TPTY II: Work, Work, Working Across the Southeast

The end of summer poured into early fall and an intense election season.

It seemed you couldn’t escape the divisiveness, that the masses were pushing to the poles, and if “the other side” won Cupid would start shooting shit sticks …

Fortunately, as election season heated up, there were a couple fun fall get-togethers in the works. Get-togethers where we tried for “no political talk”. It was nice to hang with old friends and get away from the “madness” (even if only for a weekend).

These get-aways broke up the project prep time as well. These next three years were to be more work heavy, and being that this was my first project of this type, I took it very seriously and jumped in head first.

Our Mississippi project prep included meetings, a site visit, area research, schedule reviews, getting licensed, coordinating with our engineering team, coordinating with contractors, etc. This time at work carried over a bit outside of work as well since I wanted to explore and get a feel for Mississippi. I tried to figure where I might be able to spend time off-site when the time was there, so I poked around, researched, and created a few “off hours” lists too.

As the days grew shorter and the leaves retreated to a healthy Earth color, the curtain closed on my time up North. 

I packed my things on a Friday. Awoke early that Saturday and drove through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and into eastern Tennessee, where I over-nighted in Chattanooga on my way to Mississippi. 

New Jersey to M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i.

New Jersey to M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i.

The following night I arrived in Mississippi, stopped at an Applebee’s (I’d get better about where to eat out), checked in to my extended stay and prepared for what would be my first day.

It would be my first day on a solar construction project, and I was the only person from our company that was to be on site for the next couple months. I won’t try to play it off, I was nervous and on edge those first couple weeks. Each day got a little better, but those first few were t-t-t-taxing.

My “green-ness” would wear off as the project progressed and I grew less and less concerned about what others thought about me, about what I said, or how I did things, but you have to start somewhere and this was it.

The first day I was on site, I met with the customer’s crew, toured our “pad” (exactly that - just a dirt pad that we would take from nothing to finished product over the course of the project), met with our surveyor, and the foreman of the crew that would be working our site. 

The first day was really a day of “easing into it” but as the week rolled on and I got more a feel for who was on our site v. who was working the Utility site, I began to get a feel that the company we had hired had loaded our site with labor to make more money. 

For the first 2-3 days, there had just been a handful of guys and the foreman had talked of making forms but nothing really struck me as “off” until the next couple days when we had 10 guys in the pit tying rebar. They took frequent breaks and talked of all the work they were doing and how hard it was but this impression wore off after talking with my boss and one of our customer’s reps on site.

Our contract with the customer had been on T&M (time and material), so what they were doing was putting more guys on our site to charge us for more time. That Saturday’s when it came to a T, as I cut half the crew and updated their timesheets to reflect so before they left site. This was very hard to do and outside my “comfort zone”, but it needed to be done. 

For the next few weeks, the crew we’d hired did a bang up job in completing the foundation work, conduit, grounding, and gravel work. The combination of their taking advantage of my being green, my actually calling it, and then our working together created an odd flavor.

I brought an energy (almost blind / ignorant) of “yes we can” while regularly doing little things that I thought would raise morale on crappy days, like grabbing coffee or food, or hopping in to help the crew with minor things (that I wouldn’t mess up too bad).

There were a few times where the guys in the crew tested me: asking me to pick up tools and materials that didn’t exist (like a “rebar stretcher”), questioning me about different engineering or construction aspects, and otherwise just prodding to see how I’d react. 

For the most part I kept my composure, gave honest answers, and let the guys know that I appreciated the work they were putting in. And this, being willing to ask dumb questions and admit what I did v. didn’t know helped a lot. After a couple weeks of feeling each other out, we got along pretty well.

On the occasional off night, we went for steaks or bowling, and this was great for getting to know the guys outside of work. I continued to question and learn from the crew, not just about substation construction but about life. I’d learn that it’s pretty common for construction crews to have quite the mix of characters, hard runs of it, good stories, hilarious jokes, and (for the most part) honest and useful life advice.

And while my naivete may have caused some tension regarding timesheets (there are a lot of “unwritten rules” I hadn’t been aware of), the underground phase wrapped up and poured very nicely into the above ground phase. 

During this first site, I really didn’t have an operating manual for on or off site norms. I’d checked in to the cheapest extended stay hotel that I could find in Hattiesburg, and while I still don’t think it was terrible, I heard from others on site and people throughout town that I was lucky that nothing happened. Supposedly it was a hotspot for prostitution, drug dealers, and gang bangers.

Our first site of the season (at the very start).

Our first site of the season (at the very start).

I had a couple “out of the ordinary” experiences while there but it really wasn’t until I moved to a nicer motel nearby that I realized how on guard I’d been sleeping. And it really wasn’t until multiple back-to-back nights of 12+ hours of sleep when I was home for Christmas where it became all too obvious how much being on site and managing a crew had taken out of me. 

The good news was that the below grade crew only had a couple weeks left upon my return and that our Jersey crew would be rolling to site shortly thereafter. Our crew was to focus on the above grade portion of the project: the steel, equipment setting, piping in, and wiring.

This time also had its challenges: having to get on the customer about promises made, having to ask a crew to leave site due to poor workmanship, and keeping an eye on our handful-of-a pole line crew … BUT things changed once our crew rolled onto site.

I was able to let my guard down a bit and trust in the crews doing the work since they’d done it before and had come vetted by our boss. It was a breath of fresh air having familiar faces on site and knowing that they knew what they were doing.

It was during this time that I would get back into self experimenting: trying things from Tim Ferriss’ 4 Hour Body to lose fat, pack on muscle, etc. I returned to the Slow Carb Diet after many a loose eating and drinking night to start the Mississippi project. 

I went the first 5-6 weeks of 2017 without a drink. For fun, I trained, experimented with different foods and supplements, drank lots of coffee, read, wrote, and meditated, and explored parks / local sites.

You get pretty good at occupying your time when you have to, but you also learn how much better it is to share these types of experiences with others.

I didn’t leave site much during this first project, being that I didn’t know what the norms were or what I was v. wasn’t allowed to do on my own. There were two weeks from the start through Thanksgiving, four through Christmas, six through a fraternity volleyball tournament in Toronto, and then another three to four until I was to closeout in Mississippi and ride up to meet my boss in North Carolina for our next project.

After meeting with my boss and our customer for a couple days toward the end of February, it was back to New Jersey for a week of project prep, down to (Fayetteville) North Carolina for mobilization, and then back up North for a ski trip.

This North Carolina site would prove to have a gem or two in the works. We started a relationship with a company out of Georgia that would prove to be our favorite to work with: a hard working, fun loving bunch that got the job done, didn’t b*tch, and were open and honest in communication.

Where the below grade portion of our Mississippi project had taken eight weeks, it took less than six on the North Carolina site. We were actually trying to keep up with material deliveries and needs to keep the crew running as they cruised from one phase into the next.

They finished so ahead of schedule that we pulled off site for a week to play catch up. 

I drove North to help start a project in Virginia and meet with my boss in New Jersey (while taking a breather at home as well). The time off site was much improved for this project, I’d had three long weekends off site over the course of those six weeks and at the close of the phase had a week away from site. In addition, instead of staying in cheap motels or extended stays, I had an apartment. While I had switched where I was staying in Mississippi three times, and rather enjoyed the last place (the Candlewood Suites), it made sense financially (for the company) and living (for me) to setup a short term lease.

The first site had been where I cut my teeth and the second site is where I was able to bring some ideas to the table. It worked marvelously, largely because we had an incredible contractor for the first half of the project.

Our second site of the season (near the end).

Our second site of the season (near the end).

Things improved on and off site. I built off of the momentum created in Mississippi and re-prioritized working out. I joined a local Gold’s gym, trained every weekday morning, and felt the “boost” :)

I would get up at 4am, go through a brief morning routine, hit the gym, rinse, eat breakfast and have coffee on site shortly after 6am, and then go through the work day. 

My days were: workout, work, rinse and eat, read, sleep … rinse and repeat. Once a week or on the occasional nice weekend, I took the ride up to Raleigh to play beach volleyball. This was a real treat at the time as beach volleyball was something I was beginning to gain interest in.

Over the course of these two projects I learned to limit time at the hotel / apartment, being that sitting by yourself, watching TV, or doing whatever other passive activity creates this empty, unfulfilled feeling inside. Unless you’re tired, are working on something that requires deep focus (and little-to-no distractions) or have another good reason, I’ve found that it’s better to be out in the world experiencing things and meeting people.

This doubling down on discipline carried forward through April and into May as our crew arrived on site (yet again). They’d been working non-stop on preparing the steel and relay panels, installing things on site, returning to the shop to prepare more steel and relay panels … and the feeling of burn out was EVERYWHERE.

Picture credit: yellowmeansgo.tumblr.com

Picture credit: yellowmeansgo.tumblr.com

Time off was increased to ensure nobody quit and it kindof worked as we made it through the next few weeks and toward project closeout (punchlist, documentation turnover, etc.).

Initially my boss had tried to tie me in for a third project back-to-back-to-back (Virginia), but he could tell that my head wasn’t right and let off it. I returned North, giving zero f*cks about anything work-wise. 

It was strange, as usually I’m motivated, disciplined, and good at holding myself to it. This must’ve been “burn out” though. Too much time away. Too much work-work-work. Too much responsibility falling on a few sets of shoulders for too long.

While the below grade portion of this North Carolina project was rather “stress free”, the above grade portion was trying. We had 25-30 people and multiple cranes on site for a few days, and inexperienced crew of electricians that taught me about quality control (through error), and a testing crew that showed up a week early and created a “too many chefs in the kitchen” feel.  

Through this all, my green ass was supposed to play “Bill” Lumbergh, manage, communicate, and make sure everyone had what they needed and was doing what they were supposed to.

Tough in the moment. The best of teachers in the long run.

“TPTY II: Work, Work, Working Across the Southeast” covers November of 2016 - July 2017.

“TPTY III - Big Boy Moves, Relationships, and Renewal“ will come out next Tuesday [October 8th]!

Stay tuned and feel free to comment, question, or otherwise drop a line.