garymcvey on being very into how-it’s-made posts, esp. professions! Question- why do you think there were so little opportunities for advancement? was it the company’s size? was it the personality of the owner and higher-ups who weren’t interested in creating opportunities? company culture? Do you think this is common in other similar companies- the movement from manual to management is capped?

    • #18
    • October 29, 2020, at 4:56 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  19. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil FawltyJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    There’s a vaccine now.

    • #19
    • October 29, 2020, at 5:20 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  20. Preston Storm Coolidge
    Preston Storm

     

    Giulietta (View Comment):

    Preston Storm: I quickly saw there’d be little opportunity out of the plant, even for a business degree holder. Upper management/corporate operations were all either ex-military or engineers or both. A fellow employee on the line had a bachelor’s in math and was actively trying to get in the Navy’s nuclear program. He failed and instead joined the Marines. Another employee was a certified meteorologist.

    Great post- I’m with @garymcvey on being very into how-it’s-made posts, esp. professions! Question- why do you think there were so little opportunities for advancement? was it the company’s size? was it the personality of the owner and higher-ups who weren’t interested in creating opportunities? company culture? Do you think this is common in other similar companies- the movement from manual to management is capped?

    They were involved in a government program to hire veterans. The overwhelming majority of managers or black belts (a six sigma term) were veterans or engineers or both and didn’t seem to even consider others. They had all but ceased hiring management off the line. I could have maybe waited around for another opening at corporate but I got a better opportunity anyways.

    • #20
    • October 29, 2020, at 5:28 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  21. She Reagan
    SheJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Fascinating post. Welcome to Ricochet. Here’s my only shingles story:

    I woke up in the middle of the night, one day in 1994, jolting awake out of a dream about putting a new roof on the house (so weird). I had an excruciating pain across half of my back, so bad I could barely move. Mr. She drove me to the hospital while I was still in my PJs, because I couldn’t bear the thought of getting dressed. About half-way through the twenty-minute trip, I suddenly thought, “I’ve got shingles! That’s what the dream was about.”

    Indeed I had. Was off work for two weeks. Awful blisters, and the second worst pain I’ve ever been in, in my life (the worst was from an ulcerated cornea, about ten years before that.) Over a quarter-century later, I still get episodes of postherpetic neuralgia across the nerve band that was involved, usually at times of great stress. It feels as if tiny ants are crawling around under my skin.

    If you’re at risk for shingles, I suggest the vaccine.

    • #21
    • October 29, 2020, at 6:26 PM PDT
    • 11 likes
  22. The Reticulator Member

    She (View Comment):

    Fascinating post. Welcome to Ricochet. Here’s my only shingles story:

    I woke up in the middle of the night, one day in 1994, jolting awake out of a dream about putting a new roof on the house (so weird). I had an excruciating pain across half of my back, so bad I could barely move. Mr. She drove me to the hospital while I was still in my PJs, because I couldn’t bear the thought of getting dressed. About half-way through the twenty-minute trip, I suddenly thought, “I’ve got shingles! That’s what the dream was about.”

    Indeed I had. Was off work for two weeks. Awful blisters, and the second worst pain I’ve ever been in, in my life (the worst was from an ulcerated cornea, about ten years before that.) Over a quarter-century later, I still get episodes of postherpetic neuralgia across the nerve band that was involved, usually at times of great stress. It feels as if tiny ants are crawling around under my skin.

    If you’re at risk for shingles, I suggest the vaccine.

    Thanks for the reminder. I think it is available for me, now.

    That’s weird to be playing word games in your dreams, but I’ve heard of such things happening. 

    • #22
    • October 29, 2020, at 6:52 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  23. Arahant Member

    Basil Fawlty (View Comment):

    There’s a vaccine now.

    Get thee to a nunnery.

    • #23
    • October 29, 2020, at 6:55 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  24. RushBabe49 Thatcher

    It is always, and I mean always, valuable for management to have experience working on a production line. Our entire factory at my old place was completely remodeled, and the layout was designed by corporate management with zero production line experience or understanding. That remodel was a complete and total disaster. It took twice as long as expected (where have we all heard that before?); customer service was still taking orders while the plant was shut down, not notifying customers of the shutdown and resulting extended lead times; was the beginning of a huge exodus of valuable employees; and increased the ambient noise level quite a bit. If the so-called planners had considered asking the people who did the jobs how some huge changes would affect them, they would have learned that you need twice as many people in the stock room when you move small parts from point-of-use back to central stores (the stock room was behind from Day One pulling kits for each job, and every job had shortages). On-time delivery declined from 95% to 60%, and we had a lot of very upset aerospace customers. The people who left were not all replaced, making things more difficult for everyone. And when the company was sold to a new owner, many of the changes were reversed. What a waste!

    So, @prestonstorm, always give thanks for a taste of how the other half lives, and when making changes, ask them first and listen to what they have to say.

    Great post! Thank you!

    • #24
    • October 29, 2020, at 7:33 PM PDT
    • 15 likes
  25. kedavis Member

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    It is always, and I mean always, valuable for management to have experience working on a production line. Our entire factory at my old place was completely remodeled, and the layout was designed by corporate management with zero production line experience or understanding. That remodel was a complete and total disaster. It took twice as long as expected (where have we all heard that before?); customer service was still taking orders while the plant was shut down, not notifying customers of the shutdown and resulting extended lead times; was the beginning of a huge exodus of valuable employees; and increased the ambient noise level quite a bit. If the so-called planners had considered asking the people who did the jobs how some huge changes would affect them, they would have learned that you need twice as many people in the stock room when you move small parts from point-of-use back to central stores (the stock room was behind from Day One pulling kits for each job, and every job had shortages). On-time delivery declined from 95% to 60%, and we had a lot of very upset aerospace customers. The people who left were not all replaced, making things more difficult for everyone. And when the company was sold to a new owner, many of the changes were reversed. What a waste!

    So, @prestonstorm, always give thanks for a taste of how the other half lives, and when making changes, ask them first and listen to what they have to say.

    Great post! Thank you!

    That kind of situation seems to be pretty much inevitable when dealing with consultants and even new management hires. Consultants and consulting companies don’t get paid as much for determining that things are just fine as-is, and new managers don’t make a name for themselves and get raises etc and move on up to perhaps yet another company that hasn’t yet suffered their genius, if they find that the previous manager was doing things fine.

    I think this kind of thing accounts for many of the problems in what passes for “education” these days, too. Changing things around is how people with their own little theories about how education SHOULD BE done, get higher and higher positions, etc. The resulting failure of students is apparently irrelevant.

    • #25
    • October 29, 2020, at 8:01 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
  26. The Reticulator Member

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    It is always, and I mean always, valuable for management to have experience working on a production line. Our entire factory at my old place was completely remodeled, and the layout was designed by corporate management with zero production line experience or understanding. That remodel was a complete and total disaster. It took twice as long as expected (where have we all heard that before?); customer service was still taking orders while the plant was shut down, not notifying customers of the shutdown and resulting extended lead times; was the beginning of a huge exodus of valuable employees; and increased the ambient noise level quite a bit. If the so-called planners had considered asking the people who did the jobs how some huge changes would affect them, they would have learned that you need twice as many people in the stock room when you move small parts from point-of-use back to central stores (the stock room was behind from Day One pulling kits for each job, and every job had shortages). On-time delivery declined from 95% to 60%, and we had a lot of very upset aerospace customers. The people who left were not all replaced, making things more difficult for everyone. And when the company was sold to a new owner, many of the changes were reversed. What a waste!

    So, @prestonstorm, always give thanks for a taste of how the other half lives, and when making changes, ask them first and listen to what they have to say.

    Great post! Thank you!

    Amen and amen.

    My experience as a laborer on a small construction crew, as well as other such work in college years, was immensely helpful to me in my IT job, where I had to interact with our physical plant people a lot. I always figured it would be foolish not to listen to their suggestions. I had been in their shoes and knew what it was like to work for people who didn’t listen or care. I would tell them as much as I could about my projects, including as much of the politics as I dared. When I had deadlines I would tell them what was at stake and who really cared about what. There were some close calls, and some irritating situations when things didn’t get done on a schedule I was comfortable with, but they never let me down on the things that really needed to get done by a deadline. I usually preferred to hire them over outside contractors for things they were willing and able to do. We’d do these projects on a time and materials basis, which made some of those higher up at the university nervous about the money they were giving us. “Can’t you get a fixed price?” they’d ask? I could, I told them, but it would cost more to cover their risks, and I trusted these guys. They never let me down. And I had contingency plans in case unforeseen obstacles made it impossible to do everything as originally planned with the allotted money. (We were sometimes bringing network infrastructure into old buildings where we didn’t always know what was behind the walls.) This kind of relationship with our physical plant people was possible because I had done time in shoes like theirs. 

    I sometimes took it for granted that this was the way things should work. Once I had trouble with one of the people working for me who tended to be too bossy. When things weren’t going right on a small project, one of the physical plant people told me, “When you need something done, you let us know. Don’t send [name withheld].” That made me think more about how the people who worked for me needed to learn how to work with others, and that it doesn’t always come naturally for those who didn’t have the experiences I had. 

    • #26
    • October 29, 2020, at 8:19 PM PDT
    • 11 likes
  27. The Reticulator Member

    kedavis (View Comment):

    That kind of situation seems to be pretty much inevitable when dealing with consultants and even new management hires. Consultants and consulting companies don’t get paid as much for determining that things are just fine as-is, and new managers don’t make a name for themselves and get raises etc and move on up to perhaps yet another company that hasn’t yet suffered their genius, if they find that the previous manager was doing things fine.

    It also explains Google’s unstable products and services. You can’t count on anything that works now to continue to work.

    • #27
    • October 29, 2020, at 8:27 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  28. kedavis Member

    I had some pretty early experience with in-the-field interactions too, at my first real computer job. I went to work for a manufacturing company as their sole real programmer, because getting things changed or new things done by the company they had originally bought the computer and software from, was both expensive and took too long.

    Two examples:

    Each day someone from the manufacturing side came into the offices to enter usage and production data into the computer system. The guy who had written those programs originally, didn’t give much thought to “logistics” and had written the program so that each inventory “ticket” was entered separately, along with the machine and shift that had used or produced it.

    This was a slow process, and unnecessarily so because the usage and production “tickets” were always bundled by machine and shift.

    I re-wrote those programs so that a batch of “tickets” could be entered all at once, and then processed by the computer while the person was re-bundling those “tickets” and getting the next batch ready for entry.

    Payroll data entry had similar issues. The payroll “Clerk” was very fast, but the program for entering the data had not been written that way. It was written in a very simple, step-by-step manner, rather similar to the first example. After each data field was input – days worked that week, regular hours, overtime hours, double-time hours, etc – the program would have terminal “cursor” positioned for the next item… problem was, the “cursor” was already at the next item, and the “clerk” was already filling it in… and repositioning the cursor might have put it back to the start of the data, as well as producing a “BEEP!”

    On payroll entry days, the “BEEPS!” filled the office…

    What I did for that problem was, unless the previous data was in error somehow, the position-“cursor”-to-next-item step was skipped. Very few “BEEPS!” after that, and the overall process was much quicker too.

    Another less-critical item was the number of days worked for the week (or whatever time period). The program had been originally written with a default of 5 days per week, and it was constant. But if the payroll cards for a machine/shift or maybe even EVERYONE had fewer days that week – like because of a 3-day holiday weekend? – the “clerk” had to change it EVERY TIME.

    But just taking whatever entry was made and making it the new default, wasn’t ideal either. Just one person might have worked fewer days that week, not all of them.

    So I made it so that if they entered a different number, the SAME different number, like 3 times in a row, THEN it became the new default.

    “And there was much rejoicing!”

    • #28
    • October 29, 2020, at 8:40 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  29. kedavis Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    That kind of situation seems to be pretty much inevitable when dealing with consultants and even new management hires. Consultants and consulting companies don’t get paid as much for determining that things are just fine as-is, and new managers don’t make a name for themselves and get raises etc and move on up to perhaps yet another company that hasn’t yet suffered their genius, if they find that the previous manager was doing things fine.

    It also explains Google’s unstable products and services. You can’t count on anything that works now to continue to work.

    • #29
    • October 29, 2020, at 8:46 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  30. James Lileks Contributor

    Great post! Thanks.

    We just had our roof redone, and it was a big job. The workers hauled one shrink-wrapped portion of shingles after another up the ladder. They left one behind in case I needed something repaired in the future. When I picked it up – or rather tried to – it felt like a slab carved from a neutron star. They’d spend two solid days picking them up and taking them up two floors.

    We gave them beers at the end of the day, but they really liked my neighbor, who came over with a bottle of tequila. 

    A complex industry with all these moving parts, and it’s just a fraction of a fraction of the economy. From raw materials to an industrial facility to distribution to marketing to installation, ending in six tired guys doing shots on the curb – and then getting up the next day and doing it all again.

    • #30
    • October 29, 2020, at 9:55 PM PDT
    • 12 likes