If HVAC Installers Had Been Web Developers

Old ACI had to have my home AC replaced. I’ve lived with this thought of impending doom for years. My old unit was built in 1974 and its days of tireless service were coming to an end. Last year there was a hiccup, but true to my DIY spirit, I proudly diagnosed and repaired the problem for $6.95 + tax. This year, however, I noticed indisputable evidence that the thing was losing its cool – and releasing it slowly as ozone-depleting noxious fumes.  The AC man had to be called, and it had been my thought for a while to engage Sears Home Services (SHS). I had never experienced that aspect of our company’s business.  And yes, the thought of an employee discount had crossed my mind 😉

I started on searshomeservices.com – you wouldn’t expect a web developer to call an 800 number, would you? Scheduling was quick and easy, as the site assured me – I scheduled a service call first, hoping that my diagnosis would be disproved by a qualified technician and the AC would be brought back to its vibrant frostiness of yore. I got a confirmation email as soon as I clicked the “Schedule” button – someone would be coming in on Friday, between 1 and 5pm.

Friday afternoon came, but no one had called or emailed. At around 3pm, I was already reaching for the yellow pages, when the technician called and informed me he was on the way. Good enough, I thought. Reminded me of all those cases where someone’s wondering when the bug they reported will finally get fixed, until one day they check the production site and find out that it has, indeed, been fixed – just nobody was told. But hey, we are developers, we deal with important code stuff, you can’t expect us to annoy our customers with too much information.

The technician quickly squashed my furtive glimmer of hope that a low-cost fix might be possible. The evidence was there – my AC had been contributing to global warming for a while. Think about job security …

He made a quick call, and within an hour I was talking to a new-installation consultant – friendly, knowledgeable, zipping through the options of the configurator application on his Panasonic Toughbook, quickly answering all my questions – customer service at its best. All paperwork was signed digitally and delivered on a CD.  I couldn’t help noticing, though, that his PC was running Windows XP – aren’t they about to release Windows 8 in a month or so?  But hey, if it ain’t broken … I found myself thinking of some sites we support that still run on Struts 1, about 6 years after Struts 2 was released. Not to mention Rails, Node.js and other geeky inventions in the world of applications frameworks.

The Day came. I had had conversations with my SHS project coordinator: The installers would be arriving between 8am and 10am. In most cases that timeframe means 10 rather than 8, and that’s the rule those contractors followed, too.

They quickly got to work – the senior technician on the coil inside, and the apprentice on the condenser outside. A few minutes into the job: “Yaow!” – a scream from outside. The guy was removing the electrical disconnect and got shocked – he thought his coworker had already cut off the power … Luckily, no damage was done – at least none visible. Phew…

I made sure I personally flipped the AC circuit breaker. More memories of Web-development incidents rushed to my head: Back in the day, I broke the global header of a high-volume commercial site by failing to check my deployment on Staging. I saw the problem on the live site and amid fears of having a heart attack, I mustered some creativity (there was no SVN or CMS at the time) and fixed it before anyone important could come screaming at me.

A few minutes later, the indoor tech announced they had brought the wrong coil, so they had to go back for the correct-size one, which would take about an hour. “No worries, I’ll be golfing by 4,” he reassured me, as if reading my mind.  While they were gone, I pulled out my multimeter and confirmed that there was no power on the electrical lines they were touching. One can never trust the wiring in a 50-year old house – it’s quite similar to refactoring several layers of legacy code one has inherited from previous development teams.

An hour later, true to their word, they came back with the right coil and toiled vigorously for some time, apparently committed to meet the golfing deadline previously set. Deadlines are important, right?

All connections were made, the old unit and materials were removed, the compressor was charged and the system was running and blowing cold – all before that deadline. Paperwork was signed and the installers were happily off on their way. Wait, didn’t they have to run some more scientific testing, like checking temperatures and airflow, and confirming that there are no leaks in the ductwork?

This reminds one of test driven development. Why would you waste valuable development time writing unit tests or regression tests – the Web site is up and running, right?

New ACI like my new AC, and I like the service that SHS performed. Because we work for the same company, I’d like them to be better, just as I’d like my team and I to be better at what we do, and how we do it. HVAC installers’ practices and methods may not apply to the field of software development, but the lesson learned is this: Deadlines are important. I’d better wrap up now – I should be golfing by 5 😉

P.S. Do you think I was being geeky, when I pulled out my infrared thermometer and was happy to confirm that the temperature of the air coming out of all registers was about 20 degrees lower than the room temperature? Thinking about code reviews …

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