Take an Intern out to Lunch in 2020

Twenty odd years ago as I worked at my first couple  jobs, people with much more experience in the workplace spent a bit of time and money and took me out to lunch.  I was reminded of this when I took out a Target intern for lunch and it brought back these memories. Here are those stories.

My first internship was at Wisconsin Power & Light (WP&L) in Madison, WI, a now defunct power utility.  It was a program for graduates interested in careers in power and a friend of the family who worked for WP&L had let me know about it.  It was the summer of 1992 and I found myself in a 10 story office tower in downtown Madison. There were about 8 interns who were all working in different parts of the company, I was in a group that attempted to calculate the best mix of power production to meet the needs of the utility’s customers.  The VP of the group, Don, had a nice office with a big wooden desk and a posh leather chair. We met every few weeks to talk about what I was working on.  

I spent my time trying to create the first spreadsheet that could calculate the cost of electricity from a cogeneration power plant.  Cogeneration is when you use the waste heat from generating power to produce heat for heating or cooling buildings. It uses more of the heat energy that would otherwise be expelled into the environment, and lowers the cost of electricity to the utility.  Cogeneration was just starting to catch on in the early 90s.

Rather than write a simulator in either of the two languages I was learning, Pascal and C, the chosen technology was macros in Lotus 123.  Lotus 123 was basically the Excel of the time. It turned out to be quite fun to build up a spreadsheet of inputs such as fuel costs, efficiency, etc and create a bunch of calculations that would output the cost of electricity from a potential plant.

At the end of the summer, Don scheduled a lunch to review how my summer went, he told me to pick the restaurant.  I chose Wah Kee Noodle, probably the best Chinese noodle shop in Madison which was in business for over 30 years before the owners retired in the summer of 2019.  Don had rarely been to Chinese restaurants so it was a new experience for him. We had a nice lunch, slurping a big bowl of noodles, where he asked a bunch of questions about my work, what I had learned that summer, and whether I would come back in the future.  I was starting my PhD program in the fall so I didn’t think I would return, but thanked him for the experience and for lunch. I still remember the genuine interest in my future Don showed even though I was just an intern passing through his office. Being an executive now, I realize what a great leader Don was in showing his team that everyone in his office mattered.

A few years later as I decided to exit my PhD program in Nuclear Fusion, I needed some work to fill in the gap between January and May of 1995.  Being part of the University of Wisconsin, my mom knew someone who was looking for a programmer to create the software to run a PLC network at the UW Biotron.  The Biotron is a building that houses climate controlled experiments usually on plants. The project to install the PLCs was going to automate the collection of environmental data that was being done by lab techs.  When it was finished, they would be letting go of two of the four lab techs. It was my first introduction to automation replacing humans in jobs. I heard that even 20 years later, the software and PLCs were still doing their jobs.

Even though the lab techs knew I was working on the system to replace them, the lead tech, Matt, made it clear to his team that they were to treat me like one of the team.  They were unionized and they would come find me at break time, and make sure I took my break. We would hang out in the break room and chit chat about the weather, which was generally below 0F, and how I managed to bike there every day.  

As the winter progressed and I began building my own protocol for the C based PLCs to talk to the master controller and relay their data, as well as build the control systems that would adjust the environment of each room, everyone stayed friendly.  Even when it became clear I would get the project done, no one showed me any animosity.  

At the end of the effort, Matt took me and the team out to lunch, I think it was at a Burger King, and given that I was building software to put a couple people on his team out of work, we had a surprisingly good time.  I really appreciated Matt’s kindness and leadership, it could have been a much more hostile environment under a different leader.  

These lunches were over 20 years ago, but I remember them well, much better than any lunches I’ve had in the past few years.  If you are a supervisor and you have an intern in your group, take them out to lunch, it will make a big impression on them that may last for their entire careers.