Coffee break

It's years ago, and this pilot fish has just installed several phone systems at sites belonging to an oil-refining company in central California.

"One was in an oil refinery in a canyon right next to the coast," says fish. "The rest were on several platform oil rigs that were a few miles offshore.

"The last step on these projects was to network the PBXs via microwave so it was possible for them to dial each other by extension number."

But a few weeks after the installation is complete, fish is called back out to the site. The refinery is reporting intermittent network issues -- the extension calling to the platforms fails several times a day.

Fish spends the first few hours going through the usual problem scenarios. The microwave engineer immediately confirms that the microwave dishes are lined up properly and and synched on the same wavelength. Weather isn't a consistent problem, and the PBXs aren't showing any alarms either.

Turns out it's a data problem too, and that helps pin down the timing: The link fails once or twice a day, usually around 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. But that still doesn't point to anything as the root cause.

"The foreman was tired, and suggested we take a break and get some coffee," fish says. "We left the data shack, walked down the hill it was on and up another to where the food truck had just pulled up.

"As I got my cup of coffee, I saw we had a great view of the platforms off the coast -- and about then a voice broke over the foreman's walkie-talkie announcing the data link was down."

Fish and the foreman look at each other. Then fish looks toward the water while the foreman looks back at the data shack on the other hilltop. Then each of them looks in the opposite direction.

Fish checks his watch. It's just past 10 a.m. He looks at the food truck, which is really just a pickup truck with a camper-size aluminum shell that has flip-up doors.

"Yep," the foreman sighs, "this is where this truck parks at 10 and 2:30 almost every day."

And as soon as the metal doors are flipped back down, the foreman's walkie-talkie squawks again: The link is back up.

Reports fish, "Later that day they painted a rectangle on the pavement at that spot and marked it NO PARKING. They never had a coffee-related microwave break again."

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