“Would you like to join me?”
He was attaching spikes to his boots in preparation for the climb as he asked me. I stared up at the cables on the top of the utility pole and politely declined the invitation.
Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Linemen
Here I was, on a ride-along with an installation engineer from Comcast. Having led innovation in the connectivity industry for decades, I wanted to learn more about what happens on the ground that allows us to remain connected 24/7.
We were at a home in an older neighborhood where the cables were still at the top of poles that are shared by cable companies, telcos and other utility companies. Once he had his boots on, the first thing he did was to shake the pole. He told me that he had he was checking on the stability of the pole and then imparted the first of many new things I learnt that day:
An ‘X’ or a ribbon on a utility pole most probably meant that the last person who had climbed it or attempted to climb it had discovered that it was unstable. And they normally found out about 10 feet up.
If he had told me that prior to asking me to join him, my response would have probably been a lot less polite.
I had spent my entire career writing software or managing software projects – work that involved being indoors with the only possibility of physical danger being getting carpal tunnel syndrome. These folks put themselves in real harm’s way every day. Respect.
It Has to Work With What?
Having successfully passed my first test, I marveled at how spoiled we were in the world of modern technology. We specify which version of software and hardware our technology will work with, and, at the current rate at which technology improves, that window of backward compatibility shrinks steadily every day.
That story is very different when it comes to infrastructure. The house that we were at was over 60 years old and we had to figure out where the original wiring was (under crawl spaces, on top of utility poles, etc.) and had to get it to work. Every house is different so the only installation is a custom installation.
To put this in perspective: Imagine getting the software you write today to run on a PDP-1 (an ancient computer)
Intelligence Is In The Eye Of The Beholder
We introduced ourselves to the lady of the house, who, along with her four-year-old son, graciously let us into the house to complete the installation. We (okay, he – I just watched) started testing for signal quality. Here is where he taught me that the newer services had a lower tolerance for poor SNR (signal-noise ratio). In other words, even though the cables had been laid decades ago, technology was constantly being developed to enhance the usage and efficiency of these cables.
There was a lot of intelligence built into the network and at the nodes to give the public the “dumb pipes” they just cannot do without. It is hard to make things easy.
“Johnny, please stop bothering the men. They are working," the mother called out from the other room while we working on the setup.
She was not at all concerned about two grown strangers in the house and was not worried about them being alone in another room with her son. My daughter was the same age as her little boy and I know that I would have felt and done the same.
When Amazon recently announced that they would deliver goods into the house, almost everyone I know went, "whoa, I’m not so sure about that". The response was similar when I asked how they felt about someone from Google or Apple being in their house.
Cable technicians have been inside consumer’s homes for decades and no-one thinks twice about it. This is trust.
Walk In Another's Shoes For A Mile
I now notice utility poles with tags and cross marks and wonder about the person who tied or made them. I also see other professions differently. When I see workers on the road, I slow down. Not simply because it is the law, but because I now I understand and admire what they do and how their work is what allows all of us to access Facebook and smart home devices and everything else that we so easily take for granted.
Infrastructure to me was now humanized