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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Owning the Incompetent with Humor

In another life, I spent some time in the software industry. I had been in the electric utility business for a few years when I was offered a job with one of our vendors. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. OK, I'll admit that in retrospect it actually was a good idea, as my three years there looks really good on the ol' resume now that I am back in the system operations and dispatch circle of the industry.

I became sympathetic to the lives of software engineers, as I worked with them at length while dealing with dispatchers and power marketers using the software. I became a liaison of sorts, telling the software wonks about life in the control center, and telling dispatchers about software wonk life trying to make lots of people with often conflicting opinions all happy at the same time.

Sympathetic to a point, that is. I've never been able to tolerate blatant incompetence. My own included, I must add.

Unrelated to that, as yet, is that I am also a wise-ass at work. Many many years ago the senior dispatcher on my shift would always react the same way when a line tripped. The first thing he would do was quote Robot (voiced by Dick Tufeld) from Lost in Space: "Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!" Then he'd get up, refill his coffee, and saunter back to the console to fix the broken stuff.

The quote inspired me, and it was very easy to find a WAV file of that quote online. I added a toolbar shortcut to it, and could play it loudly with a single click every time a line tripped. Hilarious. You had to be there.

I soon expanded my WAV collection and built an interface to instantly play back any of the 75 or so witty one-liners I collected over time. Some examples:

"I've felt a great disturbance in the force." (Obi-Wan Kenobi/Alec Guinness, Star Wars: A New Hope)

"Scotty, I need warp speed in three minutes or we're all dead!" (James T Kirk/William Shatner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan)

"Look, I'm gonna tell you about an accident and I don't wanna hear about an 'act of God', OK?" (Jack Burton/Kurt Russell, Big Trouble in Little China)

"No sense worrying about it now." (Raymond Stantz/Dan Akroyd, Ghostbusters)

"I think it is time we demonstrated the full power of this station." (Grand Moff Tarkin/Peter Cushing, Star Wars: A New Hope),

"Finally, we shall bring order out of chaos." (Egg Shen/Victor Wong, Big Trouble in Little China)

"I'm sorry, but this is a highly sophistamicated doowacky, you don't treat it responsibly, ka-BLAM-o!" (Homer Simpson/Dan Castellaneta, The Simpsons).

You get the idea. So where the heck am I going with this?

Do you remember how reserve sharing works? If not, go refill your coffee now, then come back and review Tutorial 4: Basic ACE, and Reserve Sharing before proceeding here.

So one day we're testing a new reserve sharing application built by my former vendor employer. It's not tied to anything yet so it can't actually make things happen, but you can tell it to do stuff and see how it would theoretically react. I have a sneaking suspicion (aka insider info) that it isn't quite ready for prime time, and evilly relish the thought of breaking it. I am suspicious that they are testing it while it has known deficiencies, hence is a waste of everyone's time. Test it when you really think it is ready, instead of pretending you're making good progress and hoping no one exposes you by breaking it. Their bad luck I was on duty.

Every utility in the entire reserve sharing pool had someone in on the conference call. Our turn came up, and we were to simulate requesting replacement energy for loss of a power plant in our system. I selected a large, 550MW plant that was shared contractually with three utilities. The software threw down an ugly error message to everyone's screens. Exposed. Software guys fumble mumbled apologetically about how the application was not configured to handle shared units yet.

So why are we testing it? Grrr.

OK, I say, let me try something else. When picking off the big 550MW unit, I noticed that their drop-down list of power plants included every single dinky unit we had. So this time I picked a tiny 0.85MW (850kW) hydro plant. Submit.

Everyone's alarms went off, as you could hear over the phone. So the application alarm was working fine. Then the comments started. "I got the alarm, but no megawatt contribution". "Same here". "Yeah, we see the event but are not being asked to provide assistance" Then the largest utility, with the biggest prorated share of the pool, said "I got one megawatt on my display". Mind you, they are so big that they can swing 100MW every few minutes as a matter of routine. 1MW to them is rather less than a day-old fart in the wind.

Software guys were feeling pretty burned now. But I knew these guys, and was not exactly a big fan of their work to begin with. Finally I played along and picked a "safe" 220MW sole-owned plant, and the application worked OK and let everyone see numbers like they wanted to.

As we continued through the round-robin testing, a couple of other dispatchers followed my lead and started trying to break the thing on purpose with new tricks. A few were successful.

As the call wound down and a sort of debrief was being held, I grabbed my PC speaker and pulled up the WAV interface. Holding the speaker by the phone, the entire conference call was treated to:

"So far, this is not blowing my skirt up, gentlemen." (Spencer Trilby/Charleton Heston, True Lies).

Several rather rewarding snickers were heard from other participants. Conference call anonymity is nice.  The software guys were silenced for a few seconds, and then went on like it hadn't happened.

Next time we tested the application a few weeks later, shared units worked, and no plants below 25MW were in the pick list.

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