Sunday, December 20, 2015

Working on a Deadline

For those too young to remember the technology, I’ll have to start by explaining that, once upon a time, there were no cell phones. Not even pagers. Seriously, dudes, there were only phone booths. Those were little nooks and crannies in which the Phone Company; yes, there used to be this one big company called the “Phone Company”; would place “pay phones”. Pay phones required you to have the necessary 10 cents to make a call. The phone did not have a dial tone until the dime went down the slot, which set off a bell, which in turn, activated the phone. This was the world in which the following story takes place.

I was working on a deadline, computing the costs of competitive bids for county road jobs in the 1980’s. I was the Estimator of Earthworks at the time for an outfit named Anthem in Cockeysville, Maryland. The main idea of “bid day”; when the Proposals would be submitted; was to find a phone and wait for the final price to come in from the office. The Estimator would then write that number in the proposal and seal the bid before delivering it to the Public Offering. There the bids would be opened and read aloud so as to avoid any overt corruption.

Once the sealed bids were opened, the names of the firms responding and the price of their proposals were read aloud, with all the estimators, like me, writing down the final numbers of their competitors. The goal was, of course, to get the job, but at the same time make a profit. This was easier said than done.

For instance, if the “Engineer’s Estimate”; which was the price the municipality was relying upon as the price to perform the work; was $300,000 you knew it was worth more, but needed to come at least close if you hoped to get the contract, since the counties have the right to reject a bid for being “over budget.” The joke at the time was that the Engineer’s Estimate reflected the cost of construction in Heaven.

On the other hand, if the job was really worth about $400,000 you needed to get as close to your competitors without giving away all of the profits, which was known as “leaving too much on the table.” So the goal for any Estimator hoping to retain his job was to place 2nd. That meant you didn’t get the job, but providing that your number was close to the winning bid, you could look the boss in the eye and say, “We almost got it!” with pride. The boss, for his part, didn’t want to leave anything at all “on the table”, and so his reaction would always be, “There’s no way they can make money at that price!” It was Aesop who said that “any fool can despise what he cannot get.”

Working on deadlines can be nerve wracking, or thrilling, depending on how you manage your time and resources. I was always several bids ahead of schedule; with each bid clasped to the appropriate set of plans and laid in chronological order as to the date of the actual bid. In that way I could remain ahead of schedule while allowing enough time to add, or change, whatever was necessary to “hone” my number to a fine point while still allowing a decent profit.

Still, in spite of all precautions, it was always a relief to come in at a close second, where you could look intelligent to the boss while risking nothing in return.

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