Career Satisfaction – The Smell of Burning Hotdogs

My earliest practical memory of experimenting with the principles of moonshine involved a 5th grade science project. I didn’t know it at the time, but forces beyond the comprehension of my ten year old sponge-like mind were combining and aligning; creating what would eventually lead me to pursue an education in Electrical Engineering.

It was a Friday. The teacher handed each of us a one page project outline; complete with a list of materials required, step-by-step instructions, and a sketch of what the finished experiment should look like. After everyone had received their copy, we were given instructions. “I would like everyone to spend some time over the weekend making a Hotdog Cooker”, the teacher announced. “You may ask your parents for help if you wish…everything you need to complete the experiment is on the project sheet”. I glanced at the paper.

List of materials/tools required:

  • (1) 2×4 piece of wood, approx. 12 inches long
  • (2) nails, approx. 4 inches long with large heads
  • (1) old extension or lamp cord with 120 volt AC plug
  • Wire strippers (or equiv.)
  • A hammer
  • A few frozen hotdogs

I skipped past the step-by-step instructions to peek at the sketch. I was transfixed. The moonshine forces had begun to work their mysterious magic, enabling me to contemplate just one word.  Cool.

If I had been able to scrounge the needed materials before leaving school, I would have completed my project during the bus ride home. Engagement is everything.

I’ve admitted in the past to not being very good at planning. My definition of planning; the time allotted between conception of cool idea and the successful gathering of random stuff to experiment on said cool idea.

Is it me, or is the bus driver going slower than usual today?

Having wisely spent the bus ride from school thinking through anticipated complications in the planning phase (e.g. how long would I be grounded for cutting the cord off the alarm clock in my room), I arrived home eager to begin work on what I already believed would be the World’s Greatest Hotdog Cooker.

I thank God often for the fact that I have great parents. Looking back at my childhood, it is easy for me to recall hundreds of times both my mom and my dad encouraged me, my brother and sisters, to explore the world around us. Together with this encouragement came the tools and stuff required to play. 2×4? Check. Hammer and nails? Check. Wire strippers…I even found an old lamp with a cord in the basement. See? Who needs to worry about planning?

For as long as I can remember, my dad has hated hotdogs. Kind of makes me wonder why mom always had a bountiful supply on hand in the freezer. Hotdogs? Check.

What made the hotdog cooker design so enticing was simplicity of concept. First glance at the sketch begged the question…”does this thing actually work?” Basic instructions: hammer nails partly through 2×4 at a spacing of one inch less than length of hotdog. Strip ends of wire cord and wrap around head of each nail. Hammer nails flush with 2×4 to secure wires. Ready for testing.

I’m not kidding. Remember, this was a school project…no need for the UL label I guess.

I’m tempted to spend some time documenting the potential lawsuit and associated teacher/principle conferences my dad pondered regarding the hotdog cooker project, but I’ll save those treasured memories for another time.

Testing instructions: Center hotdog over nails (approx. ½ inch extending on each side) and carefully press down until nails just poke through topside of hotdog. I always wondered how many of my classmates did this step with the cord plugged in and discovered alternating current for perhaps the first time.

Plug in cord.

There are few moments in one’s life where time literally seems to stand still. Witnessing the birth of a baby. Speaking your wedding vows while gazing into the eyes of the person you’ve chosen to spend your life with.

Watching a hotdog transform from frozen nothingness to a smoky, charbroiled, electrical smelling morsel of sweet perfection in 12.3 seconds.

Unplug cord. Test complete.

You wanna do it again, don’t ya? Well, duh…but let’s look at the damage first. Interesting, everything between the two nails…sintered almost beyond recognition. Each half inch extending beyond the nails…still frozen. Fascinating.

I’m not sure how many hotdogs were sacrificed to the lean moonshine gods that day, but I do know that all that wonderful fun caused something deep inside me to take firm root. Even my dad’s justified explosion upon witnessing HDC prototype #1 on the kitchen table could not stop the inevitable wheels of future endeavors from turning. I was hooked for life.

I’ve had the fortune of designing and helping to build some pretty cool machines throughout my career. Perhaps the most satisfying times have been those where I was able to connect the skills I learned and enjoyed as a kid to something that helped others in a tangible way. For me, nothing beats firing up a control panel I’ve just wired for the first time. If I’m fortunate enough to have made a mistake in one of the circuits, the ensuing smoke causes me to flashback to the glory days of 5th grade. It’s no mistake that I love the smell of hotdogs cooking.

Learning by your mistakes is good, living by your mistakes is better.  Here’s to more career satisfaction.  More moonshine, more mistakes…and more well-done hotdogs.

This lean moonshine story was originally shared on the Lean Career Compass, a private and professional platform that is free to those actively involved in lean transformation.

About Steve Martin - theThinkShack

Hey there...I'm Steve. I built theThinkShack...a virtual hideaway about Lean Thinking and how it Connects to Everyday Life.
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6 Responses to Career Satisfaction – The Smell of Burning Hotdogs

  1. Dad says:

    At 72 I have trouble remembering projects you guys did, but I will never forget the hotdog cooker. If we could have gotten that U.L. label we would have been millionaires and you would be the CEO. Dang why couldn’t that HDC have been more safe.

    • Maybe if we had powered the HDC with one of the fuel cells you were working on…then, maybe we would’ve been millionaires. Of course, we would’ve needed a lot more hotdogs as well. I’m not sure you could’ve handled that 🙂

      Thanks Dad

  2. Kevin says:

    Boy did this bring back memories! I constructed this same cooker in my dorm room at RPI back in the early 80s (back when microwaves were still expensive), and after a little experimentation got it to work just fine. If you create a small 1″ long aluminum cone on each end attached to the nails, and don’t insert the nails into the flesh itself, it cooks far better. Takes about a second longer though! The cones probably shouldn’t be reusable, but in a dorm world where hygiene standards let you eat week-old pizza off the floor, what’s a little refried beef? Another trick is that cheaper “chunky” (uh, less refined?) dogs do best for some reason.

    • Glad to bring back some of the good times Kevin! Fascinating to see and hear about the different improvements folks have attempted with the design. Hygiene standards are very loose and wide open at theThinkShack as we play in the moonshine shop! Bonus point for using the word ‘chunky’ in your comment.

  3. aleekwrites says:

    This is an excellent point!

    There’s a magnet in my office that says “Of course I don’t look busy – I got it right the first time!”

    I completely agree with this, but then, if everything was actually fixed, and not so bad, then what would “good copy” be based on? What would news feeds be constantly updated on? And aren’t readers suspicious if journalists don’t uncover bad things… and if there aren’t any bad things in a newspaper, then the journalists can’t be doing a good enough job… ?

  4. Pingback: Rewarding Careers For The Language Skilled | Uncategorized | Information about Careers

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