Dirty IT job No. 1: Sludge systems architect
Seeking individuals with demonstrated ability to squeeze over, under, or between confined spaces to solve technical problems. Candidates should be prepared to work long hours for low pay under adverse conditions. Must not be allergic to sawdust, vermin, airborne pathogens, or sewage.
Sometimes dirty jobs are just that -- dirty. These days, technology goes everywhere: oil rigs, pulp mills, sewage plants, you name it. Somebody's gotta clean up the mess and keep the lights on.
"One of my early network projects was a network upgrade for a plywood mill," says Roberta J. Flinn, a senior IT architect for IBM Global Services' network practice in Beaverton, Ore. "We successfully found all but one of the switches to be upgraded. After a full day of searching and climbing around in the 'rafters,' we finally found the switch on a mezzanine above the planers. It was completely covered with about 6 inches of sawdust and still running."
But few IT gigs get earthier than Dan King's job as a process control engineer for a Texas sewage treatment facility in the mid-1990s.
"Among other things," King says, "I was responsible for crawling around the sludge dryer -- that's where the poo goes after it's extracted from the water -- trying to figure out how to program the computers to run the conveyors at speeds that would get the sludge dry enough so that it's not a sloppy muddy mess, yet not so dry and dusty that it would catch on fire."
A particularly smelly fire was the reason King was assigned to the project in the first place, he adds pungently.
To keep the "sludge" at the right consistency, King used an '80s-era programming language called CL, made by Honeywell Industrial Control Systems, to move the conveyor belts at precisely the right speed and send the right amount of electricity to the dryers. That was the easy part.
"Then I had to crawl around the belt and reach in with my glove to check the consistency of this muddy, slushy mess while watching the temperature."
After that formative experience, King went to grad school. He's now an SAP consultant and NetWeaver Integration specialist for CapGemini in Houston. He says even that job can get dirty sometimes, especially when he needs to convince clients to give his people access to the things they need to get their work done.
"Some days, I'm still up to my hips in poo, but it's bull poo," King says.
After writing this article, Contributing Editor Dan Tynan felt the need for a really long shower.