Danger! Low Voltage!

Posted on 19 May 2015

There are guys running ethernet cable in my office today. It almost makes me miss doing that myself - almost. It was dirty, thankless work, and physically demanding at times. We would work long hours and didn’t always get much to show for it. There were no vacation days, no health insurance, no real fringe benefits to speak of. But I learned a lot, and I saw a lot of interesting places along the way. When you’re installing low-voltage wiring (data, telephone, security) you get unfettered access to places where nobody normally goes, from executive offices and server rooms to crawlspaces and air shafts. I’ve told a few people my stories over time but have never written them down anywhere, so I figured I’d take this moment of nostalgia to write out some of the more interesting jobs I did.

To set the scene, this was back in the late ’90s. I had been trying my hand as a waiter at a chain restaurant, but quickly realized (like, before I was hired) that it wasn’t really for me so I was amenable to pretty much anything that paid. I was definitely interested in technology, but hadn’t quite figured out to do with that interest yet and worked a number of “odd” jobs (in more than one sense). I got most of those jobs because of my brother. He was working for a big box computer store (think CompUSA and you won’t be far off) doing Apple sales. A lot of people would hit him up for various work - web design, desktop publishing, networking, etc. - but part of the store policy was that you couldn’t freelance for customers, so he would pass the jobs off to me.

Most of the jobs I did were more time consuming than particularly interesting, like wiring up all of the telephone jacks for a new office, or setting up laptops for an entire sales department - which may sound very technical, but mostly involved unboxing and plugging in all of the wires. I learned how to use a punch-down tool and network testers, learned how to set up networks and security systems and fell in love with the idea of home automation. I also quickly realized that trying to get a bunch of Windows 98/95 boxes talking to a Windows NT server was not what I wanted to do with my life - even if it was good money. There were a few standouts, however.

One company I worked for did all sorts of tech consulting. It was basically a clearinghouse for a number of freelancers who took whatever job came their way. I was low on the totem pole and pretty new to the scene, so my boss had me doing anything he thought I might be capable of, throwing bones my way or sending me out on jobs with other workers who might need help with something to test my skills or teach me something. I hadn’t realized that a bunch of my coworkers (boss included) were Scientologists until we did a job for the Church’s Times Square HQ. They’d set up an office in the basement and needed network and phone cables run from a sever room a few floors up. We had to run cable from the server room and across a hallway to the elevator shaft, then run it down to the shaft into the basement and across a drop ceiling to the office. This part of it was pretty standard fair. What makes it memorable is the part where it was in a Church of Scientology and they were all very creepy with me - “Have you been here before? You look familiar. Why don’t you come to one of our services. Here, take some literature…”. The other memorable part was getting the wire from the bottom of the elevator shaft to the office.

Running cables in NYC was an interesting experience because a lot of these buildings are very old and predate any notion of running thick bundles of cable all over the place (thus all the drop ceilings and raised floors). This building was certainly no exception. The elevator shaft itself was lined with brick, on the other side of which was a small crawlspace that was being used to house a number of HVAC ducts. My coworker helped me get into the crawlspace - our ladder didn’t quite reach the panel that was high up on the ceiling, so I had to pop it and then pull myself up into it while standing on the very top of the ladder. He then left to go get himself into the bottom of the shaft, below the elevator, where he could drill through the brick in order to pass the wires through into the crawlspace. We communicated via walkie-talkie, so I had to crawl around the space with a radio and a flashlight.

The space itself was only about three feet high and much of it was home to large quantities of rat feces. It was cut in half by a large duct that only had about a foot of clearance over the top, so I had to shimmy over that and avoid the rat droppings to find my way to the elevator shaft. The crawlspace stepped down near the elevator so there was much more clearance, but it was also full of ductwork, which made traversing it pretty much impossible, so I was stuck crouching in the crawlspace until my coworker made it through the brick and was able to snake the wire over to me, which was a fun game of directing him via radio as to how he could maneuver the wire in order to get it into my hands. “No, pull it back, now to the right. Oh, almost!”. Wire in hand, I then had to make my way back out of the crawlspace and shimmy my way out of the access panel and onto the ladder without dropping to the floor and breaking my neck. Luckily, I made it out with both my body and my soul/wallet intact.

I had another job involving an elevator shaft, this time for a large advertising firm. They had just expanded their offices to take another floor of the building they were in, so we were brought in to run some new cabling, install some network repeaters, and most importantly, to install a fiber optic cable linking the server rooms of each floor. I guess that tunneling through the floor of a NYC office building is verboten, so we were forced to go the long way around - through the drop ceiling, down the elevator shaft, and back through the drop ceiling on the lower floor. A few things made this job memorable. I don’t know if fiber optic cables have gotten any better these days, but the ones we were dealing with were rather fragile (and expensive), so we had to handle it with kid gloves and go very slowly. It didn’t have anywhere near the tolerance of an ethernet cable for pulling and bending and there was no way I my boss would let me out of there alive if I broke a couple hundred yards of very expensive fiber optic cable, to say nothing for the hours of work we put in.

The job started in their server room, which was my first time into such a geek lair. You had to have a special security card to get into the room, which only the engineers and handful of others had, so it was their own private sanctuary. While the rest of the office was fairly corporate and white collar, this room was covered in posters for comics and half-naked women. They had music going and were dressed somewhere between business casual and full-on casual. And they were probably paid more than most of the people working there. Once to the elevator shaft, the cable needed to be run down and attached to an already existing bundle of ethernet wires that were about as thick as my thigh. They ran down the outside of the elevator shaft, attached to part of the infrastructure overlooking an air shaft that ran a good thirty stories straight down, full of a whole lot of nothing. My coworker worked the elevator, slowly bringing it down bit by bit as I ran the cable and tied it up to the bundle every few feet. In case you haven’t figured it out by now - this is not the type of job for someone who is afraid of heights, or has any kind of anxiety about safety for that matter, as I’m leaning out over a whole lot of dark nothing riding a moving elevator with nothing but a little piece of rubber wrapped around glass to hold onto.

As an interesting aside, while I was taking a break in the cafeteria of that office, I overheard a guy talking about this exciting new technology - in-elevator monitors that showed news and advertising. I’m not sure that the company was Captivate, but it was about the time that they got their start. Now, of course, just about every office building has a screen of some sort in their elevators, but this was back when more people had landlines than cell phones and the dot-com bubble was just starting to really expand.

It wasn’t always elevators that I was climbing on top of. Another job had me on top of a boiler in the belly of another building. This time I was running telephone and network cables for a new POS system at SOBs. They were installing a new office space down in the basement that would collect all of the sale information for the managers. There were contractors in their putting up the walls, so we had to work quickly to install the wire before they finished it so that we could do it without having to punch holes in their brand new walls. One of the stations was just above one of the boilers for the building, so it came down to me having to crawl on top of it and run the wire back to the office. I’ve tried finding an image for a boiler of comparable size but I guess there are things you can’t find on the internet. Suffice it to say, they were huge. I was a good twenty feet up from the floor, crawling around in at least an inch thick of black dust that was probably older than I was. I was filthy by the end of that one, but still had some time left over to hang out with the artists in the dressing room before they went on stage that night.

The last job I wanted to talk about involved wiring up security cameras for a warehouse in Newark, NJ. We did the job late at night after doing some other installs during the day. We had to do it after hours so no one was around to get in the way, or for us to get in their way. There were some offices in one corner of the warehouse, and we had to run wire from the security room there out onto the warehouse floor and over some doorways. We ran the wires through the office drop ceiling, climbed to the roof of the office space, and were busy running the wires over to the wall where there was a nice lip near the windows that would allow us to run the wire all along the warehouse, when the lights went out. One of the guys I was working with went to figure out how to get them back on while my other coworker and I continued running the wire with flashlights. Now, the problem was that this lip we were running the wire on was a good twenty feet up from the floor of the warehouse and we didn’t have any ladders that could reach it. We solved that problem at first by walking along on top of some pallets that were of the appropriate height and leaning out over the floor in order to tack the wire down, but the pallets (containing god knows what, so if you’ve ever gotten something in the mail that was broken…) only covered about a quarter of the warehouse floor, so when we go to the end of them we were stuck.

Our coworker who’d gone to turn on the lights came back with bad news that the lights were on a timer and we were pretty much stuck in the dark for this job, but he’d solved our problem with getting to the lip. He had a forklift operator’s certificate, so he grabbed one from the warehouse and picked us up off the top of the pallets. From there he drove us across the warehouse, stopping every few feet so we could tack down some more cable, so we finished the job atop the forklift tines, guided by flashlights and the lights from the lift. I’m not sure this was an OSHA-approved use for a forklift (or pallets!), but we got the job finished and called it a night.

I think the part of doing these kinds of installs that I enjoyed the most (other than the obsessive-compulsive satisfaction of punching down hundreds of little wires in color-coded order) was that each was like a little puzzle. It was almost never just a straightforward job of running wires from point A to point B. There was always something, whether a wall or a hot water pipe, that made you have to think of a unique solution. This is the same kind of puzzle solving and outside of the box thinking that comes into play a lot in development. It also gave me an appreciation for what goes into getting a large office up and running. All of that infrastructure that’s hidden in columns, in the ceiling, or under the floor are things that we take entirely for granted on most days, but someone’s sweat and determination (and sometimes blood) went into getting it all in place, and those folks that do this kind of work - whether they’re doing plumbing, electrical, or low-voltage wiring, are all artisans in their own right. I’ve compared what I do now to a kind of high-tech plumbing, but that’s a discussion for another post.


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