Today is Teachers day. Here are some memories of a great teacher.
Some of the most wonderful gifts that God sends our way are the people we come across in our working career. And if such a person happened to be your boss, the experience is memorable and life changing. When I met him, it was as if I stumbled upon the best teacher life could offer after twenty-one years of working life.
Humorous but sensitive, intelligent and practical - he was lethal combination electric enthusiasm and master storytelling. Behind his informal exterior there was a teacher par excellence. I enjoyed working every moment of my assignment – mostly admiring not only how good a boss he was but how good a human being I was with.
When I was on my first assignment to the US I was fortunate to work at a gas based power plant with a person who influenced me profoundly. I will call him "D". He was a brilliant electrical engineer and the positivity and the exuberance he radiated always was something I will never forget. Before my traveling to the US, when I was writing my first email to him, I was confused as to what should I write to break the ice. So I gave him a small list of technical areas that I have experience in, and also mentioned that this would be my first travel to the US. Within a couple of minutes, the reply came in. This was the beginning of a lifelong relationship with him.
"The areas that you mention are the areas where we are looking for some help. These are important areas of plant electrical systems and we need someone who can take care of these like a boss. Travel safely. We will arrange a pick up for you from the airport to drop you at your hotel. Take some rest and give me a call when you want to come to the plant. See you soon."
These perfectly balanced few lines addressed all the emotional needs that I had. Everything that he wrote made sense to me excepting one. How can someone like me, in an alien country like the US take care of the most important plant electrical system like a "boss"?. I kept on wondering about it for some time and left it at that, thinking it was a figure of speech used to give me some comfort to face the anxiety of the new role that I was expected to play at the project site. But I never thought what he meant in that first mail will be played out in the site office one day nearly a year after when we were commissioning the fourth unit gas turbine.
It was a cold Friday morning. A middle-aged man in his late forties walked into the site office. He closed the door behind him quickly but carefully. Quickly so that the cold air does not enter the office, and carefully, so that people in the room don't get disturbed.
There was a kind of calm in the small site office after the morning rush of assigning tasks to people. Everyone was busy doing some homework to dig out information related to solving problems at hand and to support people on the task in the field. All attention was on respective computer monitors. People in the field were talking on radio sets (walkie‑talkie) and sitting in our small office we were listening to their activities on radio sets sitting on charging pads. The radios were kept at low volume, but the cacophony of activities was clearly audible over the quietness of the room. It was a kind of invisible line of supervision that connected the engineers to technicians and what they were actually working on. This is a part of the American project site culture that helps improve safety. The technicians were aware of this as much as we were used to it.
The silent entry of the visitor into the small make-shift office did not make any difference to anyone in the room. But the heavy deodorant that the visitor used spread quickly and all the heads turned towards the entrance with question marks on their faces. From within a group, normally my boss D, is always eager to respond first.
"Good morning. What can we do for you?" he said.
The gentleman turned in the direction of the small cabin where D was sitting. On his table, his car keys, a half-finished cup of coffee, and some hand tools were lying on the top of a soiled A3 size drawing of an electrical panel. Moments before while studying the drawing, D was wondering how the engineering department could manage to commit the same mistakes year after year for the 35 years that he has been in this career. Looking at what all was lying on his table, the visitor must have got some impressions about D. He hesitated a moment before trying to explain the problem at hand that needed some elaboration. D came from a US marine corps background where briefings left no ambiguity between taking aim and taking a shot. From the short narration, he was unsure as to what he can do to help the visitor.
Me and Don
"Hmmm", my boss said. Then, trying to be helpful he said, "What do the papers you are carrying say?"
"It is addressed to the project manager, but he is not much help." The visitor said.
"So who do you want here?” D asked.
The gentleman asked, "Who is the boss here?"
"That depends on what you want to get done. Come in and have a seat. Let's get you going." D offered the visitor some coffee while finishing his leftover coffee. Over coffee, the discussion went on like this.
"There is a boss of this company, who sits in some office in San Francisco. He has many projects to manage and is yet to visit this project. He will not understand what is in this box to help you. If you have a few hundred million dollars in your pocket and you want to setup a power plant he may be of some help."
"And then, there is a boss of this project who is sitting next door in a glass cabin. But you have met him and found out he is not much of use. He manages the project schedule, budget, quality, and safety and stuff like that. He used to be a good man but now he is a bin counter. Using graphs, charts, and presentations, he can talk of exactly how many days it will take to achieve which milestone and why. But that does not necessarily mean we will achieve what the plans forecast. There are people to plan and he follows the plans. Don't get me wrong, making a plan is necessary but to be able to work as per a plan is providence. We all know, you may look at a plan in the evening for a task tomorrow, but next morning it is another day and another set of problems."
"Finally sitting in this corner cabin, I am the boss of this group. I decide who should do what and when - whether or not a task is doable. Whether I understand or not, I have an opinion about everything here. That decides bonus and pay rise, who sits where, who gets the best technicians, who I think is responsible for problems and who is the best problem solver etc. etc. If you want to listen to some story why the project will get delayed, or who is not good at what or why Mr. X and Mr. Y do not get along, all the insider stories are here. I also know which buttons to press if no one agrees to a decision that Mr. XYZ sitting in the glass cabin next door has taken."
After that, the discussion became a little more lively.
D said, "It all depends on what is that you want. My impression is you don't need any help from any of these. So if you tell me again what you really want, maybe I can help."
The visitor smiled and agreed. He said he has come from the manufacturer of an electronic device that is part of an energy meter used on the plant auxiliary transformers. As reported from the project, there are integrating type, energy totalizers built-in inside the energy meters. These are not working because the totalizing pulses to DCS are not potential free. He wants to replace the devices inside the energy meters and take back the non-working pieces. D took a deep breath and did not make any effort to hide his inability to understand the problem described.
He said "That is long story. I advise, you need the help of the real boss here who can understand the problem and help resolve the issue for you. The visitor's face lit up.
"Yes, sir. Who is the real boss here who can resolve this?
Through the half-open door, my boss pointed to my desk. "For the kind of problems you have in hand, he is the real boss here."
The visitor looked towards my desk and returned his gaze towards D. "Don't worry, he can speak good English and help in solving your problem. Just open the box, show him what you have brought and see what happens." Perhaps there was some more hesitation left with the visitor. So my boss stood up and escorted the visitor up to my desk. I stood up, shook hands and smiled at both of them.
"For what we have, this gentleman is the real boss" He declared and left him with me near my desk.
I pulled an empty chair for the visitor and said, "From the conversation that I have overheard between the two of you, I know what you are carrying from your factory. First, let me explain the problem that we have".
All energy meters have a counter that registers and displays the amount of energy that is being consumed through the circuit they are connected on. If the reading of this display is 900 today and after one day the reading is 1000, then 100 units of electricity has been consumed in the intervening day. But someone has to go near the energy meter and read the two readings and compute the difference to find the energy consumed. These days that is not necessary. There is a smarter way to do this. There is a small electronic circuit sitting inside the meter that generates an electronic pulse at the precise moment, when a prerequisite amount of energy (100 units in this case) is consumed. This pulse is connected to the DCS (Digital Control System) of the plant. The energy meter is programmed to generate one pulse for every 100 units of electricity, and the DCS computer is calibrated to increment the display of the energy consumption by the same amount (namely 100 units of Energy). So for every incoming pulse the display is incremented by 100 units. Another pulse, another jump by 100 units and so on. That is how daily, weekly, monthly readings of energy consumption is automatically computed without going to the meter to manually take the readings. In this particular case the plant DCS was programmed to extend its own power supply (48volts DC) through the contacts of the relay that was generating the pulse. But the electronic module was generating its pulse output through its own internal power supply (24 Volts DC). This mismatch was not working for the DCS. The new modules that the visitor was carrying were meant for “Potential Free” pulse, meaning the pulse output from the module were not having any voltage on the contacts. They can thus be wired to switch any voltage that the DCS system was using for its own working.
He was satisfied with my explanation. Then he opened the box and took out the electronic module that he brought. We went to the field, replaced the modules and were ready to test the output pulse to the DCS. We had to wait a few anxious minutes before a pulse would be generated and will be sent to DCS. Everything happened exactly as it should.
After the moment of truth, the visitor, while still looking at the connected multimeter blurted out "You are THE boss".