Making Waves Editorial: To Chill or Not to Chill

In August 1980 I was in my second year of TV engineering at KTVZ Bend when my boss Jess Ortega and I were to be on a live, local call-in TV show at 7pm at the station, talking about TV reception. About 30 minutes before air time, the transmitter dumped. As in—we were off-the-air. We jumped into the truck dressed in our suits, drove to the transmitter site, and were able to immediately put it back on-the-air because it had cooled during our drive. The show was re-scheduled for the next evening.

Sure enough, at 30 minutes to air the next night, the RCA/Townsend dual-tetrode transmitter dumped again. We returned to the transmitter site, but this time, Jess insisted we fix the problem and informed the Operations Manager that we were going to keep it off until we could cure what ailed it. He considered what to do next. Within a few minutes, the OM showed up at the site with a six-pack of beer and a bag of chips. We enjoyed the snack while the clock at the studio ticked away with no outlet for our programming other than the hard-wired local cable company nearby.

Within a few minutes, Jess had deduced the problem. Due to the August heat and the fact that he had removed the visual amplifier tetrode the previous week, there might be a tiny piece of tube socket contact stock broken off and lodged where it could expand from the heat and short out the tube, probably screen grid to control grid. We removed the tube, looked inside with a mirror and light, and there it was, just where he had predicted. That foreign piece of silver was 2mm squared in size.

It was counter-intuitive to believe it would be better to have taken a break than to have tackled the job at hand directly, but in fact Jess WAS tackling the job, letting the clues simmer in a relaxed manner until his brain delivered the answer. The process took only minutes. If he had instead tried to test the control ladder logic in that transmitter, it could have taken hours and we likely would never have delivered a satisfactory fix that night.

This story isn’t about beer. We were young and easily distracted by beer. 

Letting a problem stew until the solution floats to the top happens all the time. If you’re like me, you’ve likely had to sleep on a tough puzzle only to find yourself waking up in the middle of the night with a crystal clear solution. 

One thing that I find most of my experienced colleagues have in common is the ability to think under pressure in a calm manner, much like a doctor in an emergency room. It’s a remarkable trait learned over time because the alternative can lead to disaster.

This can give our colleagues in other departments the impression we don’t care about their immediate need. Whether it’s a printer that doesn’t print their presentation that is due in a few minutes or a newsroom without script management 30 minutes before the news, the operator just wants to see you sweat the solution.

Part of the illusion of lack of concern may come from our tendency to diagnose and fix problems from the back room or even from home by logging on to servers and networks remotely. We aren’t where the panicked co-workers are, so we must be doing something other than paying sufficient attention to their immediate problem.

Our minds can be working at breakneck speed on the inside while we look like we’re on vacation in a tropical paradise on the outside.

I wrote about this in a company memo the other day, with the following advice for our colleagues:

  • We really, really care about fixing your stuff and we like to solve puzzles.
  • Sometimes we seem apathetic or too chill when we’re just thinking about how to solve your problem. Sometimes we forget to demonstrate empathy.
  • Sometimes we have multiple problems to address and yours may not be the one perceived as most important at the moment. We recognize we may be wrong about that.
  • Sometimes there is money involved that is outside the budget and we can’t always get that new thing you need or want.
  • Fixing problems takes time, independent of your deadline. Sorry about that.
  • We have a mind-boggling number of devices to keep going here and so we’re not always the experts we would like to be. Our vendors actually hide a lot of information from us, so we are often at their mercy to solve complex failures.
  • Sometimes we have to ship a device to an outside service department that has its own priorities not aligned with ours.

A few points for our engineers:

  • Even though you are thinking a lot and in a hurry, try to make eye contact and reassure your colleagues that you’re going to fix their problem, even if it takes an extra few seconds.
  • Give consistent, timely responses to trouble tickets, even when you have additional work to do later.
  • My story is not to be taken as permission to chill with a beer when you are in a crisis.