I Got an App for That ...
More and more these days the answer to my questions seem to always involve the statement, “I got an app for that.” Once we go down this road, we spend 20 minutes or so looking at each other’s phones so I can download a new cool app. Somewhere in there I get the answer to my question. The plus is that I have a cool new app. Somewhere in the back of my mind though I have to question how dependent we are on “apps” and whether or not that is a good thing. Have these digital tools replaced a basic level of knowledge that we need in our profession to get work done? I wonder how this impacts safety in either a positive or negative way.
A synonym for the word moxie is “know-how,” the knowledge of how to do something smoothly and efficiently. Merriam-Webster offers another synonym for know-how, “expertise,” the skill of an expert. I first heard the word moxie used by a professor of mine in college. It was one of those moments that caused me to reflect, and I think back at that moment every now and then. We were given a small industrial power system as homework to calculate available fault current values at various locations within the system. My professor drew a one-line diagram and all of the parameters on the fly. He didn’t know the answer to the question when he wrote the problem. That was our job to figure out. I came in with my calculations and put them up on the board. I drew the same one-line diagram that he drew, and I added my values of available short-circuit current at each bus in the system. My professor looked at my work and immediately pointed at one bus and told me that number isn’t right. He said it can’t be right, and he gave me a range of numbers saying the right answer should be in this ball park. After reviewing the details, I saw my error. I had the wrong impedance of a conductor. I could not for the life of me believe that not only did he spot it so quickly, but the number I came up with that was accurate was right in the middle of the range he told me I should be in. I asked him how in the world did you see that so fast and he answered me with one word. Moxie.
When I started in power systems analysis, I did my first set of short-circuit and coordination studies by hand and the rest with computer software. I had a few other of those "moxie" moments when working under some good professional engineers in the firm I was with. The studies I performed all had to be reviewed by my mentors. I would receive them back and have areas circled with a note that basically said, "You did something wrong here, not sure what but these numbers can't be right." I could just see my professor saying, " ...moxie." The best phrase to describe my errors is "garbage in, garbage out."
Using application software to perform calculations may appear to make your job easier but knowing what data to plug in to the fields takes knowledge. Using the data that is on the output reports takes knowledge. Knowing when the data is presented by the software is correct or wrong takes moxie.
The only way to get moxie is to roll up your sleeves and get back to basics and know your fundamentals. When we replace those fundamentals with an "app" and let something else do that thinking for us, are we bypassing the journey to moxie? Are we shortchanging our own professional knowledge of the basic tools that we need to do our job? Do we compromise safety because we don't know if that number staring back at us on our phones is even in the ballpark? These are questions that don't have an answer, but hopefully will generate some thought and discussion in your circles.
THE ACTIVE APP
I don't know about you, but some apps on my hone alert me with information that I really like to know. Some examples include information about weather and/or traffic. My phone even knows that I'll be driving home soon, and it tells me what traffic looks like. It's absolutely amazing. There has to be a way to leverage this resource for safety.
Once you have a good foundation of knowledge, tools to perform calculations can help ensure simple mistakes are not made. A quick calculation of available short-circuit current can help ensure a piece of equipment isn’t being misapplied in the field. There is also the simple tool of a camera that can be used to document settings on equipment or labeling. The amount of power that you have in the palm of your hand is incredible when used appropriately.
When it comes to making decisions that will impact the safe installation you are working on, we have to have a level of expertise before we leverage short cuts. It may seem pointless to go through a few conduit fill calculations by hand when it will only take a few minutes on your smartphone, but in the long run I think those that don’t skip these steps will be much better positioned for success.
Smartphone applications can make our lives easier and our days more efficient. In my opinion, we need to understand what’s going on under the hood to ensure we are using these efficient tools in the right way. Make a game of it. Work a problem out by hand and the same problem by using the app. Compare your answers and see if you get the same answer. When you can match the results of your app when you complete the problems by hand, then you really understand the topic. Take your next step and build your moxie, your expertise, and be proud of your profession and what you can accomplish. Together we can make a difference. As always, keep safety at the top of your list and ensure you and those around you live to see another day.
Thomas Domitrovich, P.E. is VP of Technical Sales for Eaton’s Bussmann business within the Circuit Protection Division of Eaton Corporation. Thomas is based out of St. Louis MO and has more than 25 years of experience as an Electrical Engineer. He is a LEED Accredited Professional and a licensed Professional Engineer in the state of Pennsylvania. Thomas is active in various trade organizations including the Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC), International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI), Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), National Electrical Manufacturer’s Association (NEMA) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Thomas is Principle member on Code Making Panel 2 for the National Electrical Code (NFPA 70) and an Alternate member on NFPA 73 for electrical inspections of existing dwelling units both representing NEMA.