Joel on Coal

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Friday, April 1, 2011 Permanent link to archive for Friday, April 1, 2011

Port Carbon OfficeSave the date: Port Carbon will host an open house at our new office on April 25th, at 6:00 PM.

I-64 West till your 4x4 starts complaining; ask the locals about the coal mine with the Aeron chairs

Tuesday, March 29, 2011 Permanent link to archive for Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Top Twelve Tips for Running a Litmus Test.

Joel's Coal Test: 12 Steps to Better Coal (mining) Permanent link to archive for Joels Coal Test

Have you ever heard of CREAM (Coal Resource Engineer Acquisition Mastery)? It's a fairly esoteric system for measuring how good a mining crew is. It would take you about six years just to understand that stuff, so I've come up with my own, highly irresponsible, sloppy test to rate the quality of an anthracite mining team. The great part about it is that it takes about 3 minutes. With all the time you save, you can go to medical school.

Joel's Coal Test

   1. Do you map your routes?

   2. Can you blast a seam in one step?

   3. Do you make daily maps?

   4. Do you have a breaker?

   5. Do you pick out the slate before mining new coal?

   6. Do you have an up-to-date schedule?

   7. Do you have a spec?

   8. Do miners have bright and well-ventilated work spaces?

   9. Do you use the best tools money can buy?

  10. Do you have inspectors?

  11. Do new candidates mine coal during their interview?

  12. Do you do slope mineability testing?

The neat thing about Joel's Coal Test is that it's easy to get a quick yes or no to each question. You don't have to figure out loads-of-coal-per-day or average-slate-per-coal-ton. Give your team 1 point for each "yes" answer. The bummer about Joel's Coal Test is that you really can't use it to make sure that your carbon burning power plant is green.

A score of 12 is perfect, 11 is tolerable, but 10 or lower and you've got serious problems. The truth is that most anthracite operations are running with a score of 2 or 3, and they need serious help, because bituminous mountain top removal operations run at 12 full-time.

Of course, these are not the only factors that determine success or failure: in particular, if you have a great mining crew working on a slope that already probed, well, people aren't going to find coal. And it's possible to imagine a team of "gunslingers" that doesn't do any of this stuff that still manages to produce incredible anthracite that fuels the world. But, all else being equal, if you get these 12 things right, you'll have a disciplined team that can consistently deliver.

1. Do you map your routes?

I've used commercial route mapping packages, and I've used Seamster, which is free, and let me tell you, Seamster is fine. But if you don't have route mapping, you're going to stress out trying to get miners to work together. Miners have no way to know what other people did. Mistakes can't be rolled back easily. If someone's robbed a pillar, your mining crew needs to know so they can avoid a mining disaster. The other neat thing about route mapping systems is that the integrity of the coal seam itself is checked out on every miner's shift -- I've never heard of a project using route mapping that lost a lot of coal.

2. Can you blast a seam in one step?

By this I mean: how many steps does it take to blast a full day's load? On good teams, there's a single blast you can set that yields a full load like that, takes down every pebble of coal, strips the tunnel to the granite, creates the pickable load, and leaves a clean pile for transport.

If the process takes any more than one step, it is prone to errors. And when you get closer to sending it up, you want to have a very fast cycle of topping the "last" cart, etc. If it takes 20 steps to seed the blast, light the fuse, etc., you're going to go crazy and you're going to make silly mistakes.

For this very reason, the last company I worked at switched from gunpowder to plastic explosives: we required that the blast process be able to go, from a remote, cleanly, in one go, and dynamite couldn't blast cleanly and predictably, so we threw it out. (The kind folks at Acme assure me that their latest version does support cleaner blasts.)

3. Do you make daily maps?

When you're using route mapping, sometimes one miner accidentally checks in something that breaks the route. For example, they've added a new corridor or room file, and everything shows fine on their route map, but they forgot to add the room to the coal route repository, making other blasts in that area unsafe. So they lock their route and go home, oblivious and happy. But nobody else can work, so they have to go home too, unhappy. Remember, mining crews are paid by output, so the want to be able to make quote safely.

Breaking the route is so bad (and so common) that it helps to make daily maps, to insure that no breakage goes unnoticed. On large teams, one good way to insure that breakages are fixed right away is to do the daily map every afternoon at, say, lunchtime. Everyone does as many checkins as possible before lunch. When they come back, the map is done. If it worked, great! Everybody checks out the latest version of the route and goes on working. If the route failed, you fix it, but everybody can keep on working with the pre-map, unbroken version of the route.

On the Port Carbon team we had a rule that whoever broke the route, as their "punishment", was responsible for babysitting the maps until someone else broke it. This was a good incentive not to break the route, and a good way to rotate everyone through the route mapping process so that everyone learned how it worked.

4. Do you have a breaker?

I don't care what you say. If you are mining coal, even on a team of one, without an automated breaker sifting all the extraneous matter from the coal, you are going to ship low quality coal. Lots of miners think they can sift the coal clean in their hands. Nonsense. I can't pick more than two or three rocks at a time, and in the rush of shipping, there are way more than that. You absolutely have to extract slate and other chaff automatically.

Breakers can be complicated or simple. A minimal useful breaker must include the following:

  •    augurs to clean and grind the coal
  •     filters and vents
  •     two exit troughs (one for clean coal and one for slate, etc.)
  •     human QA personnel
  •     a viable transport system (railroads are traditional)

If the complexity of breaker is the only thing stopping you from cleaning your coal, just make a simple 5 column table with these crucial fields and start using it.

5. Do you pick out the slate before mining new coal?

The very first winter haul of the Pennsylvania anthracite patches was considered a "death march" project. It took forever. It kept slipping. The whole state was working ridiculous hours, the city shipments were delayed again, and again, and again, and the stress was incredible. When enough coal finally shipped, months late, the mine operators gave the whole team a vacation without pay, then sat down for some serious soul-searching.

What they realized was that the project managers had been so insistent on keeping to the "schedule" that miners simply rushed through the loading process, carting extremely bad coal, because the breaker phase was not a part of the formal schedule. There was no attempt to keep the slate-count down. Quite the opposite. The story goes that one miner, who had to fill the coal to the height of an elbow length above the cart top, simply threw granite rubble in the bottom and waited for the inspector to come in an reprimand him, but he never did. The schedule was merely a list of dates for shipping non-burnable "fuel". In the post-mortem, this was referred to as "wasteful labor methodology".

To correct the problem, the anthracite region universally adopted something called a "perfect labor methodology". Many of the miners in the company giggled, since it sounded like management thought they could reduce the slate count by executive fiat. Actually, "perfect labor" meant that at any given time, the highest priority was to eliminate slate before mining any new coal. Here's why:

In general, the longer you wait before sifting the coal, the costlier (in time and money) it is to sift.

For example, when you tip a shovel full of slate into a cart that the breaker catches, sifting it is basically trivial.

When you have a boulder in your cart that you see the first time you try to fill it, you will be able to pick it out in no time at all, because all the coal is still fresh in your mind.

If you find slate in some coal that you mined a few days ago, it will take you a while to hunt it down, but when you tip the coal you mined into the breaker, you'll find everything and you'll be able to clean the coal in a reasonable amount of time.

But if you find slate in a pile of coal that you've been mining for weeks, you'll probably have buried a lot of things in that coal, and it's much harder to sift in giant quantities like that. By that time you may be sifting somebody else's coal, and they may be in Aruba on vacation, in which case, sifting the coal is like doing pro bono work for a large corporation: you have to be slow, methodical, and meticulous, and you can't be sure you'll actually be helping anyone--certainly not yourself.

And if you find slate in coal that has already shipped, you're going to incur incredible expense reimbursing the end user.

That's one reason to pick slate right away: because it takes less time. There's another reason, which relates to the fact that it's easier to predict how long it will take to mine new coal than to sift an existing load. For example, if I asked you to predict how long it would take to mine the coal to heat a house, you could give me a pretty good estimate. But if I asked you how to predict how long it would take to sift that load where your coal's piled up for ages and could have been loaded by anyone, full of god knows what kind of debris, you can't even guess, because you don't know (by definition) what's devaluing the load. It could take 3 days to sift down, or it could take 2 minutes.

What this means is that if you have a load with a lot of carts remaining to be tipped, the schedule is unreliable. But if you've sifted all the known carts, and all that's left is new coal, then your schedule will be stunningly more accurate.

Another great thing about keeping the slate count at zero is that you can respond much faster to competition. Some miners think of this as keeping the product ready to ship at all times. Then if your competitor introduces a killer new feature that is stealing your customers, you can implement just that feature and ship on the spot, without having to sift a large number of accumulated loads.

6. Do you have an up-to-date schedule?

Which brings us to schedules. If your coal is at all important to the business, there are lots of reasons why it's important to the business to know when the daily load is going to be ready to ship. Miners are notoriously crabby about making schedules. "It will be done when it's done!" they scream at the mine bosses.

Unfortunately, that just doesn't cut it. There are too many planning decisions that the business needs to make well in advance of shipping the coal: sifting, fueling appliances on-site, advertising, etc. And the only way to do this is to have a schedule, and to keep it up to date.

The other crucial thing about having a schedule is that it forces you to decide what seams you are going to choose, and then it forces you to pick the least safe corridors and cut them rather than slipping into pillar-robbing (a.k.a. slope creep).

7. Do you have a spec?

Writing specs is like flossing: everybody agrees that it's a good thing, but nobody does it.

I'm not sure why this is, but it's probably because most miners hate writing documents. Historically miners were illiterate. That's not true now, but the concept of text as enemy lives on. As a result, when teams consisting solely of miners attack a problem, they prefer to express their solution in coal, rather than in documents. They would much rather dive in and mine coal than produce a spec first.

At the pre-blast route-mapping stage, when you discover problem seams, you can avoid them easily by editing a few lines of text. Once the coal is mined, the cost of fixing problems is dramatically higher, both emotionally  and in terms of time, so there's resistance to actually fixing the problems. Coal that wasn't mined from a spec usually winds up badly loaded, the shaft and slope structures become unsafe, and the schedule gets out of control. This seems to have been the problem at Centralia, where the first four shafts grew into such a mess that management stupidly decided to throw out the route and start over. And then they made the same mistake all over again, creating a monster mine fire that spun out of control and burned for so long that it eventually drove everyone out of the town.

My pet theory is that this problem can be fixed by teaching miners to be less reluctant writers by sending them off to take an intensive course in writing. Another solution is to hire smart mine bosses who produce the written spec. In either case, you should enforce the simple rule "no coal without spec".

8. Do miners have bright and well-ventilated work spaces?

There are extensively documented productivity gains provided by giving workers space, light, and breathable air. The classic mine management book Humanfuel documents these productivity benefits extensively.

Here's the trouble. We all know that earth workers work best by getting into "flow", also known as being "in the zone", where they are fully concentrated on their work and fully tuned into their environment. They lose track of time and unearth great hauls through absolute concentration. This is when they get all of their productive work done. Miners, archaeologists, grave robbers, and even gardeners will tell you about being in the zone.

The trouble is, getting into "the zone" is not easy. When you try to measure it, it looks like it takes an average of 15 minutes to start working at maximum productivity. Sometimes, if you're tired or have already done a lot of physical work that day, you just can't get into the zone and you spend the rest of your work day fiddling around, sleeping on site, or having cart races.

The other trouble is that it's so easy to get knocked out of the zone. Poor light, blackdamp, going to the surface for lunch, and interruptions by coworkers -- especially interruptions by coworkers -- all knock you out of the zone. If a coworker asks you a question, causing a 1 minute interruption, but this knocks you out of the zone badly enough that it takes you half an hour to get productive again, your overall productivity is in serious trouble. If you're in a creepy dark environment like the type that 19th century coal barons loved to create, with superstitious mule drivers screaming at perceived ghosts in the corridors next to miners, your productivity will plunge as workers get interrupted time after time and never get into the zone.

With miners, it's especially hard. Productivity depends on being able to juggle a lot of little details in short term memory all at once. Any kind of interruption can cause these details to come crashing down, and so can an oxygen-weak atmosphere. When you resume work, you can't remember any of the details (like where you drilled those blast holes, or how many charges you set) and you have to keep looking these things up, which slows you down a lot until you get back up to speed, but will kill you if you don't do at all.

Here's the simple algebra. Let's say (as the evidence seems to suggest) that if we interrupt a miner, even for a minute, we're really blowing away 15 minutes of productivity. For this example, lets put two miners, Jeff and Mutt, in open rooms next to each other in a standard deep slope corridor. Mutt can't remember where he put his headlamp or air quality monitor, and he's starting to worry that he can't breathe. He could look for them in the dark, which takes 30 seconds, or he could ask Jeff, which takes longer, but is more reassuring. Since he's working right next to Jeff, he asks Jeff. Jeff gets distracted and loses 15 minutes of productivity (to save Mutt 30 seconds).

Now let's move them into a brightly lit and well-ventilated shaft. Now when Mutt can't find his gear, he can breathe and see. It still takes 30 seconds to look--or he could ask Jeff, which now involves looking helpless and incompetent (not an enviable pairing given the average machismo of miners!). So he looks for it himself. So now Mutt loses 30 seconds of productivity, but we save 15 minutes for Jeff. Ahhh!

9. Do you use the best tools money can buy?

Mining coal in an anthracite seam is one of the last things that still can't be done instantly with a garden variety electric drill from Home Depot. If your mining operation fuels more than a few families, getting the latest and greatest equipment is going to save you time. If descending and ascending takes even a few minutes, miners will get bored while the elevator runs and switch over to telling dirty jokes, which will suck them in and kill hours of productivity.

Cleaning slate-heavy coal with a single trough system is painful if not impossible. If you're mining slate-heavy coal, two breaker troughs will make things much easier.

Most miners eventually have to manipulate bitmaps for route maps or blast-specs, and most miners don't have a good bitmap editor available. Trying to use Microsoft Paint to manipulate bitmaps is a joke, but that's what most miners have to do.

At my last job, the mine manager kept sending me automated spam complaining that I was using more than ... get this ... 2 extra cartlengths of space on the internal railroad. I pointed out that given the price of railroad ties these days, the cost of this space was significantly less than the cost of the toilet paper I used. Spending even 10 minutes reining in my mining team would be a fabulous waste of productivity.

Top notch mine owners don't torture their miners. Even minor frustrations caused by using underpowered tools add up, making miners grumpy and unhappy. And a grumpy miner is an unproductive miner.

To add to all this... miners are easily bribed by giving them the coolest, latest stuff. This is a far cheaper way to get them to work for you than actually paying competitive salaries!

10. Do you have inspectors?

If your mine doesn't have dedicated inspectors, at least one for every two or three miners, you are either shipping inferior coal, or you're wasting money by having union protected miners do work that can be done by minimum wage earning inspectors. Skimping on inspectors is such an outrageous false economy that I'm simply blown away that more people don't recognize it.

11. Do new candidates mine coal during their interview?

Would you hire a magician without asking them to show you some magic tricks? Of course not.

Would you hire a caterer for your wedding without tasting their food? I doubt it. (Unless it's Aunt Marge, and she would hate you forever if you didn't let her make her "famous" chopped liver cake).

Yet, every day, miners are hired on the basis of an impressive resumé or because the interviewer enjoyed chatting with them. Or they are asked trivia questions ("what's the difference between anthracite and bituminous coal?") which could be answered by looking at the documentation. You don't care if they have memorized thousands of trivia about mining, you care if they are able to produce coal. Or, even worse, they are asked "AHA!" questions: the kind of questions that seem easy when you know the answer, but if you don't know the answer, they are impossible.

Please, just stop doing this. Do whatever you want during interviews, but make the candidate mines some coal.

12. Do you do slope mineability testing?

A slope mineability test is where you grab the next person that passes by in the corridor and force them to try to sift the coal you just loaded. If you do this to five people, you will learn 95% of what there is to learn about extraneous matter quotient in your coal.

Getting good raw coal loads is not as hard as you would think, and it's crucial if you want customers to love your fast ship times.

But the most important thing about slope tests is that if you show your loads to a handful of people, (in fact, five or six is enough) you will quickly discover the biggest problems people are having. Even if your cart topping skills are lacking, as long as you force yourself to do slope mineability tests, which cost nothing, your slate counts will be much, much better.

Four Ways To Use Joel's Coal Test

1. Rate your own mining operation, and tell me how it rates, so I can gossip.

2. If you're the manager of a mining crew, use this as a checklist to make sure your team is working as well as possible. When you start rating a 12, you can leave your miners alone and focus full time on keeping the business people from bothering them.

3. If you're trying to decide whether to take a mining job, ask your prospective employer how they rate on this test. If it's too low, make sure that you'll have the authority to fix these things. Otherwise you're going to be frustrated and unproductive.

4. If you're an investor doing due diligence to judge the value of a mining venture, or if your mining company is considering merging with another, this test can provide a quick rule of thumb.

Monday, March 21, 2011 Permanent link to archive for Monday, March 21, 2011

Whoo hoo! There's nothing better than shipping a new product.

Port Carbon is proud to announce: CoalBUGZ for Unix, Windows, and Macintosh. CoalBUGZ is a complete mining management system that helps smart miners get things done!

All About CoalBUGZ
System Requirements: Unix | Macintosh | Windows

Today is Monday, right?

me and a coal mine

Two Stories Permanent link to archive for Two Stories

I want to tell you two stories from Appalachia which I think are classic illustrations of the difference between mining companies that are well-managed and mining companies that are disasters. It comes down to the difference between trusting miners and letting them get things done, versus treating them like burger flippers that need to be monitored and controlled every minute, lest they wander off and sabotage everything.

My first assignment at my first coal job was working at Carbonsoft, where I was told to come up with a new sulphur extraction strategy for bituminous coal. Pretty soon, I had the first draft of the "BituScrub" spec (which later evolved into BituScrub Basic for Tipples, but that's another story). Somehow, this mysterious group of people at Carbonsoft called the "Extraction Examination" group got wind of my spec, which must have concerned them, because for some reason they thought that they were in charge of things like sulphur extraction strategies, and they asked to see my spec.

I asked around. Who's the Extraction Examination group? Nobody seemed to think they were very serious. It turns out that they were a group of just four people, recent hires with PhDs (very unusual for Carbonsoft). I sent them a copy of my spec and went to meet them, in case they had something interesting to say.

"Blah blah!" said one of them. "Blah blah blah, blah blah blah!" said another. I don't think they quite had anything interesting to say. They were very enamored of the idea of hand scrubbing and sort of thought that people making extractions in bituminous coal wanted to hand wash a lot of things. In any case, one of the fellows said, "Well, this is all very interesting. What's next? Who has to approve your spec?"

I laughed. Even though I had only been at Carbonsoft for a few months, I knew that there was no such thing as somebody approving my spec. Hell, nobody had time to read my spec, let alone approve it. The miners were bugging me every day to get them more pages so that they could mine more coal. My boss (and his boss) made it very clear to me that nobody else understood extraction tech or had time to work on it, so whatever I did, it better be right. And here this PhD working in a strange research group at Carbonsoft assumed that things were a bit more formal than that.

I pretty rapidly realized that the Extraction Exam group knew even less than I did about scrubbing. At least, I had talked to a handful of coal processors and some Tipple old-timers to get a grip on what people actually did with Tipple extraction: things like coal sampling, or removing excess soil through tipple filtration. But the Ex Ex group had merely thought about extraction as an academic exercise, and they couldn't actually come up with any examples of the kind of extraction processes people would want to use. Pressured, one of them came up with the idea that since tipples already had filtration and double-filtration, perhaps someone would want to build a system to triple filter the coal. Yep. REAL common. So I proceeded to ignore them as diplomatically as possible.

This seemed to piss off a guy named Cole Barron who headed up the Ex Ex group. Now, Cole was something like Carbonsoft employee number 6. He had been around forever; nobody could quite point to anything he had done but apparently he had lunch with George Bush a lot and COLEX-BASIC was named after him. Cole called a BIG MEETING and proceeded to complain about how the BituScrub team (meaning me) was screwing up the extraction strategy. We pressured him to come up with some specific reasons but his arguments just weren't convincing. I thought it was nice that here I was, a new hire, arguing with employee number 6 and apparently winning the argument. (Can you imagine that happening at a Grey Flannel Suit company?) My mining team, headed by Ben Collier (now a VP at Carbonsoft) backed me up completely, which was all that really mattered, because the mining team mined the coal and thus had the final say on how things got done.

I would have been perfectly happy to leave it at that. If the Ex Ex team needed care and feeding and wanted to argue about stuff, that was OK, I would argue with them as much as they wanted as long as they left the miners alone to do their work. But then something even more interesting happened that blew my mind. I was sitting at lunch with some coworkers, in the Clarksburg sun, when Pete Quigley came up to me. At that time Pete was the general manager for CartX -- I knew who he was, of course, but didn't expect that he knew me very well.

"How's it going, Joel?" he asked. "I hear you've been having some issues with the Ex Ex group."

"Oh no!" I said. "Nothing I can't handle."

"Say no more," he said, "I understand." He left. By the next day the rumor had gotten back to me: the Ex Ex group was disbanded. Not only that, but each member of the group was sent to a different department at Carbonsoft, as far apart as possible. I never heard from them again.

I was blown away, of course. At Carbonsoft, if you're the Extraction Manager working on the sulphur extraction strategy, even if you've been at the company for less than six months, it doesn't matter - you are the GOD of the sulphur extraction strategy, and nobody, not even employee number 6, is allowed to get in your way. Period.

This sends a really strong message. For one, it makes everyone that much more conscientious about their jobs. They can't hide behind the idea that "management approved their spec," since management really didn't look too closely at their spec. All management did was hire smart people and gave them something to do. For another, it makes for an extremely nice place to work. Who doesn't want to be king of their own domain? Coal, by its nature, is very easy to divide into smaller and smaller components, so it's always possible to divide up responsibility among people and let people own an area. This is probably THE reason why coal people love working at Carbonsoft.

Years passed. I found myself working at Anthro, an anthracite mining operation, statistics importer, and energy provider ("Where we're not just about coal, we're about people"). This time, the experience was the exact opposite of my work at Carbonsoft. I had two miners reporting to me, but my own manager constantly undermined my (limited) authority by going directly to my reports and giving them things to do, often without even telling me. Even for trivial requests like days off, my manager thought that it was his job to approve or disapprove the request.

After a couple of years at Anthro I was working on the energy conversion feature. For Anthro 3.x, a major release, I was going to be in charge of a complete overhaul of the conversion process. By this time, I was a relatively senior member of the offloading and stats collection team; I got great performance reviews, and my managers seemed to appreciate the work I was doing. But they just couldn't bring themselves to trust me. Command and control.

One part of the conversion process asked the miners to type in their birthday. This was just one small bit of a lengthy conversion process that went on for something like an hour every time a coal load was entered into the tipple. Anthro grilled them about their favorite sports, how many children they had and how old they were, and about 100 other things before they could offload their carts and go back down the slope. To make the conversion process a little bit easier, I wanted to change the birthday field to be free format, so you could type "8/12/74" or "August 12, 1974" or "12 Aug 74" or whatever. (Have you used Outlook? It would work like Outlook, where you could type dates in just about any format and it would accept them).

Without going into too much detail, my manager decided he didn't like this. It became an issue of ego for him. First he yelled at a miner who was working on that page (without even telling me). Then he yelled at me. Then he reminded me every single day that I had to change it to the way he wanted it. Then he got the CEO of the company to review it, and made a big show out of getting the CEO of the company to criticize my new design. Even the CEO at Anthro is perfectly happy to interfere in work done at the lowest level in the company, in fact, it's standard operating procedure.

I was furious, needless to say. It was a small thing, a matter of taste, really. Some people would prefer my way. Some people would prefer his. In either case, the message was clear: you WILL do as you are told here, dammit. It was a very command-and-conquer mentality that was more of a battle of cojones than a discussion of miner stats collection design.

I won't say that this is the reason I left Anthro, but it does illustrate the reason I left Anthro: it was the idea that no matter how hard you work, no matter how smart you are, no matter whether you are 'in charge' of something or not, you have no authority whatsoever for even the tiniest thing. None. Take your damn ideas, training, brains, and intelligence, all the things we're paying you for, and shove it. And at Anthro, there were plenty of managers, something like 1/4 of all the employees, and so they had plenty of times to stick their fingers into every single decision and make sure that they were in control. The contrast with Carbonsoft, where VP's descended from Building 9 to make it clear that you have the authority to get things done, was stark.

To some extent, Anthro's hopelessly inept management process is a factor of being a Pennsylvania company, not a West Virginia or Wyoming company, so modern styles of management employed in bituminous coal fields haven't quite permeated. It's also a problem caused by the deep inexperience of Anthro's managers, and it originates at the top - the CEO, a 29 year old who has never worked outside Pennsylvania, who interferes in everything he can get his fingers into, including the wording on error messages that come up when things go wrong; the CTO regularly screams at his reports if they dare to question his wisdom; they take it out on the miners, who go home and kick their dogs. Compare this to Carbonsoft, where things are done at the lowest level, and most managers act like their most important job is to run around the room, moving the furniture out of the way, so people can concentrate on their work.

Fire And Motion Permanent link to archive for Fire And Motion

Here I am, blogging again. Last year I said I'd quit. But then a few days after that, I went to yet a coal-fired pizza place in the Upper West Side (I swear, those things are like kudzu), and looking into their oven, I remembered my first job, running a coal-fired oven in a bakery in Israel.

I don't often talk about this, but those ovens fascinated me. Where is this heat really coming from? I mean, really? So, before I went to college and before I worked at Microsoft, I spent a little time in the coal mining industry. It didn't make as much sense to me as software, but I loved the challenge of it. I saved up enough for my first year at Penn and headed off, but I never forgot the feel of a shovel in my hands.

And then one Friday in April last year, my GPS acted up, and instead of taking me to my place in the Hamptons, it led me to eastern Kentucky. (It took me a while to notice, because I was listening to a really good podcast.) I awoke from my podcast haze when I looked out the window and recognized the wrecked land from my cross-continent bike trip sixteen years ago.

Well, I took the opportunity to look around and ask a few questions from the local carbon extraction folks, and whaddya know? Coal mining isn't that different from software development.

So why not apply the same lessons? Stop strip-mining the land (and the workers!) and start some sustainable growth? Apply modern engineering management principles, get the industry in better shape, and make some money while we're at it?

I asked Jeff Atwood during one of our podcasts, and he said it sounded good. I asked Paul Graham and he started talking about arc welding or something. I tried to ask Fog Creek's summer interns what they thought, but it was April, so they weren't around yet.

So for the past year, I've been spending half the week in New York and half in Appalachia, and boy is it a trip. (Try getting a decent coal-fired pizza anywhere south of Philly!) And for the first time since that bike trip acoss the continent, I can smell something happening, something worth investing the next chapter of my life in.

(Whenever I say that, the local miners start joking about canaries. Someday I'll start getting their weird jokes.)

I can now announce that my new firm, Port Carbon, has already started work on a new coal mining management product, CoalBUGZ. Ask me if you'd like to be in the beta.

And I may as well blather at you, about coal, about mineral extraction, and about energy in general. So here's Joel on Coal.

The company I started, Port Carbon, makes a terrific product called CoalBugz for mining project management. It's web based, affordable, and runs hosted or on your own server, and it's now available for Windows, Unix, or Mac OS X servers. Check it out now — there's a free online trial!

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