Thursday, February 14, 2008

more notes from a cube

Here is a little anecdote that my friends and I commiserate on even to this day. In the realm of project management, there are always common grounds to meet on. The IT guys tell me sometimes about difficulty understanding service calls because the people who need service don't have the vocabulary to describe a tech problem. (Occasionally they don't have the vocabulary to describe their four-year-old's most recent belching achievement, but that is not for me to judge). Sometimes I can get together with the Loss Prevention (cop-wannabes) staff because the people on the front line generally don't want to go the extra mile and actually tell you about something that happens. For my money though, there's nothing like Construction for people taking things into their own hands and failing entirely to call a professional.

Case in point: For several years I received phone calls and emails on a myriad of topics such as faulty wiring, changes to landlord-owned gas lines, faulty heating or cooling systems, etc. Many of these requests are routine, so I thought nothing of it when I received an email about a light fixture that wasn't working. Something jumped out at me though, the requestor mentioned that she had tried everything before sending the email, turning the light on and off again, checking the breaker, getting a potato, trying to change the bulb. It was the potato that I found strange, and I asked my cohort if she had ever recommended such a thing. You know, policy developed before I got hired. If a light fixture stops working, find the nearest root vegetable and make sure, make absolutely sure not to use the same one twice. I called the store with the fixture problem and tried to get a handle on why a potato might equate success in this endeavour. Apparently in the nineteen fifties when most bulbs were incandescent and women didn't venture far from the kitchen, if a light bulb broke and the metal contact got stuck in the fixture, the safe way for a lady to get it out was to grab a potato, cut it in half, shove it onto the offending metal (the potato grounds you) and unscrew the rest of the lamp safely.

It is no longer nineteen fifty. Potatoes are not readily available in clothing stores, so this girl actually went as far as going to get a potato. That's a long time to think about what you're doing and wonder if it's a good idea. The bulbs used in most commercial environments are full of various gasses that probably shouldn't be mixed with starchy vegetables. The fixture too should probably remain clean and free of potato peelings. I take these things in stride. Why if it weren't for this girl getting in over her head with the potato solution, I wouldn't have a job after all. I told her how to get the fixture itself down from the track with a simple click and shipped her a new one while the one she had would have the socket replaced. Problem solved right?

No. The managers all talk to each other, so before this girl starts her own confidential potato tip-line, I need to nip this in the bud. I sat composing an email to the district manager wondering how to word what would be circulated without calling this girl stupid or old-fashioned or any of the things that though applicable, are not professional. I settled on foreign objects. It is not a good idea to attempt to remove broken pieces from a light fixture with any foreign object. Call the number, if we can walk you through it we will, if it takes a repair tech, we'll send someone. The first thing that went through my mind in this whole episode was me. Did I misjudge this girl? Have I misread the email? Is there some secret potato pact I'm not a part of? When we asked a few other women at work they acted as though we had missed some vital part of childhood education that we didn't immediately think to shove half a potato into every offending light fixture we saw. It became a cult with us. When something doesn't look right, or we have a question that might sound stupid or obvious, the first thing we say to each other is, "I have a potato question." To this day I can call one of my best friends at any time of the day when something weakens me. When something I would never have considered shows up and I have to deal with it. When I can't think of what words apply to the stupid stupid situation I'm now in charge of fixing, I open my email and send it along to the girl now managing these requests for another company. And in the subject line: What do you mean a potato?

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