My name is Charlie Brawner. I’m a Project Scheduler for Tweet/Garot Mechanical in De Pere, Wisconsin. I had the privilege of accompanying my friend/co-worker Chris to Tampa, Florida, last week for the annual MEP Innovation Conference. For those of you not in the know, MEP is the abbreviation for Mechanical Electrical Plumbing. I’ve worked at Tweet/Garot for the better part of the past 25 years in several different capacities. How did I end up at an MEP innovation conference? Here’s some background:
It was summer of 1995. I had just finished a relatively successful freshman year at University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh and was truly savoring that brief, special window of time when you’d hear “Fantastic Voyage” by Coolio every time you turned on the radio. However, I had a strong feeling that Oshkosh – and college in general – weren’t for me. I had to leave Oshkosh. It might’ve also had something to do with trying to get closer to a girl that would ultimately end up dumping me a few months later anyway, but that’s irrelevant.
I transferred to UW-Green Bay and I got a part time job at Tweet/Garot Mechanical. My great grandfather, Andy Tweet, started Tweet Brothers Plumbing in 1924. Tweet Brothers – later Tweet/Garot Mechanical after a merger in the late-70s – was a part of my DNA from the day I was born. My dad chose a different path, but three of his brothers and several other relatives had fulfilling and prosperous careers working for the business. TG graciously gave me an opportunity, and from 7 AM until noon each weekday I’d do whatever I could in the tool crib – mostly shoot the shit with a couple of guys named Art and Bud while we repaired extension cords – and then I’d attend classes in the afternoon at UWGB.
That fall semester confirmed what I already knew going into it: I did not enjoy college. After a few conversations with some people at TG and a difficult conversation that I’m sure disappointed my father greatly, I started full-time in January of 1996. I loaded a lot of gang boxes and began learning what all of the small tools and consumables in the tool crib were and where they were located. I’d like to think after a few weeks the guys who came to the tool crib in need of various necessities didn’t hate seeing me there because I became somewhat proficient at retrieving what they needed. With one uncle in sheet metal and one in plumbing already talking potential apprenticeships with me, I knew there would be opportunities down the road in one of the trades if I was willing to put in the work.
Outside of work I was addicted to my computer. The internet was new (at least to me) and I was learning everything I could. I was the commissioner of a fantasy basketball league that I had with a group of friends and it was incredibly labor intensive. Scouring the world wide web for NBA box scores with a 28.8 Kbps modem and handwriting statistics on yellow legal pads, then adding the numbers up in my head. All the while knowing that one phone call could kick me off of the internet and derail my work. I was definitely doing it for the love of the game because running a fantasy basketball league was not easy in those days. Then I was introduced to Microsoft Excel and I learned how to use it so I could enter all of the points, rebounds, and assists and Excel would do the math for me. It was life altering.
Someone at Tweet found out that I played with computers in my free time because before long my boss in the tool crib came to me with a proposition. He had been tasked with creating an electronic inventory of everything in the tool crib and then tracking it in Excel. The tool crib had a tiny “office” that really wasn’t much more than a broom closet with a chair and a Compaq desktop computer. I’m not gonna name names because I don’t want to incriminate anyone, but that so-called office saw a lot more sleeping than it did Excel workbooks before I got there. That guy had as much business tracking tools in Excel as I did trying to repair broken tools. So he asked me to swap with him. He would take on my tool crib duties and I would sit at his computer and build the electronic tool inventory. I remember very little of what I did, but it must’ve impressed someone. After my brief stint with the tool inventory I was called in to the office by someone who seemed very important. His name was Ray Withbroe, and I didn’t know him at the time but I knew of him, and he was kind of a big deal. I sat down in his office certain that I was about to be fired for spending my day at the computer instead of repairing tools. He asked me, “Are you the one working on the tool tracking?” Umm…yes? “Do you know how to do that?” Yes. “If we had more work like that for you, would you be interested in that?” Wait just a goddamned minute…are telling me that I could get paid to work at a computer all day? To borrow a word I heard used frequently in our shop, fuck yeah. An apprenticeship would’ve certainly given me more options and a far more lucrative future, but I was 19 and making just over minimum wage doing exactly what I wanted to do: tinkering at a computer. You couldn’t tell me shit.
In March 1996 I was plucked out of the tool crib and placed in a cubicle with a computer and a massive three-ring binder filled with instructions on how to use Microsoft Access. My challenge: build a database of employees and their labor rate information. Then use that database to produce daily reports with accurate labor costs that I could fax – yes, fax – to our customers on a few specific large jobs we had going in the company. Daily, weekly, and job to date labor costs. Nothing extravagant now, but it seemed like a big deal in 1996. Once I created the database and reports the job was basically data entry. Before long I was entering every timecard in the company in that database so I could send a weekly report of everyone’s time to payroll and they wouldn’t have to enter time into Maxwell (O.G. construction accounting software) off of those mostly illegible timecards. I sat at my desk and happily listened to Jim Rome while I punched in time and faxed out reports. I recently found my W2 from 1996 in my basement. Don’t ask me how I still have it. I made $18,000 that year and had a ball. Suck it, Rockefeller.
Within a few years Ray – a Vice President at the time – hired me as his assistant and we were trying to change the game. We were construction technologists long before it was a term. At that time everyone was burning music CDs. Why couldn’t we apply that to our work and put our files and drawings on CD-ROM instead giant rolls of paper? Ray requested a CD burner for me from IT but it was denied (“What do you need that for?”), so we snuck to Circuit City and bought one over lunch, then stayed late after IT was gone and figured out how to install it in my computer. I hid my computer under my desk so our IT lady couldn’t see it if she came by. Maaaaan, I was in some serious shit the day she found out about that stupid $100 CD burner. I swear we came up with that idea on our own, but it wasn’t long before everyone was doing it. If we needed something and we couldn’t get it, one of us would buy it ourselves. We were always bringing our personal stuff in to use for work. Constantly tinkering and trying new things. Seeing if we could use technology to improve processes.
It didn’t take long for Ray to figure out that I was shit for an assistant, but I thrived when I was working on the tech stuff. Eventually Ray became the President of the company and I ended up moving into IT, the place that seemed like my destiny. I took some networking classes at the local technical college on weeknights and tried to strengthen the weaknesses I had as someone who until that point was completely self-taught. I spent more than 12 years in the IT Department and became the Director.
Then something happened while I was there: It stopped being fun. Over the years the creativity and innovation that I loved so much were replaced mostly with maintaining systems, security, various network emergencies, and budgets. There was no satisfaction when I’d complete something successfully. I’d tell myself, “People don’t call the help desk to thank you. They call because they have a problem and they’re frustrated.” I could tell myself that all day every day, but I could only take that negativity for so long before it wore on me. The creativity that I thrived on was for other areas of the company like VDC and project management. It took me a long time to realize that the company and I were not looking for the same thing out of IT.
The company needed me to maintain our systems and keep them secure. Create and maintain a budget. A very fair and reasonable ask, by the way. My head was still in the clouds. I understood what was expected and I worked my ass off. I spent years thinking that what I lacked in traditional IT knowledge I could make up for in extra hours grinding. I had always believed in Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that you master something after 10,000 hours, but apparently I’m the walking embodiment of an outlier and not in a good way. After years there and well over 10,000 hours in that role I had to come to grips with something I had been denying: I just wasn’t very good at IT, or at least not as good as I felt I needed to be to succeed in that role. Even worse, I had lost the desire to put in the effort because I didn’t enjoy it. It turns out the guy who worked in construction tech for 20 years and took a few college courses knew just enough to get by, but not enough to competently run an IT Department at a company with 800 employees. They always say “fake it ’til you make it” but that’s some bullshit. Just because it rhymes and sounds cute doesn’t make it true. It was more like fake it ’til your soul dies and you have a panic attack every time your work cell phone rings after hours. Not nearly as catchy, but closer to the truth in my case. As hard as it was, I came to the conclusion that the company and I would both be better off if I was no longer the Director of IT.
I wasn’t wrong.
Thankfully, TG had a different path for me. Now I’m called the “Project Scheduler” which is a bit of a misnomer, but I’ve never really cared what they call me. I’m trying to use what I’ve learned so far to create an entirely new process from scratch. It involves integration and automation. There’s plenty of R&D involved. That old feeling of excitement is back. My new role is what led me to Tampa last week and a room full of other unicorns like me. I’ve found that being around other ConTech people refuels me. I thrive on being around their creativity and asking them questions. It also occurred to me after getting an opportunity to talk to great ConTech innovators like Jeff Sample, Jonathan Marsh, Chris Hronek, and Erik Lambrecht, that maybe I have something to offer as well. I need that energy from the ConTech community more than once a year when I’m able to attend a conference. I get more out of it when I’m asking questions and getting involved, not when I’m the quiet dude sitting in the corner. I like to write, I have a blog, and LinkedIn can serve a greater purpose than just a place where people try to message me with their IT solutions even though I’ve been out of that role for over a year. Seriously, people of LinkedIn. Maybe I’m doing something wrong or I’m sending the wrong signals, but I changed my job title over a year ago. I’m not interested in your secure cloud storage or your data protection solutions anymore and I sure as hell don’t care about VoIP. Please stop sending me that shit.
I hope to use this space as an opportunity to share what I’ve learned in the past 25 years. Let people know what I’m working on. Ask questions and start conversations. Like everything else I’ve written in this space, if nobody reads it and I’m just entertaining myself I’m fine with that. If someone does then maybe I can connect with a few more ConTech weirdos like me. Maybe we can help each other.
If you dig this, this is just the beginning. I swear whatever I write next will be much shorter. I had to get this one out first. I’ll be back soon with more.