Football is a fun game for me, even when my team, the Chicago Bears, don’t do so well. Fortunately, my family was very supportive (or just put up with me) during a disappointing 2014 season. However, in spite of all this disappointment, I was able to focus and remain fascinated on the communication that takes place during a game and what it may, or may not, mean to the team.
I recently saw a video detailing the complex calls within a football huddle. Having only played at a school yard level, the level of communication taking place, providing every player with detailed assignments, just amazes me. The phrases we hear rattled off seem to be complete and utter gibberish, such as the title on the graphic (trust me, it makes sense). But, as my wife sometimes accuses me, I apparently speak in gibberish when I tell her a story.
However, that football huddle gibberish, when taken in context, provides clear, concise directions on how each individual is to help execute the play. If everyone does their part, we see a well-choreographed play. But introduce some crowd noise, maybe a little trash talk from the opposing team, and one player could lose focus and blow up a play on a missed assignment. That means an opportunity missed and you end up in the loser’s bracket.
We constantly struggle with communication. You could fill the Library of Congress and then some with books written on how to be more effective communicators. Even when we practice over and over, as in football, we still make mistakes due to communication gaps. As an engineer, I wish we could communicate with yes and no or, even better, one and zero. It w ould all work flawlessly, right? Well as it turns out, even in the digital world, communicating in ones and zeros can be just as difficult, if not more so, than speaking plain English.
I haven’t had a long storied engineering career in the utility industry, but in my time I have seen a number of communication methods come and go. No matter the communication scheme, one thing I do see is that lonely engineer onsite late on Friday. They’re trying to get each part to speak to all the other parts. They are typically on the phone with a SCADA engineer, a relaying engineer and the operations team trying to make sure that a zero (maybe a series of zeros and ones) are showing up across town.
We all probably know that lonely engineer, or maybe even are one. We all know that no matter how well something is engineered, there is always an issue with firmware, we have the wrong converter, or we passed an open signal that was misrepresented at the remote end as a close. In other words, we have an NFL quarterback barking out play calls to my sandlot football team. As a result, we have mass confusion and Bobby just ran into the goal post and knocked out his front tooth.
What we need is an integrator. We need help. We need someone who understands the game, understands the play call, and ensures Bobby keeps his tooth. We need the full picture. I have been on a number of major capital projects where communications schemes and controls were pieced out to multiple independent firms. All of those firms are very skilled in their craft. The issue is that they are focused only on their craft. They have not taken the time to get the full picture by asking the right questions: What is our end goal? How can I make this easier, more seamless? Do you mind if I pretest your settings in my Ulteig relay lab to remove the simple bugs, or verify your firmware?
My goal for 2015 is to help that poor engineer stuck out at the substation on a Friday night, and I know that I have to have the team behind me to make it happen. After all, Sunday isn’t the only day for football. We also need the illumination of Friday night lights on our local high school players, and those lights only come on if we can get our systems to communicate.