Learn to code, lineman?

In this age of digitization, manual technicians and operators must bridge the gap between knowledge and technology. As computer programming is becoming a more imperative tool for utility workers, these applications allow operations to streamline more efficiently. This author of Electrical Apparatus shares how the Cornhusker Public Power District of Nebraska innovates operations by using software applications and mobile devices.

An understanding of computing is quickly becoming a requirement, not a luxury, for electric utility workers. By David Miller; EA Associate Editor

While computer programming itself remains a relatively niche skill, digital literacy and familiarity with IT workflows are becoming increasingly important: for manual technicians and operations teams in almost every field.

Linemen aren’t just vocational workers-they’re navigators, adventurers, and small-town heroes. On any given day, they can be found taking on all manner of roles – whether they be peering through binoculars with the keenness of a big game hunter fresh from the pages of King Solomon’s Mines to spot frayed lines, navigating tangled back roads as treacherous as any Greco-Roman sea, or climbing utility poles in the middle of a storm at risk of invoking the ire of the lightning gods themselves.

The whole affair is as virile and rugged as the best pulp adventure novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and at the heart of the work is the use of a variety of essential tools, without which the jobs of linemen would be even more challenging. While we often take such technologies for granted now, such was not always the case. Prior to the emergence of optics in the 17th century, the binoculars used for scouting lines were unimaginable. Similarly, the radios commonly utilized for field communication would have been inconceivable as anything ctner than sorcery up until the turn of the 20th century. Even the automobiles used to convey linemen from one worksite to the next would almost certainly strike our forebears as menacing steel monstrosities.

And while linework may often be conceived of as a tried-and-true vocational profession, even now, technological advances continue to disrupt the field. However, this time, as in so many other industries, the developments are in the realm of software, rather than hardware. As physical technology plateaus, innovations are increasingly being derived from the world of IT, where the mass proliferation of sensors, growing mobile processing power, and ubiquitous wireless connectivity are enabling those in various fields to gather and make use of data in new ways.

But those in manual professions need not fear their territory being trod on by a league of distant IT managers. Rather, as the quest for practically applicable data insights mounts, workers in the field may become frontline soldiers in the scramble for the digitization of everything.

Innovation in Nebraska

Take for example Cornhusker Public Power District (CPPD), nestled deep in the rural farmlands of east-central Nebraska. While the small, not-for-profit utility is hardly what comes to mind when one imagines a tech-hub, they’ve taken on the task of developing in-house software applications to streamline the growing administrative and regulatory burdens they face-a noble endeavor that allows linemen to focus their attention on the work that matters most, rather than spending their time fumbling through a mass of paperwork.

“It’s a matter of moving data from the filing cabinet to the Cloud,” said Brett Olson, information systems manager at CPPD. “We have other, more secure means now, and we can take data from the Cloud, aggregate it, analyze it, and use it to make better decisions based upon the information. You just can’t do that with paper or older technology.”

Olson is CPPD’s sole IT manager, and is ultimately responsible for the design and coding of the applications, but it’s the linemen working in operations who provide the crucial element. By maintaining constant communication with Olson, field crews are able to guide the development of applications that are tailor-fit to their unique needs.

While third-party applications with similar functionality do exist, workers found early on that the one-size-fits-all approach they take is a misnomer. By switching to an in-house design, CPPD was able not only to cut costs, but to create a product that is capable of effectively addressing the local peculiarities its teams face. In the instance that a particular facet of one of CPPD’s applications isn’t just right, a quick phone call to Olson can lead to on-the-fly adjustments.

It’s an agile approach made possible by CPPD’s small-scale, and the close inter-relationship between IT and operations it fosters. When CPPD still relied on distant, third-party developers who were serving dozens of different regions, each with their own idiosyncratic local challenges, such constant calibration and adjustment was simply a luxury they didn’t have access to.

“There are big-box solutions you can grab, but they’re more of what they think we need to use and how we need to use it,” Olson said. “We come from a point of saying that we know how we do business, so let’s develop something for us. [Our application] is being built by the people who use it. It’s being built by me, and it’s being built by our linemen and foremen.”

The applications all run on mobile devices such as phones and tablets, and assist with a variety of tasks, including meter and transformer change-outs, vegetation management, and- perhaps most importantly-the delivery of damage assessments to FEMA in the wake of natural disasters, such as the devastating floods that struck CPPD’s region last spring.

In recent years, FEMA reporting requirements have grown more stringent to include GPS coordinates and images of downed lines and other damaged equipment in addition to the more typical labor and cost accounting. According to CPPD CFO Jenny Hoefer, the added layer of bureaucracy was one of the primary impetuses behind the development of an in-house application to manage the swelling throngs of data linemen must increasingly sift through.

Without the ability to not only easily gather, but organize and transmit this information via a consolidated platform. CPPD workers would be unable to acquire FEMA funds vital to rebuilding local electrical infrastructure without spending tremendous amounts of time bogged down by the preparation of ever more complex documentation. Given the critical role electricity plays in day-to-day life, such a damper on response time in the wake of a crisis situation was quickly recognized as an unacceptable obstacle.

“When we’re getting the information they want the first time, and we don’t have to go back on it, that’s tremendous,” said Jim Baumert, a crew foreman at CPPD. “You don’t have to carry a bunch of paperwork to track this stuff. You’re actually moving forward and getting stuff done.”

The mobile revolution

CPPD offers just one example of the means by which ubiquitous mobile computing has begun to alter the nature of work, but elsewhere too, the burgeoning mobile revolution has had a jaw-dropping impact. According to Statista, U.S. revenue derived from the mobile industry is projected to reach $1.07 trillion in 2020. Moreover, the Boston Consulting Group reports that small and medium-sized enterprises that adopt mobile technologies see their revenues grow up to twice as fast and add jobs up to eight times faster than their less tech-savvy peers.

The litany of fields affected by this explosion of on-the-go connectivity is almost endless. In healthcare, mobile computing enables remote appointments, the streamlining of patient records, and online medication delivery; mobile banking allows customers to manage their balance and complete various transactions from almost anywhere without having to wait in long queues; and in manufacturing, the advent of the Industrial Internet of Things and remote equipment monitoring has even inspired the adoption of “bring-your-own-device” policies for new hires.

What’s noteworthy is that none of these advances would be possible without vast network infrastructure that allows for the constant exchange of various forms of information untethered from the locational limitations of stationary computers. With this in mind, it becomes apparent why broadband access, not unlike electricity in its early days, is quickly evolving from a consumer luxury to a fundamental service, particularly as mobile technology makes the leap from useful to mandatory, as in the case of the growing administrative bottlenecks CPPD faces.

Just as paramount is the types of data these networks can transmit. CPPD’s mobile applications, for instance, derive their most valuable functionality from the transmission of images and GPS coordinates-a feat that was nay impossible until the advent of 3G networks. While the mere ability to maintain and access a searchable digital database of documentation from any location reduces CPPD’s administrative burden, its benefits are dwarfed by those attained by the introduction of image and GPS data. While this information was initially gathered primarily to help CPPD obtain grants from FEMA in the wake of natural disasters, they’ve since found a growing array of uses for it.

Tracking maintenance with GPS

In the case of GPS data, it’s become an invaluable tool for more efficiently tracking the endlessly proliferating maintenance tasks that spring up throughout CPPD’s 2,250-square-mile service area.

“When we go through, and we initially find something-say a frayed wire-sometimes it’s in such a broad area that finding it after someone has mąrked it down on a piece of paper is virtually impossible, and if we have to spend a half hour looking for something that’s in the middle of a field we can’t get to anyway, we just wasted that time,” Baumert said. “When it’s imprinted on GPS, I can look exactly where this dot is and just know.”

Images have proven useful too. In the past, serial numbers of new transformers have been recorded via paper documentation, but the utility of the numbers alone has proven limited. For instance, when regulation pertaining to polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), an organic chlorine compound widely deployed as a dielectric in transformers, shifted from allowing 50 parts per million to one part per million. Baumert and his team had no way of easily identifying which preexisting transformers met the new standard and which didn’t.

As a result, each and every one had to be pulled down and inspected manually-a back-breaking labor. Going forward, linemen have been required to take an image of new transformers’ nameplates, which are then digitally filed alongside their serial number and GPS coordinates in one of CPPD’s many applications. Now, if new regulations come into effect which demand information that has not been recorded manually, the images of the nameplates can easily be consulted, and hundreds of clock hours can potentially be saved.

Much of this is also why constant communication between IT and the operations teams active in the field is so imperative to organizations looking to tap the true potential of data insights derived from mobile technology. When third-party applications failed to meet CPPD’s requirements, the cause was imperfect information on the part of the software engineers, who had no embedded knowledge of the challenges CPPD’s linemen actually face. Only Baumert and his team are fully equipped to identify their specific needs.

“You never really know what information you need until someone requests the information,” Baumert said. “We deploy an app and we basically just try it, and if we need to tweak this or that at the end of the day, we go sit down with Brett directly and brainstorm ideas for what’s going to work best in the future.”

It’s for this reason that digital literacy is becoming increasingly important, even for those working in manual fields. While it may not be necessary for linemen to know how to code an application on their own, it is becoming imperative that they be able to collaborate with those who do.

To this end, many organizations have sprung up to assist in bridging the knowledge gap. Computer science oriented education has become increasingly popular and takes a plethora of forms, ranging from free online courses to “code bootcamps,” which award professional certifications to students who can endure a brief, yet intensive training regime. While the bulk of these programs are oriented toward providing continuing education for adults, others such as Code.org seek instead to infuse computer science into primary and secondary schools as a core subject with the intention of allowing students to gain familiarity with the field early on.

Important too is that Code.org isn’t merely looking to train students to work in niche silicon valley industries. While they leave that pathway open, the emphasis is overwhelmingly on nurturing computational thinking skills that can be applied across many fields.

“[Computational thinking] is a systematic way of identifying a problem and working through it collaboratively. It’s a method of thinking that can really be applied to any subject,” said Kirsten O’Brien, Public Relations Manager at Code.org. “These methods are native to computer science, but they can really be applied almost anywhere else.”

Similarly, Olson feels that while linemen need not know how to code an application on their own, familiarity with the basic principles of IT management could make the collaborative process easier.

“If you have someone who’s had 45 years of experience, who’s seen it all and knows how everything works, how do you grab that information out of their head in order to build an application for the betterment of what we do?” he mused. “Our guys have to come to understand agile principles of how software development works. It’s the same fundamental process I’m using with a handful of gentlemen and a handful of resources that they use at Microsoft, or Amazon, or Google.”

Not-so-disruptive technology

Many who follow the headlines will recall a somewhat absurd scandal that sprang up last year surrounding the seemingly innocuous phrase “learn to code.” After a gaggle of journalists and politicians proposed learning to code as a viable pathway to reemployment for displaced coal miners, outrage ensued, and the watchword became a pejorative. While the media overinflated the drama, the sentiment against the pronunciation was fair. For older workers, the prospect of learning such a completely foreign set of skills in order to maintain their livelihood was difficult to swallow. What’s more, it wasn’t entirely clear that genuine employment in the youth-dominated field of computer science awaited them at the end of their retraining.

However, that doesn’t mean that improving digital literacy on the whole is a wasted endeavor. The case of CPPD alone illustrates that while digital literacy certainly can’t offer a replacement for working class jobs, it may increasingly supplement them. Not only that, but far from being a disruptive force that drives intergenerational conflict, it may actually serve a unifying purpose.

“Normally, you have a hierarchy, and your older foremen do all the teaching, right? Now, these younger guys, they buy into it because they get to be a part of things,” Baumert said. “The younger guys have been able to help the older guys make sense of the technology, and that’s actually brought us together. The whole team aspect is truly a thing.”

And so, perhaps a reconceptualization of what digitization means to the trades is in order. We should teach our children digital literacy, not so that they can become computer programmers instead of linemen, but so that they can operate as effectively as possible in whatever profession they choose. Just like binoculars, radio transmitters, and the automobile, code is just another tool. When the first maritime navigators employed the magnetic compass, they didn’t cease to be maritime navigators. Similarly, when you put a tablet in a lineman’s hand, he doesn’t cease to be a lineman.

“It’s still a labor-intensive job, and there’s no doubt about that,” Baumert said. “All of these little things help, but at the end of the day, it’s still about digging holes and setting poles.”

In a word, tablets and mobile phones may join voltage meters and wrenches on your tool belt, but you still can’t hammer a nail over the internet.


This article was written by David Miller from Electrical Apparatus and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.