Dec. 20, 2016 - Back In The Day
As VentureSum continues to expand the number of Field Personnel (Pole Counters), the newest folks come into the company and see the nice, relatively new central office, the fleet of sleek Toyota Tacoma's, the great technology with the computers and tablets and smart phones and bluetooth applications, the available tech support, the health benefits and credit cards, the immediate availability of info for any department such as vehicle maintenance, HR, payroll, work schedule and holidays, and have all this equipment paid for and just handed to them, and upon seeing all this say; “yeah, this is how it's suppose to be, this company is suppose to give me all this stuff ”. Okay, that may be a slight exaggeration, especially since a new-hire who actually thought this way would probably not actually get hired, or last very long. One must realize that VentureSum was started as, and still is, a small family business. It's not some big corporate entity started by a group of investors with millions of dollars who thought that there was big bucks in Pole Inventories. They say for most people, history starts on the day you're born, meaning, most folks don't see the history of what it took to get to where you are now. Well, let's see if we can't rectify this to some degree, because it IS IMPORTANT to know where VentureSum has been, so you can appreciate where we are, and to inform not only new (or potential) VentureSum employees, but also any guest to the website who is interested in how things used to be. But first, due to these newsletters being seen by not only our employees, but clients also, we want to make sure that, regardless of whatever the subject of this newsletter is, that it's made clear to all, that there is nothing more important to VentureSum than the safety of our people. So, to all the VentureSum people reading this, Think SAFETY and BE SAFE.
First, The Office-
Back in the day, the so-called “office” was an area in the corner of a small second bedroom in Joey and Cherri's (Joey's wife) house. There was a desk with all the papers from everything piled on it. It's where Joey and/or Cherri would try to do the administrative part of the company (yes, Cherri is/was an employee/owner of VentureSum). This included payroll, invoicing, taxes, permits, purchasing, record-keeping, and all the other things involved with doing paperwork for a business. In addition to that, Joey set up the projects and met with clients while counting poles in the field full time. His jeep was as much his office as the spot in his house. Any 'spare equipment' used in the field might be found in Joey's garage, or the back of Joey's jeep. Usually there was no spare equipment. VentureSum couldn't afford any. The paperwork would be done at night, after Joey and Cherri would get home from the day job. It's unsure how it all got done. Eventually, out of necessity, VentureSum graduated to an actual office space. It was not much more than a 15' x 15' cubicle located in the office portions inside one of the hangers at the Concord Airport. It was cheap but that was okay because there was only about 5 people in the whole company (all were pole counters). The office was really just a place to store spare magnets, equipment and numerous boxes of maps in addition to all the legal paperwork needed for VentureSum. Joey did hire a bookkeeper in order to alleviate some of the paperwork pressure and allow him to be more efficient in the field. The bookkeeper at that time, being of a logical and reasoning mindset, had quite the challenge in keeping order with the paperwork, while balancing the impromptu, on-the-fly and sometime seemingly chaotic events that were considered a normal occurrence for VentureSum. You may have seen some of this if you've spent any time with Joey, meaning, Joey's approach to things does not always follow what most consider to be the normal road, but it works, and that's why we call Joey a genius. The end result was that the utility companies heard that there was a small company out there, owned by a really nice and knowledgeable guy, that did really good work in joint use auditing, an area that was considered a minor sector that sometimes, but usually not, generated a trickle of revenue for the parent company. More often than not, an audit would generate headaches or wildly inaccurate information. The excellent field work done by VentureSum created a demand for more projects to be done because companies started to realize that they could make some money with good field information. More projects meant more boxes of paper maps and the need for more people in the field, and in the office. More boxes of maps meant a need for more room. More Projects and growth meant that VentureSum really needed someone who could keep up with the paperwork, and try to keep Joey as organized as possible. Enter Gwyn Deane (and thank goodness). The offices at the airport were small, and as VentureSum grew, it moved from a single cubicle in one hanger, to a double cubicle in another hanger and finally to a third hanger where 4 cubicles were strung together. It was really just 4 cubicles in a line with doors into each cubicle next to it. By this time, VentureSum had an actual office staff and they were like sardines in a can, but they did not complain, and thanks to Gwyn and the staff, they stayed and got the office working like a well oiled machine (about now they are reading this and saying “yeah, right”). Since Joey is not a greedy man, our contracts made modest amounts of money, most of the time (but not always) the projects paid just enough to pay the bills and keep the company going. Our clients wanted more though, and eventually the increasing number of projects worked allowed for a little money to be saved and finally used to construct the comparative palatial office complex that is currently in use. It took a while to get there, about a couple of decades. So enjoy the fact that, at the current VentureSum offices, there is: enough room to be able to walk around, the ability to have AND use internet, enough electrical outlets, the lack of noise made by forklifts and large airplanes moving around just outside the door, an actual separate conference room, an actual break/feed trough room, couches, T.V.'s, a balcony, places to eat within walking distance, a full size refrigerator (2), and other nice luxuries. Enjoy.
Back in the day, pole counting was done using PAPER maps, not computers. For example, a power-phone audit would consist of an area containing several counties. There would be one large overall paper map for the KOTM (Keeper Of The Maps) to use in order to keep up with the progress of the project. The entire project would be on a grid, and each individual square would be blown up to be a square map that was the size of a piece of poster board. There were no “work areas” as they are today. Each individual map was “the work area”. The maps were a power circuit printout on a scale of about 1 inch equals 100 feet (this ratio could be wrong but a map covered a significant geographical area), so, a project covering several counties would involve dozens, or even hundreds of paper maps (and of course, all those paper maps had to be folded, protected and put in order and carried around by the KOTM). In addition to that, the edge of the paper maps would be duplicated with the paper map next to it, an overlap of sorts, and therefore, you would have to be very careful not to duplicate the work done by the guy next to you. Because of the size of each map, it would need to be folded several times just so work could be done on a section of it. But wait, there's more. You couldn't just drive around with a multi-folded paper map in your lap and mark it properly. Some type of plywood board or some other hard, flat surface had to engineered into the right side of the vehicle, usually taking over the entire passenger seat, and held stable by some jury-rigged system and used like a desk for the paper maps (there were very few ride-alongs for most of the field guys). This 'desk' would have to be customized based on what type vehicle the pole counter was driving, so each 'desk' was unique. The power lines on the paper maps were not GPS'd at all, and did not necessarily look like anything you might see in the field. The paper maps were basically a computer translation of various hand-drawn maps that had all been mashed together. The spacing may be off too, so that, when you were marking poles on the map, you may have to cram 10 poles into a 1 inch space and then have only 1 pole in the next 2 inches. Additionally, the power line that you were following along 'this' road, may actually be running along 'that' road. We had to use red pens to mark the attachments (that's why we use red pens in training) so that the attachments would be easy to see against the black circuit lines all over the paper map. There are no erasers for red ink, so if a mistake was made (and mistakes were always made at some point), White-Out would have to be used to cover the mistake and the correction marked on top of the White-Out after it dried. Everyone carried a bottle in their vehicle. At the end of the day, it was not uncommon to see guys show up for supper with dried White-Out on their fingers like spilled paint. And of course, everyone had their own style when it came to how big or little, fat or skinny the X's and O's were marked (here is where we learned that a neat map was a really good thing). There were also no “pre-marks” (no poles on the maps at all). Each project was done brand new. This was a real pain in places like Charlotte where there is a ton of back property that's hard to see and reach. If it was raining, and there was back property that needed to be walked, the map HAD to be kept dry, no ifs, ands or buts. Water on red ink and paper was a very bad thing. And not really fixable. There were no copies of the maps, there was just the one that you were working. When the map was completed, you would need to meet with the KOTM so you could get your next map. You would also need to meet with all the guys that were working on the paper maps on each side of you so you could match up your map edges with their map edges (bring the White-Out with you). The ironic thing about doing it this way is that, once the project was completed, there sat a stack of maps which would end up collecting dust or disintegrating in storage somewhere. The client had no use for the maps and all they were really used for was to get the total pole numbers. It only took doing Charlotte a couple of times to realize that we needed to keep a copy of the paper maps in order to maintain particular info that had been hard to collect. That is where POI's (Points of Interest) come from. It's probably still hard to imagine doing the audits on paper maps for most people, especially those who have grown up in the computer age.
Eventually, when technology had advanced enough, and money was available, VentureSum moved from paper maps to computers. Back in the day, Joey was the I.T. Guy, and did what is now done by Wes, Eric, Phillip, Cathy, Debbie...and Joey. A special kind of computer (and computer program) was needed for the type work done by VentureSum, and there were not a lot of choices at the time and the ones available were pretty expensive. What was needed was something that was rugged with a fast processor (maps require a lot of graphic processing ability). We used what computers were available and ended up breaking and melting quite a few in the early days. We sent so many back, the manufacturer started changing their design based on the damage we were doing, and the weaknesses we exposed. Moving to computers was just half the equation. We also needed software, a program that we could use for the specific type work we did. There were several mapping programs that were available, but they were tremendously bulky and not really suited to VentureSum's needs. So, Polevault was born by our wonderful brain trust. Of course, the early versions were sorta trial and error, but they worked. Computer crashes weren't uncommon, but it was just something to be dealt with, and improvements were always being made. Another nice thing was that the desk for the paper maps disappeared and the stand for the computer took it's place (it was much smaller) and the stand didn't have to be customized for each vehicle, because in the early days, everyone drove something different. Now, everyone uses good quality computers that are put on a standard computer desk stand in each sleek VentureSum truck (installed by a dedicated VentureSum employee).
Back in the day, our vehicles were whatever the company could afford to buy, beg, borrow or steal (okay, not literally steal...as far as you know). There was no uniform fleet like there is today. Twenty years ago, The “fleet” was made up of 2 jeeps, and 3 pickup trucks. Only one of the trucks was a Toyota and all the vehicles were MANUAL shift 3, 4 or 5 speed. The VentureSum fleet at that time was also a rainbow of colors. As an example, vehicle #5 was a darkish green Mitsubishi 2 wheel drive truck that sat pretty low to the ground. It got stuck 3 times in the first month it was driven. The A/C didn't work most of the time. It had a regular cab. Did I mention it was 2 wheel drive? But it was all the company could afford (actually, the company couldn't afford it, but somehow, it didn't get repossessed). Even earlier than that, the VentureSum fleet was made up of privately owned vehicles, because the company couldn't afford the payments and insurance, so folks had to use their own vehicles. ALL modifications to the vehicle, in order to make it a better tool, were done by Joey. Later, when Wes joined the company, he and Joey would do it together. It was a LOT of volunteer time on the weekend to get trucks set up. All the wiring, lights, sunroof, company logo signs, all of it was done in house, after putting in 40-50 hours of pole counting. This is how small businesses have to operate in their early days. The maintenance schedule was whenever you could get around to it, and small things were fixed by the driver, or Joey when he could get around to it. The cool strobe lights of today were only dreamed about in the early days. Some of the vehicles had, what could be classified as, a white strobe light, but, other lights that were also used were the yellow flashing light that is powered by plugging into the cigarette lighter. That type light had a magnet on the bottom, which would hold it to the roof of the truck, usually off center because the cord was not long enough to set it at the middle of the roof. The power cord would then need to come down through an open window so as to be plugged into the cigarette lighter, if it was working. I'm sure the mental image you have of a dark green Mitsubishi truck sitting low to the ground with street tires and a single off-set yellow flashing light with a cord going through an open window is more akin to a rural postal carrier rather than a spiffy professional attachment auditing company, but no worries, it was what was available. The folks working for the company at that time were grateful to have what there was, and for the opportunity to work. Everyone believed the company could succeed, so we worked with an attitude that we would be successful and make things better As time went by, and vehicles were added, there was still a variety of vehicle types (and the belief was that they HAD TO BE MANUAL TRANSMISSION), but the move to having them all the same color (white) started to evolve. Manual transmissions eventually disappeared after the number of burned up clutches continued to escalate, and it was realized that driving off-road with an automatic worked just as well as a manual transmission. As time went by, the argument arose as to whether VentureSum would move to an all Jeep fleet, or an all Toyota fleet. Jeeps had several good qualities for off road and maneuverability, but were noisy, hard to keep cool in the summertime, and ended up being expensive to maintain. This did not bother the jeep drivers. A few of them thought the purpose of work was to see, in one day, how many mud puddles and dirt roads a person could go through, with the goal of turning the vehicle brown by the end of the day. Counting poles was secondary. In the end, The Toyota trucks lasted much longer, were cheaper to fix (for the most part) and were almost as maneuverable. Being 'cheaper to fix', really depended on who the driver was. A Jeep was expensive to fix AND maintain, and any damage to it tended to sideline it until the fix was done. For the Toyota's, they could absorb some damage and keep going. Of course, there was those who did more damage than others, however unintentional it might be. In fact, many of the safety rules used by the company today came about thanks to one of the early pole counters (or more, but probably just the one) who, with an eye to the future, and knowing that the company would grow into a vast empire, each day would test the abilities of his truck and the normal rules of vehicular operation. Sometimes (okay, most times), these test would end in damage, either physical or mental (through embarrassment), but knowledge was always gained. Now all VentureSum field personnel are much safer thanks, in part or in whole, to the sacrifices of this early safety pioneer. Today, the fleet is sleek and modern and uniform, and when looking at it, the early roots are very hard to see. It can still be seen though. The last jeep used in the fleet, can be seen scattered around the floor of Evan Coger's garage, where it is in the process of being put back together. Maybe Joey will get it back this year.
Back in the day, training was a little different from today. The training today involves questionnaires, conference room classes with projected pictures, rigid test grading, interviews, phone calls, paperwork, introductions, meetings, 1st day setup of equipment and employment information, employee handbooks, project specs, and weeks of intense one-on-one and group instruction, exhausting all possibilities and time lines for teaching the needed information. There is a formula and a system being currently used to maximize the chances for a new employee to “make it”. Not quite so in the beginning. In the very early days, If Joey knew you, and liked you, and you needed a job, and he needed a pole counter, then he'd meet you in one of the local neighborhoods. Together, you would walk around for about 20 minutes while Joey pointed out various utility equipment while explaining what the company did. If, at the end of the walk-through, the prospective new-hire seemed to have a grasp of what was going on, and still had an interest in the job, Joey would let them do a test in a different neighborhood on a paper map. Yep, it's the same test and location that is used today. Joey's grading of the test has not changed much either. Some things are right, some things are wrong, and some things are not counted either way because Joey forgot to talk about it in the earlier walk-through. If the new-hire more or less passed the test, they would be met at the office and something would be worked out to provide as much equipment as was available. The new-hire would then be directed to meet with Joey and the rest of the pole counter pack in some far away city (wherever the current project was in progress). Upon arrival, the new-hire received specific info on what the project was about, sort of a verbal project specs (since there were no specs on paper). A map was handed to the new-hire and he was dispatched to go count poles. The next morning, there was a QC. After the new-hire failed the QC, the mistakes would be discussed at lunch, hopefully with the new-hire learning what to do and what not to do. After lunch, the new-hire would go back out and count more poles. The next day the cycle would be repeated. If the new-hire had not figured it out by the end of the first week (making over 97%), they were told “thanks for coming out, good effort, but maybe this job is not for you. Leave the truck at the Joey's house”. A little harsh you say? Maybe, but the company could not afford to carry someone who didn't quickly pick up on pole counting and could contribute fairly quickly. Later, as the company started adding a few people, Joey allowed others to do the field training. Selecting those that might work for VentureSum was being done in a more 'traditional' way. By this time, folks would actually submit resumes. Joey would go through them one by one, find one he liked, and invite the person to try to become a pole counter. The pre-hire questionnaire and the neighborhood paper map test was not the measuring stick at this point as it is today. The prospective new employee of this time period would then have one-on-one training with one of the senior pole counters. This training might go for several weeks, and at the end of it, the new-hire might still be failing QC's badly and consistently, which would eventually end with the trainee being released, and weeks of the trainer's time going to nought. This process of looking at people one at a time and then trying to train them without knowing if they had the mindset was not as productive as was hoped. The person doing the training was spending all their time trying to train folks who ended up not making it, and essentially took the trainer away from being a productive pole counter due to all the time spent training. Once this was realized, the formulation of the current hiring process started happening. Now, VentureSum has a much higher success rate and go through many more applicants than was possible before. Understand, not all the time spent training involved, talking about counting poles. There was training in how to take care of the vehicle, how to keep up with receipts and time sheets and what to do with them. Learning how to live within a budget on the road was taught. This meant wisely using the American Express on gas, food and hotels.
Back in the day, the accommodations in which VentureSum employees stayed were modest at best. Rooms were always shared by 2 employees (unless an employee was special and needed a separate room because they needed total silence and blackness in order to be able to sleep), and usually, everyone working on the current project would stay in the same hotel/motel. Any room stayed in that cost more than $50 a night was considered living high on the hog. Usually the rooms had 2 beds, a bathroom, and a T.V. Refrigerators and/or microwave ovens in the room were a rare and joyous occasion. In the early days, having just a clean room was considered doing good. Most guys learned to bring their own pillows, soap and other items that are normally a part of the room. It was the smart thing to do if you didn't want to take home anything extra that you weren't planning on. Due to the budget at the time, a lot of these hotels/motels were located right next to, and I mean right next to the interstate or highway. At night, it was great for allowing you to play “identify that vehicle according to the engine noise”. Or, the hotel/motel was located in areas that you wouldn't consider going for a walk after dark. The fact that VentureSum only had a few of the truck tool boxes broken into over the years is pretty good. Even though our budget was limited, most hotel/motel owners were willing to give us a discount since we would be using several rooms and staying for several nights, if not several weeks. That's how we found out that all rooms are negotiable, and it's one of the first things taught to newbies when they go out of town. As time has gone by, getting a good nights sleep has become more important than ever if accurate work is to be done. Fortunately, the company has been able to increase our budget concerning hotels. Sharing a nice hotel room is not so bad. Our trucks are safer too.
Back in the day, 2 things that VentureSum used to do has unfortunately gone by the wayside due to the company growth and expansion. There was a time when at least once a year, sometimes more, all the employees would get together for a cook out at someone's house. This Bar B Q would last all afternoon and would include proper southern Bar B Q pork, ribs, and brisket. It was a time to socialize outside of work and relax. There has been talk from time to time to try to bring this activity back, even on a local level, but, with everyone's schedule, it's extremely hard to arrange. The other thing was the annual Christmas party. This was a gathering each December that was requested by Joey and arranged by the office staff so as to thank the employees for their efforts throughout the year. The company would arrange classy hotel accommodations for those employees that had to travel in order to attend. The company arranged to provide a fancy meal at a fancy place and didn't really require us to dress up. It was a time to relax and enjoy good food and good company in a relaxed atmosphere. Each year was different, but usually would include some sort of awards presentation for various individuals. Some of the awards were serious, like “Employee of the Year”, or recognition of years of service. Others were more lighthearted like “Least computer literate” or “Worst Driver”. There were decorations on the tables that were actually cool little gifts that the company would allow employees to keep. As the years went by, and the company grew, more and more folks were having to travel long distances just to attend. The expense and effort to arrange the gathering finally got to a point where it was just not feasible to keep doing it. Both the Bar B Q and the Christmas party were things that could be done with small groups, but it's just not possible with the large group VentureSum has become and as widely scattered as it's employees are.
Hopefully, you now have an idea concerning parts of the history of VentureSum. Although this newsletter may not be as humorous as some of the others have been, it is an important that the early history of the company be recorded and understood. The principals that were at the birth of the company, and have helped it grow, are the same ones that we're trying to be passed along to everyone as they come on board. Welcome aboard.
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