Lessons from a Trailer Park: Part 2

Lessons from a Trailer Park

Written by Jeff Abernathy, Principal, CG Infinity Inc.

To catch you up in case you didn’t see my first article which introduced this series… I had 3 magical summers as a kid spent with my retired grandparents at the trailer park in East Texas where they lived. It was during these summers I learned several important lessons that, although I did not know it at the time, would help me be a good consultant. Recently, I started jotting down these lessons. There are 11 in total!

For those of you that have been reading the past articles you have gathered that I was able to make some extra money during those summers by doing odd jobs around the trailer park. Lesson 5 was learned during one of the oddest jobs I performed during my second summer there.

Lesson 5 – Know when to ask for help.

In those days, there was no cable TV. Each TV had to have either adjustable “rabbit ears” on the top of the TV, or a separate outdoor antenna. Given the trailer park was a little remote, the bigger the antenna and the higher the antenna the better reception you could get. One of the park residents came up with a great idea to achieve the height he needed for his antenna. Why not put it at the top of a tree? He somehow got it up there a few years earlier; but he was moving and wanted to take it with him. That is where I came in.

On my rounds through the park one day, he asked me if I would climb the 100-foot tree and get his antenna for him. He offered me $20 for about a 30-minute job. I was beyond excited! Not only about the money, but to do something completely different that I had not done before. I was about to start the climb when he asked me to first talk to my grandparents about it. I am glad he did that. It made me pause and think about the task at hand a bit. How was I going to get up to the first limbs? What tools would I need once I was up there? How was I going to climb back down the tree with the large antenna? These were just a few of the questions… all of which I didn’t have great answers. I was a little worried about asking my grandfather for help. I liked to do things on my own. In addition, given my experience level, he might not even let me do the job.

I did decide to talk with my grandfather about it, and I am so glad I did. He gave me some great ideas about how to execute the job. He offered an extension ladder to get me to those first limbs. He gave me his tool belt with all the possible tools I would need. He gave me a rope to tie to the antenna once I detached it from the tree so I could lower it down to the ground. He also offered a solution to a problem I had not thought of… a safety harness that I could use to wrap around me and the tree, once I was at the top, so my hands would be free to work on the antenna.

The job went well, and it went fast, and I was paid my $20 for about 30 minutes of actual work. Had the man not encouraged me to talk to my grandfather, I would not have thought to seek his help. My grandfather’s ideas made the execution of the job so much easier and so much safer than I could have done by myself. I benefited from his experience. Lesson learned!

Today, it’s still sometimes hard for me to ask for help. Sometimes my pride gets in the way. I have found though, that people really like to help other people. I have very rarely been disappointed by someone’s reaction to me asking for help. Asking for help earlier rather than later can help a team stay on track, it can result in a better technical solution being delivered, and ultimately can alleviate a lot of unnecessary stress for the team.

Through the years, I have found that the best teams are composed of folks that both contribute their expertise, and willingly help each other to deliver the best possible result.

My grandfather and I made a great team that day!

Lesson 6 – Do the Job Right!

Back in 1978, a mobile home roof consisted of a series of metal 2 ft by 16 ft sections riveted together. Each mobile home was usually about 60 to 80 feet long. So, about 30 or 40 sections. It was backbreaking and hot work, but I made most of my money from my summers at the trailer park painting the top of mobile homes with reflective “paint”. This was not any normal paint. It was a thick, almost tar-like, bright silver goop that was spread with a big brush. I am not sure what this paint was made of, but the fumes were crazy, made even crazier by the east Texas heat and humidity.

Needless to say, when you are on a hot metal roof in the middle of summer spreading silvery-tar-goop on a 16 foot by 80-foot mobile home, all you can think about is getting off that roof as quickly as possible. Yet, there was no way to move quickly without cutting corners like spreading it too thin or getting sloppy and having the paint drip down the sides of the mobile home.

It was super discouraging at the start of the job to be standing at one end of the mobile home and looking at all forty sections that had to be painted. It was too overwhelming to look at the job as one single task. I needed to change my perspective.

What I found that helped was to not look at the expanse of work left to do, but to look at only one of the sections of the roof at a time. By doing this, I focused on making sure I painted that section well. Was it evenly coated? Did the metal seams have an extra coat? Did I miss any spots? Were the sides of the mobile home free of silver-tar-goop drips? If all answers were yes, I could move onto the next section. I would obviously look at the work remaining as well, but by changing my perspective, and dividing the work into manageable “chunks” I was able to focus, not get overwhelmed, and get the job done the right way.

Throughout my career, I sometimes get overwhelmed at the start of projects. Clients hire consultants to do some pretty big things. Looking at everything at once and thinking about the limited amount of time we have to finish can be daunting. However, much like painting the top of a mobile home, having a plan, and dividing the work into manageable chunks helps me focus only on what needs to be completed at a given point in time.

I was telling this story to Saurajit Kanungo (our CG Infinity Inc. President), and he said, “Well Jeff, in 1978 you were already dividing your work into Sprints”. We both got a good chuckle out of that. But the approach did help me do the job right, and it is a principle I have applied to my work ever since.