Postal worker tries on IT hat

For three weeks in 1994, Christopher J. Malone left his place in a Postal Service
assembly line to become a spreadsheet developer.


Malone, a data conversion operator at the Postal Service’s Remote Encoding Center
in Lumberton, N.C., keys in street addresses for mail that’s unreadable by machine
and is headed out of state from USPS’ General Mail Facility in New York City.


Clocking in at 1 p.m. and leaving at 9:30 p.m., Malone works in a facility that closes
only from 2:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.—except during peak mail times such as Christmas and
tax time, when it is open 24 hours. He and other data conversion operators, working at
12-inch monochrome monitors and keyboards, must each remotely address at least 650 pieces
of mail an hour.


The operators view the envelopes via a high-speed MCI Communications Corp. network that
connects them to the New York facility. Malone said they are not allowed to make errors on
more than 2 percent of the mail they examine, but operators occasionally have to reject
pieces that stick to the viewing lenses in New York, have sloppy handwriting, get sorted
backward or are damaged.


Each keyed-in address is stored on hard drives in Lumberton and New York, processed in
a database and bar coded onto its envelope within 30 seconds in New York, Malone said. The
bar codes help carriers sort mail more efficiently than with nine-digit ZIP codes alone.


In 1994, Malone temporarily left his data conversion operator job to design data
collection spreadsheets for the Lumberton facility, using Lotus 1-2-3 2.0 and Microsoft
Excel for MS-DOS under Microsoft Windows 3.1.


He said the software development experience was “almost like flex-time” for
him. Malone cheerfully provides free computer support for his friends in Fayetteville,
N.C., and maintains an MS-DOS advice site on the Web at
http://www2.carolina.net/firebird/dosmenu. htm.


His spreadsheet, which he set up on a Compaq Deskpro PC, became the foundation for the
Lumberton facility’s data collection and day-to-day staffing decisions, he said.
Because the Lumberton PCs were not networked, Malone installed the spreadsheet software on
several different hard drives.


Each week, USPS officials in New York send advance estimates for the Lumberton
facility’s personnel needs. During the peak Christmas mailing season, about 250 data
conversion operators process more than 200,000 pieces of mail in each eight-hour shift, he
said.


Supervisors must record how many employees work each half-hour, how many pieces of mail
they process and whether idle times were caused by failure of PCs, hard drives or SCSI
cards, Malone said.


Meanwhile, officials in New York want to make sure the Lumberton facility does not have
too many or too few employees working at a given time. Supervisors used to file weekly
reports using paper, pencils and calculators, he said.


Malone’s spreadsheet program let them set up benchmarks for how many people should
work during certain shifts and how many can take annual leave.


The supervisors fill in spreadsheet fields to calculate work time in half-hour
increments, number of required employees, number who actually worked, estimated number of
pieces to process, actual number processed, difference between the two numbers, idle time,
and total number of hours each employee worked.


The spreadsheet calculates the daily and weekly totals, Malone said. Except for
entering data during the week, supervisors merely have to print their spreadsheets each
Saturday and send them off.


After more than three years of daily use, Malone’s spreadsheet now sits hidden in
a directory. Supervisors sometimes call on him to find it when a newer version developed
in Visual Basic for Windows 95 fails, he said.

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