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Technology’s ever-swirling whirlwind of change is impacting every part of our lives, including our careers—past, present, and future. Take traffic signals, for example. If you had asked me 15 years ago what I’d be doing as we knock on the door of 2020, transportation, believe me, was not on my list; and, possibly, not on yours either.

Our lives and our profession have definitely been caught in an incalculable vortex, so much that not only has our sector been transformed, but we know more lies ahead. Ours is an exciting profession in an exciting era. It’s our challenge to learn to ride the cyclone and grab hold of the evolving innovative age that crests our horizon.

I joined the Greensboro Department of Transportation 10 years ago. My first job was emergency restoration and repairing outdated equipment. It was a time when road safety at intersections was still relying on the lifespan of incandescent bulbs! We had our work cut out for us. The network at that time, a mere 10 years ago, consisted of twisted pair copper that provided just enough information to let us know when we lost power or when the intersection went into flash mode. The software resembled a 1980’s version of Pac-Man. We had no way of knowing we had an issue in the field unless we were standing at the screen itself. Meaning? Frequent, but unpredictable, notifications came from our police department. Detection was primarily focused on inductive loops. Other options were available, of course, but were mostly unreliable and unpredictable. Even with all of these imperfections, we felt things were okay—not that it was easy. We operated kind of like my father and his old truck. Dad kept a wrench under the hood, and whenever the truck stalled out (not an unusual occurrence!), he’d open the hood, smack it with his wrench, and jump back in behind the wheel. He—and we—were good at keeping things operating.

And then we experienced a major change with the introduction of 332/336 cabinets and their 2070 controllers. LEDs replaced incandescent bulbs. Fiber replaced twisted pair copper. And, oh yeah, that little Pac-Man monitoring system? Advanced Traffic Management Systems (ATMS) and Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) software replaced it. We began receiving instant notifications on multiple field alarms which we diagnosed before we even left the office!

From an outsider’s perspective, this all looks like great progress, and it is. It is great progress until you realize that everything has changed around us, but we, the people, are still here. The problem is that whirlwinds don’t automatically connect us with new minds and new skills. For example, before this seismic change, the main thing a signal technician needed to know about computers was how to create a work order. Now, computers are our most valuable troubleshooting tool. But in this new era, our most experienced and valuable technicians are at risk of being left behind.

Should we stop seeking new and more technological ways of increasing our performance? Absolutely not! Our biggest professional challenge as technology metastasizes must be our training, but it can’t be done the same old way. It has to change. However, the audience must be considered. Training our technicians must be done with patience while utilizing two important tactics. One, use simple vocabulary. Things that go without saying in the IT world might need to be explained. Don’t be surprised if you have to explain what something as basic as an IP address is. The second builds off the first. Use practical applications. One example I like to use is relating an IP address to the address of an apartment complex. This type of example helps technicians with visualization. Remember that all great lessons begin with application.

You might ask: why don’t we just hire IT professionals instead of pouring energy into training current employees with no networking experience? The answer is simple. They are assets that bring the best of both worlds to the table. At the City of Greensboro, we learned that the most valuable technicians are those who have experience in the old way, yet they look to learn the new ways. They are also the ones who have become our best trainers. They teach with empathy, knowing how foreign this new language is for others. Furthermore, as we find ways to run our intersections better, let’s also find ways to bring our people along with us as part of the journey into our changing future and tame this technological typhoon.

 

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