So rampant was coronavirus, it even infected accounting systems.
Day 1: Today the authorities announced local shelter-in-place restrictions. All employees of nonessential businesses must stay home or be subject to fines if caught at the workplace. What to do? Set priorities: define whether we are essential and be prepared to back it up if we are. There is no Essential Business Department in California, like the DMV, to which one can apply and get a Certification of Essentiality. No tests one takes. It depends on one’s OEM customers and flows down to their suppliers. For those of us not named Elon Musk, we are not a law unto ourselves.
Day 2: Met with the crew. Game plan time. Henceforth, the old guys (the “over 60s”) will stay home. That includes (gulp) me. Aging and mortality in one poignant bite. A small crew will remain at our facility, handling day-to-day essential business. (In the preceding 24 hours, we established our corporate essential bonafides.) Headcount will fluctuate daily, depending on happenings. Some will stay home today; others will do likewise tomorrow. I stay home every day pondering the Darwinian way of the world, and my humbling new lot in life as a high medical risk individual. Regardless of work site, all employees will continue to be paid for the foreseeable future. As if we can foresee it. No one will burn PTO if they must stay home. Engineering work will be conducted from home to the extent possible. No onsite customer visits will be allowed until further notice. Living a paradox: keeping it all together, while dispersed. Here we are.
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Day 3: To document our essential designation, we set up a logbook. We may need to prove it one day to somebody wearing a badge and a sidearm. Best to be prepared. The book contains letters from OEM and EMS customers, affirming the Federal Government considers them to be essential – and therefore so are we. Pride of place in the book goes to those letters addressed directly to us. (They value us! They really, really value us!) It’s the little things that perk one up and put a spring in one’s step during a plague.
Day 5: Our nation has been impacted by an economic asteroid. Where traffic jams proliferated a week ago, the freeways are now empty. At certain times, a thrill-seeking pedestrian could saunter across the 280 Freeway on the San Francisco Peninsula – where 80mph is the unpoliced norm – and not get hit. I am not exaggerating. This may be teeming, industrious Silicon Valley, but the dearth of vehicles suggests it contains many people who can work, or attempt work, at home. Traffic density doesn’t lie.
Day 6: War footing. Ordered extra masks and (lucky us!) hand sanitizer. Fortunately, our janitorial service has us well-stocked with toilet paper and paper towels. The Quartermaster Corps has nothing on us. Should amoebic dysentery show up, we are ready.
Day 8: Evidence abounds that stupidity is not sheltering in place and lacks a vaccine. Super-spreaders are everywhere: customers pushing their imagined entitlement and jostling for their assumed rightful place in the flying probe queue. Many are waving readily marketable and useful acronyms, like DPAS. Someone has them convinced it is DoD-speak for cudgel. As in browbeat your supplier within an inch of their contractual life. Or cut to the head of the line. Opportunism is like slime: it flows wherever gravity and low resistance permit it.
Day 11: A customer today tried to use his DPAS rating to skip over other worthy, qualified clients that were there before him. His righteous lectures about privileged placement are worthless. You can’t push the flying probe onto an incline to speed it up by gravity. Get in line and take a number. In his case, number 12. Some are more DPAS’d than others. Let the DoD sort ’em out and learn your lesson.
Day 12: Trade shows are vaporizing. Everything prior to Jul. 1 has been either cancelled or postponed to the fourth quarter. Our travel expenses have gone from substantial to nearly zero in the space of two weeks.
Day 13: Today we were flattered with a “Dear Trusted Supplier Partner” letter. In it the esteemed client thanked us for our efforts and sacrifices, then segued nicely into the hammer: an imposition of yet another effort and sacrifice; effective immediately all invoices would be paid in 60 days, due to the situation with Covid-19. Dr. Fauci never mentioned the virus infected accounting systems. As with humans, there appears to be no known cure other than patience and social distancing from one’s accounts receivable. Don’t bother to protest because no one will answer. Naturally, no mention was made in the letter about this client’s history of ignoring stated terms, going back long before most of us knew the definition of “pandemic.” Covid conveniently masks a preexisting condition.
Day 16: County Health Department publishes protocols for safe operation and social distancing at essential businesses. We conduct awareness training for all staff and post copies of the county protocols at the front and back doors, next to our new hand sanitizer dispensers. Several suppliers request copies of our protocols prior to sending service technicians to us. Several ask multiple times; the pandemic has made them forgetful. They are large, not especially common sense-burdened companies. They know who they are.
Day 19: Time to shift from passive to active when it comes to videoconferencing. Bought Zoom subscription and we’re prepared to use it. Yikes! Now we’re part of the problem.
Day 20: What is so hard to learn about mute buttons? No, we don’t want to hear your dog barking or your kid screaming during our contract negotiation. The button is big and red when off, and big and green when on. Just like a Fisher Price toy from childhood, the screen draws wholesome memories. For ease of use! So all of us three-year-olds can do this!
Day 25: Received an earnest inquiry from a service that helpfully offers to provide attendee lists from the SMTA Dallas Expo. The service will gladly furnish thousands of “sales leads” on its proprietary list. Properly vetted, sanitized, and socially distanced. Thousands of P.O.-ready names attending a tabletop show with 50 to 60 tables. One inconvenient problem: the show was postponed because of the pandemic. But they still have a list.
Day 31: Received a query from a customer that wishes to flying probe-test 2,000 boards per week. Consumer product. Wants to start immediately, as in next week. No problem. Sent them an email asking that they document their essential status. Nothing but the sound of crickets chirping.
Day 35: A guy calls wanting CT-scanning of musical instruments. Customer wants to create a digital archive of an entire orchestra. Can do. First, he wants to prove our capabilities by means of a test case. French horn. Piece of cake. Free, naturally, is his expectation. Having some digestion problems with that piece of cake. We do it anyway, in our downtime.
Day 41: Received my fifth webinar invitation of the day. It followed my third daily sales pitch from a Chinese circuit board fabricator. So much flattering attention. So much useless, time-filling noise. Everybody is so caring and concerned. Send your dollars to C.A.R.E.
Day 48: French Horn Man is anxious for his images. He lectures me about deadlines. Indignation compels me to remind him that his product is not exactly, ahem, essential; that we’re doing it for free; and we insert his project discreetly and as time permits around somewhat more pressing aerospace and medical life support projects. He is not-so-subtly urged to count his blessings that we make time available for him in the first place. He gets quiet. He should get quiet.
Day 53: We send French Horn Man a set of sample images. He’s ecstatic, in an intensely self-regulating, classical music kind of way (stiff upper lip). We are thanked for our time and effort and off he happily departs. Despite several follow-up emails, we never hear from him again.
Day 57: Videoconference with a medical instrument EMS customer to go over gage R&R results from preliminary x-ray inspection. They made the mistake of inviting their OEM to the meeting, who promptly hijacks it, questioning every measurement and the premise behind each one. Which is perplexing, considering the OEM wrote the spec we measure to, which this engineer clearly had not read. At minute 90 of a 30-minute meeting, I pull the ripcord and bail out. Something about another Zoom meeting with the mother ship, or the pending apocalypse, or something more important. We clearly aren’t charging enough.
Day 64: Conference call with a quality engineer from a longstanding aerospace customer. He wants to visit our facility to qualify our x-ray processes, which have been validating and troubleshooting and generally passing judgment on his boards for 11 years. (What took them so long?) He’s new, eager to impress by checking his boxes, and needs to be brought up to speed by his colleagues. After the conference call, we never hear from him again either. All is well.
Day 69: Personal facial hair running riot. The 1880s pioneers (you know, the ones in the tintype pictures with their stout prairie wives and 14 equally stout, sullen children, not counting the four lost in childbirth) have nothing on my beard. Gonna need a machete to hack through the facial underbrush when the time comes to look respectable again. Avoid melted cheese. Meanwhile I’ll channel Father Time on Zoom and look inscrutable behind the white-haired façade. Kind of the low-rent wise man look, sans wisdom.
Day 71: Protests going on throughout our area. Justified but scary at the same time. Hope they don’t metastasize into something worse. We reap what we sow. In management school, they don’t teach overcoming pandemics, economic calamity, and civil unrest simultaneously. No textbook for this.
Day 77: The world is emerging from its cocoon. Just as belligerent as the world we plunged into 77 days ago. What have we learned? Video technology is now our friend, or at least our constant annoyance. Plus, we now wear masks. And Elon Musk is, well, Elon Musk.
Day 78: As we emerge, it is clear the world most assuredly is not going back to “normal” as we knew it on Feb. 1, 2020. What does it mean? And will the DPAS exemption-wavers stop shouting to move up in line? This has been one extended masterclass in making things up as we go along. Getting all our social ills on the table in one blast. Put that in your Industry 4.0 spreadsheet. Short spurt intensity for which American technologists are uniquely qualified.
firstname.lastname@example.org. His column runs bimonthly.is president of Datest Corp. (datest.com);