Best engineering happens when system dies

Psion Teklogix’s 7530 is a Windows CE .NET-based handheld that combines an ultra-rugged flashlight terminal with the flexibility and large screen of a Windows CE PDA. This is a fairly large and heavy (over two pounds) handheld that’s engineered for extreme ruggedness, according to the manufacturer. This particular model is no longer available, but I use it at work.


You’ve got to love this high tech stuff. For the most part, I sure do.

But this past week I’ve relearned some of the pitfalls that come with putting so much reliance on fancy toys.

I have one of those wonderful nonessential jobs that really should be civil service. I work at an intermodal (truck and railroad) yard, and my task is to keep track of all those trucks that come in. Or maybe it’s shipping containers. One of ’em, anyway. It’s equal parts security and inventory work, and whatever the job actually is, I do it well enough to fool the boss.

On the job, I keep track of all incoming and outgoing shipping containers, chassis, and truckers. We do this by computer, and my own unit is a Psion Teklogik handheld, model 7530. It’s not a half bad rig, for one that’s been discontinued for a few years. Runs on Windows CE, which was the OS of choice for the old Pocket PC. Connects with the main system via wireless. Bluetooth connection to the printer hanging from my belt. And it’s built tough. According to the manufacturer’s website, you can run this thing in the rain, drop it from six feet up, or work it in a freezer. I’ve dropped this a few times (whenever you do, always make it look like an accident) and run it in tropical storms and freezing weather. I’ve also thought of using this unit as a hammer, crowbar, or occasional argument-stopper — all in the interest of beta testing, creating a better product. Of course.

The system is not that well maintained, and sometimes it’s temperamental. Bogs down. Takes forever to print. Some of our units have issues with the display. The alphanumeric keyboard is not designed for a full-sized hand, and although I’m fairly quick on it (using the index and middle fingers on my left hand), it’s really best if you’re used to thumb typing — which I’m not.

On Wednesday I came to work, clocked in, made coffee, and fired up my handheld. And it froze up. I tried a hard reset. I tried a different handheld. I tried dropping it again. I tried a different battery, then a different handheld. Forget it. All our mobile units were dead in the water. And already a few trucks were lined up, waiting for me to open the place.

Fortunately, we still have a box of the old two-part forms hanging around, leftovers from the days this work was done by hand. It took a few minutes to familiarize myself with the forms, and soon I was good to go. The three of us — me, coworker Michelle, and supervisor Elaine — worked out some of the bugs, smoothed out the operations, and pretty soon we were able to do as good a job on the old forms as we did on the handhelds. Michelle and I would fill out the forms and pitch them to Elaine, who typed them into her desktop. It went very well, with very few glitches. When the computer system was back up shortly after noon on Friday, we could not help but feel good about what we accomplished.

And now we know what to do next time the system goes down, which it will.

A revelation here: Although we were a bit slower with the forms (always an issue with many of our truckers who want everything yesterday), we were probably more accurate. But there’s more.

The job became simpler.


As I explained this point with one of the truckers, the job suddenly had all the fat trimmed off of it. Rather than go through a bunch of keystrokes (it takes about 20 keystrokes to do the simplest task, to check in a trucker who is not pulling anything; just bobtailing), just dash it off on the form, get a signature, and give the driver a copy. And, writing the stuff down on the form, many drivers were impressed we actually knew their names; on the computer they’re just a six-digit code.

Yeah, sometimes I bring a sardonic sense of humor to the job. “How you like our giant technological leap forward?” I asked some of the drivers. But I was only half kidding.

OK. I love technological toys. Got to have my computer, Internet, cell phone, mp3 player, and all the goodies. I know how to use them, and I also know how to get under the hood and tweak things for higher performance. Tech is convenient. Tech is fast.

What high tech does not do, though, is make your task any simpler. If you think it does, you’re fooling yourself.

I keep my budget on a spreadsheet. It’s pretty intuitive now, but it took hours of fine-tuning to get it the way I wanted it. Honestly, a ledger and plenty of black (and for me, red) ink is every bit as good. And if the computer geeks out? Forget it. You’ll send for some guy who can barely speak English. But he’ll baffle you with BS and charge you big bucks for the privilege.

While the Internet speeds up the research process, whatever time and effort you save will likely be swallowed up in plucking the pearls of usable information from the ordure. And I hope you wash your hands after that.

I can carry a whole bunch of music on my mp3 player. Convenient, but mp3’s — or even CDs– don’t have the sound quality of vinyl.

While computers were a factor, we really used a clipboard and slide rule to put man on the moon.

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