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Not a Very Good Pot Hole Dodger

09/25/10

I spent a majority of my teen years employed as an electrician's gopher. I didn't realize what the real etymology of my job title was till years later: go-fer. My responsibilities were pulling wire, running for parts and tools, digging trenches and post job pick up. In between all the running around I spent a lot of time doing routine wiring. My specialty was basic outlets. I would install the outlets, without the covers, then my dad would inspect them and put the covers on.

Eventually I was a grade A outlet installer. I put in hundreds of outlets in during the summers while I was in middle and high school. I remember reducing the process down to its simplest elements.The first time my dad showed me how to install an outlet he had his entire tool belt and used at least a half dozen tools. After the first twenty or so jobs my dad took me along on all I needed was a jack-knife, regular screw driver, and combination wire stripper/cutter to install an outlet.

It got to the point where I could identify which manufacturer built an outlet or circuit breaker panel just by glancing at it for a few seconds. For the most part we always used the same stuff but I developed my favorites. Most just had the basic screw terminal connections for line, neutral, and ground. Some outlets had "quick connect" inserts where you could strip the wire back and insert it without actually screwing down a terminal. Some had a self-grounding tab on the main mounting screws that connected the outlet to the box so you didn't need a separate ground wire to the back of the box.

I also got very good at identifying old outlets in the houses we were rewiring. They ranged from really old porcelain models that were easy to crack if you over tightened to modern three conductor plastic versions that seemed indestructible. I remember groaning every time I took about an older outlet and found oil-cloth insulation leading into the box. That always foretold hours of pulling new wire.

I spent so much time working with electrical outlets I became the ultimate outlet wizard. When it came to outlets the tiny details nobody would care about were like flashing neon signs to me. Installing outlets became automatic to the point where I hardly had to think about what I was doing as I was doing it.

One day i was sitting over at my uncle's house at a family gathering listening in on random conversations. The subject strayed onto past moving violations people had received. Somebody asked how it was possible that state cops could spot an expired license plate sticker on a car zooming by at 80 miles an hour. My uncle said that it wasn't that they were super human or anything but they spent week in and week out staring at license plates looking for those stickers. He went on to say it was just like a guy on a county road crew that can spot a pot-hole a half mile away in a thunderstorm where the average driver (like me) would run right over it on a clear sunny day

The robotic efficiency of the police when it came to inspecting license plates and the laser beam accuracy of road crews looking for pot-holes reminded me of my experience with electrical outlets. The general idea is that you get good at what you do everyday.

As an engineer that idea has stuck with me. In my daily work there are lots of opportunities to get dragged off to the neither word of endless status meetings and program management work. I know spending some time on those task is necessary but for me they can easily become unbalanced. At their seductive worst they generate the appearance of work but nothing is really getting done. The more time I spend on overhead work means the less time I am focused on the technical side and not getting myself to the engineering equivalent of the "outlet wizard" from my teenage days working as an electrician's gopher.

My motto is insist on working on what you excel at and are really into. If you don't do that your career will start a downward spiral that ends in an engrossing and challenging profession turning into an end of the line subsistence job where you stare at the clock all day.

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